Friday, November 08, 2019

What has been lost in Rojava

It's been a depressing reality of the Forever Wars subsequent to the 9/11 attacks that well-intentioned U.S.-based peace activists and anti-imperialists have been corralled in a poster of pure opposition. Unlike past U.S. imperial forays into Central America and mid-20th century Vietnam, nobody in the countries we have been blasting apart seemed to be building anything we could much affirm. The Arab Spring offered a momentary hope, but as that democratic eruption was crushed by the usual monarchs, oil barons, generals, and patriarchs, we retreated to thinking as little as possible about places like Syria and Yemen where our country's armed forces continued to wage war.

And so, when Donald Trump did a solid for his brother strongmen Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia by abruptly pulling back U.S. forces in Syria last month, we were largely unequipped to understand that an innovative, even exciting, social experiment was being wiped out. In their embattled enclave on the Syrian-Turkish border, Kurds had built Rojava -- a society based on the communal, libertarian, feminist theories of their imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan. Turkey says he's a terrorist -- though there have been no terrorist attacks on Turkey from this area in 20 years.

Here are some thoughts from Peter Galbraith, no leftist, just a competent U.S. citizen-observer who has been engaging with Kurds, Kurdish nationalism, and Kurdish politics beginning with a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in 1987 as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's disgusted that most everyone in his own country has responded to the destruction of Rojava merely as a possible set back to the fight against ISIS.

If policymakers looked beyond the Kurds’ military utility, they would see a remarkable social revolution with potential implications well beyond Kurdish territory. As Assad’s opponents captured more land in 2012, the Syrian army withdrew from the strategically less important northeast. The PYD was the strongest of the Kurdish political parties that filled the void there, and it looked to Öcalan for guidance.

When he founded the PKK in 1978, Öcalan was a Marxist who modeled himself on Josef Stalin, to whom he bore an uncanny physical resemblance. In 1999 Turkish commandos captured Öcalan in Kenya. Until 2009, he was the only prisoner on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara. He has had a lot of time to read. With both Marx and Stalin long out of fashion, his lawyers gave Öcalan Turkish translations of two books by my fellow Vermonter Murray Bookchin, who argued for a society based on strict gender equality, direct democracy based on representing communities, and radical environmentalism. Öcalan was impressed and wrote Bookchin in Burlington to say he was one of his best students. Through his lawyers—and occasional visitors—Öcalan also communicated Bookchin’s views to his cadres.

Following Bookchin’s philosophy, northeast Syria’s many communities are represented in multilayered governmental structures. Legislative bodies—city councils or cantonal parliaments—include Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis and are equally divided between male and female legislators. Each canton has a male and female co–prime minister, each municipality a female and male co-mayor, and male and female coleaders of each political party. No more than 60 percent of civil servants can be from the same gender. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) sits atop these governmental structures. It has a Kurdish woman and an Arab man as its copresidents.

... The NES has shortcomings, of course, and the biggest is an unwillingness to accept real dissent. In the course of my visits, I have met the leaders of at least twenty different political parties, all of whom expressed nearly identical positions on the major issues. Meanwhile, the NES authorities closed the offices of the Kurdish National Council, the PYD’s rival, and periodically arrested or expelled its leaders. During my trips to northeast Syria since 2014, no topic consumed more of my time than the release of political prisoners.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to appreciate the revolutionary nature of what the Kurds have accomplished. In 2016 I traveled to the front line on the outskirts of Raqqa. Members of the Kurdish militia known as the Women’s Defense Units had just captured a police station. They bivouacked with their male counterparts and demonstrated the same mastery of weaponry as the men. An ISIS fighter lay dead among the debris nearby, with an uncertain fate in paradise: ISIS fighters believe a jihadi killed by a woman will not get his seventy-two doe-eyed virgins, a significant disincentive to martyrdom when taking on the Women’s Defense Units.

On my last visit, I was out for a stroll in Amuda, a small Kurdish city in sight of the Turkish border wall, and I passed a TV station. My interpreter suggested we go in. Every employee—from top management to cleaning staff and including anchors, reporters, camera operators, and technicians—was a woman. Jin TV broadcasts four hours a day from Amuda, and its reporters explained the station’s mission as promoting women’s rights by ending child marriages and polygamy. There is nothing like it anyplace in the Middle East, or, so far as I know, in the world. It is certainly not a culture normally associated with terrorism. ...

If this sounds like a story you'd like to know more about, you can listen to this from WNYC's On the Media, direct from Rojava.
I've thought a good deal about why we in the peace movement have not been making ourselves more aware of Rojava's accomplishments. Syria has been a no-go place for good long time. Sadly. There have been some appreciative stories in progressive outlets. The feminist author Meredith Tax tried to alert us. But such efforts were a little obscure. Were Öcalan's sophisticated anarchists just not our kind of revolutionaries? An article in Jacobin fixated on Kurdish nationalism as a "Gramscian game," apparently loathe to take Rojava on its own terms.

We missed something, I suspect. We miss a lot.

Photo credit: A sewing cooperative by Janet Biehl

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