Escaping Assad and Revolution in Rojava

An interview with a Syrian activist in exile, code-named Sami, published by draws attenton once more to the radical experiment in real-life bottom-up matriarchal democratic design unfolding  against all odds in the autonomous Kurdish region of Rojava in Northern Syria. We are republishing two short texts here on this subject matter to speculate about the question if 'Rojava' could offer a repeatable model for post-governmental political design?


On May 11, 2011, we posted a video that contains a short interview with Rami Nakhle, a Syrian activist in exile in Beirut (April 26, 2011) who at the time was posting news about the 'protests' in Syria on social media. The video had gone somewhat 'viral' in the weeks before, culminating in a prominent presentation on the front page of the Guardian website. The video was called "Syria's cyber revolution", and speculated on the possibility of a bloodless revolution (against the Assad regime) in Syria.

As a counterpoint to this video and narrative, we also republished an interview with the Syrian political blogger Camille Otrakji, originally published on the Qifa Nabki blog. Otrakji was decidedly skeptical about the prospect of a 'bloodless revolution', and it is easy now, in retrospect, to say he was right. However, in explaning his position he provides a crystal clear analysis of the fractured make up of Syrian society, held together mainly by the repressive order of the Assad regime. He assumed from this that forcing Assad out would create a vacuum where the sectarian, religious and ideological rifts would immediately take centre stage and tear the country apart..

In the depths and intractable complexities (local, regional, and geopolitical) of the terrible conflict in Syria, there is another counterpoint to both the desperately naive cyber revolution narrative, as well as the realist gloom spelled out by Otrakij, which incidentally still did not manage to capture the despair of events to unfold shortly after and that remain with us six years on. This is the remarkable story of the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava in Northern Syria, where a radical experiment in bottom-up democratic design is holding out against pressures from all sides. Even more extraordinary is the fact that this democratic 'revolution' is women-lead and goes hand in hand with the establishment of a matriarchy that is quite uncommon in the Middle-East. A recently published interview with a Syrian activist, now living in exile in Germany, code-named Sami, on the blog sheds a revealing light on this unique political experiment.

The book 'Revolution in Rojava' (Pluto Press, 20 October 2016) is referenced extensively in the interview, and appended is a short text written by Janet Biehl for the Pluto Press blog that outlines the scope of the book. The experiment in radical and bottom-up 'democratic design' undertaken in Rojava under the most challenging circumstances imaginable also connects to the Post-Governmental Organisation theme (PGO), introduced to the field of Tactical Media during the third Next 5 Minutes festival in Amsterdam (1999) as one of the festival's core themes, and the important critique of Tactical Media's lack of and resistance to a strategic perspective. Could Rojava offer a (repeatable) model to engage that critique?

Escaping Assad: A Syrian Kurd's Story

"They were firstly about freedom and democracy, then about getting rid of Assad," says Sami, speaking to me about the 2011 Syrian uprising which would lead to the brutal civil war that continues today. "I was studying [for] a Masters in Damascus. In September I joined a protest with friends. We were all arrested at gunpoint. If I had tried to escape I would have been shot."

After his arrest, Sami (which is not his name, but a name we are using to protect his identity) was held for over two months and tortured daily. The relentless pressure led to his signing a false confession on terrorism charges. He faced 35 years in prison. But his family had paid a sizeable bail bond before his imprisonment, so Sami was able in the meantime to escape to Turkey.

In late 2011, he crossed the border easily through the mountains of Cizîrê‎ and travelled to an official border post for a visa stamp. Soon after, Sami, who is Kurdish, settled in Istanbul and started a Masters program at the university. But he knew he could not stay in Turkey, where state repression against Kurds is a daily fact of life. So, finally, he smuggled himself to Rojava, the Kurdish autonomous region in Syria, which has been on the frontline fight against ISIS.

