The Embargo Against Rojava

The TATORT Kurdistan delegation reported on the embargo against Rojava during their visit in May 2014.

Although Rojava (in northern Syria) is a mosaic of languages and cultures, regional and international powers have isolated it both economically and politically—indeed, it is now entirely on its own. To the north, Turkey has walled the region off. To the east, South Kurdistan has lined its veritable ditch with military checkpoints. To the south, the radical Islamist combat units of ISIS and the Al Nusra Front have cut the region off from the rest of Syria.

This embargo is having severe consequences for the people of Rojava.

Taken by itself, Rojava is economically quite a wealthy place. It produces 60 percent of Syria’s wheat and oil, and it raises cotton for the Syrian market. Vis-à-vis Syria it had the status of a colony, in the sense of being a source of raw materials. Rojava doesn’t have processing industries. Thus it grows and harvests grains, but it doesn’t mill them. It doesn’t refine oil but shipped it at great expense to central Syria. That, at least, was the starting situation for Rojava.

The water supply for agriculture comes partly from deep wells, but after the jihadis took over the power stations in Raqqa, those pumps—and hence farming—were threatened. But Rojavans began to use diesel generators to produce power. First they had to develop the technology to generate diesel at all. Rojava’s first winter was very hard–snow fell for the first time in several years, and there was no heating oil. But today many small generators pollute the cities. Only a few of the large ones are available, and no more can be imported because of the embargo.

Turkey and the Embargo

Turkey and South Kurdistan (the Kurdish region of Iraq) work closely together to maintain the embargo against Rojava. They recognize that Rojavans are attempting, through a grassroots organization, to go beyond capitalist modernity and Western intervention. If the Rojava project should turn out to function, the political and social consequences will ripple throughout the Middle East. that would interfere with the strategy of the NATO states, so they support the embargo.

For years, Kurds have been constructing Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan, even under Turkish occupation. The Turkish state has been trying to destroy this project by arresting thousands of activists and politicians en masse. By no means will Turkey tolerate Democratic Autonomy in Rojava, lying as it does just across the border, and inspired as it is by the PKK chief, Abdullah Öcalan. So Turkey supplies weapons to the radical Islamic Al Nusra Front, and it furnishes ISIS with a logistical hinterland. No, it’s only the grassroots democratic forces in Rojava that are subjected to embargo.

South Kurdistan and the Embargo

At first glance, the fact that South Kurdistan supports the embargo may seem strange. The head of state Barzani has repeatedly proclaimed that South Kurdistan is independent, but the region long ago became a quasi-colony. The South Kurdish government is financed by petrodollars, which it receives from the Iraqi central government and distributes among its minions. Yet South Kurdistan itself produces almost nothing—no agricultural products—even chickens are brought in from Brazil. So it is actually extremely dependent on other countries. Most of the manufactured goods and investment capital found there come from Turkey. The government is politically quite dependent on Ankara, and in relation to Rojava, it follows the policy that Ankara desires.

It would be sugarcoating, however, to present the Kurdish regional government as the sole actor in this respect. The KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) actually would like very much to control Rojava, especially the oil wells in Rimelan. But the Democratic Autonomy system, built by the Kurdish freedom movement, is an obstacle—so it must be destroyed by any means. Since the embargo alone doesn’t seem to be dong the job, militias of the KDP’s offshoot party in Syria, ENKS, have joined in on attacks mounted by Islamic gangs, like the massacres of Til Hasil and Til Haran in the summer of 2013.

The arrest of Bashir Abdulmecid Musa in May 2014 revealed an unexpected aspect to these attacks. Musa had attempted, along with an accomplice, to bomb an Arab house in Tirbespi. The bomb detonated too early, killing the accomplice, but Musa was not wounded and was arrested. He turned out to be a member of the KDP in Syria; he had been educated in South Kurdistan, he said. The goals of his group are to bomb both Arab buildings and the Rojavan self-government buildings, in order to provoke a conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

His wasn’t the only case. In February a car bomb detonated outside the offices of the women’s organization Yekitiya Star in downtown Derik. A father and child were killed. The explosion stirred panic in the city, at which point the KDP opened the borders to South Kurdistan, and many Derik residents fled there. It’s the goal of the KDP and its allies to try to drive people out of Rojava. Now South Kurdistan is preventing these very people from returning to Derik. As Berivan of Yekitiya Star explained to us, it tends to be the educated people, doctors, and engineers who leave Rojava, seeking better pay in South Kurdistan. So the well-off leave—and the poor stay behind. This aspect of the embargo has become a serious problem, since Rojava lacks specialists in every area. Solidarity help from the whole world is requested.

