Rojava: An Experiment in Radical Direct Democracy Within a War-Torn Country
Janet Biehl discusses the significance and the achievements of the political project in Northern Syria that’s led by the Kurds
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Since the crisis in Syria first erupted in 2011, a little-discussed revolution has been taking place in the northern Syrian region known as Rojava. Within this Kurdish-dominated region that borders southern Turkey, a form of radical direct democracy has emerged where women play a leading role in everything from health and education to policing and military affairs. Joining us today from New York to discuss what exactly has been going on in Rojava is Janet Beihl. Janet is a political writer whose work has focused on libertarian municipalism and social ecology, which she collaborated on with the late historian and libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Janet has translated two books about Rojava including the most recent titled Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Northern Syria, which was written by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach and Ercan Ayboga, and was published last month by Pluto Press. Janet, thank you so much for joining us today.
JANET BEIHL: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Janet, academics and regional experts know about the Kurds, but few of us has a chance to follow, so give us an introductory nature of their struggle over the years.
JANET BEIHL: Well, yes, you’re right, it’s impossible to understand the revolution in Rojava without going back to 1923, and the division of the Middle East by the victors of World War I. Initially, the Kurdish people were promised that they would have a nation state, but in the event, it turned out that they didn’t, and so the Kurdish people live in four of the new nation states that were created after the war, in Turkey — most of them in Turkey — Iran, Iraq and Syria. In all of these countries they have been oppressed minorities — oppressed even to the point of denial of their very existence. It’s not like in Canada where, for example there’s a Quebecois subculture that is recognized and has certain cultural rights. This could not happen in these supposedly ethically homogeneous countries in the Middle East. Turkey… the Constitution declares that everybody who lives in Turkey is Turkish and the Syrian Arab Republic was just that, an Arab republic, and so minorities, of which there are many — not only the Kurds — but many minorities in these countries, were denied their very existence, their very identity was denied, and they experienced persecution over the decades. In 1978, having no other recourse, the Kurdish movement in Turkey formed the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, to fight for the freedom and rights for the Kurdish people. It initiated… well, it went to war with the Turkish State in 1984, and that war continues to this day. The often-quoted figure is 40,000 deaths, but I have to say that most of those were perpetrated by the Turkish army against the PKK.
The founding ideology of the PKK and its founding goal was to create a nation state for the Kurds, and its ideology was Marxist-Leninist, more or less. But over the years, that goal became increasingly remote, until finally the PKK underwent an ideological transformation in the late ’90s and early 2000s in which it gave up the aim of achieving a Kurdish state — after all, this is the largest ethnic group without a state on the planet Earth — but instead of seeking a nation state, they would seek a bottom-up administration, a form of democracy like the town meetings of New England that we have here in the United States, by which people would rule themselves in face-to-face democracies. They would be content with that, and they gave up Marxism-Leninism in favor of this ideology of democracy, women’s liberation, cooperative economy and ecology. Those are really the four main pillars.
So, it became a very, very, I think, cutting edge movement for the left, and it’s taken quite a few years for people around the world to understand that the PKK has undergone this transformation to the point that it now represents a hope for freedom and community in the Middle East. It was originally formulated for the Turkish situation, but there are a lot of connections between the Turkish and the Syrian Kurdish people, and the Kurds in Syria took this new ideology just as seriously as the PKK did in Turkey, and began to, in the early 2000s, began to try to create institutions of face-to-face democracy even under the Assad regime. This is a time when they’re being mightily persecuted, when they’re being arrested and tortured in the most horrendous and brutal Syrian prisons by the Assad dictatorship, but that didn’t stop them. In fact, I was told that some of the early main organizers were women, because the women were less suspect by the Assad dictatorship than the men were. So, they were able to do, actually, some of the initial organizing more easily.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, Janet, you visited the Kurdish-dominated Rojava region in Northern Syria in 2014 and ’15. What led you to go there and what did you observe in terms of a rising leadership, whether it’s women, as you talk about, or are there men at the helm and women as soldiers? Which is it?
JANET BEIHL: First, I don’t like to say Kurdish-dominated, because there’s an ideal of ethnic inclusiveness amongst the Kurds. They’re very careful not to dominate the Arab and Chaldean and Aramaic and other ethnic groups there. They’re trying to create an inclusive system in which every ethnic group has cultural rights. So, I would hesitate to use the word Kurdish-dominated because of the implications of that word.
SHARMINI PERIES: Is it correct — here I was referring to the region — is it correct to say that this is an area that has a larger population of Kurds than other ethnic groups?
JANET BEIHL: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And, in fact, but it also enters into politics, ethnic politics. The very name, Rojava, it’s a Kurdish word. It means “the west”. You know, Rojava is the west, Bakur is the north, in Turkey, and then there are other words for the Iranian and the Iraqi Kurdish areas, heavily Kurdish areas. Actually, there’s a hesitation even to use the name Rojava because it is Kurdish and it seems to exclude the other ethnic groups. So now the name of it is shifting over to the federal system of Northern Syria, which is more impartial.