Visiting Rojava

Now living in relative safety in Europe, Sami has escaped the world's worst humanitarian crisis and seen the start of a democratic experiment created in its ashes. His story is unique, but it relates to millions fleeing war and persecution. The West has backed Middle Eastern dictators, including Bashar al-Assad, and failed to support democratic movements like the one he initially took part in. At the same time, the story of refugees is often misunderstood in the West, where the corporate media frequently demonize those seeking safety and stability.

Sami tells me that back in 2013 he decided to return to his homeland, Rojava, the recently created Kurdish region outside of Syrian control, because he saw a new society formed around bottom-up democracy, one that was challenging patriarchy and capitalism. He was surprised to see Kurdish openly spoken and written there, since it was banned and he had had to learn it secretly as a child.

His first-hand account reflects what has been explained in the book Revolution in Rojava, the first extensive English account of the region, which inspired a four-part series earlier this year. Expanding in detail, Sami tells me how Rojava is challenging the traditional class system. Before, society was divided into landlords and farmers; Sami's background is from the landlord class, which previously took most of the profits from farmers toiling the land. Since the revolution, many from his family, particularly the older generations, are unhappy that the farmers both get to keep their labour and take on responsibilities in the bottom-up democratic system. Sami welcomes these social advancements.

Incredibly, the Rojavan revolution continues while repelling ISIS and other fascist militia.

"Being there, I heard constant updates. One day the Jihadis would get closer. The next they were pushed back," he says.

Sami ultimately left Rojava because he didn't want to join the fighting. His escape was challenging. "I tried two or three times. It was about 4 a.m. and dark when I went with a smuggler to the border. He cut the barbed wire and fixed it so the soldiers would not know. I walked alone for 40 minutes to a village, took the mini-bus to Cizre and flew back to Istanbul," he says.

Making Istanbul home

Sami reminisces warmly of his first years in Istanbul. He was involved in supporting other refugees in a soup kitchen, there was a strong international network, and he fell in love with a British woman.

A dominant Western narrative suggests most refugees want to get to Europe. Sami contradicts this story, as do UN figures on displacement: 65 million people were officially displaced in 2016, 40 million are in their country of origin, and only 2.3 million travelled to the West.

Although Sami is fleeing persecution, he would not be considered in these official figures, like many others. In late May 2013, Sami along with many of his friends, he joined Occupy Gezi, the protests to protect an urban green space from destruction.

"I was so angry about Syria," he reflects. "I went to Gezi everyday, as I did not have the chance to do much [protesting] in Syria."

Kurds, Rojava region, Syrian civil war, Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Syrian Kurds, Kurdish diaspora, refugee crisis
Post-coup Turkey

The Turkish state has long persecuted Kurds, but it was not until after the failed 2016 coup that Sami felt truly unsafe. The Syrian consulate refused to renew his passport. So Sami risked living undocumented; his visa relied on a valid Syrian passport. The authorities forced two of his undocumented Syrian friends to camps near the Syrian border.

"You cannot really call it a camp," he says. "Conditions are hard. You cannot eat. There are thousands of people with 20 toilets, and no doctors."

Kurds were also targeted on the Turkish streets by fascist gangs, emboldened by the Erdogan regime's increased tactics of authoritarianism. With time running out on his passport, Sami married his girlfriend and left to Europe on a family visa.

Kurds, Rojava region, Syrian civil war, Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Syrian Kurds, Kurdish diaspora, refugee crisis
Safe, not settled

Compared to many Syrians, Sami considers himself fortunate. He resides in Germany, living under European law, thanks to his family which could afford, and enable, his escape from Syrian prison. But after surviving Assad, Sami now must contend with racism in the North.

"For the first time in a long time I feel safe. But I did not come here to have a better life, or to become European. I have been forced to leave my country. I have been also forced to leave Turkey."

Oil-driven crises

The West, of course, played a key role helping to foment the chaos of the Middle East. It supported dictators. It led the war into Iraq, which created ISIS and enflamed the civil war in Syria. In their quest for oil, major Western powers along with Russia have taken sides in Syria, which has become a proxy war for continued oil dominance.