The Perils of Flight

But fleeing can often be dangerous too–refugees may be subject to attack. On May 15, at the Turkish border, Turkish soldiers shot a mother of two children who was on her way to Europe to meet her partner. Many other border crossers, smugglers, and refugees passing between Rojava and North Kurdistan/Turkey have met similar fates. Still, it cannot be said that the border is entirely closed. After all, jihadis go back and forth across it in order to resupply in Turkey, even under the watchful eyes Turkish soldiers.

As for refugees trying to cross into South Kurdistan, they may be attacked by peshmerga, either at the border or in the refugee camps. Such attacks can range from extortion to forced prostitution and sexualized violence. For refugees who are poor, South Kurdistan is not place where hopes may be fulfilled; instead, the reality of enclosed camps awaits them. It’s got so bad that the South Kurdish government is escalating, allowing attacks on the Kurdistan National Council (KNK) aid organization and the Kurdish news agency DIHA. These developments point to a worsening of the situation.

Representatives of the youth organization Ciwanen Soresger explained to us that young people especially are casting longing looks at the consumer societies of South Kurdistan and Europe. Often several of their family members may be living in European countries. The revolutionary youth are trying to counteract their desire to flee, by means of education. Still, among the small contingent of refugees in Europe, most aren’t people fleeing the strongly contested areas like Homs or Hama but rather people from relatively safe Rojava; consciously or not, they are acting in accordance with the Turkish wish to depopulate Rojava and thereby rid itself of the Kurdish question.

Consequences of the Embargo

The embargo has had many effects on Rojavan society. Most dramatic is the fact that for all its wealth in wheat and oil, Rojava can’t sell its products. Farmers are reduced to sitting on their wheat and cotton. The transitional government has no money to pay them wages, or to satisfy the needs of both ordinary people and the refugees. Machinery and medicines are urgently needed but can’t be obtained.

While the dearth of medicines and baby formula [Folgemilch] is raising infant mortality, general medical supplies are also scarce, and the price of imported goods, including foodstuffs, is skyrocketing. Medicines sold on the black market are unaffordable. As far as possible, the councils set with price controls, but they can’t affect the price of medications on the black market. The Turkish border sometimes allows medications through, but the aid organization Heyva Sor reports that in mid-2013 at the North Kurdistan-Syrian border, an ambulance coming from Germany was detained. Heyva Sor also reports that the South Kurdistan border is entirely closed to humanitarian aid.

In mid-May the border crossing at Til Kocer, leading into central Iraq, was shut down. So now the embargo is almost complete. Heyva Sor is trying to cover Rojava’s needs, but it’s hardly in a financial condition to meet the needs of refugees from other parts of Syria. Institutions like Doctors Without Borders can buy medications in Qamislo, which are imported by plane from Damascus. But at the moment relief transports are halted, so medicines rot at the border. At this point donations would be helpful.

Rojava is, for all intents and purposes, disconnected from the world market, but the consequences are not wholly negative. Because of the embargo, cooperatives have had a chance to organize the regional production of clothing and foodstuffs and establish themselves. The need for Rojavans to come together and organize daily life has impelled the construction of the council system. Thus the embargo has been both a blessing and a curse. At the end of the day, however, the lack of machinery and much else necessary for the construction of a functioning economy means that everything must be done to end the embargo as soon as possible.

Campaign TATORT Kurdistan Delegation, May 20, 2014.

This article originally appeared in German  here. Translated by Janet Biehl.

If you would like to make a donation to help Rojava under the embargo, or for relief of Kobane or Shingal, please visit the page of the group mentioned in this article, Heyva Sor.



