A Mountain River Has Many Bends. The Rojava Revolution

I have copy-pasted an unusual amount of text. It is not with the intention to steal or infringe on any copyright. It is to bring the Kurdish case to the spotlight. There is way more that I have not copy-pasted. It is meant to seduce our readers to read further. If there are any complaints about this, please post them in the comment section and I am sure we will work it out like friends.

The History and Context of the Rojava Revolution

In Northern Syria, 2.5 million people are living in a stateless, feminist, religiously tolerant, anti-capitalist society of their own creation. They call their territory Rojava, and they defend it fiercely. They’re at war with the extremist groupISIS, and they’re doing better than anyone in the world expected — least of all the Western powers who seek to treat them as pawns.

It’s a complicated situation, but we in the rest of the world have much to learn from the Rojava revolution. To that end, we offer this long-form introduction to the history and the present struggle of the Kurdish people.

Long live the Rojava revolution!

Rojava: Facts at a Glance

Name: “Rojava” is a word that means both “West” and “Sunset” in Kurdish. Each canton has its own anthem and flag.

Geography: Rojava lies in the northern part of Syria and the western part of Kurdistan.The area stretches over 1,437 square miles (making it a bit bigger than Rhode Island), and it is home to a total of 380 cities, towns, and villages.

Population: At the start of the Syrian civil war, Rojava was home to nearly 3.5 million people. Now, it is home to a little over 2.5 million (roughly twice the population of Rhode Island). Nearly a million people have fled, many to refugee camps in Turkey and Iraq. The most populous city in Rojava is Qamişlo (Cizîrê Canton), with more than 400,000 people.

Economics: Rojava’s major economic resource is oil. The region produces about 40,000 barrels of crude oil a day. All Syrian refineries were located in the south of the country, so Rojava has had to build its own DIY refinery. Before the war there were some industries, namely concrete production sites and metal foundries, but the production from these industries has been disrupted by the civil war. Rojava is considered the breadbasket of Syria, cradled where it is between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region’s major agricultural products are sheep, grain, and cotton. It was the only agricultural region in Syria to have a thriving export business prior to the war and the resulting embargo.

Military: The main fighting forces of Rojava are volunteer militias (namely theYPG and YPJ). The YPG/YPJ have a combined forced of 40,000 lightly-armed fighters. Most of the weapons are light firearms combined with Russian-made lightweight rocket launchers. They have also repurposed about 40 garbage trucks and other heavy trucks into armored personnel carriers. They have no aircraft.

Political Structure: Rojava is made up of three autonomous but confederated “cantons.” These cantons are not geographically contiguous. The decisionmaking structure is composed of various councils. The average size of neighborhood councils is 30-150 families. A city district / village council is made up of 5-17 neighborhood councils (along with worker, non-profit, and religious councils). City district councils elect two representatives to the city council (one man and one woman). They also elect security and YPG/YPJ militias.

The History and Context of the Rojava Revolution

A mountain river has many bends.
—From a Kurdish folk song

It is nearly an impossible task to chart the bends and tributaries of one of the world’s longest running contemporary resistance movements — a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old struggle that stretches from the opulence of the Ottoman Empire to today’s bloody civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Books could be and have been written about the history, resistance, and hope for freedom of more than twenty-five million Kurds scattered across four belligerent and oppressive nation states. This slim volume is not a comprehensive history of this complex people and their enduring struggle, nor is it an essay on the Machiavellian geopolitics that have kept tens of millions of people oppressed for generations. This book is a bridge — between us radicals in the West, who have become cynical to the idea that anything can really change, and those who have dared an experiment in freedom in one of the most dangerous parts of the world against enemies so absurdly repressive and savage they seem to have come from a Hollywood script. We need some context to truly understand the words and ideas of the rebels of Rojava, else we can be easily seduced by over-simplifications and distortions — like the claims that the struggle in Rojava is a replay of the Spanish Revolution, or that it is a sophisticated public relations makeover for a Maoist national liberation struggle. These misunderstandings are not uniquely held by radicals — even the US government seems confused, the state department has various Rojavan groups on the terrorist watch list while at the same time the pentagon calls Kurdish fighters dangerous and illegal terrorists.

With so much misinformation and confusion about this little understood struggle, it is too easy for radicals to simply look the other way, admitting there is so much we don’t know and understand. In today’s world of stifling state and corporate control it would be a mistake and a betrayal of solidarity to ignore the struggles of this obscure region of northern Syria now called Rojava. To inspire our own work at home, we need to hear from those creating fragile and imperfect oases of freedom. The people risking their lives in the rubble of Kobanî need our support not only to resist the reactionary fanatic butchers that seek to kill every one of them but also as they try to create a stateless society based on ideals of freedom and equality.

