The Kurdish revolution: a report from Rojava

The Kurdish revolution: a report from Rojava

The first report from Peter Loo, a Plan C member working in civil society in Rojava.

In 2012 the PYD, a Kurdish political party connected to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) based in Turkey, took advantage of the spiralling chaos of the Syrian civil war to eject regime forces from large parts of Northern Syria (Rojava – West Kurdistan) and lead a social revolution. Despite being in open conflict with ISIS and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels, and under embargo from Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, the PYD are leading the struggle for an ambitious series of social changes through TEV-DEM; an alliance of political and civil society organisations. These objectives are based on the ‘New Paradigm’ of the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Jailed for life in Turkey, Öcalan has led his party away from classical Marxism-Leninism to a set of politics with an emphasis on democratic confederalism (a decentralisation of political power with an emphasis on smaller scale assemblies), a women’s revolution, and the importance of ecology. These three elements are the official central planks of the social revolution in Rojava.

Organised in three non-continous cantons, with ISIS and Turkish backed forces separating two of them, the revolution has seen massive leaps forward in terms of women’s liberation and the spreading of the confederal model into non-Kurdish majority areas and communities. In the face of decades of under-development, and the current embargo, tentative steps have also been made to develop a more social economy through the encouragement of workers co-operatives, the development of trade unions, and the socialisation of what little industry (primarily oil) that exists. However, it should be noted that at this stage in the revolution a change in economic system is not the primary focus – contrary to what some may believe we are still using money here and private property still exists!

A revolution is not a final destination, but another step in building a society beyond capitalism, a step which, once taken, changes the responsibilities and challenges facing revolutionaries. Having overcome the Regime and achieved control of a large part of the north of Syria, the cantons are facing two sets of problems. The first are security problems; the cantons need to be physically united and solutions to the currently hostile forces in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey must be found. Simultaneously the revolution needs to be developed and deepened. Like all revolutions, this one does not enjoy universal support. Whilst large land owners and business owners are never likely to support the revolution, the members of the non-Kurdish communities in the region are slowly becoming more supportive of what is happening.

While the revolution has its roots in the Kurdish liberation movement it aims to provide a political blueprint for all the communities in Northern Syria. Since the revolution, wider and more inclusive political structures are being built here and plans are being made for the long term. Whilst the confederal model, with its layers of people’s assemblies and democratic structures, is not yet as widespread as some in the West would think, the neighbourhood assemblies which make up its lowest level, are spreading. Being only a few years old the confederal system here is looking towards the 11 years of progress that have been achieved north of the border in Bakur (Turkish occupied North Kurdistan). A large amount of emphasis is being placed on education as a tool to develop the peoples understanding and support for the revolution. The revolution initially began from within the Kurdish community but building support across the other communities that exist in the region – Arabs, Syriacs, Chechens, Armenians, etc. – is a political priority. Working with these different communities, some unsure or even critical of the revolution, to build support for the revolution is hard work and takes time.

As part of my work I am helping TEV-DEM here in Qamishlo organising around this issue. A campaign has been launched under the slogan “join your local commune. Support the confederal system” focused at the lowest levels of the confederal system, the neighbourhood communes and the mala gel (people’s houses), the assemblies and commissions which operate here feed ideas and delegates up the political system, and serve as community centres offering education and civic services. These structures are not yet as widespread as they could be and many people only use them when they have personal problems they need solving. We are running seminars and public events about the importance of the confederal model, as well as visiting different community centres, and speaking with people on the street and in their homes.

As we criss-cross the city to flyer or attend meetings, navigating a checkerboard of differing checkpoints along the way, we encounter varying levels of support for the communes and the revolution in general, often along ethnic lines. The Christian Syriac community here, for example, is divided into two: one half supporting the revolution the other half the regime. The division in the Syriac neighbourhood is clear – two security forces and two sets of competing murals and flags. As I spend more time here the regime neighbourhoods are becoming easier to spot, they are (or were pre-revolution) mainly the more upper class neighbourhoods with nicer housing and shops that even now are always full of things to buy.

