Originally published: https://strangematters.coop/arthur-pye-rojava-reporting-preface/

Our correspondent spent a year living in North-East Syria. These are his first reflections on the experience.

Editors’ Note: We are extremely proud to announce this essay as the first in a long series by our Middle East correspondent Arthur Pye, to be published over the course of the next year or so, about his journey to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), better known across the world as Rojava. This libertarian socialist experiment, established in the middle of one of the world’s most brutal and politically complex war zones, has tried to build a new social order rooted in feminism, ecology, direct democracy, and cooperative self-management of industry. It has survived confrontations against two separate forms of fascism and the evolving schemes and counter-schemes of the imperialist great powers that dominate the region. AANES provides a home for refugees and an island of stability in a country torn to pieces by the civil war that followed President Bashar al-Assad’s suppression of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Syria. But the revolution is not without its problems and limitations, which Pye will explore in a series of essays exploring the war front, the deliberative councils, the feminist spaces, the military, the factions, and the economy of this nascent society beyond the state where millions of people have lived under a form of revolutionary self-government for over ten years. We expect the series to consist of around ten parts and to be published over the course of the coming months. In the meantime, readers interested in learning more about the Rojava Revolution from the point of view of its participants might want to check out Azize Aslan’s Anticapitalist Economy in Rojava: The Contradictions of Revolution in the Kurdish Struggles (2023), which one of our editors partially translated.

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“So…” she began, “what do you think of the revolution?” I quickly opted for another sip of çay.1 How could I begin to answer such a question? And coming from Newroz Ahmed of all people – the general commander of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). In a matter of hours, if all went as planned, I would be crossing the Tigris River from Syria back into Iraq, making my way home to the United States. After a year in Rojava, what did I have to say for myself?

Heval2 Newroz exemplified the kind of confidence typical of so many revolutionaries I met in Rojava. And why shouldn’t she? After all, she is something of a legend: a Kurdish woman who grew up in Syria under the double-oppression of the Assad dictatorship and a brutally patriarchal society; who went on to help found a revolutionary women’s army and lead it to victory in the war against ISIS; who now served as that army’s highest commander; both a symbol and spokesperson of Rojava’s democratic revolution. But no, that’s not the kind of confidence I’m talking about. Nor would she ever tolerate such self-aggrandizement. Hers is the simple confidence of someone who knows in her bones that freedom is possible, and has whole-heartedly dedicated her life to its realization.

Like any real revolution, it was a mess of contradictions. Many starry-eyed western radicals have traveled to Rojava only to become disillusioned by this realization. Some arrive desperate to see the society of their dreams; a place where oppression has been eliminated and all people are flourishing equally in their newfound liberation. What they find is a society neck-deep in problems, where many of the revolution’s aspirations stand in sharp contrast to the harsh realities of life in Syria.

I encountered this quality most often in women, and it struck me from the moment I arrived. Such people moved through the world with a subtle smirk on their face, like they knew a secret that couldn’t be explained, only experienced. The movement even has a name for it: “revolutionary personality.” There are, of course, those who fake it. But when the real thing walks into the room, there’s no denying its presence. It was both inspiring and strangely unsettling.

I drank my tea slowly, desperate for something intelligent to say as a year’s worth of memories flashed through my mind. Was it really time to leave already? I thought back to the moment I first arrived. When my new friends greeted me with a simple “welcome to Rojava,” I felt an electrifying sense of possibility. My journal entry for the day simply reads: “I have arrived.” I meant it in every sense of the word.

Over the following months I would travel to villages and refugee camps across the region: to neighborhood communes, worker cooperatives, community centers, and autonomous women’s structures, as well as military positions on the frontlines with the fascist Turkish army and its Islamist proxies. I would spend time with committed revolutionaries (seasoned fighters, community organizers, movement leaders), as well everyday people from all walks of life. By any practical measure it was a year rich in experiences. But Rojava had a way of leaving you with more questions than answers. It was a place where no assumption went unchallenged and the more you learned, the less you seemed to know. Now, as the sun began to set on my last day in Rojava, I knew I had barely scratched the surface.

Finding Rojava

The decision to travel to Syria was hardly a quick one, but the seed was planted from the moment I first heard about the revolution.

