As we greet the new year with choruses of auld lang syne, the news of the white house’s surprise decision to withdraw support from Syria jolts us back to the reality of the new year as it dawns before us, leaving the ugly realisation that Rojava may be the first pillar of 2019 to fall.
I was first introduced to the democratic federation of northern Syria (formerly and more commonly known as Rojava) by the ex-British diplomat Carne Ross in his autobiographical film “the accidental anarchist”. The film charted the ex-diplomat’s journey from the establishment to a self-confessed anarchist, culminating in his journey to Syria to interview the soldiers of the YPJ, an all-female fighting force. At the time a large proportion of people had heard of the YPJ, through western media images of airbrushed, overly-idealised Syrian women carrying ak-47s and fighting ISIS. But very few people had heard of Kurdistan and even fewer had heard of Rojava. However, the triumph of the YPJ and the YPG (the all gender Kurdish fighting force) in defeating ISIS, was part of a larger movement that had been growing across borders and between people for many years.
Rojava sits within northern Syria and is part of an area known as Kurdistan which spans Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. It declared independence in 2012 during the Syrian civil war but is not officially recognised by any governments despite being aided by the united states in its war against ISIS. It’s a polyethnic confederation but consists mostly of the long persecuted Kurdish people. What makes Rojava fascinating to people all over the world is its political structures and underlying philosophy.
The ideas that underpin Rojava took a meandering road to reach Syria, borrowing ideas from Murray Bookchin (the communist turned anarchist turned libertarian municipalist) to the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan worker’s party Abdullah Öcalan. These ideas centre around the concept of social ecology, a theory outlined by Murray Bookchin, which describes how the roots of ecological destruction are based in human domination and hierarchy. This was taken and adapted by Abdullah Öcalan into the radical feminist and communalist society seen today in northern Syria. As is inevitable in the case of the history of radical politics and our veneration of leaders, we forget the normal, everyday people who carry change on their shoulders. This does a disservice to the many people of Rojava who took these ideas and made them real, and who built these ideas and put them into being. It is a testament to the people of Rojava that not only do they stand today but that they built a radically different society to the rest of Syria whilst defeating ISIS in Raqqa.
What has been built in Rojava is a system of multiple small communes, made up of already existing towns and villages. The people of these communes meet regularly to discuss the local needs, ranging from agriculture and food, to health and education. In each commune it is important that all people have a say (rules dictate that those belonging to the less represented ethnicities speak first before others). Two representatives are then voted for and sent to the higher councils, which must be one man and one woman. The higher councils then coordinate projects and implement changes at a larger scale, forming a confederation. Each commune also has its own security force and other councils, for example all female councils to represent and discuss the specific issues facing women. The structure of this society encourages direct democracy and the participation of all members of the community, including those previously marginalised such as women and minorities. Of course, not all communes are arranged in this way and there have been issues with traditional cultural attitudes conflicting with the new ideas of the revolution. However, what is striking is that it seems to work, and has been the main structural basis of politics in Rojava since its creation in 2012.
This beacon of democratic hope in northern Syria has sparked the interest of many people across the globe, so much so that there are those that have taken the perilous journey to Syria to fight and contribute to the revolution. Leading to suggestions that Rojava is our generation’s civil war Spain. Although, while the parallels are striking, this is not civil war Spain. For one, Rojava has already lasted longer than the anarchist communes of Spain ever did, and its international base is not just centred around fighting and resistance but now also incorporates the political and cultural education of those who travel to live in the internationalist commune of Rojava. A bold and hopeful project that has both the intention of supporting the democratic efforts of the people of Rojava through their campaigns, like the make Rojava green again project, and spreading the message of social ecology and the triumphs of Rojava internationally through books and YouTube videos centred around the life of internationalists living in Syria. Rojava is also different to civil war Spain in that it is inspired by, and exists in parallel with other similar movements, like the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico and the municipalist council members of Barcelona. These Movements are built on the cooperation and effort of all types of people, particularly those of indigenous origin, in the case of Syria and Mexico.
This brings us to the current situation facing Rojava, a three-pronged offensive with devastating implications. The terror of a possible re-emergence of ISIS in the east, the inhumanity of the Assad regime in the south, and the brutality of the bordering Turkish government. These threats make the prospects of the united states withdrawing support for the people of Rojava disturbing.
Although, many would argue that western interventions in the middle east has been proven to destructive and negative, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the issue here is that Donald trump’s decision to withdraw support is accompanied by a lack of any official recognition of the confederation or promises of additional aid. To initially support and arm the YPJ and YPG then pull the rug from under them with no ongoing support is simple exploitation and opportunism, something the Kurdish people and Rojava have experienced before. Furthermore, trump has the wholehearted support of the Turkish authorities and Putin, which is questionable but disturbing. What reasons must Russia and turkey have to support this move? It may be obvious when the recent taking of Afrin (one of the major enclaves of Rojava) by turkey is considered. Rojava and northern Syria is a powerful place to control with borders to the rest of Syria, turkey and Iraq. As such, the withdrawal of American support provides a thinly veiled green light for interested parties, who are making threats to invade, to claim land and power. Not only that but it allows for the continuation of the historic persecution of the Kurdish people by the Turkish government.
Therefore, with the decision to withdraw American aid, Rojava is open to renewed attacks from Isis, the prospect of encroaching Turkish land grabs, and the ever-present Assad regime. Without this support, whether through arms, intelligence, or aid, Rojava will be left in a vulnerable position. However, that is not to say that the society of Rojava will not continue. Internationalist Matt Broomfield points out in his recent interview addressing the withdrawal of support, “The Kurdish people have known nothing but betrayal for centuries”. In other words, the people of Rojava have seen this before and they have survived. So, as a new year dawns on the democratic federation of northern Syria and existential threat looms, should those of us who believe in progression and democracy question the intentions of the United States decision to withdraw support. At the very least should we not express our solidarity with the spark of change that has been lit in northern Syria?
Edit: since this article was written the US National Security Adviser John Bolton has stated that America will not withdraw troops unless certain conditions are met, such as the assured safety of the Kurdish people. This is a welcome statement but does not guarantee a commitment to or recognition of Rojava.