Journey to Rojava, May 2014

An interview with Ercan Ayboga

As the Islamic State (IS) attacks the Kurdish city of Kobanê, the name Rojava has been on every tongue. But what is this place, and who are the people live there? Ercan Ayboga visited Syrian Kurdistan in May 2014. He was recently interviewed about his trip by the online magazine Marx21.

Q: Briefly, what is Rojava?

The name Rojava refers to the areas within the boundaries of the Syrian state that have a majority Kurdish population. The Kurds call this land West Kurdistan, which is what Rojava means literally. Rojava consists of the three noncontiguous areas, or cantons: Cizîrê, Kobanê, and Afrîn.

Q: Was it easy to travel there?

I traveled there with two friends from Campaign TATORT Kurdistan. We had previously been in contact with people in Rojava’s council structures (Rätestrukturen). We started out in South Kurdistan—that is, northern Iraq—in Sulaimaniya, then we passed through Mosul. We crosssed the border at Til Kocer (Rabia), but since June 2 that’s no longer possible because the IS is there now. Our journey unfolded, however, with no real problems.

Finally we reached Cizîrê in Rojava. It was easy to get there, but it’s harder to get to Afrîn and Kobanê. You have to pass through Turkey, but Turkey has sealed the borders, so nobody gets through. You’d have to do it illegally.

Q: What is daily life like there, given the Syrian civil war?

Cizîrê is the largest one of the three cantons, and we traveled to almost every city. We talked to dozens of organizations and activists. The war has not touched most of the cities of Cizîrê, except for Serê Kaniyê in 2013.

Q: What happened there?

In late 2012 and early 2013 the Al Qaeda organization Al Nusra, coming mainly from Turkey, attacked Serê Kaniyê and overran it. In one neighborhood the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) mounted a resistance. Step by step it fought back against Al Nusra and finally drove it out of the city in the summer of 2013. Now daily life goes on there on much as it did before the war. But the war in Kobanê is far more intense than was the battle for Serê Kaniyê.

Q: What about the Syrian army? Has it left Rojava in peace?

The Syrian army has contact only in three cities in Rojava. The IS and the other armed organizations are a much greater enemy. Because of the Syrian army’s weakness, it doesn’t really attack Rojava. The IS presents by far the greater threat, so no one is talking about waging a war against the Syrian state.

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Most people in Cizîrê’s cities still have the same jobs as before; so do farmers on the land—it’s pretty much business as usual. Outside the war zone, production hasn’t diminished. Cars are as plentiful as before; the cities are still full of people. A few businesses have closed, especially those that depend on imports. Syrian currency is still valid in Rojava, and there’s been no great inflation, so it’s still being used.

The number of armed people in the streets has increased, although the locals no longer view them as a threat. They’re the security forces, or Asayiş, which were democratically created by the council structure.

All the symbols of the Syrian state have vanished. Now instead the symbols, images, and colors of the council structure are visible in most prominent places.

Q: What do they look like?

The colors are yellow, red, and green, mostly in stripes, whether on flags or some other surface. For public and civil institutions, their names appear in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic, and sometimes Assyrian (Aramaic). Before the revolution, Kurdish and Assyrian were forbidden. Along the streets you see many photos of local people who died in the freedom struggle. And here and there are logos of political organizations.

Q: How has life changed since the IS began attacking?

In 2014 the IS intensified its attacks on Rojava, with many strong consequences in the contested areas. Kobanê is a total war zone. In Cizîrê a few places, especially in the south between Hesekê and Til Kocer, have been affected. But Afrîn not at all, up to now. Still, almost everyone is very keyed up. Up to June 2014, the people were discussing the construction of democratic self-government much more than the war.

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Q: How did Rojava originate?

In the spring of 2011, when the rebellion in Syria began, the Party of Democratic Unity (PYD)—the largest Kurdish party—in collaboration with two other Kurdish parties, began to build council structures throughout in Rojava. The PYD realized that the rebellion [against Assad’s regime] would lead to a bloody war and could reach Rojava; the Kurds, it decided, should organize themselves well in advance. So in the summer of 2011 the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) came into existence, and it soon gained the support of the majority of the people.

