by Nilüfer Koc, Kurdistan National Congress (KNK)
Translated by Janet Biehl
Antonio Gramsci once remarked, “The crisis consists in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” That statement perfectly describes the current global situation. In fact, the capitalist system today finds itself in a crisis so deep that it can no longer control or manage it. It began when the bipolar world system between the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) disintegrated. Since the 1990s, wars and conflicts have increased in number worldwide, and now all humanity is facing enormous challenges.
In the Middle East, the crisis manifests in the condition of the region’s nation-states. Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the others are all struggling for survival yet at the same time are behaving ever more aggressively toward their own people, who are fighting for their rights and freedom. Considering all the actors who have a hand in this omnipresent crisis, one can certainly speak of it as a third world war. The Arab Spring was an attempt at social rebellion against the region’s rulers, but unfortunately it failed: instead of bringing about profound democratic change, it led only to changes at the top in existing regimes, in line with the capitalist world system.
The colonial powers of Kurdistan are in a state of upheaval
In the middle of this crisis region, the powers that colonize Kurdistan—i.e., Turkey, Iran and Syria—are in a state of upheaval. They all witnessed what has happened to their neighbor Iraq since the 1990s.
This upheaval personally affected the Kurdish representative and thought leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned as a political hostage on Imralı since his internationally organized kidnapping in 1999. His kidnapping was directly related to this crisis. His party, the PKK, had been part of the socialist bloc, so when the Soviet Union collapsed, he dealt with it intensively, critically and self-critically. Starting in the 1990s he looked for a solution, and from his prison cell—where he has now been detained for twenty-two years—he found it, formulated it, and proclaimed it on March 21, 2005, on the occasion of the Kurdish New Year celebration: democratic confederalism. “I was reborn on Imralı,” he said repeatedly as he proclaimed a new socialist paradigm.
The Kurds, who continue to have faith in him after forty years, have enthusiastically embraced this new idea and, over the past fifteen years, implemented it at great sacrifice. Today the new paradigm and its corresponding model of democratic confederalism are receiving positive responses far beyond Kurdistan.
In his discussion, Öcalan came to the conclusion that real socialism had ultimately failed because of its inadequate analysis of the phenomenon of power. Real socialism would not have failed if the socialists had built their system outside the state and power, but as it was, power and power-oriented thinking and acting in left liberation movements led to their collapse. So by contrast, Öcalan’s paradigm rejects both. Its goal is the liberation not only of a class or an oppressed people but of the entirety of a society.
For Öcalan, the philosophical idea underlying democratic confederalism is a radical critique of capitalist modernity based on the paradigm of power. For him, building democracy and forming a society are not tied to the goal of achieving power. “My idea of democratic confederalism is … comprehensive. For me it means the independent democratic organization of society without a claim to power,” he says. He sees the prevailing global chaos and its worsening in the Middle East as an opportunity to build democratic confederalism. Its implementation in Kurdistan is to go hand in hand with a democratization of the four states that act as colonial powers in the areas of Kurdish settlement. Clearly, he intends the concept of democratic confederalism is not solely for Kurdistan but beyond Kurdistan to the entire Middle East.
Democratic transformation of a colonial state using the example of Syria
Let’s look at this whole thing more closely, using the example of the Syrian state. Of the four parts of Kurdistan, the smallest is located within the Syrian national territory. Like Kurds elsewhere in Kurdistan, the Kurds living in Syria have always been subject to persecution by the central government. As a result of developments next door in northern Iraq in the early 1990s, which led to the establishment of a no-fly zone, the Syrian regime increased its repression of Kurds in its own country. When Öcalan had to leave Damascus on October 9, 1998, after nineteen years, Bashar al-Assad finally formed an alliance with Turkey, and Ankara and Damascus thus formed a common front, united in the common goal of solving “the Kurdish problem” once and for all.