I’ll never forget the day in late 2014, riding in a car full of activists on our way to support striking oil refinery workers. By joining their picket line, we hoped to build solidarity between environmentalists and the labor movement. We had a shared enemy in the oil company, which treated its workers like it treated the planet – as an expendable resource to be exploited for profit. Why not unite forces against the whole capitalist system and build something new in its place? It seemed so simple, yet so far from reach. Whether we admitted it or not, our revolutionary ideals often felt far removed from the daily reality of our organizing. A protest here. Some civil disobedience there. Another world may have been possible, but how could we actually get there? As we debated strategy on the long drive north, someone butted in: “Have you guys heard about what’s happening in Syria right now?! It’s like the fucking Spanish Revolution all over again! The Kurdish people fighting ISIS are building a stateless feminist society based on local assemblies! They’re reading Bookchin,3 but they’re actually doing it!”

Image: Markus Spiske. Licensed under the Unsplash License.

I remember feeling skeptical. “Really?”, I thought to myself. It all sounded too good to be true. Looking into it further, my computer screen flooded with images of Kurdish revolutionaries, many of them women, courageously riding into battle with their bright floral scarves and AK-47s. It all had a sprinkling of propaganda in it, to be sure. The images had been consciously cultivated by a movement desperate for international support. But there was an underlying truth that shone through, even for a skeptical onlooker like myself. Something transformational was happening.

It wasn’t their apparent readiness to face death that struck me the most, but how full of life they seemed. They looked like they knew what they were fighting for. They may have been thrust into combat by necessity, but they weren’t fighting to defend what existed before. They were fighting for the chance to build something new.

It didn’t take me long to realize that amid the seemingly senseless chaos of the Syrian Civil War, the most important social revolution of the twenty-first century was taking place. As the country descended into sectarian violence, Kurdish revolutionaries had stepped into a power vacuum left by the government’s retreat, building a radical new grassroots democracy in its place. Guided by a revolutionary political program known as democratic confederalism, the movement began organizing local communities not only to defend themselves, but to govern themselves.

A wall with painted text reading “Women’s progress is revenge against slavery.” Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

By the middle of 2012, a sizable region comprising the Kurdish-majority north had officially declared itself autonomous, establishing a new society explicitly committed to direct democracy, women’s liberation, multiculturalism, socialism, and ecology. In newly liberated cities and villages, the movement started building thousands of direct-democratic neighborhood communes, local councils, and workers’ cooperatives, federating them together from the local to the regional level. In accordance with Rojava’s new social contract, women were asserting a level of institutionalized political power and participation unprecedented even in the West. At every level of governance, women were guaranteed at least 40% representation4 and all positions of leadership were held jointly by two co-chairs – one woman and one man. In addition to this, women everywhere formed their own autonomous organizations to protect each other, educate each other, and assert their rights. This included, most famously, the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), an all-women’s army which fought alongside the mixed-gender YPG (People’s Protection Units).

Needless to say, this movement was not without its enemies. ISIS set its sights on Rojava early on, rightly seeing it as a direct threat to its Islamo-fascist aspirations. When it threatened genocide against Kurds and Yezidis,5 the YPG/YPJ led an historical resistance, turning its forces around at Kobane and Sinjar. In cooperation with a US-led international coalition, they went on to lead the ground war that culminated in the Islamic State’s territorial defeat, losing roughly 12,000 fighters in the process.

In addition to ISIS, Rojava also faced constant aggression from the Turkish state, continuing to this day. Seeing Kurdish autonomy as a threat to its ethno-nationalist project, Turkey launched a series of invasions resulting in the ongoing occupations of Afrin, Serekaniyê, and Girê Spî,6 as well as a relentless stream of human rights abuses that continue to this day. As I write these words, Turkey is threatening yet another such invasion, as it bombs the region’s civilian infrastructure including power plants, food and water facilities, and even hospitals.7

Origins of the Revolution

However libertarian in spirit, the Rojava revolution was hardly a spontaneous affair. Their new revolutionary political system was the culmination of a decades-long struggle waged by the Kurdish freedom movement. Its origins date back to the 1970s, with the founding of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. This moment was preceded by a long history of oppression and resistance since European powers first imposed borders in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The process resulted in the creation of the countries now known as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. These new nation-states were all formed around dominant nationalist identities which, by definition, excluded the Kurdish people. With no state of their own, Kurds living in these countries faced violent and systematic marginalization, often prohibited from speaking their language or even acknowledging their own existence as a people. In this context, the PKK was founded on the assertion that the Kurds were a colonized people in need of national liberation. Originally a Marxist-Leninist movement in the classic sense, they launched an armed insurgency against the Turkish government in the mid 1980s with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish state.