The Kurds are an ethnically non-Arab group in the Middle East. Twenty-eight million of them inhabit a region known as Kurdistan, which spans adjacent areas of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. By ethnicity and language, the Kurdish people are closer to Persians than they are to other peoples in the region. In ancient times Kurdish city-states were conquered and subjugated by Persians, Romans, and Arab invaders. All of these conquerors struggled to subdue the Kurds, often remarking on the Kurd’s “stubborn demand of autonomy.” By the time of the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s, the Kurds had secured some autonomy through a string of independent principalities stretching from Syria to Iraq. The Ottomans left them alone for the most part until the beginning of the 19th century, when a number of bloody battles were fought to bring the independent areas under the control of Constantinople. The first major 19th century Kurdish uprising, Badr Khan Beg, took place in 1847. The Ottomans crushed this and subsequent uprisings, but the demand for Kurdish independence continued throughout the rest of the century.

At the end of World War I, the constitutional monarchist party of Turkey, the “Young Turks,” began a systematic ethnic cleansing of the Kurds and, more infamously, the Armenians. From 1916 to 1918 the Young Turks forcibly deported 700,000 Kurds, more than half of them dying during the brutal process. On August 10, 1920, after the conclusion of World War I, the defeated Ottomans were compelled to sign the Treaty of Sèvres. The treaty split up the Ottoman empire, at the time dubbed “the sick man of the Bosphorus,” into a number of independent non-Turkish states, which were to include an independent Kurdistan. But in 1922 the Turkish national movement, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a vehement Turkish nationalist and military officer, won the War of Independence and abolished the sultanate. This violent change of regimes forced England and the other allied powers to renegotiate the terms of the treaty with the fledgling nationalist state of Turkey. The Treaty of Sèvres was scrapped, and a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, was signed by Ataturk and his nationalist congress July 24, 1923. The Treaty of Lausanne gave Kurdistan back to Turkey, failing to even recognize that the Kurds existed. That same year, Ataturk decreed some 65 laws aimed at destroying Kurdish identity: renaming them “Mountain Turks;” outlawing public use of the Kurdish language; making Kurdish celebrations illegal; forcibly changing Kurdish names of streets, villages, businesses, etc. to “proper Turkish” names; confiscating huge tracts of Kurdish communal lands; seizing Kurdish community funds; eliminating all Kurdish or Kurd-sympathetic organizations or political parties; and so on. The few years of hope following the Treaty of Sèvres slipped into many decades of brutal state repression.


Nu sla ik een heel stuk over, maar het volgende is belangrijk om te vermelden. De PKK begon als een marxistische organisatie, zoals zoveel ‘linkse’ bevrijdingsbewegingen. In gevangenschap heeft Ocalan een hoop gelezen en kwam tot andere inzichten.

Longread in de New York Times, ik pik het stuk over de draai van Ocalan van Marxist naar ‘ecologische-feministische-bottum-up-democraat’ eruit, dat is van belang om die andere tekst, die ook heel lang is (excuus) goed te begrijpen:

He and his fellow students studied a text that Ocalan wrote on gender equality called ‘‘Liberating Life.’’ In it, Ocalan argues that problems of bad governance, corruption and weak democratic institutions in Middle Eastern societies can’t be solved without achieving full equality for women. He once told P.K.K. militants in Turkey, ‘‘You don’t need to be [men] now. You need to think like a woman, for men only fight for power. But women love nature, trees, the mountains. … That is how you can become a true patriot.’’

‘‘I’ve learned the truth,’’ Mirza said. ‘‘The leader has shown us the correct interpretation of society.’’ Rojava’s Constitution — its ‘‘social contract’’ — was ratified on Jan. 9, 2014, and it enshrines gender equality and freedom of religion as inviolable rights for all residents. The Sinjar massacre gave Rojavan authorities an opportunity to show that they were deadly serious about protecting these rights. Still, I wondered if the rescue of Yazidis like Mirza wasn’t also strategic, a way to enlist the minority group in the defense of Rojava.

‘‘Why do you think the Y.P.G. and Y.P.J. saved you?’’ I asked.

‘‘Maybe I know, maybe I don’t,’’ he said. ‘‘But they are the only ones who came to help us. America didn’t come. The pesh merga’’ — Iraqi Kurdistan’s military — ‘‘didn’t come.’’ Now he wanted to devote his life to the teachings of Ocalan. ‘‘I was nothing before coming to the academy,’’ he said.

