Kurdistan democratic confederalists
From Anarchy in Action
With a population of 30 million, the Kurds are the world's largest stateless people. They form the majority of Kurdistan, a region in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. Since 1999, their struggle for self-determination has taken an anarchstic turn, and communities in Kurdistan have established direct democratic governance modelled on the anti-authoritarian neo-Zapatista movement and the theories of US anarchist Murray Bookchin. While Kurds comprise the majority, the movement has been diverse and multi-ethnic. For example, in the canton of Jazira in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Chechens, Armenians, Muslims, Christians and Yazidis co-exist and share political power.
Founded in 1975, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, traditionally operated as a Marxist-Leninist party, demanding a Kurdish state independent from Turkey. A quarter-century later, their struggle took a sharply anarchistic turn, due in large part to evolving theories of the movement's political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan. The PKK and other rebels have since established the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), a confederation of direct democratic communal institutions across Turkish Kurdistan. KCK-affiliated groups have expanded the anti-authoritarian Kurdish social revolution into Iran, Syria and Iraq.
In Rojava, (Syrian Kurdistan), the coalition TEV-DEM has led a direct democratic social revolution partially on Bookchin's ideas since 2012, while the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have defended the territory from the jihadist group ISIS. Before the civil war, Rojava had 3.5 million residents, but now just over 2.5 million people live there. In the assessment of Black Rose Anarchist Federation, "The Rojava Revolution has probably made more concrete progress towards libertarian socialism than any other large-scale struggle at least since the Zapatista insurrection."
Bakur (Northern, or Turkish Kurdistan)
In 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was arrested by Turkish authorities, and in prison Öcalan became heavily influenced by American anarchist Murray Bookchin and the Zapatistas. Öcalan embraced Bookchin's theory of Communalism and renamed it "democratic confederalism." As Öcalan reflected and criticized his party's authoritarian past, Öcalan's followers too became swayed. Rafael Taylor writes, "The PKK itself has apparently taken after their leader, not only adopting Bookchin's specific brand of eco-anarchism, but actively internalizing the new philosophy in its strategy and tactics. The movement abandoned its bloody war for Stalinist/Maoist revolution and the terror tactics that came with it, and began pursuing a largely non-violent strategy aimed at greater regional autonomy."
The PKK and other Kurdish rebels in Turkey established the KCK, a direct democratic confederation that makes decisions at five levels: the village, the neighborhood, the district, the city, and the region (northern Kurdistan). Taylor reports, “The informal consensus among witnesses, nevertheless, is that the majority of decision-making is directly democratic through one arrangement or other; that the majority of those decisions are made at the grassroots; and that the decisions are executed from the bottom-up in accordance with the federal structure.” The highest level of the the KCK, the Democratic Society Congress or DTK,requires that women constitute at least 40 percent of each assembly. Although DTK members include representatives of a wide variety of Kurdish civil society organizations, 60 percent of DTK members are recallable delegates from the direct democratic grassroots.
In June 2013, youth in the town of Cizre formed a guerilla group called the Revolutionary Patriotic Movement (YDG-H). The word "patriotic" in their name refers to love of their homeland, not love of any state, according to an anonymous visitor who wrote "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance". In early 2015, the group seized three neighborhoods in Cizre and established an autonomous zone for two months. They dug 184 ditches around the neighborhoods so that police vehicles could not get through (the youth used ditches rather than barricades since the police vehicles could plow through barricades and police were not allowed to exit their vehicles). Öcalan intervened and got the ditches closed on 2 March. On 4 September, Turkish military and police invaded Cizre for nine days. 21 civilians were found dead after the invasion.
Elanor Finley, a board member of the Institute for Social Ecology, writes:
The movement is not without contradictions. For one, as a paramilitary organization, the PKK maintains a hierarchical command structure with Abdullah Öcalan at its center. Thus councils are often established ‘from above’ and it is unclear whether the popular legitimacy of these councils stems from a grassroots revolutionary sensibility or rather the widespread perception of illegitimacy attributed to the occupational Turkish government. In the past, the PKK have violently repressed rival left factions and Kurdish nationalist groups. Today, they negotiate with Erdogan’s government and pursue regional alliances with liberal Turkish political coalitions. And yet despite all this, Kurdish revolutionaries have launched arguably one of the most important and unique socio-political projects in the world.
Bashur (Southern, or Iraqi Kurdistan)
In 2014, KCK-affiliated fighters, including the PKK, fought the far-right Islamist group ISIS and rescued thousands of Yadizis trapped and terrorized by ISIS in Iraq's Sinjar Mountains.
