Freedom at Sunset: Rojava’s Revolution in Syria

You’ve probably never heard of a place called Rojava . It’s in northern Syria, and its name means both ‘West’ and ‘Sunset’ in Kurdish. If you don’t know who the Kurds are, they’re a people whose homeland is divided by the national borders of Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

You may have seen Syria on the news. A brutal civil war now in it’s 5th year, a flood of desperate refugees fleeing Syria, and the emergence of ISIS from the ashes of the Iraq War. What you may not have known is that there is an actual revolution going on in the midst of all the horror. Millions of people are building a new kind of society, calling it the Rojava Revolution.

We support this movement in Rojava and the rest of Kurdistan as one of the strongest mass advances towards feminism, libertarian socialism and a directly democratic society that the world has seen in recent decades.” – Rojava Solidarity Commission, Black Rose Anarchist Federation

There are many factions at war in Syria, and a complicated web of shifting alliances and interests. Assad, the Syrian dictator, still controls much of Western Syria. His forces, with the aid of Russia and Iran, carry on a brutal war against the Free Syrian Army, a collection of largely jihadist militias supported by the United States.

Most of Syria’s land remains under ISIS control. Rojava is made up of three administrative regions in northern Syria, along the Turkish border. Rojava is defended by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Turkey recently invaded Syria in order to prevent YPG forces from geographically connecting their Efrin region to the rest of Rojava.

Rojava’s Revolution is a daring experiment in secular, multi-ethnic direct democracy. It’s a society based on feminism, ecology, and decentralization of power that has based much of its philosophy on the ideas the late American anarchist Murray Bookchin. This Revolution deserves our solidarity and support.

Back in 2014, ISIS seemed unstoppable. Having seized much of Syria and Iraq, ISIS attempted to overrun Kobane, Rojava’s central region. A few hundred thousand Kurds were displaced and fled to Turkey. Things didn’t look good for Rojava.

When ISIS got to the city of Kobane itself, they encountered stiffer resistance. The Battle for Kobane lasted 5 months. Finally the YPG/YPJ, along with detachments of the Free Syrian Army and Iraqi Kurdish reinforcements, drove ISIS from what remained of the city. The US also coordinated air strikes with the Kurdish forces on the ground. While undoubtedly helpful in defeating ISIS, a few of the bombings did mistakenly kill anti-ISIS fighters.

Kobane got some media coverage in the US for a few months. US officials and administration spokespeople made it clear they were doing everything possible, short of sending ground troops, to help defend Kobane from ISIS. Almost two years later, Kobane is still being rebuilt.

Some of the other images a few of us may have seen from Rojava are the women guerrillas of the YPJ. These women, some as young as 16, most in their early 20s, not only prove their heroism on the battlefield, but also bring a unique tactical advantage to the fight against ISIS.

In ISIS’s horrific theology, a fighter getting killed by a woman is so shamed that he cannot get the heavenly rewards of martyrdom (72 virgins, etc). According to several reports, Kurdish forces discovered that when the flag of the YPJ was seen approaching ISIS positions, ISIS had a tendency to run the fuck away. Not only is this an awesome way for patriarchy to backfire, turning hyper-masculinity to cowardice, but it has also allowed relatively small detachments of the YPJ to push ISIS back with fewer casualties. For the women of the YPJ, feminism isn’t a slogan – it’s a weapon of war.

Last year, ISIS decided to massacre the Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority in Iraq. Men and boys were getting killed, women and girls were getting sold. When Iraqi forces failed to intervene, the YPJ crossed into Iraq and rescued about 10,000 survivors. In addition to fighting for women’s liberation and building a revolutionary society, Kurdish women put their lives on the line to stop a genocide.

“We formed the basis of today’s movement in Rojava when we went there without arms and money [in 1979]. We managed this by advancing step by step. The gains attained in Rojava today are the outcome of the project we unearthed there years ago. Rojava has an armed force of 50,000 fighters today.” – Abdullah Ocalan, Kurdistan Workers’ Party

Rojava’s Revolution is based on an ideology called Democratic Confederalism. It’s not exactly anarchism, but it’s damn close.

Years ago, imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan started writing back and forth with Vermont anarchist Murray Bookchin. Their correspondence prompted Ocalan to abandon his orthodox Marxism in favor of new ideas. His conversion, in turn, converted Kurdish political parties throughout Turkey and Syria. These new ideas included many elements of Bookchin’s anarchism: a central emphasis on women’s liberation, an urgent sense of ecological responsibility, and an insistence on participatory democracy.

The beating heart of the Rojava Revolution is the Movement for a Democratic Society, or Tev-Dem. These are the civilian organizers who build Democratic Confederalism by establishing local assemblies, women’s organizations, economic cooperatives, and free schools.

In Rojava’s cities, people attend directly democratic neighborhood assemblies that federate upward through district, city, and regional councils. At all levels, women must make up at least 40% of the councils and half their leadership. These councils are a model of secular democracy, embracing all the regions’ many faiths and ethnicities.