Ocalan’s omslag van een Marxist naar, hoe zullen we het noemen? 😉 Anarchist? Is dat wat het dichtste in de buurt komt? Ik denk niet dat ik in een hokje pas, als mensen me ergens in willen proppen roep ik wel eens dat ze me dan maar als anarchist moeten bestempelen. Dat komt waarschijnlijk nog het dichtste in de buurt. Al hang ik helemaal niks aan. Ik vind mezelf een realist, pragmaticus. 

Van de week had ik een kort gesprekje met DG Neree over wat nou het verschil is tussen libertariërs en anarchisten; De eersten respecteren eigendom en de tweede niet (Proudhon; Eigendom is diefstal …). Ik respecteer het soms wel en soms niet. Als ik een werkstukje in elkaar lijm, een drone of een beeldhouwdingetje dan dien jij daar onvoorwaardelijk met je poten van af te blijven. Dat lijkt me logisch. Maar sommig bezit kan beter collectief geregeld, al dan niet middels een ‘staat’, denk aan nutsvoorzieningen.

Sorry dat ik mijn eigen mening tussendoor even kwijt moest. Verder met de omslag van Ocalan.

 Despite his imprisonment nearly a thousand miles away, Abdullah Ocalan, who is now 66 or 67 (he has no birth certificate), looms as a Wizard-of-Oz-like presence in Rojava. His avuncular visage — broad, bushy eyebrows; a gregarious, toothy grin obscured by a cartoonishly lush mustache — appears everywhere: in the halls and classrooms of the academy, in government buildings, in community centers, in police stations and on pins and patches on the chests of soldiers. This strange founding-fatherhood is the culmination of an unlikely political career that began in November 1978, when Ocalan first gathered two dozen Kurdish revolutionaries in the town of Fis, in southeastern Turkey. His co-conspirators called him Uncle, or Apo in Kurdish, and called themselves the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K.

Ocalan’s initial impulse wasn’t to fashion himself as a philosopher-politician. The P.K.K. members were unabashed Maoists, who used spectacular acts of violence against rival organizations and government soldiers to destabilize and delegitimize Turkey’s authority in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. In 1980, Ocalan fled to Syria, where he was offered shelter by the regime of Hafez al-Assad. For the next 20 years, he led the struggle remotely — from a villa from which he issued orders to his commanders via messenger, letter and telephone. But in 1998, under pressure from Turkey, Assad kicked Ocalan out of the country. He escaped through Europe before he was captured in Kenya with the help of the C.I.A., which by then considered the P.K.K. a terrorist organization. Ocalan’s lawyers claimed that he was drugged and tortured by Turkish security forces while in custody. He was then paraded in front of TV cameras looking frail and confused, like a grandpa who had just woken from a nap, and he did the unthinkable: He renounced the P.K.K.’s effort to create an independent Kurdish homeland.

Ocalan was remanded to Imrali prison, on an island off the coast of Istanbul. This is when his conversion began — what one academic would describe as a transition from ‘‘Stalinist caterpillar to libertarian butterfly.’’ He was the island’s only prisoner, surrounded by 1,000 soldiers there to ensure he could not escape before his execution (a death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment). The government allowed him to meet with his lawyers to communicate to his followers the details of a cease-fire. He was also permitted books, finding inspiration in Western texts like Michel Foucault’s ‘‘Society Must Be Defended’’ and Benedict Anderson’s ‘‘Imagined Communities.’’ Soon, one of his supporters gave Ocalan his first book by an obscure Vermont-based philosopher named Murray Bookchin. After Ocalan read it, he requested everything Bookchin had ever written. Oliver Kontny, a translator and P.K.K. sympathizer who was working for Ocalan’s lawyers at the time, told me that Ocalan let ‘‘all of us know that he was working on a paradigm change based on what he learned from Bookchin.’’

Bookchin, a mustachioed octogenarian who lived in Burlington, Vt., and typically wore suspenders and pocket protectors, had no idea Ocalan was reading his work — in fact, he thought hardly anyone was. Born in 1921 in the Bronx, Bookchin joined the Communist Party’s Young Pioneers organization at age 9. But by the 1950s, he had sworn off Marxism-Leninism and pioneered a radical ideology he called ‘‘social ecology,’’ which argued that all environmental problems stemmed from social issues like racism, sexism and inequality. While Bookchin enjoyed some notoriety in the 1960s and ’70s (the academic Russell Jacoby once compared his influence on the American left with Noam Chomsky’s), by the 1990s Bookchin was little known in America, save by a faction of prominent environmentalists who ostracized him for his attacks on those he deemed not revolutionary enough. Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer-winning poet, said that Bookchin ‘‘wrote like a Stalinist thug,’’ and the writer Edward Abbey called him a ‘‘fat old lady.’’ An entire volume was published to denounce his work (‘‘Beyond Bookchin’’), and others lambasted him as a hypocrite because of, among other things, his love of Twinkies and Dunkin’ Donuts.

