Wednesday 18 July 2018

The Rojava Revolution (extract)

Today marks the 82nd anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution on 19 July 1936 - and the 6th anniversary of the outbreak of the Rojava Revolution in 2012, a libertarian communist revolution that is still challenging Ismamist fascism, domestic despotism and Western imperialism in an area that is today larger than Belgium, with a population of some 4,6-million. Here is an extract from my forthcoming book, In the Shadow of a Hurricane, detailing the dawn of that Revolution:

The insurrectionist Social Rebellion (SI) has been directly involved in fighting against the retro-fascist Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organisation and defending the Rojava Revolution, the libertarian socialist experiment in directly-democratic horizontally-federated free councilism, in the three westernmost cantons of Rojava – the mountainous olive-growing Afrîn Canton to the west, and the flat, wheat- and cotton-growing contiguous cantons of Kobanî, and Cizîre (or Jazîre, which has a significant oil industry) – which declared their autonomy in 2013, and which has in part taken inspiration from the ideas of US libertarian socialist and theorist of free municipalism Murray Bookchin,  foregrounding ecology and putting women in charge, sharing all levels of counter-power with men, from city councils to armed forces. Bookchin’s ideas, along with those of autonomist Marxists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and left communists like Rosa Luxemburg, influenced Abdullah Öcalan, incarcerated leader of the formerly Marxist-Leninist Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) in the Kurdish region of eastern Turkey, who had transformed his party into a “democratic confederalist” organisation, with a mirror-image Democratic Union Party (PYD) founded in the Western Kurdistan (Rojava) region of northern Syria in 2003. The PYD in Rojava drew on three inspirations for the new structures it helped set up: the “democratic confederalist” theories of its jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan; the principles of dual women-and-men delegates at all levels of counter-power that had been formulated by the PKK’s all-women’s army, the YAJK, during the guerrilla war in North Kurdistan (Turkey) from 1984; and the PKK’s DTK practice from 2007 of establishing popular city neighbourhood and village Councils in which all residents of the areas it had controlled in North Kurdistan could participate and wield decision-making powers that were then executed by recallable teams of twinned female and male delegates. In 2005, an umbrella women’s organisation, the Ishtar Union (YI), its name drawn from that of an ancient Mesopotamian goddess, was founded to fight patriarchy and build women’s institutions. In other words, the PYD drew on both revolutionary feminist counter-culture and directly-democratic councillist counter-power – defended by force of arms – for its inspirations. Knapp, Flach and Ayboga write in the first book-length study of the Rojava Revolution: “Within a matter of months, a functioning council system was in place in Rojava’s cities, large and small [the cantons of Afrîn, Kobanî, and Cizîre where the PYD has a strong presence], and in [Shahba Canton centred on the city of] Aleppo” which lies between Afrîn and Kobanî where the PYD was not dominant.  These early Councils were not ubitquitous, initially tending to be centred on Kurdish and Ezidi neighbourhoods and not Arab, Turkmen, Armenian, Syriac, Circassian and Chaldean ones, and with few operating in rural areas – but that would soon change.