On March 12, 2004, after a football game in Qamişlo, the Syrian Ba’ath regime killed thirty-two Kurds. It intended the massacre to intimidate the Kurdish Syrian population, because in neighboring South Kurdistan (northern Iraq), after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurds were granted autonomy. But after the massacre, an uprising broke out that spread throughout Rojava and even to the Kurds in Aleppo and Damascus. It was the first mass uprising in Rojava. Afterward the Kurds established their first armed defense committees, the predecessors of today’s YPG/YPJ defense units. Moreover, from 1979 to October 9, 1998, Abdullah Öcalan had taught more than 40,000 people in the PKK party academies in Syria, which also motivated Kurds in Rojava to organize—its role should not be underestimated. Öcalan had also worked hard to build friendships with representatives of Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians, which laid the foundation for the Rojava revolution that broke out in 2012.
The Ba’ath regime’s hostility toward Kurds
But before we get to the revolution, we need to take another look at the historical course of the Syrian regime’s Kurdish policy. Arab nationalism, initially disguised as Arab socialism, always viewed the country’s Kurdish population as a security problem. The regime treated the Rojava region like a colony, establishing monocultures of grain and cotton there, and exploiting its oil and gas reserves. Rojava is very productive—it was historically part of the Fertile Crescent, and the Euphrates and Tigris rivers run through it. The Syrian regime made it into the country’s breadbasket. But to process the raw materials extracted from Rojava, it established industrial mills and refineries far away, in the Arab regions.
In 1962 the regime carried out a census in Rojava, as a result of which more than 150,000 resident Kurds were branded as ajnabi (foreigners). Their citizenship was revoked. They lost all rights to property, education, political participation, government office, and legal marriage. Kurdish land and property were transferred to Arab tribes who were loyal to the state. When the Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963, it intensified the persecution of Kurds. The head of the secret service for the Hassakah region, Lieutenant Muhammad Talab al-Hilal, described Kurds as “enemies of Syria” and a “malignant tumor” in the body of the Arab nation. He called the Cizîrê/Rojava region a “Kurdish threat” and developed a security concept, on behalf of the Ba’ath regime, that provided for its Arabization (the “Arab Belt” policy).
In 1970 Hafez al-Assad took power in a coup and six years later declared an end to the “Arab Belt” policy. But discrimination against the Kurds continued subliminally. Assad wanted to dominate the Arab world. He viewed the Turkish state next door as one of the great threats, not only because of historically disputed territorial claims but also because as a NATO member, it represented US interests in the region. On this basis, the Assad regime finally opened relations with the Kurdish representative Abdullah Öcalan in 1979. (It lasted until 1999.) Assad saw no great threat in Öcalan’s strategy of friendship among peoples, as he was very interested in forming alliances with Arabs.
The transformation of a nation-state, using the example of Syria
On July 19, 2012, the people of Rojava forced the regime forces out, city by city, whereupon the local councils took control of the agricultural lands. The new administration was built around newly created communities, which mostly consisted of a village and the surrounding hamlets. The municipalities distributed the land among the families living there, according to their needs and ability to cultivate it. Some parts of the country remained in the hands of the councils as the basis for the first cooperatives.
It must be remembered that even after the revolution, state institutions continued to be present in Rojava—some remain there to this day. At the beginning of the revolution, it was necessary to tolerate the presence of the state in some areas until the self-administration found a democratic way to take their administration into its own hands. The state remained involved in the oil industry; the banks, the education system, health care, water and electricity and the airport in Qamişlo were initially left to the regime until the councils were able to operate these areas themselves. It was also strategically important for the self-administration to make concessions to the Ba’ath regime in order to avoid further escalation. Furthermore, democratic confederalism does not seek to separate any areas from the existing state. Öcalan says: “The task is therefore not to overthrow the state, because if the state seeks a compromise with the people, that should be done. But this does not mean that this people want the state. They are concerned with protecting their local areas. At the local, that is, the communal level, the people try to solve their problems on their own. “
Meanwhile starting in 2012 a brutal war raged around Rojava, carried out by jihadists, supported and promoted by Turkey. But Rojava’s defenses were sufficiently developed that it could mount a resistance large enough to protect it while it established democratic confederalism. The YPG and YPJ were and remain vital to this end. Over time, the YPG and YPJ helped the Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians build their own defense forces. Today they are all represented under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The basic pillars of the self-administration are the communes at the base. The communes also have specialized committees that work in their relevant areas. This structure allows even the smallest communes to organize their needs themselves. The system is also called radical democracy. All residents of a village or a district come together regularly in meetings to find solutions to everyday problems. These meetings also elect delegates to higher-level councils. Since the people in the communes gradually carry out all public tasks (from education to road construction, from employment to justice) on their own, the state and all its hierarchically organized bodies are reduced to performing minimal administrative tasks until they ultimately become completely superfluous. Decisions related to cities and larger regions are made by the councils, which are made up of delegates from the communes. The upper levels may not intervene in the lower levels, as these are autonomous. In addition to women’s houses, women form their own women’s communes and their own autonomous system.