On July 19, 2012, a new phase began when a mostly nonviolent popular revolt liberated the city of Kobanê. That revolt spread to all of Rojava within a few weeks. The thinned-out forces of the state were soon surrounded, and Rojava allowed them safe conduct to the other regions of Syria.

Thereafter the council structures democratically took over Rojava’s government, and since then, with their commissions and enterprises, the councils have organized Rojava’s economic, social, and political life. Except, that is, in the city of Qamişlo, one quarter of which is controlled by the state regime. The YPG protected the cantons, ensuring that they were spared the catastrophic war in Syria. At first it deflected attacks from the FSA and Al Nusra, but since the end of 2013 it has been mainly fighting the IS.

Q: How big is Rojava?

It isn’t one continuous area. The three cantons are divided by strips of land that are majority Arab. Cizîrê is more than twice as large as the other two cantons. More than 600,000 people live in Afrîn, many of them refugees. Kobanê, at mid-September, had more than 300,000, and Cizîrê has more than 1.4 million people. The largest city is Qamişlo, with more than 400,000 people—it’s the center of Rojava.

The people in Cizîrê are ethnically and religiously diverse. Many Arabs and Christian Assyrians live there, as do Armenians—for decades they have lived peacefully with the Kurds.

Q: What is the economy based on?

Agriculture is dominant in all three cantons. Kobanê grows both wheat and olives. Cizîrê specializes in wheat, and Afrîn, olives. That specialization is a disadvantage now because the three regions are so isolated. In foodstuffs, we have a surplus of bread, bulgur, lentils, olive products, and milk products. There aren’t many kinds of vegetables, or much fruit. But the council structure has ensured solidarity so that no one goes hungry.


One advantage in Cizîrê is that it has petroleum. Thanks to a refinery that’s been improvised, diesel is plentiful, and it’s sold more cheaply than in Baath times. It’s used regionally and locally to run generators, providing power both for households and for production.

Again, the council structures have prevented economic collapse, imposing price controls and considerably reducing the black market.

Q: Describe these council structures. How do they function?

They’re everywhere—they’re are the dominant element in Rojava’s common life. Now that the Syrian state is no longer present, the councils decide and coordinate everything. If they didn’t, it would all would fall into chaos. But they should not be considered some kind of emergency management.

The councils start, at the lowest level, at the communes, which consist of 30 to 150 households, both in cities and in rural villages. The next level up is the neighborhood councils in the cities, paralleled in the countryside by the village community councils. At the third level we have the area councils, the jurisdictions of which are a city with its surrounding land. The area councils then constitute the highest council–the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK).

Q: What’s the relationship between the different levels—the neighborhood councils, the area councils, and the People’s Council?

Each commune is coordinated by two chairs—a woman and a man—and by representatives of their various commissions. The chairs are elected for terms of one or two years. Every commune—and indeed each level of the council structure–has the following commissions: women, economy, politics, defense, civil society/occupations, and education.

The two coordinating chairs represent the commune at the next level, the neighborhood. This second level—consisting of 7 to 30 communes—choose from their members a two-person chair and also form the same commissions. Their chairs represent the neighborhood council in the area council. The area councils too have two chairs and form commissions, and their chairs go tot the highest level, the MGRK. The area councils and the MGRK are coordinated by the Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society), which also includes NGOs and all political parties that support the council system, represented by five people.

Q: What democratic controls are in place? Is there an imperative mandate?

Yes, there’s an imperative mandate. Elections take place every one or two years—the structures of a given locality decide when. The coordinating chairs meet weekly, and their meetings are open to everyone from their jurisdictions.

Q: You spoke of commissions. Why are they necessary?

The six commissions are very important—they handle most of the work. Through them tens of thousands of people actively organize their lives. The PYD’s decision to build the MGRK and to renounce strong party structures has proved to be very astute.

Probably the most important commissions are the women’s commissions or councils, which exist at every level. They cooperate together on the basic liberation of women.

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Now that the MGRK have operated for three years, all three Kurdish parties support it, as do the Assyrians and some of the Arabs. Unfortunately there’s also a conservative-neoliberal party bloc, made up of eight parties. The bloc is called the ENKS, and it opposes the MGRK. It even refused to participate when fifty Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian parties and organizations came together to accept a common social contract and form a transitional government.