Sheikh Maqsoud: an autonomous Kurdish neighborhood in the heart of regime-controlled Aleppo. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the movement began a period of profound ideological transformation, which accelerated dramatically following the capture of the PKK’s founding leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999. After a period of intense study and self-critical reflection, Öcalan authored a series of books from prison charting a new course for the movement, which became known as democratic confederalism. In a dramatic turn, he presented a sweeping critique of the nation-state as an inherently oppressive monopoly of power which “domesticates society in the name of capitalism.”8 He advocated instead for a “non-state democratic nation” where “society governs itself” and “all societal groups and cultural identities can express themselves.”9 Influenced in no small part by the work of American political philosopher Murray Bookchin, he now urged the people of civil society to organize themselves into grassroots local institutions which could be woven together into a broader regional autonomy. If Kurds wanted to truly liberate their homeland, they would have to democratize Kurdistan from the ground up village by village, block by block.

Central to this new paradigm was the idea that patriarchy, as “the oldest form of slavery,” was the foundation on which all other forms of oppression had been built. Through this lens, capitalism and the nation-state could be understood as “the dominant male in its most institutionalized form.” “Without gender equality,” Öcalan wrote, “no demand for freedom and equality can be meaningful.” The only solution was “a radical woman’s revolution” that would take place not only in society at large, but as “a revolution within the revolution.”10

As fate would have it, the Syrian conflict presented the movement’s first opportunity to put these principles into practice on a large scale. The results were dramatic. In a country where Kurds and other non-Arab minorities had been systematically stripped of their rights, Kurdish children now attended school in their mother tongue, and all communities celebrated their cultures openly. In a society where women had been forced into marriage, confined to their homes, and frequently subjected to sexual violence, they could now participate directly in every institution of society, whether attending school, organizing their neighbors, or taking up arms to defend the revolution. In place of the all-powerful and centralized Syrian state, local communities were now free to govern themselves democratically through the federated communes and councils of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), or the Self-Administration for short, which now constitutes a third of Syrian territory and is home to nearly 5 million people.11

It could hardly be denied. A major social transformation was taking place; a revolution no less significant than the “great revolutions” of the twentieth century. Rojava was indeed the Spain of our time, and somehow, I knew I had to go.

With My Own Eyes

Sitting there with Heval Newroz, my mind shuffled furiously through the memories: the meetings and marches, the celebrations and funerals, the singing and dancing; the communal meals, the measureless miles of roads and checkpoints, the countless Kalashnikovs, the golden fields of wheat, the oil derricks, the flags, the graffiti, the infinite variations of yellow, red, and green, the piles of gray rubble that used to be buildings, the underground tunnels, the distant (and not-so-distant) sound of artillery and machine-gun fire, the buzz of drones overhead, the heat, the cold, the boredom, the frustration, the joy, the excitement, the omnipresent smell of tea and cigarettes, and the thousands of conversations that accompanied it.

I thought back to the first council meeting I attended in Shehba Canton. Thirty people had gathered, men and women, young and old, all representing the various committees of the village – from Health and Education to Logistics and Community Defense. My journal entry from that day reads as follows:

Today, I finally saw it. It works! The community was truly governing itself. The council meeting today, in all its tedious and mundane glory, was the highlight of my time here. People were coming together, taking responsibility for their community, sharing, discussing, criticizing, debating, deciding…As I listened to their reports and proposals, something many people would probably find boring, I felt goosebumps. If I never see another structure in Rojava, after today I can at least say with confidence that democratic confederalism can work, because I saw it with my own eyes.