A revolution within a revolution: the women’s revolution
At the heart of democratic confederalism is the liberation of women. In no other system is women’s freedom as decisive as that of the PKK. By challenging the oppression of women, Öcalan discovered the historical origins of oppression. The degree of freedom possessed by women is the measure of social freedom. For this reason, Öcalan attaches much greater importance to the liberation of women in the twenty-first century than to national liberation or class struggles. He believes that women’s freedom is the guarantee of lasting democracy. State ideologies are models of patriarchal rule. Without a struggle against the ethics, attitudes, and culture of patriarchal ideology, democracy and freedom cannot exist. So resolving the gender issue is of the utmost importance.
The women’s movement in Rojava was founded in 2005 under the name Yekitiya Star—it drew on the thirty years of Kurdish women’s organizing and experience. In Rojava, Kurdish women had fought the repressive Ba’ath regime at all levels. During the 2012 revolution, women struggled to build the institutions of democratic confederalism, but they also created their own democratic confederalist institutions for women. In 2016, as the system expanded, they changed their organizational structure and renamed themselves Kongreya Star. Over the course of the revolution, the women’s movement has succeeded in persuading and mobilizing Arab and Christian women to work toward their liberation. Numerous joint bodies have been set up. Kongreya Star also maintains a broad network with women in other Arab countries.
A 40 percent gender quota prevails in all of Rojava’s political bodies and institutions. The councils are headed by a dual leadership, in the form of a woman and a man as co-chairs.
Women’s cooperatives are growing in size and number, because they are an important way for women to gradually reduce their dependence on fathers and husbands. In general, women’s ongoing liberation struggle has influenced the economy, as for the first time in modern times women can participate in it extensively and independently and be economically independent from their families. Overall, the prevailing image of women in society remains the traditional one, but the proportion of women opting for careers is growing rapidly.
Rojava’s economic system
In Rojava as in the entire Middle East, the capitalist economic system was dominant. Since 2012, with the establishment of democratic confederalism, a democratic-social economy has been developed. The cooperatives, units of the social economy, are the foundation of the economic system: the more cooperatives there are, the less capitalism. The number of cooperatives has grown steadily since 2012. With their support, the remnants of the capitalist market, which the revolution took over from the Syrian regime, have become smaller and smaller. All the cooperatives work in a coordinated manner with the councils and the democratic self-administration. Along with the councils, academies, communities and communes, cooperatives are formed depending on need. As the smallest grassroots organizations, the communes themselves decide how they will solve their economic problems. The economics academies help provide people with the necessary knowhow.
Today there are cooperatives for the diverse areas of electricity supply, bakeries, water, drinks, clothing, food, and more. There are also a variety of agricultural cooperatives. All the cooperatives work in coordination with the academies and commissions of the self-administration, which are responsible for ecological production methods. Ecological academies motivate people to seek alternatives to the chemical fertilizers used in agriculture. The greatest challenge in this area is the water embargo imposed by the Turkish state on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The two rivers have their source in North Kurdistan, where the Turkish state has built dams in order to use the water as a weapon against Syria and Iraq.
Social problems are seldom referred to higher institutions of justice but are solved locally by communes and councils. In Rojava, the justice system is based not on articles and laws, as is the case with states, but on the moral and ethical principles of the societies that always exist alongside the state’s “jurisdiction.” There are courts for the IS prisoners only because they have committed crimes against humanity. Here they combine their democratic paradigm with international law, because most of the IS prisoners come from other countries.
