In the beginning of October, Islamic State forces surrounded and besieged the Kurdish town of Kobane in northern Syria at the border with Turkey. IS had swept through Iraq quickly, picking up American tanks and mortars abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army along the way. Observers feared a humanitarian disaster akin to the IS massacre of ethnic Yazidis on Mount Sinjar in August. The Pentagon insisted that, with no ground troops to fight, Kobane could not be saved. Turkish tanks sat at the border, waiting for an IS victory and a possible ground invasion.
Months after it was supposed to fall, Kobane still stands, and IS has been forced back. The story of the town’s resistance is an epic tale of determination and self-defense, and it’s one U.S. officials would rather not discuss. When the Pentagon claimed there were no ground troops in Kobane, they weren’t exactly telling the truth. In 2012, Syrian forces withdrew from three northern areas, leaving their administration and defense to the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Now the three territories hold more than four million people, half of them refugees from the Syrian civil war or the Islamic State’s advance, and many of them armed and organized. Kobane is one of the three territories that together constitute the autonomous region of Rojava, and it endures today because of the fiercely egalitarian society the people have built, the kind idealized by many leftists around the world.
Most Americans, even the ones who pay close attention to national involvement in the Middle East, have little to no idea about what has been happening in Kobane. The Pentagon has been less than forthcoming with support for these enemies of our enemies; their fighters are still on the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations. The American media has more or less ignored the political project in Rojava; they’ve been more comfortable painting Kurds as desperate fighters fending off the Islamic State. Besides, there are a lot of acronyms and complicated political affiliations to sort through. But while America isn’t watching, something incredible is happening. At the geographical nexus of so many of the world’s conflicts, a new post-national project is emerging.
First, a little history and some acronyms. Because of our invasion of Iraq, when Americans think of Kurds, we tend to think of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that controls the oil-rich northern part of the country. It’s a moderate, stable region, and if there were victors of the American invasion, the KRG probably tops the list. Their president, Massoud Barzani, recently finished high on Time’s Person Of The Year list. But the KRG and their peshmerga fighters don’t control Rojava. The governing party there is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), which is a Marxist political organization founded in Ankara in 1978 that took up arms against Turkey for Kurdish independence.
The PKK’s operations underwent a shift after founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured by Turkey in 1999. The group had established an operations base in the Qandil Mountains at the Iran-Iraq border, but with the Soviet Union dissolved and old sources of support drying up, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries were stuck at a historical crossroads. They unilaterally put down their guns, then picked them up again five years later. In 2005, his death sentence reduced to life in prison, Öcalan made a surprising announcement: He renounced nationalism. The PKK and its affiliates followed suit, dropping the fight for a seat at the UN and adopting a unique political ideology called democratic confederalism. When the Syrian government withdrew from what would be Rojava in 2012, they did not declare independence despite controlling the territory. Just when the world’s largest stateless group finally seems poised to join the modern nation state system, when the dream of a Kurdistan (if not a united one) in northern Iraq is nearly at hand, the PKK has abandoned its foundational agenda. What happened? The simplest answer is they thought of a better idea.
Despite being Turkey’s most notorious prisoner, Öcalan has kept in communication with his comrades (that’s what they call each other) through his writing, some of which has been translated for a western audience that has so far yet to appear. In a pamphlet on democratic confederalism, Öcalan laid out the premise for his unexpected turn:
So far, with a view to issues of ethnicity and nationhood like the Kurdish question, which have their roots deep in history and at the foundations of society, there seemed to be only one viable solution: the creation of a nation-state, which was the paradigm of the capitalist modernity at that time. We did not believe, however, that any ready-made political blueprints would be able to sustainably improve the situation of the people in the Middle East. Had it not been nationalism and nation-states which had created so many problems in the Middle East?
The Kurdish freedom struggle, he explains, had always been about “liberating the society and democratizing it” and resisting “the global domination of the modern capitalist system.” Inspired by decolonization struggles throughout the global south, the PKK’s founders followed their model, attempting a Maoist guerrilla war strategy to establish their own nation. They were always a little behind the times; by the PKK’s founding in 1978, the Cold War period of national liberation had drawn to a close. Even if, against all odds, they were to win, the most likely outcome would be a Cuba-style trade embargo enforced by Turkey. The organization needed a new vision, and democratic confederalism was Öcalan’s answer.