If there was one impression in my cluttered mind that still shone through with clarity, it was this. People can govern themselves. I had seen it up-close, and I could never unsee it.

In his foreword to the book Revolution in Rojava, the late David Graeber lamented that “many ostensible revolutionaries nowadays seem to have secretly abandoned the idea that a revolution is actually possible.” He tauntingly dubbed this group “the Loser Left.”

For many of these leftists the problem is not so much the fear of losing, but rather of winning: of the messiness and responsibility that comes with achieving any degree of power. To protect their own sense of purity, some would rather carve out a comfortable niche for themselves as a permanent fixture of opposition, than to dirty their hands with the possibility of victory.

For others, though, the world simply feels hopeless. Ours is an age of crisis and cynicism. The problems we face, from ecological collapse to rising fascism, feel almost inescapable. Confronted with this reality, many leftists have limited their efforts to one or another form of “pragmatic” reformism, symbolic “activism,” or cathartic acts of “resistance.” Rebellion, maybe. But revolution? Not a chance.

Above all else, Rojava’s greatest significance may be as a counterpoint to this cynicism – as living proof that revolution is indeed still possible in the twenty-first century. Its continued existence serves as a reminder that every crisis represents not only threats, but opportunities. This lesson could hardly be more relevant today, as we find ourselves in a time of unprecedented crisis and instability. As the prevailing world system weakens, cracks are opening up where the left – not to mention the right – can push for radical alternatives. Rojava serves as an example of how a well-organized revolutionary movement can insert itself into these cracks at the right moment and open a door to new, emancipatory possibilities. But in order to do that, we have to believe in the possibility of an alternative in the first place.

A wheat cooperative in Shehba Canton. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

The Kurdish freedom movement has a saying: “Hope is more precious than victory.” For them, hope is the very ground on which a revolutionary movement is built; something to be kept alive at all cost. If we define hope as the simple belief in another possible future, we have no choice but to see it as indispensable. We can recover from defeat, but not from hopelessness.

In a time when capitalism threatens to drag humanity off a cliff and fascists the world over are vying for power, hope is not only a choice – it is a responsibility of any principled leftist. Cynicism is a luxury we simply can no longer afford.

I once asked a foreign YPG volunteer why he had come to Syria to fight: “Rojava created hope,” he told me. “Today a lot of people are hopeless. Even revolutionaries. They say ‘we’ll fight but there’s not actually any hope of making real changes.’ Rojava showed that it’s still possible.”

As I faced the reality of returning home, I felt especially grateful for this lesson. If nothing else, Rojava had left me with a newfound sense of revolutionary possibility that could no longer be shaken.

But What About the Problems?

I struggled to convey all this to Heval Newroz – the hope, the possibility, the gratitude. As we sat together on the floor, sharing tea and conversation, it felt like a small answer to her gigantic question. She smiled generously, but seemingly unsatisfied. “That’s great,” she said, “but what about the problems? What are your criticisms?”

I was reminded of my own cynicism. She wasn’t testing my loyalty. Nor did she see our meeting as a formal courtesy before my departure. She saw it as an opportunity for us both to learn something. To do so would require more than praise and gratitude, however genuine. It would require honesty, not only about the revolution’s strengths, but about its many shortcomings.

Contrary to the picture painted by some of the revolution’s most loyal enthusiasts, the Rojava I came to know was far from a utopia. Like any real revolution, it was a mess of contradictions. Many starry-eyed western radicals have traveled to Rojava only to become disillusioned by this realization. Some arrive desperate to see the society of their dreams; a place where oppression has been eliminated and all people are flourishing equally in their newfound liberation. What they find is a society neck-deep in problems, where many of the revolution’s aspirations stand in sharp contrast to the harsh realities of life in Syria.

Upon encountering this reality up close, most internationalists quickly lose any romantic notions of utopia that may have accompanied them across the river. For some, their idealized expectations reveal themselves as hopelessness in a hidden form; a fetishization of the unattainable. From there one has to make a choice: either reject the revolution for its failure to live up to your own expectations, or open yourself to a more expansive understanding of what a revolution is in the first place – a dynamic process where contradictions between transformation and survival, structure and consciousness, leadership12 and masses, all live in a state of constant tension and delicate balance.

