From the January-February 2016 issue of News and Letters
Editor’s note: Paul Z. Simons, co-editor of Modern Slavery, went to Rojava in Syria in mid-2015 to report on the social revolution taking place there. Here we excerpt a talk he gave in Oakland on Dec. 5.
In Rojava, who is the enemy is real simple: the Turkish government. Everyone knows that the Turkish government has supported Daesh [also called ISIS]. If the outside world wants to support Rojava, it’s not money they primarily need, it’s opening the border.
Rojava is composed of three different autonomous cantons, Cizera, Kobane, and Afrin. They have their own command and control structures, their own YPG (People’s Defense Units), YPJ (Women’s Defense Units) and Asayish militias. I wanted to know if Rojava is a new nation-state, or is it something different? The first city I visited was Kobane.
THE SIEGE OF KOBANE
The siege of Kobane encouraged the formation of commune councils. While the siege was on, everyone saw the need for them. They took responsibility for everything from resolving people’s marital issues to fuel, food, medicines, etc. To make the system responsive enough, they found that the maximum size should be no more than about 100 families, small enough to create social accountability. Family and friends, not the government, hold one to account.
Anyone can show up to sit on the council, it’s not an elected position. But it must be at least 40% women or they can’t make any formal decisions. The women’s council in Kobane met just before I got there to discuss crimes against women: rape, domestic abuse, etc. The same women’s group wants to form a special women’s militia to investigate crimes against women.
Tev-Dem (The Movement for a Democratic Society) turns the ideas of democratic confederalism into something that works on the ground in Kobane and Cizera.
Commune councils send representatives to an executive council of Tev-Dem, with representatives from all the parties—including ones that would horrify us, like the Muslim Brotherhood, a permutation of al-Nusra, and various Arabic Islamist organizations. Some of the Kurds are not so happy about this.
PRESSURE IS FROM THE STREET UP
The executive has a single function, to legalize what the commune councils are already doing. If a commune wants to add another fighter with a Kalashnikov, they may need the law re-written, so they can have three such fighters instead of two.
The commune councils push the executive councils of the Tev-Dem to do what they want them to do. It’s pressure from the street up. For example, by mid-2014 each commune had a military group. They went to Tev-Dem asking for training for the militias, for uniforms to tell who not to shoot at. I met with the defense minister of Kobane canton. YPG/YPJ will consult with the executive council, but ultimately the order for any military action will not come from the “governmental” ministers.
Rojavans see their revolution not just as political change, nor just an adjustment of their economic system. Tev-Chan is the cultural offshoot of Tev-Dem. They completed two films and will do a revolutionary soap opera.
They brought in Western films for kids. A favorite is Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Since Daesh trashed most of the schools, there is not much for the kids to do. They are doing painting projects in the community, setting up kilns for pottery projects. The movement, the revolution, is on all levels.
They say there is no way we can win militarily unless the revolution moves forward. The knowledge and power we gain in the revolution is the knowledge and power needed to win the military engagement.
GENDER ROLES CHALLENGED
There is a huge cultural/social change in defining gender roles. In the commune councils, men and women sit in the same room together. To us it does not seem like anything huge, but to the Kurds it was unheard of. The militias function as schools of revolution. Men’s and women’s barracks for YPG/YPJ are built side-by-side, joined by a common area. The work in the barracks is done together.
There is no draft in Rojava. I’ve heard it said that for every martyr there are 30 new recruits in the YPG/YPJ. YPG/YPJ is a real school for revolution. There are no leadership positions unless you’re in battle, when they choose leaders. You can only serve as a commander in YPG once, for a six-month term.
One particular story struck me. The Kurds helped save 50,000 Yazidis from the Sinjar mountaintop from being slaughtered by Daesh. The Yazidis have thousands-years-old traditions, much more conservative than classic Judaism or Islam.
After the Sinjar rescue, many of the Yazidi young men wanted to join the militia. One young fighter had just gotten basic training of 45 days plus a month in the field, then went home on a four-day leave. Yazidi men are not allowed to handle kitchen knives, because that is what women use. But you learn to cook pretty quick in the YPG, because you have to. I asked the young man what was it like to go home? He said, “I spent the entire four days apologizing to my mom and making dinner.”
The majority of Rojavans live in villages that have been cultivating the same fields, in general communally-owned, for hundreds of years. Those fields never needed irrigation, and are still producing. Assad’s regime allowed them to grow only cotton, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bananas. Now they throw many seeds into the ground to find out what will grow.
PROPERTY BASED ON USE
The food is taken to market and sold for money, which goes back to the villages. In larger cities goods brought in from outside gave rise to a market-capitalist class, mostly with Syrians, not Kurds. Kurds have been working outside the capitalist structure for decades, so [the loss of markets due to war] did not bother them.
Their concept of private property is based on use, not ownership. If you’re using something, it belongs to you. If you’re not using it, it doesn’t. In Kobane all private property is crushed rubble. They are selling properties based on what people can pay.
To me it looks like a post-Left revolution in a pre-Left world. There is no industry, no proletariat, no bourgeoisie. People are used to talking face-to-face. That’s why the commune councils work so well.
What we are witnessing in Rojava is no sovereignty. There is no state in Rojava, the revolution is happening at every level in society, it’s producing institutions and innovations that work in all those areas. You feel it is a different world, if only for the moment.