Rojava (Western, or Syrian Kurdistan)
Starting on June 19, 2012, Kurdish fighters liberated Rojava, the Syrian region of Kurdistan, with the three cantons of Kobani, Afrin, and Jazira. In these liberated territories, locally-elected councils in each community make decisions regarding topics such as energy, food supplies, and patriarchal violence. The Rojava territories are governed by the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), a coalition which includes the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) defend the territories. While the YPJ has women commanders and militants, the YPJ consists entirely of women. On 17 March 2016, the PYD and allied groups officially declared Rojava an autonomous, federated area. In December 2016, the autonomous government adopted the name "Northern Syria" for the region, dropping the Kurdish word "Rojava" in order to emphasize the society's multi-ethnic nature.
In a region with strongly patriarchal traditions, the Rojava uprising has instituted significant advances in the position of women, as the social ecologist scholar Janet Biehl summarizes:
But today the women of Rojava have shaken off that tradition and participate fully in public life: at every level of politics and society. Institutional leadership consists not of one position but two, one male and one female official — for the sake of gender equality and also to keep power from concentrating into one person’s hands.
Representatives of Yekitiya Star, the umbrella organization for women’s groups, explained that women are essential to democracy — they even defined the antagonist of women’s freedom, strikingly, not as patriarchy but as the nation-state and capitalist modernity. The women’s revolution aims to free everyone. Women are to this revolution what the proletariat was to Marxist-Leninist revolutions of the past century. It has profoundly transformed not only women’s status but every aspect of society.
Even the traditionally male-dominated strands of society, like the military, have been profoundly transformed. The people’s protection units (YPG) have been joined by the YPJ — or women’s protection units — whose images by now have become world famous. Together, the YPG and the YPJ are defending society against the jihadist forces of ISIS and Al-Nusra with Kalashnikovs and, perhaps equally formidably, a fierce intellectual and emotional commitment not only to their community’s survival but to its political ideas and aspirations too.
Some queer activists in the movement contend that the movement's official line on gender is essentialist and excludes transgendered and other queer identities.
Rojava residents make decisions in a participatory democratic process based in part of anarchist principles of local autonomy and confederation. Local councils confederate at four levels from the street or village up to the region of Rojava. At each level, all councils require at least 40 percent of participants to be women. In addition to the councils based on locality, people form councils at the neighborhood, Communities also have commissions which administer criminal justice, establish worker cooperatives, protect the environment, and organize defense.
The levels of governance, according to Revolution in Rojava are the commune, the neighborhood, the district, and the region. Each level has commissions in the following eight areas: women, defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice, and ideology. A health commission is also indirectly connected to this governance structure. A commune consists or a city's residential street or a rural village, with about 20 to 200 households. A commune usually has a public assembly every month or every two months. Anyone can attend regardless of their party affiliation or ethnicity. The commune has a bi-annually or annually elected coordinating board whose members can be recalled by the commune's members. The board includes two co-chairs (one man and one woman) and a representative from each of the commissions. The board meets weekly, and residents are welcome to attend and voice opinions. The neighborhood council confederates seven to 30 commmunes and has 15 to 30 members who are required to follow mandates from the communes that elected them. Neighborhoods confederate into districts, and districts confederate into the People's Council of Western Kurdistan (MGRK).
A Small Key Can Open a Large Door describes the same four-level council system using different translations of the terminology: neighborhoods, districts, cities, and region. This book adds that while neighborhood assemblies' standard procedure is to vote, but many neighborhood councils make decisions by consensus. Any adult or teenager can attend those meetings. Neighborhood councils, with an average size of 30-50 families, confederate into district councils, each with 5-17 neighborhood councils. The district councils, then, confederate into city councils, and the city councils confederate into the Supreme Council of the Rojava Cantons.
There is a tension between the grassroots anti-authoritarian structure at the local level and the statist structure at the confederal level with legislative, executive and judicial bodies. According to Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, the local councils remain autonomous from the the upper governmental structures, and no decision made by an higher council is binding in a given neighborhood until it is ratified by the neighborhood council. Strangers write, "There is no federal government in the Rojava canton system." In contrast, Black Rose Anarchist Federation argues, "the PYD has created a new minimal state instead of abolishing the state".
The anthropologist David Graeber comments, "I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anywhere else in the world where there’s been a dual power situation where the same political forces created both sides. There’s the 'democratic self-administration,' which has all the form and trappings of a state -Parliament, Ministries, and so on- but it was created to be carefully separated from the means of coercive power. Then you have the TEV-DEM (The Democratic Society Movement), driven bottom up directly democratic institutions. Ultimately -and this is key- the security forces are answerable to the bottom-up structures and not to the top-down ones."