The lack of many basic necessities across the revolutionary areas of Rojava is a stumbling block for many people in supporting the revolution. Whilst oil and bread are fairly abundant owing to the regime’s historic ‘development’ policies for the region, there is a lack of other basic necessities due to the embargo. Without a material improvement in people’s lives many people will not view the revolution as a successful one. A major task for the international solidarity movement must be to pressure Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government to repeal their embargo.

The women’s revolution which is well underway here also has deep roots and did not spring out of nowhere. The PKK made women’s liberation a central plank of their politics in the 1990s and the Yekîtiya Star (Star Union) in Rojava, the predecessor to Kongreya Star, had been organising women in the face of Regime repression since 2005. Beyond the massive participation of women in the YPJ and security forces, the women’s movement is achieving great things in civil society. As well as achieving legislative change, for example passing laws banning forced marriages and legalising abortion, at the grassroots level a whole series of women’s centres, educational programmes, organising groups, and newspapers and radio stations have been created. The revolution is being institutionalised through requirements for a parity of speakers and a minimum 40 per cent representation of women in all structures. Kongreya Star estimate that women’s participation rates in the commune system ranges from 50-70 per cent.

When seen in the context of the deeply conservative society upon which this revolution is being built, one in which a strictly gendered separation of social roles and violence against women was common, these developments are even more impressive. To fundamentally change this society an emphasis is being placed on education in order to empower women. Kongreya Star run weekly education sessions for their members for example, and re-education programmes exist for men who show consistent problematic behaviour.

Obviously the Rojava revolution has not emerged fully formed in spontaneous response to the horror of the Syrian conflict. It builds on the experiences and practices of other parts of the Kurdish liberation movement. Over 40 years its leading organisation, the PKK, has resisted huge amounts of state violence to develop from a small Marxist-Leninist guerilla force into become a huge hybrid movement whose extensive civic organisations are tangibly woven into the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The PYD and its allies were busy in the years before the revolution began, spreading their ideas, and building the assemblies and self-defence forces which would be needed later on. Now the Regime has been evicted the organisations here are still taking a long term view: building the institutions and infrastructure needed to further develop the revolution and placing faith in education and diplomacy to communicate this political vision across the different communities.

Whilst organisers in the West might be tempted to project their dreams of a perfect, spontaneous revolution onto Rojava this isn’t the case. The revolution here is being built slowly upon long term planning, structures, and education.

This report was originally published in December by the Red Pepper.

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Mar 10 2017 11:18


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Mar 10 2017 16:13

Duplicate post by PlanC. Better title second time round.

Mar 15 2017 19:46
planc wrote:
However, it should be noted that at this stage in the revolution a change in economic system is not the primary focus – contrary to what some may believe we are still using money here and private property still exists! [/i]

So this is a social revolution which has left money and private property intact? How can you have a social revolution which hasn't abolished the economic system? A social revolution that still maintains capitalist social relations?

Mar 15 2017 20:15
Rat wrote:
So this is a social revolution which has left money and private property intact? How can you have a social revolution which hasn't abolished the economic system? A social revolution that still maintains capitalist social relations?

While I in general agree with your critique Rat, even in many places during the Spanish Revolution some villages and communities used money. It may be a bit much to require full communism immediately (6 (?) years is not really that much time) I think a better question to ask is whether Rojava intends to keep money and private property intact and thus if the use of money is necessary in a context that is not either completely capitalist or communist. But if there is no such aim of abolishing money and private property, well, then capitalist social relations will be firmly kept in place.

Mar 15 2017 20:38

Mike, sorry is this article already up on the site somewhere else?

I must say my first thought was the same as rat: the writer says a "social revolution" is going on, then a couple of paragraphs later says the property relations are unchanged. Which is a contradiction in terms. It appears that at best a political revolution has occurred.

I don't think that any comparison with the Spanish revolution is valid, as while it's true that through much of revolutionary Spain money was still in existence (although it was mostly or partly abolished in some areas), there was massive expropriation of private property, with hundreds of thousands of workers taking over their workplaces and socialising industry, and taking over and socialising the land.

I haven't seen any reports from Rojava about expropriation and collectivisation of land, presumably because that hasn't happened.