By the time Ocalan was discovering Bookchin’s writing, Bookchin was depressed and spent his days in a wheelchair, according to his partner and assistant Janet Biehl’s recently published biography, ‘‘Ecology or Catastrophe.’’ ‘‘I feel very much like a stranger in a strange world,’’ Biehl recounts Bookchin telling her one night. A society without a vibrant revolutionary leftist movement, he said, ‘‘is not a world in which I … want to live.’’

In solitary confinement, Ocalan studied Bookchin’s magnum opus, ‘‘The Ecology of Freedom,’’ at once a sweeping account of world history and a reimagining of Marx’s ‘‘Das Kapital.’’ In it, Bookchin argues that hierarchical relationships, not capitalism, are our original sin. Humankind’s destruction of the natural world, he argues, is a product of our domination of other people, and only by doing away with all hierarchies — man over woman, old over young, white over black, rich over poor — can we solve the global ecological crisis.

In another work, ‘‘Urbanization Without Cities,’’ Bookchin proposed an alternative to the modern nation-state that he called ‘‘libertarian municipalism.’’ Bookchin believed that the lesson of both Marxist and liberal governments was that the state was an inevitably corrupting influence and antithetical to human freedom. Bookchin favored what he called the ‘‘Hellenic model’’ of democracy, the type of direct, face-to-face government once practiced in ancient Greece. He argued that only by recovering this system could humanity address injustice, and only in this way could radical movements avoid reproducing the same inequalities they had initially set out to defeat.

It was, needless to say, pretty dreamy stuff. But Ocalan saw in it a path toward a new type of revolution. Bookchin’s proposal for achieving independence through ‘‘municipal assemblies’’ suggested to Ocalan a way of finally achieving the elusive Kurdish dream. Maybe the P.K.K. didn’t have to take state power. Maybe it could obtain Kurdish rights by creating its own separate communities inside existing countries, resorting to violence only if attacked. Maybe all along, Ocalan had been mistaken to think that liberation could be achieved by creating a Kurdish-run nation-state, Marxist or otherwise.

Tot zover hoe Ocalan tot zijn ‘draai’ kwam. Verder met het stuk:

From Red Star to Ishtar’s Star:
Departing from authoritarian communism

While the PKK was not founded by die-hard communists, it soon became a classic Maoist national liberation struggle party complete with an unquestioned charismatic “father of the people”, Abdullah Öcalan, a.k.a Apo. There was little to differentiate the PKK from the dozens of Mao-inspired militant liberation groups of the late 1970s and 1980s.

The PKK weren’t the only committed Marxists in Kurdistan — a number of other smaller groups existed, some claiming to be Leninists, Trotskyites, or even Titoists. But the peasant-based insurrectionary philosophy of Maoism, as espoused by the polit-bureau and the leadership of the PKK, was by far the most popular and militarily effective means of resisting oppression.

And in his first months of imprisonment, Apo had a “crisis of faith” regarding doctrinaire Marxist ideology and its ability to free the Kurds. Öcalan, who spent much of his life espousing a hardline Stalinist doctrine, started to reject Marxism-Leninism in favor of direct democracy. He had concluded that Marxism was authoritarian, dogmatic, and unable to creatively reflect the real problems facing the Kurdish resistance. In prison, Apo started reading anarchist and post-Marxist works including Emma Goldman, Foucault, Wallerstein, Braudel, and Murray Bookchin. Öcalan was particularly impressed with Bookchin’s anarchist philosophy of ecological municipalism, going so far as to demand that all PKK leaders read Bookchin. From inside prison, Öcalan absorbed Bookchin’s ideas (most notably Bookchin’s Civilization Narratives: The Ecology of Freedom andUrbanization Against Cities) and wrote his own book based on these ideas, The Roots of Civilization (2001). It was Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom (1985), however, which Öcalan made required reading for all PKK militants. It went on to influence the ideas found in Rojava.


Die omslag is er dus inmiddels wel gekomen. Het is ook de reden dat er aan Koerdische zijde vrouwen meevechten. Het is belangrijk om die misvatting dat de PKK marxistisch is recht te zetten, net als dat het belangrijk is dat er niet perse een onafhankelijke staat hoeft te komen (staten zijn over het algemeen sowieso vrij kut). Kleinschalige autonomie en zelfbeschikking voldoet in deze filosofie.

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