As Knapp and his colleagues write, even though under the Ba’athist dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad the councils were illegal, by 2011, “the council system was sufficient to constitute a vibrant structure parallel to the state without being in direct conflict with it.” This pre-existing Council network would prove to be critical to establishing counter-power in Rojava. On 15 March 2011, the pro-liberation fervour of the Arab Spring infected Syrian society when protests over the jailing by police of two young graffiti artists snowballed into nationwide protests against Assad’s regime. In July, dissident veterans of the Syrian security forces, mostly of the majority ethnic Sunni Arabs, formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which drew financial support from the Gulf States and Turkey; civil war erupted across the country, but in Rojava, the Kurdish PYD was determined to stay out of the war which it knew would result in a high civilian death toll, widespread infrastructural damage, and probable military intervention by imperialist forces. This proved to be a prescient and prudent decision as, its hands tied with the FSA insurgency and a rapidly evolving war in which radical, Islamist-fascist forces such as Islamic State also emerged, the Syrian regime just didn’t bother with the illegal PYD-initiated Councils. Within weeks, armed popular Self-Protection Units (YXG) – initially created by youths often associated with the Revolutionary Youth Movement (TCŞ), a pre-war anti-Ba’athist force – had been formed, drawing support from the PYD. As a result, Rojava became a relatively peaceful refuge for civilans of diverse ethnicities fleeing the fighting: the population of Afrîn soared from 400,000 to 1,2-million, that of Kobanî from 200,000 to 400,000, and that of Cizîre to 1,37-million (giving the Rojava free zone an initial total population of 2,9-million, comfortably comparable to the Manchurian Heilongjiang free zone of 2-million). Meanwhile, the city neighbourhood and rural village Councils held illegal People’s Assemblies to determine what should be done: with the experience of two decades of the PYD having preached democratic confederalism among the peoples of Rojava, many assemblies adopted the model with relative ease and in August 2011, the PYD formed the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) to promote the establishment of Councils across Rojava and to act as an umbrella body for the Councils which would send women and men as mandated, recallable delegates to it. Like the Makhnovist umbrella KBOP before it, the MGRK is a multipartisan, progressive, directly-democratic organ, “open to all peoples and all democratic parties,” in Knapp et al’s words. Elections were held across Rojava and 300 delegates were elected to the MGRK representing its contributing Councils; the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem) consisting of 33 out of the 300 delegates (excluding Aleppo) was established to co-ordinate the MGRK’s work and those of the eight Commissions it created for Women (organised in their own right as Women’s Councils), Defence (the YXG, TCŞ youth units, and the all-volunteer Asayîş safety patrols), Economics (production, supply, public enterprises, and Co-operatives), Politics (external diplomacy, inter-party liaison, and municipal administration), Civil Society (employees and employers organised by trade/profession), Free Society (social assistance to youths, families of those killed, and other vulnerable groups), Justice (based on Peace Committees, with separate committees run by women which rule on sexist offences), and Ideology (education, media, culture, language, and art). With the exception of the Women’s Commission, which is exclusively for women, any resident of any ethnicity can join the Tev-Dem delegates on any commission whose work they are interested in, in order to contribute as they see best. As Knapp et all put it, “In the summer and fall of 2011, the state was still running – although poorly – the economy and public services [in Rojava]. Beleagured by the war, it could not handle everything. So the MGRK gradually filled in the gaps and the neighbourhood councils took on more tasks.” Although, they argue, even the PKK experience of Councils in North Kurdistan was insufficient preparation, as people increasingly turned to them for assistance in all areas of life, the Councils evolved, expanded and started to develop new capacities to meet fresh expectations and “they gradually became a real alternative to the state, especially in matters of justice, infrastructure, and security.” In October 2011, sixteen smaller Kurdish parties coalesced and formed the Kurdish National Council in Syria (EKNS) and on 11 July 2012, they signed a power-sharing agreement with the PYD, establishing the joint Supreme Kurdish Council (DKB) as a co-ordinating liaison body. Meanwhile, as Knapp et all write, “By the spring of 2012, hundreds of thousands of people were flocking to the neighbourhood meetings, eager to participate, in numbers greater than the venues could accommodate.” A de facto dual-power situation had been created, comparable to that of the parallel national government and revolutionary soviets in 1918 Ukraine.

