Tag Archives: Rojava revolution

Homage to Rojava

Amidst the horrors of the civil war in Syria, the Kurds of the Syrian northeast feel the irresistible pull of democratic liberty. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD in the Kurdish) declared neutrality in the carnage of the battle between Assad loyalists, ISIS, and other factions. Meanwhile, the party has established an oasis of democratic society in the Middle East, where the people govern themselves directly, ethnic peace reigns, and women are empowered.

The Kurdish rebels claim inspiration from Murray Bookchin, the American anarchist who founded the concepts of social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Social ecology is a theory of social institutions that focuses on how relations of hierarchy and dominance cause environmental problems. Libertarian municipalism, a localist form of participatory democracy is the solution. Bookchin came to Kurdistan through the radical leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan developed his theory of “democratic confederalism” on top of Bookchin while awaiting death in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison. The PKK adapted the ideas into their own practices, and its ideals permeated Kurdish society to some extent. Thus, the Kurdish Movement for a Democratic Society created democratic communities in Syrian Kurdistan (or Rojava) when the civil war broke out. Now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have heroically repelled the ultraviolent forces of ISIS from their cities. The image of the militiawomen of egalitarian Rojava have become famous, despite the best efforts of the international media to ignore the area.

The Social Contract

Instead of a constitution, the Rojava revolutionaries have created a “Social Contract” between its Autonomous Regions (or cantons) of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira. In appearance, the Social Contract establishes an unusually advanced parliamentary republic, with a Legislative Assembly of representatives elected for as many as two four-year terms, an Executive Council formed by the majority party, and a Constitutional Court with the power of judicial review.

What is interesting about the Social Contract is that it commits the Regions to achieving gender and ethnic equality. The cities are not only Kurds, but also include, according to the Preamble, “… Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens”. Article 14 of the Contract commits the Regions to “redress chauvinistic and discriminatory State policies, including the payment of reparations”.

Article 27 and 28 guarantee the equality of women in all walks of life. The Social Contract demands that women compose at least 40% of political bodies like the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Council. At the community level, gender equality is more radical; each commune has two co-presidents, one man and one woman.

Participatory Democracy in Rojava

Rojava wouldn’t be interesting if it were merely an advanced liberal polity. Despite the opinions of the Western ruling classes, Middle Easterners are perfectly capable of constructing democratic states. Tunisia’s constitution, for example, has similar provisions about the participation of women in government. While the PYD dominates the more traditional bodies, the Movement for a Democratic Society has led the development of democratic life among the people, and a real democracy parallel to the official one.

As with all past radical, revolutionary democracies, popular power is built upon assemblies that are organic to society. In Rojava, communes of 300 residents organize into popular assemblies. Elected committees and the co-presidents (as mentioned, one man and one woman) run the commune. The communal committees have been responsible for maintaining the social and economic life of their people amidst the horrors of the civil war and the ravages of ISIS.

The communal committees have also organized the cooperatives that supply their neighborhoods with food, water, fuel, and electricity. With ISIS, Assad, and the Free Syrian Army to their south, and a hostile Turkey to their north, the Rojava cantons have no choice but to rapidly develop their own local industry just to survive. Notably, each commune includes an ecology committee, as the revolutionaries are as sensitive to environmental problems as they are to gender and ethnic equality.

One important committee in every commune is the peace and consensus committee, which acts a community court. Except for the worst crimes (i.e. murder), the peace and consensus committees resolve disputes and violations in their communes through restorative justice practices. This involves the committee mediating an agreement between the offender and the victim to produce a plan for restitution to the victim and the restoration of the offender to the community. Crimes against women are referred to the women’s committee of the commune. Failure to find agreement at the communal level pushes the decision to more traditional, city-level courts. Obviously, Rojava has abolished the death penalty, as almost the entire world has.

Along with the transformation of criminal law is the transformation of the police, or “Asayish”. According to an observer of the revolution, the anthropologist David Graeber, the “ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police”.

Also as with previous revolutionary democracies, the communes combine to form larger political bodies. The communal co-presidents of multiple communes form the people’s council for the district, each of which elects their own two co-presidents. These district co-presidents then attend the city council, which is supplemented by councilors elected directly by the public, until the city council has 200 members. The co-presidents of each city council then attend the cantonal people’s council. Each city then receives an additional number of seats in the cantonal council so that every city is represented according to their population.

At each level of government, a women’s council exists to make decisions that especially affect women. The women’s councils can veto any decision of the people’s council on a women’s issue.

Finally, the Rojava militia, the People’s Protection Units (sometimes People’s Defense Units), is democratically organized. Like revolutionary militias throughout history, including the American revolutionary militias and the Red Army of the Russian Revolution, the militia units elect their officers. Every ethnicity in Rojava is represented, in the militia units, except for the Assyrians, who have their own battalion. The women have their own militia, the Women’s Protection Units. And like historical revolutionary armies, the democratic militias have been enormously successful. The YPG repelled ISIS from the Rojava city of Kobani, despite being starved from the north by a Turkish embargo. The YPG alone rushed to the defense of the Yezidi when ISIS forces threatened that religious minority with slavery and destruction.

It’s not all sweetness and light in Syrian Kurdistan though. Islamic traditionalists in Rojava do not appreciate the explicit feminism of the communal organizations. Because of decades of enforced monocropping by the Syrian dictatorship, the cantons lack the agricultural diversity and soil integrity for feeding themselves. Even though they aim for economic self-sufficiency, the cantons have to look abroad for investment, lacking the resources for domestic investment. The large eastern canton, Cizire, cannot even sell its massive oil reserves because of the Turkish embargo. And now that the YPG has liberated Kobani, the Peshmerga, the regional forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, have moved in as reinforcements. However, Iraqi Kurdistan, as the closest thing the Kurds have to their own state, seems eager to subordinate their Rojava compatriots.

Despite these problems, the revolution in Rojava will remain one of the historic moments in democracy, joining with the revolutionary commonwealths of the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the later Paris Commune, and the Russian and German Revolutions. Most poignantly, Rojava is reminiscent of revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The Catalan anarchists, like the Kurdish feminists, established a genuine democracy that shows what a mockery our pretend-republics are. And like the Catalans, the Syrian Kurds are beset by hostile powers and allies alike. One must hope that the Rojava cantons survive their tribulation in life; but even if they do not, they will live on in memory.