by Janet Biehl
At long last the war against the Islamic State has brought Westerners’ attention to the North Kurdish (i.e., Kurds in Turkey) freedom struggle. For three decades the PKK has been fighting an insurgency against Turkey, and Turkey has fought back, leading to nothing except bitter reprisals, protracted conflict, and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages in the 1990s. Originating in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist organization, the PKK got placed on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. So even as the Kurdish struggle evolved into something quite different from its original state, Westerners continued to avert their eyes due to the terrorism listing. And of course Turkey, a NATO member, is intransigently wedded to keeping the PKK securely on that list, fearing that anything less could lead to the emergence of a Kurdish state.
But the Kurdish freedom movement no longer seeks a separate Kurdish state—it shed even the idea of a state years ago. Now embodied institutionally in a confederal association called the KCK and other groupings, it now subsumes freedom and democracy for Kurds into freedom and democracy for Turkey as a whole. Radical Kurds wish to create a stateless base democracy throughout Turkey and indeed throughout the Middle East. Let me repeat that: Kurds, they now believe, will not have justice and freedom in Turkey till everyone in Turkey and indeed the Middle East has justice and freedom.
It’s a breathtaking concept, especially given that it was promulgated amid war. It was the idea of Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurds’ imprisoned leader, serving a life sentence in Turkish prison since 1999. A onetime Marxist-Leninist and founder of the Kurdish struggle back in 1978, Öcalan has done penance for his bullying, authoritarian past and transformed himself into an inspirational advocate of radical democracy as an alternative modernity. In prison he wrote books, influenced by Murray Bookchin, on this new path; those writings are being translated into English and German and are available here.
For the democracy that Öcalan calls for is not representative democracy (organized around a state) but assembly democracy, grounded in base democracy, gender equality, alternative economics, and ecology. It would consciously not be based on ethnic homogeneity. It would be an alternative modernity, one that avoided the West’s highly problematic ventures into the nation-state and capitalism. On Öcalan’s recommendation, ordinary people in North Kurdistan, and the PKK based in the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq, began studying these ideas.
Öcalan issued the Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in 2005; six years later Kurds declared democratic autonomy—they set about attempting to implement the ideas, which some might dismiss as utopian, even under wartime conditions. How does it work out in practice? It was still incipient when this field study was undertaken in late 2011 and early 2012; it’s available in English and German. Here’s more a recent piece.
In March 2013 a cease-fire was declared between the Turkish state and the For over a year now, a peace process has been under way between Turks and Kurds, in which Öcalan is consulted regularly. There has been no violence in over a year. Hold that thought.
Democratic Autonomy in West Kurdistan
Kurdish culture easily cross borders between the four Middle Eastern countries that have Kurdish populations (Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq). So have , the ideas of democratic autonomy. They too have become part of the culture of Rojava, or West Kurdistan, the ethnic Kurdish area situated in northernmost Syria.
The PYD (Partiya Yekitiya Demokratik, or Democratic Union Party), formed in 2003, sided neither with Assad’s regime nor with the opposition. An illegal party, it was persecuted by the Syrian Ba’ath regime, and it led a Kurdish uprising in 2004; two thousand of PYD members were arrested. By 2011 it had the support of most Syrian Kurds. It is a major part of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCB), a broad revolutionary leftist coalition in Syria. At a general conference on November 12, 2013, representing 35 parties, the NCB embraced the project of democratic autonomy for Rojava.
Kurds exhibit a remarkable willingness to launch far-seeing utopian efforts during wartime. Two years earlier, Bashar al-Assad had cracked down on a pro-democracy uprising and thereby launched the Syrian civil war, and Syria disintegrated into factional strife. In Rojava, a Ba’ath regime had been in power, but the PYD’s forces expelled it in mid-2012. Damascene control over Rojava collapsed, and local councils sprang to life, distributing food, forming self-defense committees, and established a Kurdish-language school.
In January 2014 Rojava divided itself into three autonomous Kurdish cantons (Cezire, Kobani, and Afrin) and declared Democratic Autonomy. Each canton has a parliament, a prime minister, 22 ministries. Each ministry is led by one minister and two deputies, one Kurd, one Arab, and one Assyrian each; and one must be a woman. Gender equality, here as in North Kurdistan, is crucial—a co-presidency is split between one woman and one man. How closely these institutions are grounded in base democracy (or can be, given the war) is unclear; but it sees itself as opposing “the modern system of nation-states.” According to one observer, they employ a barter economy and “have formed communes at all levels to solve their problems.”
On January 21, 2014, one of the three Kurdish cantons, Cezire declared the establishment of a democratic autonomy. It’s based on a 101-seat assembly and the 22 local ministries. The Canton’s president, Ekrem Heso, says that the project of democratic autonomy would be built on the principle of brotherhood among the peoples and the principle of the democratic nation. Celebrations broke out around the canton. About two weeks later a second canton, Kobani, also declared democratic autonomy, and Afrin shortly thereafter.
Qamishli, the largest city in Rojava, is its would-be capital. It too has seen a devolution of power. In its neighborhoods communes have organized to solve problems with the water and electric supply.
The YPG: Hope of the West?
The Syrian Kurds’ armed force is the YPG, or People’s Protection Units. The YPG has been trying to beat back Islamic State since long before many in the West heard of Islamic State. It has united with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other forces, creating a joint force called Burkan El Firat. In the summer of 2014 the YPG helped rescue the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar by creating a humanitarian corridor and now are actually training Yazidis to fight Islamic State.
In July 2014 the Rojavan city of Kobani, on the Turkish border, seemed about to fall to Islamic State. That month the KCK (Union of Kurdistan Communities), the Kurdish communalist association, announced that the looming Islamic State attack on Kobani would be an attack on all Kurds, and it called on Kurds to go to Kobani and help secure it. The PKK, its guns silent during the peace process, decided to make itself useful. Arriving in Rojava, PKK units joined forces with the YPG, forming a joint force called and repelled the attack on Kobani and halt Islamic State.
The PKK has also sent fighters to help the Peshmerga fight the Islamic State in Iraq; while the Peshmerga initially retreated, united they helped retake several Kurdish cities there and retain Kurdish control over Erbil. The United States is sending arms to the Peshmerga, but not to the PKK or the YPG.
Where the Iraqi army has fled Islamic States, the YPG has succeeded in pushing back. YPG soldiers carry AK-47’s and wear sneakers but fight fearlessly on behalf of the society to which they are devoted. Secular, their ranks are laced with women as well as men. Yet with their passion and commitment, reinforced by the PKK, they may, at least for now, be the United States’ most helpful ally. If only the United States would allow itself to be helped. It’s time for the United States to remove the PKK from the list of foreign terrorist organizations. But maybe it already knows: the PKK has been fundraising in the West even as governments cast their gaze in the other direction.