Also if workers did start to do this at the grassroots it's not clear to me on what side the armed forces would fall. I mean I think that the PKK know what side their bread is buttered, and an actual social revolution wouldn't exactly help them, especially if they are wanting more weapons from the West

Serge Forward
Mar 15 2017 21:33

Comparisons with the Spanish revolution are silly. As others have said, what happened in Spain had social revolutionary goals and showed real social revolutionary promise (in spite of some massive errors by revolutionary elements) and to be in anyway successful would have had to spread beyond Spain. While what's happening in Rojava may be progressive compared with ISIS etc, it doesn't make it a social revolution. Also if you can't have socialism in one country, how can you have socialism in one canton?

Mar 15 2017 23:35

I'm not saying it is like Spain. Spain wasn't like Russia, or Ukraine or anything else. But what else can we compare so-called revolutions to?

Spain is just an example of social revolution that we can use for comparison to make sense of situations that have some a similarities,, however superficial they may be. The point I was poorly making was that we should not be that quick to condemn if we don't see full communism immediately. Now I'm in the critical of Rojava camp, but I do think that there are things we could still learn from and there are people and ideas that we should support, however critically.

You cannot compare Spain to Rojava for many different reasons, but chief among them is that revolutionaries had agitated and struggled for at least four decades prior to the revolution. Ppl knew what to do when shit hit the fan. There really is no such preparation in Rojava or anywhere else in the world as far as I know.

klas batalo
Mar 16 2017 00:58

To me it seems more like a political revolution. One thing that is different in this report or another one is the claim that there was an insurrection against Assad's forces by folks in Rojava. I had thought they just stepped up and took power where there was a vacuum, with Assad's forces mostly leaving the area.

Anyway I'd echo other folks comments here thus far. Except in Rojava they did believe in preparation. They'd been there for many years, getting ready.

Mar 16 2017 05:12

The majority of land was already collectivized and under control of the Baathist state. The oil industry was under control of the Baathist state. The Tishrin hydro-electric dam was under the control of the Baathist state. The changes in property relationship is largely a change from Baathist party state ownership to the auto-administration controlled by TEV-DEM and the PYD, that then leases management of the enterprise to the cooperatives under specific rules (that are available here on Libcom).

Outside of the oil industry, the largest amount of private investment in the territory now held by the SDF was at the Le Farge Cement Plant. Co-Chair Ilham Ahmed of the Syrian Democratic Council told me when I asked about it becoming a cooperative that it was "privately owned", and in the same conversation when I asked about sharing the hydroelectricity from the Tishrin Dam with the Assad regime, she told me that if they (the SDF) take the Tishrin dam, they are keeping it. Later Sinam Mohammad told me that the Le Farge plant was wrecked and not operational, but that they were in conversation about restarting production. Satellite photography indicates that it is currently used as a U.S. helicopter base. Rojava is producing concrete. I've seen videos of them paving roads and building residential apartment buildings four stories high in Kobane (two stories higher than the Baathist state allowed that close to the border).

This article is the most detail I've seen on what and how much is currently being produced: The Economy of Rojava

For instance, the oil industry is under the control of the councils and managed by the workers’ committee.

The refineries produce cheap benzine for the cooperatives and the staff of the autonomous government. A great deal of land which was previously nationalised under Assad as part of the anti-Kurdish policies is now managed by free Rojava through agricultural cooperatives. Doctors’ committees are working to form a free health system.

A people’s economy should thus be based on redistribution and oriented towards needs, rather than on being oriented exclusively towards accumulation and the theft of surplus value and surplus product.

Cooperatives are either entirely made up of women or are mixed-gender. Membership is voluntary, management is collective. The main goal of cooperatives is to develop collective work. The property of the cooperative is collective. It takes the form of shares. Every participant has between one to five shares. The amount of shares a person has does not have an influence on their power to make decisions within the cooperative. There is one vote per person, it is not negotiable. A person without any financial means can also become a member of a cooperative, by taking a loan from it.

The profit is split into three: one part is spent on the planned production and future projects (30%), the second part (50%) is divided between the workers according to their needs and expended efforts, the third part (20%) is spent on the immediate needs of the cooperatives: health insurance, education, electricity, water, upkeep of roads, etc.

70% of the budget goes towards the war effort. The bulk of weapons and ammunition is paid for by the budget of the Autonomous Administration.

