IN JULY 2012, Kurdish armed forces took political control in the regions of Kobanê, Afrin and al-Hasakah in northern Syria. The transfer of power from the Syrian regime to the Kurdish organisations began during the Syrian Revolution of 2011. By July 2012, the regime had lost control of Homs, its third-largest city. On July 18, in Damascus, the defence minister and his deputy were killed in the insurgents’ most direct attack. The next day, fighting broke out in Aleppo. The Ba’ath Party regime seemed weaker than ever before. On the night of July 18-19, Kurdish fighters, supported by unarmed civilians, took control of Kobanê without a fight.
The regime’s security forces were disarmed and sent home. The pattern was followed in other districts, occasionally Assad’s police and military resisted but they soon realised there would be no reinforcements from other parts of the country. The government’s apparatus of violence was under massive pressure across the country and unable to intervene. For the Syrian regime, what was decisive was retaining power in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, for the PYD (the Syrian branch of the Kurdish PKK) it was Rojava.
The PYD became the political leadership in Rojava as a result of the armed groups it had established, rather than the utopian ideas it developed.
The autonomous administration in Rojava is now the last democratic achievement of the Syrian Revolution. Rojava became known worldwide during the Islamic State siege of Kobanê at the end of 2014. With the Turkish border closed and IS controlling its eastern districts, the city was temporarily cut off from any supplies. The victory of the PYD against this seemingly hopeless situation gave it great prestige. The defence of Kobanê also encouraged a wave of solidarity, especially from Turkish Kurds but also from across Europe. For the US government, the battle for Kobanê proved the worth of its future ally in containing the fiasco of the failed occupation of Iraq and stopping the advance of ISIS.
For 10 years, the threat of violent destruction has hung over Rojava, showing how precarious self-government can be within the framework of the current borders, while recognising the state order imposed by imperialist powers. The victory over IS did not eliminate the threat to Rojava, but opened up a new war, with Turkey, in which US imperialism showed far less interest in the Kurdish side.
Despite the PYD’s repeated recognition of the Syrian borders, the existence of an autonomous Rojava puts them in question, as shown by the repeated Turkish raids that led to the destruction of Afrin in 2018 and the establishment of a “buffer zone” along the Turkish border in 2019. Turkey has repeatedly stated its intention to extend its control along the border.
Rojava must be defended against the attacks of the Turkish state. The fight against the military machinery in Turkey, against the PKK ban in Europe, for the unrestricted legal activity of all liberation movements and, whenever possible, the provision of material aid for the defence of Rojava, is currently necessary and could make the decisive difference.
A romanticised view of the Kurdish freedom fighters is not required to defend the real gains that have been made. The recognition of the Arabic, Kurdish and Aramaic languages as equals, the guarantee of political representation for the various population groups, the arming of women and their equality in legal matters and the abolition of religious legislation, all mark a break with the rule of the Baath Party, which acted like a colonial power over the Kurdish regions for decades, with systematic economic neglect, resettlement, expropriations and reprisals.
The fact that Turkey has not yet made good on recent threats is because, for their own reasons, neither US nor Russian imperialism has backed up further military action. The US fears that weakening Rojava would lead to a return of ISIS and a new vortex of destabilisation in the region. Russia argues for the Iraqi model, the reintegration into the Syrian state. For both, the goal is a counter-revolutionary stabilisation ruling out any serious Kurdish self-determination. Turkey is working to ensure that its mediating role in the current conflict in Ukraine is rewarded with a gift in the borderlands of Syria.
The third way?
The PYD’s neutralist position towards the Syrian revolution in 2012 strengthened the regime’s decision to withdraw from Rojava. But it contained a fundamental political contradiction: although objectively part of a more general revolutionary upheaval, it stood aside from it. In the urban centres, where the question of power was decided, it stood between the fronts, trying to shield the Kurdish neighbourhoods from the course of the Syrian revolution.
One consequence of this was that the Syrian working class – including its large Kurdish minority with links to Rojava – was not mobilised to defend Rojava. Among the Arab opposition forces, it strengthened a chauvinist rejection of the Kurdish right to self-determination, which actually benefited the rule of the Ba’ath Party. The class base for an autonomous Rojava was thus reduced to the rural petty bourgeoisie and the smallholder farmers of the region. The extensive trade embargo by the neighbouring countries, also shifted the focus to Rojava’s self-sufficiency in food and basic necessities, the establishment of cooperatives and a limited land reform of state cultivation areas. Whether this is described as the realisation of a social utopia or as simple necessity in a region that has been severely oppressed for decades does not change reality.
In parts of the left, sympathies for the revolution in Rojava seem to be ignited precisely by the magic of its contradictions: a state that denies it is a state (although it has an army, police, government and judiciary); the claim to overcome capitalism without expropriating capital; singing the anthem of the nation that is considered to have already been overcome; possession of power while at the same time despising it; overcoming borders by retreating into the village; combating patriarchy by returning to tradition.
Those sections of the Western left who value Rojava only as a source of inspiration look into a mirror of their own libertarian fantasy: of the importance of “pure democracy”, of the path as a goal, of the falsehood of any objective truth and the truth of the subjective. Their own isolation in the liberated left centre then seems to be the right way. With the right utopian ideas, they could become a second Rojava.
The PKK movement, which was politically “turned” in the 1990s, has made a shift to the right at the end of the millennium, much like some of the opponents of globalisation, by rejecting the power of the oppressed as a revolutionary potential against the state as “utopian” and replacing it with the truly utopian idea of simply making the state superfluous by beginning to build the beautiful life.
In the case of the PKK, this also included adapting its programme to the failure of its previous armed struggle for an independent state in the Turkish part of Kurdistan. It seemed more realistic to fight for gradual improvements within the framework of the existing order, which would not bring them into conflict with the existing state order. That the PKK movement should unexpectedly stumble into a situation where it faced the question of power is an irony of history. It should not be criticised for going beyond its own programme of relinquishing power.
Of course, in the face of an imminent violent destruction of self-government, the realisation of grassroots democracy must be subordinated to military necessity. The former is reduced to organising the production of the bare essentials. However, the weaknesses of the new PKK’s original reformist programme, which was shrouded in libertarian clouds, tends to be obscured.
These weaknesses do not change the progressive character of the democratic achievements in Rojava, which should receive the support of the workers’ and democratic movements of other countries. However, those gains could be lost in exchange for official autonomy status in the Syrian state. An agreement between the Syrian and Turkish regimes is likely to require the disarmament of Rojava as a precondition. After the victories of both, the now isolated Rojava would have little with which to oppose such a reactionary deal.
However, the defence of Rojava could also be the starting point for breaking through its isolation, linking the struggle to the democratic and social questions in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Kurdish self-determination can only be further expanded and defended in the broader context of the permanent revolution in the Middle East. Their main obstacle, as in Rojava, is a crisis of leadership, the lack of a revolutionary party that can win over the masses to this programme of the liberation struggle.
Two programmatic objectives should be learnt from the past 10 years: recognition of the right to self-determination of all oppressed nations in order to win them as allies for the revolution, and the creation of a socialist federation of states in the Middle East, linking the democratic revolution with the overthrow of capitalist property relations, which must come into conflict with any democratic achievement.