The West has also been lukewarm in its support for Rojava, which is where the real democratic revolution is taking place. At the same time, Turkey remains a Western ally despite its tacit support of ISIS against the Kurds, and at home it continues to commit war crimes against its large Kurdish diaspora.

Thinking back to where it all started, Sami says, "The revolution began as a peaceful civilian movement for all Syrians, Kurds, Arabs, everyone. And I look at where we are now and it is so depressing. The revolution has been stolen."

Posted Friday August 8, 2017 - by Steve Rushton


Witnesses to the Revolution in Rojava

Revolution in Rojava is the first book-length account of the unique and extraordinary political situation in Rojava, Syria. In this article, Janet Biehl talks to the authors and discusses how and why the new society in Rojava so inspired them.

For decades, three million Syrian Kurds have lived under brutal repression by the Assad regime, their identity denied, access to education and jobs refused, imprisonment and torture a way of life for those who dared object. Yet resistance has grown. By developing organisations, after the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in March 2011, the Kurds seized the moment to create a pioneering, democratic revolution. The liberation of northern Syria—Rojava—began at Kobanî on July 19th 2012, and the global history of social and political revolution would never be the same again.

In May 2014, three Kurdish solidarity activists from Germany and Turkey decided to visit Rojava. 'I wanted to see it, to learn from its practice', says Michael Knapp, 'to understand the contradictions and research the system's difficulties. Because we can learn a lot from it for revolutionary projects in Western countries.' With their combined language skills, contacts, and extensive knowledge of the movement, they were able to do close fieldwork and interview many people.

Upon their return, they compiled their observations into a book, Revolution in Rojava, which has just been published in English.

One of the three authors, Anja Flach, was particularly interested in studying women's role in the revolution. Twenty years earlier, Flach had spent several years the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, where she participated in the Kurdish women's guerrilla army, the PAJK. There, she focused on political education and struggle. She observed, 'it's part of everyday life, in between military training, to do political analysis, to read and discuss together'. Inspired, Flach came home and immediately began to write about her experiences.

Only with the defense of Kobanî in late 2014, however, did the world finally became aware of the existence of Kurdish women fighters and commanders, equipped only with light weapons, yet successfully running IS out of the city at great risk.

But what were they actually fighting for? Little was known, says Flach, about the wide-reaching system of gender-equality that they were defending. She discovered that the implementation of these principles had been successful throughout the revolutionary society. Across the stateless democratic self-administration and throughout political organisations, leadership is dual (male-female) for every speaker position, and every committee and meeting has a forty percent gender quota. Indeed, Flach recognised these principles from her years in the Qandil Mountains. Polygamy and underage marriage have been banned, and women's cooperatives are being constructed throughout Cizire canton, to give women economic independence, usually for the first time in their lives.

Flach found that the women in Rojava are determined to remake gender relations throughout northern Syria. She saw 'a women's committee in every street, and in every neighborhood a women's council, a women's academy, women's security forces, and armed units'. These indefatigable activists go from house to house, informing the women at home that they have access to women's institutions. 'The women's movement would like to win over and organise every woman,' Flach says, 'regardless of whether she is a Kurd'. Syriac women too are forming autonomous councils and military units.

For Flach, visiting Rojava was like a dream come true. 'It was what we had been fighting for all those years—a free society that administers itself.'  Most astoundingly, 'in Rojava I came across many of my onetime fellow fighters again. As young women they had left Rojava to join the PKK, and now they've returned to defend the revolution.'

Ercan Ayboğa, a Kurd living in Diyarbakir, works with the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement in North Kurdistan, Southeastern Turkey, and is a key organiser against the construction of a dam at Hasankeyf, a site of major historical, ecological, and cultural importance that is poised to be flooded by the dam's reservoir. In Rojava, with his ecologist's eye, he was shocked by the lack of trees and biological diversity in agriculture, for example, the crops in Cizire canton were a wheat monoculture. Trained as a hydraulic engineer, he was appalled by the water crisis: 'All the rivers were dry—even in May—or else very polluted.'