Q: Whose interests does the conservative-neoliberal bloc represent? What’s its base?

It’s based mainly in a few clans and on the upper and middle stratum, which in Rojava is relatively not very distinct. And a few people from the lower classes are also close to this bloc. The ENKS is financed and directed by the regional government of South Kurdistan. It has joined the Syrian National Coalition, the larger opposition alliance that includes the Muslim Brotherhood (Muslimbrüder) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), even though the those groups don’t recognized the basic rights of Kurds and are very dependent on Turkey, the Gulf States, and the West. The ENKS advocates a federal structure like that of South Kurdistan, and it want to achieve it through Western intervention. But before 2014 the ENKS was losing a lot of ground in Rojava, and it doesn’t play much of a role.

Q: Why is there a transitional government at all, alongside the council structures? What’s its purpose?

Most Kurds support the MGRK, but most non-Kurds don’t. The purpose of the transitional government is to include as many groups and people as possible. And it’s an effort to achieve legitimacy in Syria, in the Middle East, and in the world. Unfortunately, a council structure wouldn’t be respected internationally.

The transitional government emerged from the council structures and doesn’t contradict them—it recognizes their legitimacy. It’s much more dependent on them than vice versa, since after three years they are functioning so well. The council structures coordinate the economy; there aren’t any large private enterprises.

Q: Is there an additional level of councils in enterprises? How do they fit in with the rest of the council structure?

The private firms have is no council stricture, since only about fifteen people at most work in them. The public enterprises are more important, because they employ more people. Labor unions have recently been brought in, coordinated by the council structures. We are in a transitional phase, it’s all to be configured along direct-democratic lines.

Q: Has private ownership of the means of production been wholly abolished? Or are there still owners and workers in smaller enterprises and businesses?

Private ownership hasn’t been abolished. Personal property has not been touched. The MGRK structures are very conscious about class relations, but at present no one is talking about socializing all the means of production. Because private ownership doesn’t play a great role in the economy. The current politics just aren’t conducive to an increase in privately owned means of production.

Up to 20 percent of the land belongs to large landholders, but land confiscated from the Syrian state has been distributed free to the poorest people in Rojavan society.

In short: the council structures—and also the transitional government, albeit in somewhat weaker form—are guided by the paradigm of a democratic, gender-equal, and ecological society. They reject bourgeois parliamentarism, one-party rule, the subordination of women, conservative structures, and the destructive logic of capitalism and its logic of exploitation.

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Q: What social and political conflicts exist there in Rojava?

There’s a visible contradiction as to whether the council structure and the transitional government can continue to coexist. Over the long term that will have to be resolved.

Even given the strong solidarity and mutual aid, employment is an issue, and it’s not small. Many young people are leaving the land. The general political uncertainty is contributing to the problem.

The existing large landownership stands in contradiction to the cooperatives that are being created both in the city and in the countryside. The profitability of the enterprises created by the council structures will eventually have to be ensured.

The many refugees in Rojava are somewhat burdening the economy. But people in the society must have better housing, jobs, and social contacts. Including them in a good way should be the goal.

The embargo imposed by Turkey must be lifted, since as long as it’s in place, Rojava cannot export either petroleum or wheat. Being able to do so would strengthen the economy enormously, and would allow scarce goods to be introduced.

The insufficient electrical power considerably limits both life and the economy. There’s a lot of complaining about it.

Medications to treat chronic disease aren’t available, so chronically ill people have to leave the land, if they can, or else buy the necessary medications on the black market at a very high price.

The cooperatives that have been built have to advance further, because they offer alternative possibilities of employment to women, who have been strongly oppressed and are now politically engaged.

Q: In June 2013 many cities on Rojava saw protests against the PYD’s security forces. People were protesting the forces’ harsh methods and the arrest of political activists. What is the relationship of the PYD to the other leftist parties and organizations?

Yes, in many cities there were protests against the Asayis, the council structures’ security forces. The Asayis is not answerable to the PYD, by the way, although this party is very important. The protests were mostly organized by the ENKS. It’s true that in the beginning the Asayis in several cases were very harsh, but this was not the general rule.