What inspired me to go there, I had the honor to be invited on two delegations. Because of my connection with a social theorist, Murray Bookchin, who lived here in Vermont with me, and with whom I collaborated for a number of years, his works were… he wrote about face-to-face democracy and kind of bottom-up, stateless systems, of popular self-government through citizens’ assemblies. We have the town meetings here in Vermont. His works were translated into Turkish in the mid-’90s, and once Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, was imprisoned in 1999 and sentenced to solitary confinement, he had a lot of time on his hands and did a lot of reading, and read Bookchin’s work in Turkish translation and realized that this was a very interesting idea for the Kurdish movement. So, Bookchin’s work fed into, was one of the important contributors to the ideological change in the PKK, that I mentioned before. So I was invited… that’s my connection with this movement. I was there in an academic delegation in December of 2014, and something called the New World Summit in October of 2015.
Yes, women play leading roles. There’s not some kind of affirmation of female superiority, I would say. It’s more an ideal of gender equality, not of putting women in necessarily in top positions. For example, there’s a dual leadership principle, so that every meeting in every organization has dual leaders, not just one, usually a man, but there’s a man and a woman, For example, the PYD Party has two co-chairs, Salih Muslim, a man, who some of your listeners may be familiar with, and Asya Abdullah. They play complementary roles in speaking. The co-governors of Jazira Canton are a man and a woman. In pretty much every level of the administration, the democratic self-administration, there’s this duality of leadership.
Similarly, as far as meetings go, there’s a quorum, such that no meeting can have official legitimacy unless there’s 40% women. Or, if it’s more women than men, there have to be 40% men. In other words, there’s an ideal of gender parity, which doesn’t belie the fact that the liberation of women is an enormously inspiring and motivating idea in this struggle. The oppression of women is regarded as primary. It’s regarded by the Kurdish movement as connected with the very existence of the nation state, of the domination of women and the existence of the state are seen as one. And so even as they reject the domination of women, they reject this, as I said, the creation of a nation state — and they’re attempting to transfer functions that we normally associate with the nation state to this bottom-up democracy.
So, for example, a nation state would have an army, but in the Kurdish movement, in Rojava, or the Federal System of Northern Syria, there are People’s Protection Units, and the Women’s Protection Units. Those are their names. They’re not an army, because an army is associated with the state. The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units protect the people. Similarly, they don’t have a constitution because a constitution is associated with a nation state. Instead, they have a social contract, which is a contract by which the people of all the different ethnicities and genders agree that this is how they will govern themselves. They have internal security — it’s not called a police, as I was told many times, because a police force serves the state. But the internal security forces, the Asayish, serve the people.
You can go through many aspects of society and find that there is this attempt — and it’s not a matter just of renaming. There’s a qualitative difference in the nature of these institutions that I began to be very conscious of when I was there.
SHARMINI PERIES: Now, give us a sense of how day-to-day practices of the Kurdish movement here reflect the ideology of what you’re describing as a fairly equal state in terms of men and women.
JANET BEIHL: Well, there are many meetings, of course. There’s this assembly and council democracy that they’ve been creating since the early 2000s. It requires weekly and monthly meetings. But it’s a very communal society, a very communitarian society, so it’s part and parcel of their life. There’s a commitment… there’s a distinct contrast between the individualism that they associate with the West, and their own communitarianism. They see that as creating the individualism, the isolation, the loneliness, the commodification of capitalist society as something that they very much define themselves against. And they’re committed to helping each other, so nobody will go hungry. If there’s only a little food, they share. Fortunately, they have so far been able to avoid hunger.
As for the women’s movement, one of the things that most impressed me was the energy by which women’s institutions are being created there. Councils, women’s centers, daycare centers. Even women’s villages. An enormous amount of energy is expended in going from door to door, knocking on the door in the cities of the north and making sure that the woman who lives there — woman or women — of whatever ethnicity they might be, let them know that there’s a women’s center there, available to help them if they need it. They have education, they have employment opportunities and they don’t need to be dependent on their men. And this is absolutely brilliant for the Middle East where, as I’m sure you know, it’s been a place that has been pervaded, including in the Kurdish area, by patriarchy, by honor killings, by polygamy, by underage marriage — these things are all banned now in the Federal System. And the women’s movement ensures that all women are informed of these possibilities.
One of the most striking examples is a cooperative, the creation of cooperatives. You know, it’s an agricultural area, predominantly agricultural area, and after the Assad regime decamped from Rojava in 2012 and thereafter, they left behind a lot of land. I think about 80% of it had been owned by a regime or regime officials, and so what the Democratic Self-Administration did was set up agricultural cooperatives on this land, and they gave priority to women so that women would be able to earn a living independently of their men, so they wouldn’t be dependent on their men and wouldn’t have to answer to them. So, this is a very important innovation, I think, in that area. Also, families of martyrs, families of people who… a family member that’s fallen in the war are also given priority in the cooperatives.
But these cooperatives are embedded in, and accountable to, the democratic self-administration and there are guidelines and a whole movement has been put into place, a whole program for helping people develop cooperatives, especially agricultural cooperatives.