In Rojava, Ayboğa studied the communes-and-councils structure, which was set in motion by the revolution's chief organizations: the MGRK (People's Council of West Kurdistan), the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM), and the PYD (Democratic Union Party). Shortly before the 2012 liberation, he says, they instituted a system of radical democracy that combines council and grassroots democracy. 'On the ground are the communes, which are organised in the residential streets of cities and villages. Above them are the people's councils in three other levels. The lower level is represented in the higher level through its coordination. At each level are nine commissions that cover the whole life like defense, women, civil society, diplomacy/politics, economy, education, and health. This system has empowered hundreds of thousands of people in a very effective way; people have started to govern themselves and to make decisions about their lives.'

As the Kurdish forces fighting IS liberate numerous villages, this system of democratic self-administration is spreading farther into northern Syria. 'TEV-DEM activists go the villages and cities and describe themselves and what they've done in the past few years,' says Ayboğa. 'They propose that the people organise themselves in communes. We have dozens of new communes, very soon hundreds of them, with a mainly Arab population.'  He was greatly impressed by the will of the many political activists, including young people and women, hoping that their struggle be successful, overcome all challenges, and build up a new society.

The group's third member, Michael Knapp, is a veteran of the German left since the 1990s. He describes himself not as a solidarity activist but as part of the movement for radical democracy. He took great interest in Rojava's 'social economy', based on the understanding that a democratic polity requires for its existence democratic control over the economy. In contrast to neoliberalism, and to state socialism where the state administers the economy, Rojava's social economy administers production through the democratic self-administration: the economic commissions are accountable to the communes and councils at all levels.

The revolution demands that new enterprises should be organised as structured cooperatives. 'Cooperatives exist in all sectors of society, even the refining sector', says Knapp. 'Most of those the enterprises we visited were small, with some five to ten persons producing textiles, agricultural products, and groceries. But some were bigger, like a cooperative near Amûde that guarantees subsistence for more than 2,000 households'. Under the regime, Northern Syria was not industrialised, instead it is maintained as a source of raw materials and foodstuffs. However, the social economy is planning future alternative industrialisation built around ecological and communalist principles.

However, this process hasn't yet been possible because of the war. Moreover, Rojava is under an economic embargo, imposed by hostile Turkey to the north, the Turkey-dependent KRG to the east, and the murderous IS and other Salafi-jihadist groups to the south.

Yet Rojava survives, says Flach, partly because the people have no alternative but to fight, and partly because of their organisations and their ideological background. Rojava needs international support, especially from doctors, midwives and engineers willing to go there. Financial support is also crucial, as is political support. But most importantly, says Flach, is for sympathisers to learn from the Rojava model and organise in their own countries. 'War and industrialism, and the social and ecological disasters connected with it, are destroying the foundations of life,' she says. 'It is urgently necessary to organise and to construct an alternative to the capitalist patriarchy. The survival of humankind depends on it.'

About the authors:

Janel Biehl is a writer, editor and translator. She was Murray Bookchin's copyeditor for the last two decades of his professional life. Her most recent work is Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (2015, Oxford University Press).

Michael Knapp is a historian of radical democracy, Cofounder of the Campaign Tatort Kurdistan and member of NavDem Berlin. His research focuses on the Kurdish issue and the construction of alternatives to capitalist modernity. His research has taken him to the Middle East, where he has studied the Kurdish Liberation Struggle and the PKK.

Anja Flach is an ethnologist and member of the Rojbîn women's council in Hamburg. She spent two years in the Kurdish women's guerrilla army and has previously published books about her experiences.

Ercan Ayboğa is an environmental engineer and activist. Formerly living and co-founding the Tatort Kurdistan Campaign in Germany, now he lives in North Kurdistan and is politically involved in the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, particularly in water struggles.

Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan is available to buy from Pluto Press here.