And yes, it also committed some human rights abuses—in one case several people died. We investigated it. The Asayis have in the meantime learned a lot and are working to improve. All Asayis attend a seminar every week to learn about more humane ways of dealing with people.

Actually most people in Rojava today are very positive about the Asayis. They come from among their own—they aren’t outsiders brought in from some other place. In 2014 there were almost no protests against the Asayis, which shows that the situation has improved.

Q: And what is the connection to South Kurdistan and its ruling KDP?

Starting in early 2013, Rojava’s relations with South Kurdistan (the KRG) were poor, mainly because of South Kurdistan. In April 2014 the KRG built a trench and a wall against Rojava, to obstruct trade and to enforce the embargo against Rojava. It even denied that there’s been a revolution here at all. Finally at the end of October 2014, as a result of the struggle for Kobanê, all parties of Rojava—including the KRG, led by the KDP, and the PKK—came to an agreement. The two sides are drawing closer. Kobanê and all Rojava benefit from that development. But we know that the KDP would like very much to gain more power in Rojava and strip the revolution of its emancipatory content. The council structures, however, are confident of the people’s support and don’t believe their revolution can be either defeated or stolen.

Q: What would the German government do if it really wanted to help people in Kobanê?

It would to exert pressure on Turkey to open a permanent corridor to Kobanê. The corridor is important because YPG units from the two other regions of Rojava need it to get to Kobanê.

It would persuade Turkey to finally stop supporting IS—Turkish support for the IS is at present unabated.

And finally, it would have to lift the ban on the PKK, a ban that intimidates thousands of Kurds and obstructs their solidarity with Kobanê.


Ercan Ayboga lives in Germany and writes regularly for Kurdistan Report and Yeni Özgür Politika. He is active in Campaign TATORT Kurdistan. At the moment he and the two other delegation participants are writing a book about the revolution in Rojava.

This interview was originally published in Marx21 on November 10, 2014. It has been translated from the German by Janet Biehl.


Dispatch from Diyarbakir, October 31

by Ulf Petersen

Sixteen YPG/YPG fighters dead in twenty-four hours, and no end is in sight—the brutal game around Kobanê continues. Two friends from the Bağlar neighborhood, aged 32 and 35, tell me that if they didn’t have sole responsibility for their daughters’ care, they would rush to join the fight. “We’re not afraid of İşıd,” they say, using the Turkish shorthand for Islamic State (IS).

Kobanê could become a Kurdish Gallipoli, a founding myth for a “Kurdistan” of some political form. Sentiments that Rojava should unite with the KRG—in northern Iraq, led by Masoud Barzani—and with the PKK movement in Turkey are strong. Barzani’s peshmerga fighters were welcomed joyfully, as Nick Brauns describes.

The battle for Kobanê is strengthening Kurdish identity. That identity, a feeling of a deep connectedness, is the principal source of the Kurds’ spirit of resistance, strengthened by hatred for the Islamic State. Many Kurds consider the PKK’s program of women’s liberation, ecology, and council democracy to be an indispensable component of their Kurdish identity, indeed of Kurdish existence today.

On Tuesday we talked with Ahmet Türk, a Kurdish politician who, along with the Aramaic Christian Februniye Akyol Benno, is co-mayor of the large city of Mardin. He emphasized that the Kurdish people’s struggle points to a solution for the entire Middle East. The goal is “democratic confederalism,” in the sense of Abdullah Öcalan, that transcends borders and guarantees peace and equality for all ethnic and religious groups.

By comparison with the pogrom mentality that is being inflamed by the Islamic State, the Shiite militias in Iraq, and other forces, this project seems a humane and democratic alternative.

Today I met a seventeen-year-old Kurd from Erbil, who three years ago gave up his Muslim beliefs and became an atheist. In fact, he has tattooed on his chest the symbol of the prophet Zarathustra, but he keeps it covered up, since his life is precious to him.

When we return, we will report on the conversations and observations at the border at Kobanê and in the refugee camps. We will consider how leftist movements here and in the West and approach the danger of German, Kurdish, Arabic, and other nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms as a common problem.

Diyarbakır, October 31, 2014

Video: Child care in the refugee camp Arin Mirxan in Suruç


Translated by Janet Biehl.