Report from Rojava: Revolution at a Crossroads

Elif Sarican speaks as part of a panel at the 'Report from Rojava: Revolution at a Crossroads' event

Rojava’s revolution is one of the most promising projects of democratization and social transformation afoot in the current conjuncture in the Middle East. Its context within the ongoing Syrian War – a war entangling local, regional, and global powers – marks it as highly precarious. Those struggling for positive societal transformation require solidarity with those who share their values. Unfortunately, as of yet, outside of a small but growing circle of activists and academics, the revolutionary struggle in Rojava remains poorly understood and little known to the general public in Western countries like Britain.

The recent event Report from Rojava: Revolution at a Crossroads was aimed at raising awareness of this vital but fragile transformative moment. Organized by members of the STEPS Centre and Brighton Kurdistan Solidarity (BKS), the event featured four panelists who had recently returned from civil society delegations in Rojava. It was held just a week after the verdict of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Turkey and Kurds was presented to the European Parliament, and just weeks prior to Turkey’s pivotal snap general elections, the results of which weakened Turkey’s parliament, abolished the office of Prime Minister and granted President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unprecedented power.

 

Panelists included Lloyd Russell-Moyle (MP, Kemptown Brighton), Elif Sarican (Kurdistan Students Union UK), Simon Dubbins (UNITE the union) and Janet Biehl (writer and artist, translator of Revolution in Rojava and Sara: My Whole Life Was a Struggle). The event was co-sponsored by a diverse range of academic and activist organizations, including the Institute of Development Studies, the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign, the Freedom for Öcalan Campaign TU Group, the Kurdistan Students Union – UK, and Brighton Antifascists.

Background

In the past four years, in the context of the bloodiest war of the 21st century and following the retreat of the Syrian state from northern part of the country, the ‘Rojava Revolution’ has involved the implementation of a new form of non-state governance called ‘democratic confederalism’. Democratic confederalism is a transformative ‘bottom-up’ model, based on ‘bottom-up’ confederated democracy across sectors of society through linked people’s assemblies. Women’s liberation, the notion of sustainable ‘ecological society’, a sustainable co-operative economy and ethnic pluralism are among its pillars. A fundamental idea underlying democratic confederalism is that social and ecological crises are two sides of the same coin, and any worthwhile solution must aim to reconcile them in practice.

Despite its influence on social movements seeking to enact ‘emancipatory’ projects around the world in recent years, the radical democratic, feminist and ecological project in Rojava has always faced seemingly insurmountable challenges on the ground. It was implemented amidst the violence of the Syrian Civil War, in spite of aggression from Turkey, and since then Rojava’s volunteer People’s Defense Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) have been engaged in an all-out war of self-defense against the so-called Islamic State / Daesh in northern Syria.

International solidarity is needed

In relating their experiences on the ground in Rojava, all of our panelists emphasized the desperate need for international solidarity with the people who are making the revolution.

Janet Biehl offered a general overview of the social institutions that have been established since the revolution. She noted the significance of The Social Contract, a document that formalized relations between Rojava’s three autonomous cantons and the people. Biehl drew a distinction between the role the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and that of a conventional army. Where a traditional army aims to protect a centralized state, the YPG/J exists to protect the autonomy of society. She explained that “Peace and Consensus” committees have been formed with the aim of replacing the traditional justice system, focusing on non-punitive forms of conflict resolution and restorative community justice, and keeping the practical focus at the lowest local level. She painted a picture of a society in transition, striving away from an oppressive centralizing regime to a radically new grassroots democracy.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle concurred with Biehl’s assessment. “What we saw was a society being built from the ground up,” he observed. He drew historical parallels with English traditions of localism and older practices of direct democracy in small parish assemblies. He explained that he was deeply impressed by the earnest striving of the people in Rojava to build new institutions. Russell-Moyle noted that the idea behind the delegation was to get more representatives of British civil society to engage with and support Rojava’s democratic struggle.

Simon Dubbins reiterated the need for international civil society solidarity organizations to directly engage with people in Rojava struggling to enact. He noted that his union had signed on to the Freedom for Öcalan campaign. Abdullah Öcalan developed the theory of democratic confederalism that guides the revolution in Rojava. Öcalan is currently a political prisoner, having been held by the Turkish state for nearly twenty years, much of this time in solitary confinement. In the last three years, he has been held incommunicado without even his lawyers being granted access to their client. Öcalan is the leading figure of the Kurdish Freedom Movement and many Kurds see his personal release from political imprisonment as crucial to peace. Dubbins offered hopes that more civil society organizations will send people on delegations to witness the struggle in Rojava.

Elif Sarican explained that her experiences on the ground exceeded some of her expectations, particularly in regard to ethnic tensions. In a moment of introspection, Sarican admitted that she expected to see more animosity between Kurds and the other ethnic groups that coexist in Rojava. What she found, however, was a deep commitment between all parties to develop the democratic and cooperative structures of the revolution.

The revolution at a crossroads

The general theme that emerged from the panel discussion was that the revolutionary project was earnestly proceeding, but its existence was under continuous threat from multiple sides. In particular, everyone emphasized the dire threat posed by Turkey’s recent invasion and occupation of Afrin, one of Rojava’s three autonomous cantons.

In early 2018, the Turkish state’s long policy of violent suppression against Kurdish people took on a new intensity. Turkey, backed by ‘re-trained’ members of Jihadist groups, assembled under the banner of the defunct ‘Free Syrian Army’ and launched the Orwellian-named ‘Operation Olive Branch’ – a brutal air and ground invasion across borders in Afrin. Afrin was one of the founding cantons of Rojava (now called the Democratic Confederation of Northern Syria), and until Turkey’s invasion had been one of the most peaceful regions within Syria, offering shelter to tens of thousands of refugees since the collapse of the Syrian state in 2012.

With Turkey’s capture of Afrin city this March, its authoritarian president made clear his true aims: to eradicate the Kurdish presence from regions bordering Turkey. Turkey has proceeded to escalate the invasion through ethnic cleansing and ‘demographic replacement’. The timing of the panel event near the beginning of June is intentional, coming just over a week after the verdict of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on Turkey and Kurds is presented to the European Parliament and just two weeks prior to Turkey’s pivotal snap general elections – from which the authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has once again emerged victorious.

Currently, the revolution has reached a crossroads. This crucible showcases competing and starkly different visions of the future: one represented by forces of reaction associated with the wider ‘authoritarian turn’ in the global political order on one hand, and another reflected in emerging movements articulating emancipatory alternatives to social and environmental domination, pervasive insecurities and violence. The outcome of this struggle for the future will not be decided in Syria alone. Our panelists were emphatic: much will depend on the initiatives and actions of international civil society. In the end their message was simply: Rojava’s revolutionaries need and deserve solidarity from international civil society.

Further reading

‘Now is the time of monsters’: The future at a crossroads in Rojava
Red Pepper – April 11, 2018
By Patrick Huff, Amber Huff and Salima Tasdemir

Don’t look away: The fight for Afrin is a struggle for radical democracy
Red Pepper – March 22, 2018
By Amber Huff, Patrick Huff and Salima Tasdemir

War criminal Erdoğan gears up for a power-grab
Red Pepper – May 31, 2018
By Patrick Huff, Amber Huff and Salima Tasdemir

Why #DefendAfrin? Confronting authoritarian populism with radical democracy
Open Democracy – February 12, 2018
By Amber Huff, Salima Tasdemir and Patrick Huff

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