If one could wrestle with these contradictions, Rojava presented invaluable opportunities for learning. It was a living laboratory of revolution where new institutions were being built and experimented with; where critical lessons were being learned in real time as the movement faced the kinds of challenges any real-life revolution must ultimately confront.

Revolution at the Speed of Consciousness

One of the most striking problems I encountered was the uneven development of public consciousness and participation. One often flowed from the other. Forming structures of local self-governance was one thing. But getting people to see themselves as responsible for their own community, and for the revolution, proved another thing altogether. In most communities, the speed of structural change had far outpaced changes in public consciousness.

This presents a unique challenge for any movement attempting to transcend the state. In a statist revolution the question of structure is primary. The will of the people matters only insofar as it affects the power of the state. But if the goal itself is for power and initiative to flow from the bottom upward, then as a rule the revolution can only proceed at the speed of popular consciousness. For a community to truly govern itself, a critical mass of its people need to want to govern themselves in the first place, and they need to share some fundamental assumptions about what that means and why it is important. True democracy cannot be given – it can only be practiced. It has meaning and substance only insofar as it flows from the people themselves. Nowhere is this truism better demonstrated than in Rojava.

“Armed struggle is the easy part,” a community organizer named Baran once told me. “To pick up a gun and go to the front is simple. What’s difficult is to organize society, to build a new system.” Many movement veterans were eager to point out that the conditions for a successful revolution were largely absent in 2012. The advent of civil war had made revolution possible, necessary even, but the stage was nonetheless set for serious challenges. “The revolution was rushed, and this led to many shortcomings,” Baran confessed. “We were starting at zero. The people were generally not ready for it.”

The grave of Şehid Jiyan Tolhildan, a well known YPJ commander killed in a Turkish drone strike on her way home from a women’s conference in 2022. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

The liberation of territory had opened up new physical and political space for society to “govern itself,” as Öcalan had envisioned. But success in realizing this possibility would require convincing the region’s diverse communities to adopt the values and ideas of democratic confederalism as their own – no small task. Unsurprisingly, the communes generally took hold the strongest in Kurdish communities where the movement had been organizing for decades. Outside these areas, especially in Arab-majority regions, many communes struggled to foster and maintain participation. Some existed in name but not in substance.

Religious and ethnic divides, violent and patriarchal tribal structures, conservative social values, and sectarian political allegiances all presented serious obstacles to democratic confederalism. On top of this, the conditions of endless war and economic embargo created a climate of fear, mistrust, and material insecurity contributing to a slow attrition of public engagement. In Baran’s words: “The enemy has colonized the mind of the colonized. Sectarian violence has been normalized. Many people still reject education and they’re afraid to participate.”

Revolutionaries often expressed this sentiment. Beyond the revolution’s loyal supporters was a general public too often stuck in internalized patterns of passivity, patriarchy, and prejudice – all manifestations of what the movement refers to as a “state mentality,”13 that is, one that both accepts and perpetuates domination. Hence the movement’s emphasis on the importance of popular education, best exemplified in the mantra “Perwerde, perwerde, perwerde!” (“Education, education, education!”), repeated daily by people leading political education workshops throughout society. “We have to bring them together as human beings. We have to organize them,” Baran insisted. “It’s very difficult, but we have no choice.”

As I shared my thoughts on these issues with Heval Newroz, I caught myself reassuring her that I knew these were not simple problems with simple solutions; that of course the movement had inherited an almost impossible situation.

She paused for a moment. “Is that it? Nothing else? No other criticisms?” She was challenging me to dig deeper. In Kurdish revolutionary culture, couching your criticism in a compliment or an excuse is seen as a sign of dishonesty and liberalism. It should instead be treated as a gift, as something essential. “Be direct,” her tone seemed to suggest.

So I brought up the economy, and how concerned I was that so many people were still struggling to meet their basic needs. Gains had certainly been made in the overall standard of living (relative to other parts of Syria), but the Self-Administration’s limited price controls, subsidies, and labor unions had proven insufficient in addressing material inequality. While the movement was making a concerted effort to build a “social economy” through the creation of worker cooperatives, after ten years of revolution these new anticapitalist enterprises still represented only a marginal part of the overall economy. Despite redistribution of property previously owned by the regime, much of the economy remained in the control of wealthy local landlords and employers.