So market socialism with some price controls, social spending. workers control through cooperatives with a burden of an existential war. It ain't communism, but it is interesting.

With the war, they are embargoed by Turkey, KRG and essentially by Daesh. They also have the under-capitalization problem typical of cooperatives in a global capital market:

We need to build a refinery, but we need $300 million for that. Unfortunately, the community cooperatives can’t pay for it.

We need electricity. To build ourselves a power plant would cost us $400 million, but we don’t have it. Community cooperatives can’t finance it. Yet we still need electricity. So we need help from outside, private or public. We don’t have any factories to produce fertiliser for the farmers. We have all the raw materials to produce fertiliser, but don’t have the factories. We have to buy fertiliser from Iraq now. We need $5 million to build a fertiliser factory. Community cooperatives can’t provide that kind of money

Outside of the already nationalized Baathist state owned land:

In the social contract of Rojava, land was declared to be under common ownership — but the land of big landlords has not been expropriated because the movement ‘does not want to use force’. Still, if the social contradictions deepen, what is the alternative? At the moment the movement in Rojava has not really been confronted with this issue yet. Many of the landlords have fled and it is not clear what will happen when the war ends, and whether these landlords will return. I think it was a choice of the movement to remain cautious for the moment.

Аhmed Yousef says that ¾ of property that was once private is now used by rural and urban councils. The rest is used by individuals. Around 1/3 of all industry is used by workers’ collectives, whose activity is coordinated by councils...

As a result of the revolutionary transformations, around 2/3 of the big private property has been “socialised”, put at the service of everyone. A broad system of councils and cooperatives was built, which enables ordinary people to be active participants in economic and political life. The autonomous administration deliberately lowers prices on essential products to make them accessible even to the poorest members of society.

What happens with Rojava's economy when the war ends should be watched.

Serge Forward
Mar 16 2017 09:14
So market socialism with some price controls, social spending. workers control through cooperatives with a burden of an existential war. It ain't communism, but it is interesting

"Market socialism" isn't really a thing, you know. It's just variations of state capitalism so not that interesting.

Mar 16 2017 10:47

Very interesting post, Flint, thanks. I'll check out that article in full

Mar 16 2017 11:36

This Plan C text also appears under the title of 'A Real Revolution is a mass of contradictions' together with just a couple of comments and a link I provided. Actually this Plan C report is a bit more balanced than some others from a group with an otherwise narrow focus on 'supporting' the so-called 'revolution' but mostly misses out the realities of the Inter-imperialist and regional power influences on events that have been more effectively discussed in numerous other discussion threads on this site.

Mar 16 2017 13:06

It's not a duplicate although it does cover a lot of the same ground and make a lot of the same points. This article is a report which appeared in Red Pepper, the other is an interview the author of the report did with Novara.

Mar 16 2017 16:37

Jim/Steven, yes apologies same Plan C individual but two texts covering much the same ground. Read one in detail and the other later - seemed a bit like Plan C getting 2 bites at the same 'cherry'.

Mar 16 2017 19:35
klas wrote:
Except in Rojava they did believe in preparation. They'd been there for many years, getting ready.

This is interesting, can you expand on this?

Mar 16 2017 20:50

Thanks Flint, that's very interesting. It's not four decades worth of preparation, but there was at least some, which would have given some part of the population a guide as to what can get done if shit hits the fan. I think I have a series of follow-up questions to your post Flint, but I am not sure how to formulate them yet. I'll come back and ask them once I really know what it is I am wondering about.

I think in general that a lack of preparation or years of agitation is something that is missing in the West/North. When shit hits the fan here, I don't think many people (beyond a few orgs here and there) will know what should or can be done. It is based on this that I think that Occupy Sandy was such a great thing to happen; so many "normals" (for lack of better word) got direct experience of mutual aid and a way of organizing things that didn't directly rely on throwing money at the problem or just waiting for the state.

Mar 16 2017 21:15

On the question of preparation one thing that strikes me about the current Spanish dockworkers dispute is that they actually do have four decades of preparation and organisation behind them. It clearly makes a difference, even if it can be argued that it's largely limited to a kind of militant trade unionism.