In late 2012, the Rojava cantons officially eliminated private property, transferring ownership of all buildings, lands, and infrastructure to the city councils. The councils grant people a right to "ownership by use", meaning the people that personally use a building or a piece of land or infrastructure are the legal owners. According to economic co-minister Dr. Ahmad Yousef, three-quarters of property is now commonly held, and the rest personally possessed. Although Article 41 of the Rojava Constitution enshrines a right to private property, this right may refer to the types of personal possessions like houses that Proudhon called possessions.
In practice, the abolition of private property may be far from complete. "[M]uch of the land and capital is intended to remain in private hands," and "foreign corporate investment is pursued," according to Black Rose.
Oil is Rojava's main resource, and the region produces about 40,000 barrels daily. About a third of enterprises have been turned into worker cooperatives so far, according to the Ministry of Economics. Visiting Rojava, Janet Biehl saw a sewing cooperative, a greenhouse cooperative, and a dairy cooperative. Rojava imports just enough oil to meet its own needs and uses its own two refineries.
The autonomous government has not levied any taxes on its residents or on its businesses. Most of the government's revenue comes from the sale of oil to its own residents, and to outside the region through a black market. An embargo on Rojava enforced by Turkey prevents Rojava from legally exporting oil.
The Rojavan schools are "non-traditional, rejecting ideas of hierarchy, power and hegemony. Instead of following a teacher-student hierarchy, students teach each other and learn from each other’s experience. Students learn what is useful, in practical matters; they 'search for meaning,' as we were told, in intellectual matters. They do not memorize; they learn to think for themselves and make decisions, to become the subjects of their own lives."
Andrew Flood describes 3 central elements of Rojava's economy:
So far as I understand economic change in Rojava is happening at the level of 1. setting up co-ops (with agricultural ones using land abandoned by the Assad regime ). 2. providing certain necessities free (so partial filling of the requirement for wage abolition), but from the Point of View of consumption rather than production. 3. a certain amount of war communism - again a form of wage abolition but not necessarily intended to be long term. In Kobane under siege food was reported by BBC journalists as being freely available to all.
Neighborhoods establish councils specifically dedicated to environmental protection. David Graeber describes an encounter with
a doctor, he looks like a slightly scary Syrian military type in a leather jacket and stern austere expression. Then you talk to him and he explains: “Well, we feel the best approach to public health is preventative, most disease is made possible by stress. We feel if we reduce stress, levels of heart disease, diabetes, even cancer will decline. So our ultimate plan is to reorganize the cities to be 70% green space...
In addition to the communal commissions in charge of criminal justice, Rojavans have their own civilian security forces, or the Asayish. According to Biehl, "The Asayis reject the label police, since police serve the state whereas they serve society." The Asayish have to take a six-week training in nonviolent conflict resolution and feminism training before they are allowed to touch a gun. The ultimate aim is to give police training to everyone so that they can eliminate professional police. Rojava has abolished capital punishment. Parallel to the Asayish, an all-women's security force called the Asayish-J, "is alone responsible for crimes involving women, children, domestic abuse, and hate crimes" in addition to sharing the peacekeeping functions of the co-ed Asayish.
Rojava's liberated areas still maintain prisons, and Human Rights Watch has accused Asayish of arbitrary arrests, prisoner abuse, and unresolved disappearances and killings.
With a combined force of 40,000 people, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) defend the territories. About 35 percent of these fighters are women. While the YPJ consists entirely of women, the YPG has women members including commanders and militants. "[T]he leadership of the YPG is often more like 50-60% women as it recruits heavily from the leadership of the YPJ," according to Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness. Military units elect their leaders. Paul Z. Simons reported in 2015:
There are no officers. When engaged in operations, the fighters choose (by vote or consensus) Team/Suite/Block/Company Leaders. When idle, there is no leadership structure at any level, save Regional Commands. Commanders are chosen (vote or consensus) for regions and Cantons (Kobane, Qamishli) and can only serve six months in any given commando. Then they are replaced. There is no re-election."Human Rights Watch has found that despite official YPG and Asayish policy forbidding the use of minors in combat, both bodies have employed minors.
Some residents oppose Rojava's conscription of people into the YPG and YPJ.
