- Eroding the State in Rojava
“The military conflict is easy in comparison; what is much more difficult is transforming society, changing the way people relate to each other and to their own lives.” I am told this while waiting outside of an education session for Kurdish militants near Amûdê in Rojava’s Cizîrê Canton. But I have heard this sentiment many times from members of the Kurdish freedom movement. Nowhere is this truer than within the tremendous revolutionary project transpiring in Rojava.
The Kurds, separated by the borders of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, and western Iran, have been struggling for various levels of sovereignty and autonomy since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which delineated the region as we know it today. The most effective and long-lasting resistance to assimilation, exploitation and for self-determination was launched by the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê: Kurdistan Workers Party) in the late 70s. The ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and leader of the PKK to this day, took hold across the region as he argued for a united Kurdistan while organizing an effective guerilla warfare campaign in Turkey that was run covertly from Syria in the 80s and 90s. Öcalan would ultimately be captured in 1999, and has been held since then in an island prison.1
As the encouraging tide of the Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011, the people of Syria also rose up to topple the Assad dictatorship. Rather than an end to the regime as had been the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the country was thrust into a brutal civil war eventually becoming a battlefield for numerous jihadist factions, and ultimately a fertile ground for the most brutal of them all – the Islamic State or ISIS. Amongst this unravelling of Syria, the Kurds in the North of the country – referred to as Rojava (“the west” in Kurdish, since it is Western Kurdistan) took control and emerged as the most effective self-defense force against ISIS. The military conflict has progressed at incredible speed and today Syria is a country where at least a dozen states are fighting a proxy war with each other.
The story above has been told and retold many times. But in addition to the upheaval resulting from a brutal war of numerous factions vying for control, there is also a social revolution taking place in Syria. Millions of people from multiple distinct ethnic and religious communities in Rojava are having to learn, teach and live a new way of life. Counterpoised to the 20th century hegemony of state-power rule is the ambitious idea of democratic autonomy also known as democratic confederalism, municipalism or self-governance.2 The central question, which has stirred a debate amongst certain revolutionaries and leftists both internationally and in the region, is to what extent the proposed ideas of democratic autonomy and confederalism are truly revolutionary and to what extent they are a shade of liberal capitalist democracies with undertones of nationalism.
The Kurdish movement takes every opportunity to espouse that they are not in the business of creating a new state for the Kurds, and a deep critique of the nation-state is quite prevalent in the recent writings of Öcalan. In his widely read 5th Defense “The Kurdish Problem and the Democratic Nation Solution”, he elaborates that “The greatest weapon which capitalism has to make itself the reigning system is to turn state power into a nation-state power. The nation-state is possible by spreading its power to the capillaries of society…. The national borders, the national army, the centralized civilian bureaucracy, central and local administration, the national market, monopoly economic domination, national currency, passport, national identity, national places of worship, primary schools, a single language, symbols of flags, all of these come together to operate capitalism’s maximum profit rule over society. This process, defined by modern sociologists as a way of overcoming traditional societies and presented as the formation of modern homogenous societies and the primary indicator of progress, in essence, represents a society locked in an iron cage.”3
This is the ideology at...