Ever since Rojava’s successful offensives against ISIS resulted in Kurdish control over some non-Kurdish territory, the Tev-Dem have expanded their efforts to organize autonomous administrations in newly-freed Syrian villages and cities. Most armies conquer, but Rojava’s armies liberate.

Most businesses in Rojava are democratic worker cooperatives making needed supplies. It must be said upfront, that the biggest point of difference between anarchism and the Rojava project lies in a few economic ambiguities. As a mainly agrarian society, Rojava has yet to grapple with the question of its own landlord class. Such questions cannot be effectively addressed under the current conditions of war and embargo. Yet it is impossible to deny that Democratic Confederalist economics pose a fundamental alternative to capitalism.

“The semi-independent economy accepts markets and trade but does not allow the economy to achieve profit for the accumulation of capital.” – Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem)

Ecological sustainability is a cornerstone of Rojava’s economy. The embargo by hostile powers makes it difficult for Rojava to build green economy in their territory, but their efforts continue. In the United States, we keep pumping more carbon and methane into the atmosphere. Energy corporations prevent any significant government action on climate change. We’re racing toward an ecological cliff at full speed.

Neither of the American national candidates has anything resembling an adequate plan. One denies reality, the other hopes that you forget she loves Halliburton almost as much as she loves Wal-Mart. Even the Bernie Sanders carbon-tax wouldn’t have actually gotten the job done. The Syrian conflict itself can be at least partially attributed to unusually harsh drought conditions in 2011. Between precipitating climate instability and invading Iraq, the rise of ISIS is as American as apple pie.

On what almost seems like a daily basis now, we see on camera that police in America are brutal, racist, paramilitary gangs. In the land of the free, we’ve witnessed the police murdering children with impunity. India Cummings, a young black woman from Rochester, was murdered while in Buffalo police custody. Police departments and so-called police unions continue to resist any and all attempts at reform or accountability, hoping we won’t believe our own eyes.

Rojava’s internal security force, known as Asayish, is actively decentralizing. By providing widespread security training to the civilian population of Rojava, they are working toward the day when a specific police force will no longer be necessary and the Asayish itself can be dissolved. At a time in the US when the Black Lives Matter movement is beginning to embrace the idea of disbanding or abolishing the police, Rojava shows us exactly how such a thing can actually be done.

Despite cooperating with Rojava against ISIS, the US State Department still considers Rojava’s major political and military organizations to be terrorist groups due to their affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Because of this, it is illegal for Americans to aid or support them directly. Americans who believe in the Rojava Revolution might be risking terrorism charges if they want to donate money, send needed supplies, or travel to volunteer for the YPG’s International Freedom Battalion.

Fortunately, there a number of non-aligned NGOs like the Kobane Reconstruction Board. Donating to these groups is perfectly legal and urgently needed. Unfortunately, these efforts aren’t as effective as they could be without the embargo that Rojava now faces from Turkey. The US continues to insist that they’re the Kurds’ ally, yet the Obama administration has done nothing to restrain Turkey’s aggression or to lift the embargo against Rojava.

There have been rumors in the international press recently that the US is considering directly arming the YPG for the first time. Hillary Clinton even mentioned it in the second presidential debate. Doing so would certainly help in the fight against ISIS and send Turkey a clear message about which side the US is on. We can only hope that these are more than rumors.

The most meaningful thing we could do to help Rojava, however, is to get the State Department to remove the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from the official list of terrorist groups. This would allow people around the world to support Rojava directly. The people of Rojava understand that the American Empire is not really their friend. Right now the US needs them to defeat ISIS, but they know that in the long-term, their only real allies are progressive and revolutionary movements around the world.

When the first International Freedom Battalion volunteers crossed into Rojava to join the YPG, they flew a Spanish flag. Rojava reminded them of the Spanish Revolution in 1936, when thousands of volunteers from around the world went to Spain to fight fascism. Rojava has also been compared to the Paris Commune of 1871, the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1980s, and the Zapatistas in Mexico since 1994. Others compared Kobane with the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II. Rojava is the latest in a long line of heroic revolutions aspiring to freedom.

“In order to stop Syrian bloodshed… we must crown the Syrian Revolution with victory and rebuild a free democratic Syria…. We need to develop a road map to solve the Syrian crisis on the basis of consensual democracy, justice, equality, and positive discrimination between the genders [because] the freedom of women is the guarantee of all freedoms…. There are no ready and complete recipes for ending the Syrian crisis…. But we also recognize and believe that the good efforts of the people of this country, and its friends, will be able to save what is left of Syria.” – Project for a Democratic Syria, 2015

We owe it to ourselves to care about the people of Rojava. Not just because they’re ‘good guys.’ And not just because they’ve got the only sane peace plan for Syria. We should care about the Rojava Revolution because it represents a new birth of freedom for the entire middle-east, and perhaps for the world.

For decades, the people of the region have often been stuck choosing between US-backed dictators, Russia-backed dictators, or various jihadist forces. Now there is a genuine alternative. Another World is Possible!

Freedom is like the morning. Some sleep and wait for it to come, others stay awake and walk all night to reach it.” – Subcomandante Marcos, EZLN