In September 2014, ISIS attacked the city of Kobani (in the canton of Kobane), and by early October, the journalist Patrick Cockburn reported that ISIS was "close to capturing" Kobani. While the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish anarchist group DAF travelled to Kobani and joined the town's fight against ISIS., the US and its ally Turkey virtually abandoned the city. US Secretary of State John Kerry explained that defending Kobani was not a "strategic objective," and, in the midst of a bombing campaign in Syria, refused at first to carry out meaningful airstrikes against ISIS near Kobani or to send aid and weapons to the Kurdish rebels. Turkey, while enabling ISIS fighters to freely cross its Syrian border, refused to allow Kurdish fighters, weapons and supplies from Syria to reach Rojava. As the fighting continued, however, the US drastically increased its airstrikes in Kobani, in part for "propaganda reasons" according to the BBC's diplomatic and defense editor Mark Urban.
On October 17, after a month of fighting, the KCK-affilliated militias the YPG and YPJ forced ISIS to begin withdrawing from Kobani. By October 19, the US began airlifting arms and supplies to Kobani. The anonymous author of "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance" comments, "Beyond a doubt, without that aerial support, the minimally-armed YPG forces would not have emerged victorious." Journalist Bill Weinberg argues that while this support should not stop anarchists from standing with Kobani, it does set up conditions for the US to betray the Kurds' struggle.
We can only anticipate that Washington will sell out the YPG in deference to NATO ally Turkey as soon as ISIS has been beaten back at Kobani. There's a long history of such betrayals that anarchists know all too well. Exactly like Trotsky used the Makhnovists to help defeat the Whites, then crushed them. Exactly as the Spanish Republic used the Catalan anarchists. Exactly as Carranza used Villa and Zapata. Et cetera.
Ethnic Cleansing allegations
Some human rights observers, notably Amnesty International, have accused the Syrian Kurds of ethnic cleansing territories of Arab residents. The YPG and the Ruspîs Assembly of Arab Tribes in Cizîr Canton have responded that ethnic cleansing is not occurring.
On 30 May 2015, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that local sources had accused the YPG of killing 20 Arab civilians in Ras al-Ayn and burning and bulldozing Arab civilians' houses in Ras al-Ayn and Tal Tamer. The YPG denied the charge of killing Arab civilians in Ras al-Ayn, claiming that ISIS had held these civilians as human shields and then detonated a booby-trapped vehicle when they tried to walk toward YPG forces. Speaking to ARA News, Arab residents of Tal Tamer denied that the YPG had displaced Arabs or destroyed their homes.
On 13 October, Amnesty International released a report accusing the PYD and YPG of ethnic cleansing directed against against Arabs and Turkmen. In response, the Cizîr Canton's Ruspîs Assembly of Arab Tribes responded in defense of the YPG: "Amnesty International has grounded its report on sources that want to eliminate the love and co-existence among all social circles of the region and replace it with enmity." The YPG General Command commented, "the YPG and its affiliates, whose members firmly believe in ethnic and religious diversity and fight against global terrorism to achieve peace and security, would never tolerate or condone violations or abuses might be carried out by its fighters regardless of their position or rank."
- Constitution of the Rojava Cantons, http://civiroglu.net/the-constitution-of-the-rojava-cantons/
- ed. strangers in a tangled wilderness, A Small Key Can Open a Large Door, (Strangers In A Tangled Wilderness, 2015)
- Black Rose Anarchist Federation, "Our Perspectives and Tasks on the Revolution in Rojava", 4 August 2015 http://www.blackrosefed.org/our-perspectives-and-tasks-on-the-revolution-in-rojava/.
- Rafael Taylor, "The new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan, ROAR Magazine, 17 August 2014, http://roarmag.org/2014/08/pkk-kurdish-struggle-autonomy/.
- Taylor, "The new PKK".
- "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance," Crimethinc, 2015, http://www.crimethinc.com/texts/r/kurdish/.
- "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance".
- "On Confederalism in Northern Kurdistan," Institute for Social Ecology, http://www.social-ecology.org/2014/08/confederalism-north-kurdistan/.
- Taylor, "The New PKK".
- Bill Weinberg, "Syria's Kurdish Revolution," Fifth Estate, Spring 2015, http://www.fifthestate.org/archive/393-spring-2015/syrias-kurdish-revolution/.
- Bill Weinberg, "Syrian Kurds declare autonomy--at what price?", World War 4 Report, 19 March 2016.
- Hisham Arafat, "'Rojava' no longer exists, 'Northern Syria' adopted instead," 28 December 2016, Kurdistan24, http://www.kurdistan24.net/en/news/51940fb9-3aff-4e51-bcf8-b1629af00299/-rojava--no-longer-exists---northern-syria--adopted-instead-.
- Janet Biehl, "Impressions of Rojava: a report from the revolution," ROAR Magazine, 16 December 2014, http://roarmag.org/2014/12/janet-biehl-report-rojava/.