The educational system of the democratic nation
The Democratic Nation concept refers to social diversity in ethnicity, religion, and gender. In North and East Syria, the education system has been set up for equal coexistence. Since the revolution, it has pursued research on the various languages, cultures, and the history of peoples. The education system relies on diversity and multilingualism. In primary schools up to the third grade, classes are taught in the pupils’ mother tongue. From the fourth grade onward, the children learn the languages of the peoples with whom they live, and lessons are bilingual. Foreign-language instruction begins in the fifth grade. Specifically, Arab, Kurdish, and Assyrian children are taught in their mother tongue up to the third grade. Teaching materials include the history and culture of each individual culture in Syria. In North and East Syria, around 790,000 pupils and schoolchildren are taught according to this model. The most important thing in this system is the relationship between teacher and student. Under the former government, the old system of education was based primarily on fear and violence. In the new system, the students are jointly responsible for school life and can actively participate. At every school, student committees are formed to make the schools democratic and participatory. Teachers who use physical or psychological violence are sanctioned. In contrast to prevailing educational systems that used education to stabilize their rule, the educational model of universities is based on free and democratic thinking.
In addition, there are countless academies in various fields that are open to everyone. The academies are like universities or specialized schools for the citizens.
The academies, as well as the schools and universities, cooperate with the Jineolojî academy and the committee. The committees and councils of these educational institutions must be run in an emancipatory way by women, men, and ethnic and religious affiliation.
Jineolojî: liberation from positivism
The term jineolojî appeared for the first time in 2008 when Abdullah Öcalan used it in the third volume of the Manifesto for a Democratic Civilization, titled Sociology of Freedom. Jin means “woman” in the Kurdish dialect Kurmancî, but it has the same root as the word jiyan, which means “life.” So Jineolojî should be understood not only as a science of women (as it often is) but as the science of life, of society as a whole. Its aim is to reconnect today’s elitist knowledge with society but also, ideologically, to free the mind from positivism. Positivism, the belief in progress that underlies the prevailing capitalist system, separates the world into subject and object, black and white, above and below and thereby legitimizes hierarchies. The capitalist system takes positivism as the basis of knowledge and thought. Öcalan describes it as “the most vulgar materialism” and “idolatry.” He says the current deterministic progressive thinking is also a consequence of positivism. The capitalist system, historically and today, uses positivism to negate the momentum of societies, their mythological, religious, philosophical and scientific thought structures.
Jineolojî struggles to overcome the knowledge of abstraction and detachment from society. It does not reduce society to subject or object but rather sees it as part of an ecological balance. It is oriented toward ethics, toward the meeting of needs, and toward the goal of restoring the balance between woman, nature, and society. It has paved the way for a profound reconsideration of the roots of oppression, exploitation, and hierarchy. Specifically, the academies and committees of Jineolojî work toward this goal in ecology, economics, sociology, ethics and aesthetics, education, health, history, and self-defense.
Internationalism of the Rojava revolution
The Arab Spring could have ended in Syria, as it did elsewhere, without making any social changes, if the Kurds had not already been practicing the Öcalan paradigm in advance. IS, supported by Turkey, waged its war to expand brutal fascism from Iraq and Syria to the rest of the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, and so on. So the victory of the YPG / YPJ over IS was not only military but also ideological in nature. Had this not been the case, the capitalist system would have used the state of upheaval to benefit itself, as it did in the Arab Spring. The Kurdish victory over IS was a victory for all societies. It put an end to the expansion of IS brutality, hatred, murder, backwardness, aggressive and power-oriented Islam, which knew no borders, and it saved humanity from that danger in the 21st century. People all over the world found new hope in the liberation struggle and saw in this movement a feasible revolution. The nation-states of capitalist modernity always agitate peoples against one another according to the principle of “divide and rule”; Rojava counteracted it. It achieved its victory over IS because Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, and Chechens, as well as Muslims, Christians, Ezidis, and Alevites, as well as women and men stood together and fought together. Thousands of people and many organizations around the world have participated in this struggle and in building the democratic system. I would here like to pay tribute to Lorenzo Orsetti (Tekoşer Piling) and all the other fallen internationalists.
Thus Rojava’s revolution has become a national (Kurdish) struggle, a regional (Middle East) struggle, and a global solidarity and common liberation struggle.