SHARMINI PERIES: Janet, now, the Kurdish people are being, I guess, aggressively… well… Okay, let me rephrase it here. Janet, the Kurdish people are aggressively targeted by Assad, as you had said, as well as we have lots of evidence that Erdogan in Turkey has also targeted them in making various advances on the border between Turkey and Syria. But give us some tangible evidence of what you have observed in terms of Assad’s efforts to squash the Kurdish population and why he might be doing that.
JANET BEIHL: Well, the Assad regime of course was, as I said, for decades, was committed to denying the existence of a Kurdish minority. The Kurdish activists were persecuted in prisons for many years. There’s no love between the Kurds and the Assad regime. Similarly, Erdogan in Turkey has been waging a genocidal war, essentially, on the Kurdish southeast, destroying cities, reducing them to rubble, and also in terms of the Federal System of Rojava, fomenting attacks by ISIS and also even FSA groups against the system.
You can make the argument that Turkey actually contributed to the creation of ISIS, of Islamic State, as a vehicle for attacking Rojava, the Federal System. It’s been almost from the moment of the creation of the Federal System in July of 2012, a group starting with al-Nusra, al-Qaeda spin-offs, a whole range of Salafi jihadists started attacking Rojava, and then, of course, ISIS, such that… and yet the YPG, and the YPJ, these People’s Protection Units that I mentioned before, have turned out to be among the… well, probably the most effective — no, certainly the most effective fighters against ISIS in the years since.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Why are the Kurds in Rojava such a threat to these other dominant forces, whether it’s ISIS or Assad or, for that matter, Erdogan in Turkey?
JANET BEIHL: They don’t want to submit to a dictatorial rule. They favor democracy. All these ideas that I’ve been describing, the democracy and gender liberation are anathema certainly to the kind of retrograde reactionary Islam that is represented by these forces. The Kurds, I’d have to say, they don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. Many of them are Sunni Muslims, also other religious beliefs, as well, but it’s essentially a secular society, and so that’s intolerable to them. They also are proposing that this model of diversity, ethnic diversity and inclusiveness, be a model for the Middle East. They have demonstrated that it can be done. But many people want to return to… want Syria to return to a unitary and authoritarian form, as a result of the war.
Another problem is the Turkish antipathy towards the Kurds has repercussions throughout the world because Turkey is a member of NATO, and Turkey has defined the Kurdish movement as terrorist, and other countries in NATO, including the United States, have basically fallen in line with that and accepted that, which makes it very difficult for the Kurds to achieve recognition in the West, even though they share a lot of values with the West. For example, they’ve been trying very hard to get involved in these Geneva talks on the future of Syria that have taken place at various times over the years, but they have not been permitted to participate because Turkey won’t let them, and Turkey doesn’t want them to.
SHARMINI PERIES: But the United States have been arming and supporting the Kurdish movement to fight ISIS in some parts of Syria, Iraq and other regions.
JANET BEIHL: They have been provided–
SHARMINI PERIES: Hold on, let me try that again, just to make it clean. But, Janet, the US has been supporting the Kurds and arming the Kurds in some parts of the Middle East.
JANET BEIHL: Yes. Yes, they have. The United States argues that the YPG… that the Kurdish movement parties in the Federal System, especially the PYG, are not affiliated with the PKK, that they’re separate from the PKK, and they have used this in order to provide light arms to the YPG and the YPJ. They have not given them heavy arms that would have been most useful in the fight against ISIS. And, finally, an organization, a military unit had to be formed that included Kurds and also Arab and other units, called the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, as sort of a fig leaf in order for this transfer of arms to be acceptable to Turkey.
So even this minimal arming is being done under the pretence of the SDF when actually the Kurdish YPG and YPJ are the most effective force within the SDF. However, the United States has not given the Kurdish areas any humanitarian aid. They’ve not given them more efficient weapons. They’ve just given them just barely enough to squeak through and are always trying to balance that off against Turkey.
Meanwhile, the Federal System is under a state of embargo. It’s essentially under… it’s certainly under an economic embargo. Turkey to the north, of course, is not letting any economic or financial aid through. To the south is ISIS and al-Nusra and other Salafi jihadist groups that are certainly not letting anything through, and to the very east is the Kurdish Regional Government in Northern Iraq, which basically is very tied in with Turkey and is right now also not letting anything through.
So, they’re under a state of economic embargo. They’re making do with what they have, and they’ve lasted this long, but there’s a constant fear of how much longer they can continue with so little assistance from the outside.
There are ways to contribute via some bank accounts in Europe that I can tell you about later, but these are mainly leftist international solidarity groups that contribute in that way, but there’s very little governmental assistance happening. Although, the friendly relations have been established with some places, between the PYG and the Federal System, in some places in Europe. But even like Salih Muslim, for example, the co-chair of the PYG, he can’t get a visa to enter the United States.
SHARMINI PERIES: Janet Beihl, I thank you so much for joining us today. There’s so much more to discuss, and we hope to have you back very soon.
JANET BEIHL: If you’d like to have more information, this book, Revolution in Rojava, just published by Pluto Press, is very informative.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you so much.
JANET BEIHL: Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.