The scene was set for a dramatic, full-blown revolution and over the night of 18-19 July 2012 – by serendipity on the 76th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution – the FSA launched assaults on Damascus and Aleppo; in a move intended to pre-empt the Turkey-backed FSA from establishing footholds in Rojava, the YXG seized control of the roads leading into Kobanî city (Ayn Al-Arab), a city of more than 100,000 residents, many of whom, as MGRK supporters, then seized pre-determined state institutions, took down the regime’s flags and ran up PYD flags. A mass of people gathered outside the local Syrian Army base and a delegation informed the soldiers that if they surrendered their arms, including heavy weaponry, their safety would be guaranteed; the soldiers surrendered without a fight, some returning home, and others crossing into Turkey to join the FSA. State buildings were taken over by the people and socialised for tasks of importance to the community; the death penalty was abolished (in this, the Rojavans have proven kinder than the Makhnovists, though this was possibly because their actual seizure of power was almost bloodless), the prisons were emptied of political prisoners, and the Asayîş protection patrols negotiated with neighbouring communities the fate of non-murderous criminals who were usually released under supervision to perform community service; only those convicted of murder, torture or terrorism would in future be jailed for up to 20 years, while those convicted of abusing women faced a minimum of six months behind bars. Former PKK commander Xebat Derik was influential in reorganising the YXG as the more professional People’s Protection Units (YPG) which was soon buttressed by many of the tens of thousands of Syrian female and male Kurds with extensive experience fighting the right-wing Turkish state in Northern Kurdistan in the 1990s-2000s. Knapp et all write that “many fighters with a Rojava background… joined the YPG… Over the next days, as the revolution spread from Kobanî to other cities and villages of West Kurdistan, they were welcomed joyously and the people threw rice at them.” In the city of Dêrîka Hemko (Dêrîk), in eastern Cizîre Canton, many of the regime’s military outposts were similarly bloodlessly disarmed and dispersed, arms were distributed to the people who formed new YPG and Asayîş units, and posters of Assad were torn down and replaced with PYD emblems; only in the town of Girziro was there some resistance, with the local battalion holding out for twelve days while helicopters bombed the revolutionaries, but after only a handful of deaths including the battalion’s commanding officer, the Girziro garrison also surrendered. In western Afrîn Canton, crowds surrounded all regime institutions and forced a peaceful surrender; a handful of security agents held out briefly, but after a two-hour gun-battle surrendered with only three wounded. The Revolution was successful and almost entirely bloodless in three unconnected zones of Rojava centred on the cities of Afrîn, Kobanî and Dêrîka Hemko. Not under PYD control were Shahba Canton centred on the city of Aleppo and the region around the city of Girê Spî between Kobanî and Cizîre Cantons, while government troops remained in the cities of Hesekê and Quamişlo in Cizîre, the latter of which has a population of which about 20% supported the regime; they were left unmolested and the city’s airport remained in government hands (being defensive rather than offensive in nature, the YPG usually fought only when attacked). Although initially the MGRK’s delegates were able to work across Shahba which lies between Afrîn and Kobanî because it was mostly in the hands of the FSA and of the Jabhat Al-Akrad militia associated with the YPG, Kobanî and Cizîre were in initially not linked because the intervening Girê Spî zone was not liberated territory; as a result, in practice, the MGRK though nominally a Rojava-wide body tended to initially operate mostly in zonal silos. Yet the Council system spread rapidly across Rojava in the wake of the Revolution, and proved so popular that two new layers were added to the system: a grassroots first-tier “Commune” layer that in the cities consisted of the residents of individual streets, around 30-200 households, and in the rural areas, entire villages, which sent mandated delegates – in women-and-men teams – to the second-tier Neighbourhood or Villages People’s Councils; and third-tier District People’s Councils (with their own Tev-Dem co-ordinating committees) covering entire cities and surrounding rural lands, to which the Neighbourhood or Villages People’s Council delegates reported and which in turn sent mandated delegates to the regional umbrella fourth-tier MGRK. Political parties and NGOs are only present at the upper two tiers, and in what might prove to be a fatal political error – echoing that of the CNT-FAI in the Spanish Revolution – despite its majority on the ground, the PYD is not proportionately but rather equally represented by the other parties, though this concession has won over many other ethnic parties. At each of the four tiers, where the capacity exists, Commissions were established to cover the eight main areas of revolutionary activity – and co-operate acoss cantons in horizontal networks, especially the Economics Commissions which continued setting up Co-operatives to run a democratised, ecologically-friendly, people-centred economy (this initiative had begun before the Revolution on 10 June 2012, when the Ishtar Union decided to establish Women’s Economic Commissions in each Rojavan city to promote the creation of Co-operatives). Each body meets at least once a week to debate the community’s most pressing issues, from food supplies to curbing domestic violence. In each centre, two government buildings were socialised and converted into a “People’s House” and a “Women’s House” that are guarded and open 24 hours a day for Commission meetings, other popular engagements, and for residents to raise any issue. In the liberated parts of Rojava, the District Peoples’ Council’s Politics Commissions set up “People’s Municipalities” by taking over the control of all of all municipal functions in the cities and countryside; these administrations were purged of regime sympathisers and reactionaries, and dual female-male leaderships and democratic decision-making over municipal development was submitted to District Peoples’ Councils for popular approval. District Peoples’ Councils were set up in Afrîn, in Kobanî, and in Serêkaniyê, Qamişlo, and Dêrika Hemko in Cizîre Canton. In the cities of Qamişlo and Hesekê in Cizîre, where the state remained in charge in some suburbs, the District Peoples’ Councils built new municipal buildings of their own. Taxation has been abolished, but fees of between US$1-2/month per household are levied by the People’s Muncipalities for water provision, rubbish removal and other services; poor families are exempted. The embargo imposed on liberated Rojava imposed by Turkish, Ba’athist, and rebel forces means few staff are employed and their pay is low, that despite perhaps 100,000 tons of wheat being produced in Kobanî and Cizîre Cantons each year, the majority that is not locally consumed cannot be sold abroad for foreign exchange, and although Cizîre produces significant quantities of oil, its MGRK Councils had to figure out a way to refine it into diesel in large quantities (this was previously done in state-controlled Homs) – but this had been achieved by the summer of 2013.

Members of the International Freedom Battalion, a mixed anarchist and communist foreign volunteer formation defending the Rojava Revolution, after the liberation of Tel Abayed from Islamic State.