Perspectives for a future democratic Syria
Early in 2016 the Syrian Democratic Council issued a proposal for a comprehensive solution to the Syrian crisis. It provides for the restoration of Syria in the form of a confederation of diverse autonomous regions under a common constitution and diplomatic representation. It proposes the formation of a Kurdish-Arab federation in the north, a Sunni-Arab federation in eastern and central Syria, an Alawite federation in the west, and an autonomous Druze region in the south. All ethnic, religious and social groups would have the right to organize and administer their own affairs independently within the basic principles laid down in the constitution. The proposal includes a framework for a fair distribution of resources between regions so that no region would have to import anything as long as it was available in one of the others.
Dangers and risks
The democratic structure is gaining ever more positive responses from Arab communities in Syria. After the liberation of Raqqa in 2017 and Deir ez-Zor in 2019, councils were established in these Arab areas to construct democratic confederalism. All the liberated areas have now come together under the name of the Democratic Self-administration in North and East Syria. Geographically, Rojava is predominantly inhabited by Kurds and is the center of the revolution.
Both the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad and the foreign powers are trying vehemently to prevent this proposal, because all see democracy as a threat to their power. So they are doing everything possible to incite clashes between Kurds and Arabs. In the past two years, several well-known Arab tribal leaders who participate in the self-administration were murdered by Salafist jihadists, either by the Syrian state intelligence service or on the orders of Turkey. The aim is to intimidate the Arab population. Murders of Kurdish leaders by Turkey have become a part of life. Many have been murdered with armed Turkish drones.
Turkey, with its usual hostility toward the Kurds, and some regional and global powers are trying to spread nationalism among Kurds and Arabs by various means. Syrian-Kurdish parties and organizations have been formed that reject democratic confederalism but have no membership base; they are war profiteers, seeking to spread the virus of Kurdish nationalism among the people. They are financed and logistically supported mainly by Turkey. Turkey is using these groups to try to divide the Kurds and so weaken them. It is these groups that are invited as Rojava’s representatives to Geneva and to other international platforms. Christians initiate similar procedures in the name of Christianity. After all, the nation-states of capitalist modernity have used the instrument of nationalism to shipwreck many revolutions and to stir up wars in past centuries as well as in the present.
Furthermore, with the agreement of the Trump administration, Russia gave Turkey the green light to occupy Afrin in 2018. In 2019, Trump approved the Turkish state’s occupation of Girê Spî and Serê Kaniyê. The more successfully the model of democratic confederalism develops, the more the attacks intensify. Turkey is continually the sword of Damocles that hangs over the democratic self-administration of North and East Syria. The North and East’s representatives have been excluded from the Geneva, Sochi and Astana conferences on the future of Syria, for the purpose of discrediting them politically, publicly, and diplomatically on an international level. Their exclusion or isolation is a form of punishment. Iran too, in order to keep Syria under control, is trying to prevent the Syrian regime from entering into a dialogue with the self-administration. Russia, in many diplomatic meetings with representatives of the self-administration, has promised that it will persuade the regime to enter into a dialogue, but that has not yet happened. The regime’s persistent pan-Arabism is a major obstacle to dialogue.
The democratic self-administration is therefore under constant attack not only militarily but also ideologically.
While the states see democratic confederalism as a threat, due to their own power interests, the democratic self-administration of North and East Syria has experienced great solidarity on the part of people around the world.
As a woman and a Kurd, my special thanks go to Abdullah Öcalan, who from the Imralı torture center has helped us with his ideas, suggestions, and advice to find a solution in Kurdistan and for all oppressed people in the Middle East. It is therefore self-evidently humane for all those who support democratic confederalism as an alternative to local, regional and global problems to stand up for his freedom. He is being punished, in the Imralı torture system, for his thoughts. It is time to fight for his freedom. Hence my appeal: Support the South African campaign “The time has come: Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan—toward a just peace in Turkey.”
This article originally appeared in Italian in Il Manifesto and was published in German in Kurdistan Report 214, March/April 2021
Janet Biehl is an American author, and artist. She wrote several books and articles associated with social ecology.