Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?
The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?
Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.
Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.
In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.
Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?
To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.
The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”
The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.
Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.
To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.
The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.
Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:
“Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”
None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.
Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism
Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”
Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.
Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)
Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.
Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.
Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.
Building political democracy through communes
Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.
What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.
Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.
The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.
Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.
At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.
A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.
Building a cooperative economy based on human need
The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.
Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.
The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.
Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.
We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.
Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.
In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:
“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”
It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.