Rojava’s economic strategy seemed less about transforming the existing economy and more about introducing new cooperative forms alongside the old. In this sense the “social economy” was contending with the capitalist economy more in terms of moral legitimacy than in terms of real power. If new breakthroughs could not be made, I worried that these shortcomings, along with the continued prioritization of the war economy, could contribute to a slow backsliding away from socialism and erode support for the revolution among the general population.

I also raised concerns about public engagement. In many places people were hardly participating in their communes, and the higher councils of the administration ended up functioning (however reluctantly) as a de facto state, even if out of necessity. In this context, the Asayish (internal security forces) in a particular community could be accountable to the people only at those administrative levels where the councils were actually functioning, making them a de facto police force which reproduced aspects of state power. Democratic confederalism required initiative to flow from the bottom upwards. If the movement failed to foster more public engagement from the base, these problems could eventually pose a serious threat to the integrity of the revolution.

Ultimately these problems were not separate, but compounding. The lack of participation was only made worse by the economic insecurity most families continued to face. For direct-democracy to truly take hold in society, people would need to experience the revolution not only as an opportunity for political engagement, but as a vehicle for materially improving the conditions of their own lives. As long as people struggled to meet their basic needs, only the movement’s most loyal converts could be counted on to actively and consistently participate.

She smiled in mournful agreement. “I share these concerns as well,” she said. “We have a long way to go to accomplish our goals. But we’re talking about a [state] system that has existed for five thousand years. The revolution has existed for only ten. We have many shortcomings, but until our people can become more conscious and self-organized these problems will not be solved. The most important war we are fighting is the war against ourselves, against our own mentalities, against centuries of oppression. People have to come to see that they are the autonomous administration. It’s going to take a long time.”

Find Your Own Way

Rojava has much to teach us, if we only open ourselves to its complexity. I went there in search of a real-life libertarian socialist revolution. What I found was different from what I read about in books; it was messier and more human than I ever imagined. Like the people who gave it reality, it was flawed, but it was also alive.

The experience challenged me to question my own assumptions about what a revolution actually entails. How do we define a free society? What are the characteristics of an effective revolutionary movement? What is it that unites people and spurs them into action? What are the challenges every successful revolution must face? What are the inherent limitations in a given set of conditions? How do you respond to a power vacuum without becoming a state? How do you democratize a society where oppressive social values are dominant? How do you make necessary compromises while maintaining your integrity? How do you address internal power dynamics like gender, while maintaining the broader unity of your movement? How do you balance the sometimes competing needs of transformation and survival?

Most of these questions were left unanswered. But more often than not, asking the right questions was more fruitful than finding the “correct” answers. Perhaps therein lies the lesson. After all, the revolution would never have been possible if the Kurdish freedom movement had not been willing to question their previous assumptions in the first place. If movements in the West want to learn from their example, we can start by asking ourselves the same kinds of questions.

With this series, I hope to make my own small contribution to this task. Over the course of a year, I traveled from one end of Syria to the other, talking with people who work every day to make Rojava’s revolution a reality. By sharing our conversations, along with my own observations, I hope to bring to life both the revolution’s accomplishments and its shortcomings, while searching for the kinds of lessons and unanswered questions that can challenge would-be revolutionaries in the West to improve their own theory and practice.

As my conversation with Heval Newroz began to wind down, she asked me what I planned to do when I got home. “Many want to come to Rojava but cannot, so you have a duty to share your experience,” she said. “What is important to us is that when internationalists return to their homes that they continue the struggle in their own way, that they see this as their responsibility.”

I told her I wanted to help people in the West better understand the revolution, so that we could take lessons from it to strengthen our own movements. “Not everyone is up to such a task,” she said, “but it is a very important one.” I took it more as a challenge than as encouragement. “Take what you learned as an example. But you can’t just copy what we do here and try it in your own country. It won’t work. You have your own society, with your own history and culture. You have to find your own way.” ~

Author

: Arthur Pye is a writer and organizer based in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava.