“We are in a historical era which is affording mankind both immense opportunities for development and great dangers. The Middle East is going through a period of conflicts and chaos in what has been deemed the Third World War and at the centre of these conflicts and contradictions is Kurdistan.”
Opening words of The Declaration of Democratic Confederalism.
Greater Kurdistan, once a historic single entity, now embraces four fictitious borders; each enforced by post-First World War agreements. The brazen implementation of the English and French Sykes-Picot agreements, which tore apart communities and cultures on a whim, combined with Ataturk’s military successes, have shaped the unfolding of history in the region: a continual cycle of restraining ambitions to shrug off colonial realities.
Collectively, the Kurdish people number just under 30 million and inhabit North Kurdistan, which rests in eastern Turkey, South Kurdistan in northern Iraq, West Kurdistan in northern Syria and East Kurdistan in north-western Iran. Kurdish resistance, from mountain to city, over the course of centuries, has fought the wrath of numerous empires and states, perhaps none more relentless than Turkey. However, the current cocktail of international awareness, huge historical hindsight and a fierce foresight means that the battle for Kurdish freedom is on a tipping point.
The (state is the) organisational form of the ruling class - one of the most dangerous phenomena in history. - Abdullah Ocalan
Since the late 1970s, the Kurdish freedom movement has been guided by an enigmatic half-Turkish, half-Kurdish leader, Abdullah Öcalan, head of the PKK, who unjustifiably remains on the international terrorist list. The continued uprisings, which have only ever asked for respect for the right to exist as Kurds have done for millennia, have culminated in tens of thousands of deaths, predominately Kurds at the hands of NATO’s second most powerful force: the Turkish Army.
Every conversation with a Kurd in eastern Turkey entailed them explaining to me how their family suffered grave losses at the hands of the Turkish Army, sometimes in the dozens. Kurds continue to exist in a highly xenophobic environment; in teashops, on buses, I heard countless stories of how Turkish police and citizens not only harass and mock Kurds, but also lynch and gun them down in the streets with impunity.
The neo-conservative Turkish leader Erdogan has expressed little willingness for resolution; consequently, what had been dubbed “the Kurdish question” has remained long unanswered, until what many have deemed the Kurdish answer came. From the manifest history, dignity and ambitions of the Kurds, in a quiet cell on the prison island of Ímrali, where Öcalan is serving a life sentence, the principles of Democratic Confederalism were born and destiny took a great stride forward.
The consciousness of the Kurdish struggle is such that it has always unremittingly investigated the forces of oppression and how it manifests contemporarily. Öcalan’s guidance to the movement, which was not without flaws, took the sharpest of shifts after 2000, when his prison writing began to ditch the Marxist/Leninist baggage in favour of the lens of American eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin; whereby the state began to be seen as an indispensable asset to capitalism – and the municipality as a field of remedy.
“He asked for a dialogue with Murray and sent one of his manuscripts. It would have been amazing, had that dialogue taken place. Unfortunately, Murray, at 83, was too sick to accept the invitation and reluctantly, respectfully declined,” says libertarian writer Janet Biehl.
In 2005, the declaration of Democratic Confederalism was issued by Oçalan. In it he described how the Kurdish freedom movement must shift its direction from the objective of creating a socialist state to that of a non-statist paradigm. The new anarchist-tinted order saw that dictatorship both on the ground and in the party were to be rigorously combated and that the principles of women’s liberation and radical ecology were to become the new starting points.
“The Democratic Confederalism of Kurdistan is not a state system, it is the democratic system of a people without a state… It takes its power from the people and adopts to reach self-sufficiency in every field including economy. Democratic confederalism is the movement of the Kurdish people to found their own democracy and organise their own social system… It develops the (notion of) a democratic nation instead of the nationalist-statist nation based on strict borders.”
Birthed by necessity, the establishment of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) in 2005 marked a huge shift of resources toward the establishment of democratic, autonomous, self-governing bodies in northern Kurdistan (eastern Turkey). The congress, an assembly of local councils, is the confederate form of direct democracy.
In her book, Democratic Autonomy in Northern Kurdistan, Biehl delineates how grassroots organisations amalgamated the work of numerous community groups and how local assemblies were rapidly developed to devolve decision-making to a grassroots level.
The DTK was not simply the construction of another organisation, but the implementation of a zeitgeist seizing the spirit of the Kurds at the time. A fully functioning and intricate apparatus it is “defined by the direct and continual exercise of people’s power through village, town, and city councils”.
New visions, like young blood, have seared through the minds and hearts of resisting Kurds during this change-around. At first the Turkish state monitored but did not intervene and European bodies saw these initiatives as a somewhat constructive form of progress. Öcalan’s redirection continued to be invigorated by Bookchin’s philosophical imagination, specifically the overarching field of communalism and its underlying principle of libertarian municipalism, which in a 2001 interview was summarised by Bookchin as follows: “The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality - the city, town, and village - where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy.”
Spending several weeks in the regions of Kurdistan led to my understanding that there is a monstrous spider’s web of acronyms for organising groups. However, what is crucial to understand is that the PKK and its sister parties, PYD in Syria, PJAK in Iran and PÇDK in Iraq, as well as the BDP (mainstream political party) and DTK in eastern Turkey, all fall under the umbrella of the KCK.
The KCK is a living conceptualisation of Democratic Confederalism, whose assembly, the Kurdistan People’s Congress (KONGRA-GEL), acts as a legislative body feeding up from what scholars Jongerden and Akkaya explain as “a network of village, city and regional councils”.
