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Can Rojava Kurds unite with Syrian revolutionaries?

By Marcus Halaby

The liberated zones of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava have inspired debate and praise, but now hundreds of thousands are fleeing Islamic State terror. Marcus Halaby examines their role in the Syrian revolution and the ideology of their leading party

Much of the international left has hailed the emergence of autonomous Kurdish institutions in Syria. Known as Rojava (“West” in Kurdish, referring to western Kurdistan), it is certainly true that their secularism and defence of women’s rights – symbolised in its all-women battalions – stand in contrast to the visible Islamist influence on the liberated zones in Syria’s majority-Arab regions, as well as to the outright intolerance of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, being much more rooted in the population than these two organisations.

Moreover, the Islamic State’s spread into Iraq, and the attempts by the USA and Iran to intervene against it, has placed Syria’s Kurds – and Iraq’s – in the position of power-brokers between all the regional players.

Democratic Confederalism

In Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) claims to be putting into practice the idea of a non-state “Democratic Confederalism”, borrowed from the writings of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin, as a solution to the Kurdish national question that transcends the problem of state power by promoting extreme local autonomy.

Originally conceived by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a response to the defeat of the PKK’s armed struggle in Turkey, Democratic Confederalism in Syria has served the purpose of rationalising the collapse of the central state authority into liberated zones, which exist in both Kurdish and Arab majority regions.

Bookchin’s ideas, which the PKK has put into practice in Turkey as well, are influenced by the Zapatistas and promote small municipalities, run by direct democracy and mass assemblies, which may unite into a solely administrative confederation.

While both Bookchin and Öcalan give particular prominence to youth and women, as well as ecology, Democratic Confederalism also eschews an armed struggle for state power.

Bookchin is an avowed pacifist, but while this has led to a cessation of the armed struggle in Turkey by the PKK, this has obviously been problematic in Rojava, where the PYD has had an ambivalent attitude towards the revolution against Assad and is now under mortal threat from ISIS. This essentially pacifist strategy vis-à-vis the state is a reactionary utopia.

Oppressed nation

Alongside the Palestinians, the Kurds are one of the largest nations today not to have their own state. Comprising over 30 million people, their homeland is divided between four existing states: Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. They have been oppressed as a national minority in all four.

In Syria, with a Kurdish population of around 2.5 million (the smallest of the four), the Kurds initially enjoyed a degree of autonomy under French rule. However, after independence in 1946, the post-Nasser and pre-Ba’athist government of Nazim al-Kudsi revoked the citizenship of some 120,000 Kurds in the north eastern Jazira region in August 1962, about a fifth of Syria’s Kurdish population at that time.

They and their descendants would be treated as aliens or as undocumented migrants, while the Arab nationalist ideology of successive Ba’athist regimes after 1963 would attack their language and undermine their identity, as also happened in Turkey and Iraq.

Even so, the material basis that existed for sustained Kurdish separatist struggles in Turkey and Iraq was not present In Syria. This is because there is not one Kurdish region in Syria, but three slightly disconnected ones: the Jazira region around Hasakah and Qamishli, the mountainous Afrin region in the far north west of the country, and the Kobane region (known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic) in between them.

Moreover, most or a large part of Syria’s Kurds do not live in any of these regions, but in the large Arab-majority cities, where they have formed a sizeable part of Syria’s working class and of its labour movement.

This has meant that the only way that Syria’s Kurds might establish a coherent Kurdish entity along the lines of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as opposed to a degree of autonomy within a democratic Syria, would be if there was a Kurdish entity in Turkey to which it could attach itself, or if the Jazira region alone attached itself to the KRG.

Syrian uprising

This finds its reflection in Syrian Kurdish politics. Kurdish nationalism in Syria has not primarily taken the form of separatism – although Kurdish nationalist parties were probably the largest part of the underground Syrian opposition after Hafez al-Assad’s crushing of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s.

Ethnic Kurds in Syria’s major cities, themselves partially Arabised, have largely been more concerned with language and democratic rights than with separation. The demands that united all the Kurdish parties following the March 2011 uprising were not for independence, but for autonomy and recognition of their collective identity.

And while the PYD-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) have established a presence in some Kurdish districts in Aleppo and elsewhere, they have not tried to claim them for any future Kurdish entity.

Indeed the Assad regime tried to buy off the Kurds quite early on in the uprising, by promising to grant citizenship to the stateless Kurds in Jazira. This only partially had the desired effect.

However, the murder of Kurdish leader and opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) executive member Mashaal Tammo in October 2011 provoked a demonstration of 50,000 at his funeral, five of whom died when security forces shot into the crowd.

The Assad regime more or less abandoned control of Jazira to the YPG militias during the Free Syrian Army (FSA) assault on Aleppo and Damascus in July 2012. Since then, however, there has effectively been a non-aggression pact between the YPG and the regime’s forces in Rojava, provoking accusations from the FSA that the PYD is acting as Assad’s subcontractor. Assad’s army, for example, still controls about half of Hasakah, and has a presence in Qamishli, while state employees in Rojava still receive salaries from the Assad regime.

Syrian opposition

As one might expect, another feature of Syrian Kurdish politics is the extent to which Kurdish parties outside of Syria exercise an influence on it. The PYD in particular, as the Syrian sister organization of Turkey’s PKK, has benefitted from the relationship that the PKK had with the Assad regime, stretching back to its guerrilla war with the Turkish state in the 1980s and 1990s.

By contrast, the PYD’s fractious but more mainstream rival the Kurdish National Council (KNC) enjoys the support of Iraqi KRG President Masoud Barzani. Their rivalry has produced claims that the PYD has refused to share power with the KNC parties in Rojava.

At the level of politics, the PYD’s ability to link up with the mass democratic movement against Assad among Arab Syrians has been obstructed by its membership of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, the so-called “patriotic opposition”. They quite early on opposed the Syrian revolution’s resort to arms, and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power.

Another factor in the PYD’s position of abstention from the mass revolutionary democratic struggle has been an entirely justified mistrust of and hostility to the Turkish state. However, the PYD has extended this attitude to the FSA’s leadership presuming them to be Turkey’s dependents.

Also the “official” Syrian opposition in exile has failed to do anything to reassure the Kurds of their collective rights in a post-Assad Syria. If anything, the more conservative elements in the SNC and its successor, the National Coalition share the outlook of the pre-Ba’ath regime that stripped the Kurds of citizenship in 1962, although grassroots oppositionists have generally been less hostile towards demands for Kurdish autonomy than their absent “leaders”.


The blame for this disunity between Kurdish and Arab opponents of the Assad regime however does not all lie on one side. For all its protestations, the PYD have not been particularly intransigent opponents of the Ba’athist dictatorship, while the main concern of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (KDPS) has been to avoid provoking a Turkish intervention in Syria that might endanger Kurdish autonomy in Iraq

Only full recognition of Kurdish national rights, and full Kurdish participation in the Syrian revolution can break this deadlock. The mutual threat posed by the Islamic State seems to have pushed the YPG and the FSA into closer cooperation. The YPG must urgently cement this unity in struggle before the Syrian revolution and the Rojava Kurds are drowned in blood. On the other hand, if the PYD forms an alliance with the US this will condemn them to a reactionary role in the crisis.

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