- Black Rose Anarchist Federation, "Our Perspectives and Tasks on the Revolution in Rojava".
- Michael Knapp, "The Goal Is a Democratic Solution for the Entire Middle East," 7 October 2014, http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/democratic-autonomy-in-rojava/.
- Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava: Demcoratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan translated by Janet Biehl (London: Pluto Press, 2016), ch. 6.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, A small key can open a large door', 4, 26-27.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, A small key can open a large door, 27-28.
- Black Rose Anarchist Federation, Our Perspectives and Tasks on the Revolution in Rojava.
- David Graeber, "No. This is a Genuine Revolution," Z Magazine, 26 December 2014, https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/no-this-is-a-genuine-revolution/.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, A small key can open a large door, 36-37.
- Black Rose Anarchist Federation, "Our Perspectives and Tasks on the Revolution in Rojava".
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, ibid, 4.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, 37.
- Biehl, "Impressions of Rojava".
- Janet Biehl, "Poor in means but rich in spirit," 30 December 2014, http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/poor-in-means/. strangers in a tangled wilderness, 38.
- Biehl, "Impressions of Rojava".
- Andrew Flood, "Resources on the Rojava Revolution in West Kurdistan (Syria)", Anarchist Writers, 8 March 2015, http://anarchism.pageabode.com/andrewnflood/resources-rojava-revolution-kurdistan-syria.
- Knapp, ibid.
- Graeber, "No. This is a genuine revolution".
- Biehl, "Impressions of Rojava". Graeber, "No. This is a genuine revolution."
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, 33.
- Human Rights Watch, Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves in Syria, 2014, http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria0614_kurds_ForUpload.pdf.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, 4, 56.
- strangers in a tangled wilderness, ibid, 33.
- Graeber, "No. This is a genuine revolution."
- Paul Z. Simons, "Dispatches from Rojava," Anarchist Library, 2015.
- Human Rights Watch, ibid.
- "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance."
- Patrick Cockburn, ""ISIS on the Verge of Victory at Kobani", Counterpunch, 7 October 2014, http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/10/07/isis-on-the-verge-of-victory-kobani/.
- "KURDISTAN/SYRIA: Anarchists join struggle against ISIS in Kobane", Tahrir-ICN, 28 September 2014, http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/kurdistansyria-anarchists-join-struggle-against-isis-in-kobane/.
- "Kerry: Defending Besieged Syrian Town From ISIS Not a 'Strategic Objective'," Democracy Now, 9 October 2014, http://www.democracynow.org/2014/10/9/headlines#1094.
- Jereme Roos, "If Kobanê falls, the US and Turkey will be to blame", Roar Mag, 4 October 2014, http://roarmag.org/2014/10/kobani-isis-kurdish-resistance/.
- Jelle Bruinsma, "Kobanê, the Kurdish struggle, and the dangers lurking ahead", Roar Mag, 19 October 2014, http://roarmag.org/2014/10/kobane-kurds-us-imperialism/.
- Kareem Fahim and Helene Cooper, "ISIS Militants in Syrian Border Town Begin to Retreat After a Monthlong Battle," The New York Times, 17 October 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/18/world/middleeast/isis-militants-in-syrian-border-town-begin-to-retreat-after-a-monthlong-battle.html.
- "Understanding the Kurdish Resistance".
- Bill Weinberg, "US arms Kobani defenders--heightening contradictions," World War 4 Report, 22 October 2014, http://www.ww4report.com/node/13648.
- Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "YPG accused of killing Arab civilians, burning and bulldozing houses in Arab villages," 30 May 2015, http://www.syriahr.com/en/2015/05/ypg-accused-of-killing-arab-civilians-burning-and-bulldozing-houses-in-arab-villages/
- Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, "YPG accused of killing Arab civilians, burning and bulldozing houses in Arab villages," 2 June 2015, http://www.syriahr.com/en/2015/06/ypg-denies-the-accusations-of-killing-arab-civilians-and-the-people-accuse-them-of-murdering-20-civilians/.
- Haitham Haji, "Video: Arab citizens refute rumors about displacement by Kurdish forces north Syria," ARA News, 2 June 2015, http://aranews.net/2015/06/video-arab-citizens-refute-rumors-about-displacement-by-kurdish-forces-north-syria/.
- Weinberg, Bill, "Arab tribes in Rojava respond to Amnesty International," World War 4 Report, 16 October, 2015, http://ww4report.com/node/14372#comment-453123.
- Bill Weinberg, "YPG issues official response to Amnesty International", World War 4 Report, 20 October 2015, http://ww4report.com/node/14372#comment-453130/.