So what is democratic confederalism? Öcalan calls it “a non-state political administration” or a “democracy without a state.” Instead of centralizing political power in a government, confederalism views society holistically, as an association of associations of intrinsically social people. It aspires to flatten the divisions the state places between public, productive and domestic life, linking together sewing cooperatives, neighborhood communes, refugee assistance groups, schools and self-defense forces in a common framework. The higher levels of organization exist to facilitate the grassroots, and decisions flow from the bottom to the top. It’s designed to work without, beneath, between and against nation-states, depending on the situation. Like the Islamic State, democratic confederalism does not recognize borders except as obstacles to overcome. “It is flexible, multi-cultural, anti-monopolistic, and consensus-oriented,” Öcalan writes. “Ecology and feminism are central pillars.”
This sounds like the hippie rhetoric of an Occupy Wall Street press release, not the ideological program of an armed group holding territory in wartorn northern Syria. Many of us think of the Middle East as one of the most repressive and authoritarian regions, and what’s happening here is the polar opposite. Stereotypes about the Middle East being nationalist, even xenophobic, have left Americans unprepared to hear about an inclusive, egalitarian platform from someone named “Abdullah.”
The one aspect of Rojava’s struggle that has captivated the western media— from Breitbart.com to Elle—are the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the female-only wing of Rojava’s army. The bands of women study political theory, sing, dance, eat and fight the Islamic State to the death for territory. Always intrigued by young women toting big guns, English-language publications have removed these fighters from their political context in order to make IS look barbaric by comparison. But even as these articles throw around terms like “hero,” they have still managed to undersell the YPJ’s accomplishments.
Democratic confederalism takes a hard line on the role of women in society. While Americans may like the picture of sexy young women smiling while they kill IS soldiers, their official program verges on what Reddit might call “misandry.”
“The fundamental question is why man is so jealous, dominant and villainous where woman is concerned,” Öcalan writes, “why he continues to play the rapist.” He calls for a “total divorce” from “the five-thousand-years-old culture of male domination,” including but not limited to capitalism, the state, the nuclear family, prisons and the constructed gender binary. Part of the practical application of this theory includes the formation of women-only organizations like the YPJ, which operate alongside rather than beneath gender-integrated associations like the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Decision-making in Rojava at all levels requires a quota of 40 percent women, and every municipality is led by a male-female team. Hardly the stagnant, patriarchal image Americans assign to Middle Eastern communities.
It’s an idealistic agenda, and an audacious one, especially given the Kurds’ precarious geo-political position. But democratic confederalism is a resourceful strategy, a way to marshall and combine all of a society’s resources without unaffordable inefficiencies like profit and patriarchal domination. Does it work? In late 2011, a group of German activists traveled into the PKK-controlled area of eastern Turkey to see how, six years after Öcalan’s call, democratic confederalism was progressing in the shadow of the state. They interviewed members of many organizations, from pickle-producers and teachers to political and military leaders, and what they found was the embryo of a new society. Localities have “peace committees” to resolve disputes without the threat of jail. Women’s councils enforce social isolation for spousal abuse. In the city of Gewer, the children’s council designed the playground. To break cycles of inter-family revenge, legal committees seek a peaceful and consensual solution “even in cases of murder.”
Although IS hasn’t been completely cleared from Kobane, it now seems clear the YPG and YPJ will win, if only by the smallest margin. Without the egalitarian social framework, there’s little doubt the town would have been lost, as American officials expected. Instead, the defense of Kobane was a lesson in the geopolitical importance of democracy beyond the state. In the wake of America’s Occupy moment, many on the left have been looking for a vision of horizontalism that lasts longer than a pop-up sneaker store. Rojava shows us it’s possible.
Malcolm Harris is an editor at The New Inquiry and a writer based in Brooklyn.