Robust networks have long existed between Kurdish representation in eastern Turkey and in northern Syria, and cooperation ran deep long before Rojava declared its three autonomous cantons in 2013. The reasons the experiments in radical democracy in northern Kurdistan are relatively unheard of compared with those in Rojava (west Kurdistan) is because of the exceptional circumstances that fostered rapid growth, namely the Syrian civil war.
The withdrawal of Assad’s army from Rojava in 2011, and a de facto handover to the Kurds meant that what was a juvenile social experiment could now become a fully functioning revolution. Rojava is a living radical reorientation of society in accordance with the principles of Democratic Confederalism, including women’s liberation, deep ecology and racial equality. I communicated with Biehl, a former working colleague of Bookchin, to hear what she thought of the new models on her most recent trip to Qamislo, the capital of Rojava.
“Beyond the communes, a people’s council system rises through several tiers: the neighbourhood, the district, the city and the canton. At each level, two delegates are elected to the next one up; the delegates are one man and one woman. The structure has been thought out so as to best preserve the wishes of the base, the people, in decision making.”
Rojava, with nearly 4m residents, cradles more than a revolution; it nurtures all that derails “business as usual”, it upholds all that we resist for from Ferguson to Athens. In the streets, communities, towns and provinces of Rojava lives the saying that “another way is possible”, but of course this kind of resolve has never flourished without enemies.
The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, besides building a literal trench between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan has also enacted an economic embargo and is continually aligning itself closer to the policy of Turkey. The Syrian government is also a constant threat and in recent times armed tensions have flared up in the Hasakah region. However, the greatest threat to the integrity of Rojava is Turkey.
Biehl commented: “Turkey will evidently stop at nothing to eradicate Rojava, even to the point of openly joining forces with brutal, sociopathic jihadists.”
Irrefutable evidence has emerged time and time again of Turkish-ISIS/Al-Nusra cooperation.
Besides the more overt militaristic confrontation, Turkey also hinders the deliverance of aid. While in the BDP offices in eastern Turkey, I spent some time in the foreign affairs/refugee response department. The recurring theme in our conversation was that of them being turned down by every international agency because of Turkey blackballing any pro-Kurdish activities. When aid did come in, it was through back door channels and even then it was a trickle – the majority comes from the Kurdish community within North Kurdistan.
“The women’s movement in Rojava refuse to adhere to society’s rigid rules of womanhood. So, with this in mind, those women who return as well as the refugee Ezidi women in Rojava, they will carry out trainings, activities and educational approaches to tackle the prevalent patriarchal systems within communities and in the region.”
Roj Women, a Turkish and Kurdish women’s rights organisation based in UK.
After spending a day with families from Kobane in the town of Gercus, listening to blood-pumping stories of empowerment and escape, I sat down for a meal with the local BDP councillor, who said: “We are anti-capitalist, it is an important part of our programme that we link up with all anti-capitalist struggles over the world. Our revolution is not just for Kurdistan, it is for the world.”
In that swift statement I realised we are dealing with a spark that could light the tinder of resistance work in the UK and beyond.
The revolution in Rojava doesn’t just roar, it beckons through the creaky skeletons of our theoretical hang-ups, it shows that the fire and brimstone of fascism and corporatocracy can be matched with people power and armed defence. From village to city, story upon story speaks volumes of the leaps and bounds the revolution is making.
Although every environment requires its own flavour of Democratic Confederalism, which may look and sound completely different, there are many lessons we can take from Rojava. Theoretically, the act of looking at history through the lens of gender oppression and the implementation of patriarchy, as opposed to the rise and fall of civilisations/states or through class, would place truth at the centre of our narrative. Practically there is also much to be learned, for example the approach to security: such as eventually disbanding police forces by slowly training each citizen in policing.
Throughout their whole history Kurds have favoured clan systems and tribal confederations and struggled to resist centralised governments. - Abdullah Öcalan
When I arrived at the border town of Suruc, which took the majority of Kobane’s citizens, I laid my bags down in the community centre and quickly became familiarised with the neighbourhood; the local food and clothes depots, the neighbouring villages. Italians and Spaniards were hovering about, either on their way back from Kobane, on their way in, or supporting the refugee response. While bagging up supplies in the depot, visiting the villages or trucking out aid deliveries, the constant question in my mind was what does solidarity look like?
What would we have been doing when the revolutionaries in Catalonia fought back? How did we show support when Commandante Ramona marched the EZLN into San Cristobal de las Casas? The Kurds, young and old, women and men, fought back ISIS in Kobane and reclaimed their homeland, defending not just their soil but also their revolution. The necessity to build fortified links between our struggles has never been more urgent.
What this looks like is totally up for debate, whether it is organising a book drive for the new university in Cizire, hosting a community discussion on Rojava or forging concrete organisational links. Other important areas of solidarity are in organising aid, either material or monetary, and helping with the rebuilding of Kobane. Pressure needs to be placed on the international community to help with unexploded ordinance removal, for example.
Biehl explains: “Whatever the case may be, association of any sort with the PKK puts the PYD and hence Rojava outside the bounds of what might otherwise gain international support.” This means that the hard work of illuminating the good work of the revolution rests on our shoulders. Be it through screenings, talks, art, writing, music, we have a responsibility to protect the revolution in Rojava – and to complete it by completing our own.