The Kurdish movement for radical change in Syria and the broader Middle East

By Chris Slee A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State
By Meredith Tax
Bellevue Literary Press
New York 2016 April 3, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal When Meredith Tax saw pictures of gun-toting Kurdish women defending the northern Syrian town of Kobane against Daesh (so-called "Islamic State") in 2014, she was inspired to find out more. This book is the eventual outcome of her research. The female fighters of the YPJ (Women's Protection Units) are part of a movement aimed at radical change in Syria and the broader Middle East. Tax explores the history of this movement in the context of the history of the Kurdish people. Kurds have lived for millennia in a mountainous region that is today divided between the modern states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Before World War I, most of this area was part of the Ottoman empire. Another part was under the Iranian monarchy. During the war Britain and France made promises of independence or autonomy for the Kurds, but these promises were forgotten in the post-war carve-up of the former Ottoman territory. Kurdistan was divided by the newly drawn borders. Turkey was allowed to keep the largest part of Kurdistan. Iran retained control of eastern Kurdistan. Iraq and Syria took the rest. Iraq became a British protectorate, with a British-installed monarchy that lasted until it was overthrown in 1958. After a period when different forces struggled for power, Saddam Hussein became dictator in 1979. Syria became a French colony. It gained independence in 1946. Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. His son Bashar al-Assad took over when he died in 2000. In each of the four states, Kurds were subject to discrimination and repression, resulting in a series of revolts that were brutally crushed.


In Iraq, there was a failed Kurdish rebellion in 1945, led by Mustafa Barzani, a tribal leader. After fleeing into exile, he formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Initially it was very diverse, including conservative tribal leaders and leftist intellectuals, but after a split in the 1960s the Barzani family totally controlled the party. Periods of Kurdish rebellion were interspersed with periods of truce with the Iraqi central government. The worst repression occurred during the rule of Hussein. Thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed. Arab settlers were brought into Kurdish areas. Chemical weapons were widely used, including against the town of Halabja, where thousands of people were killed. Barzani had close ties to the United States and Israel. At times they aided his rebellions, but this aid could be cut off when US policy changed. In the 1970s Barzani was supported by the US and the Shah of Iran, but this aid was cut off in 1975 when the Shah reached an agreement with Hussein to resolve a border dispute. In 1991, following the Gulf War, the US declared a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. This enabled the Kurds, free of bombing by Hussein's air force, to establish an autonomous zone. However conflict between Barzani's KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani, resulted in a period of intra-Kurdish warfare between 1994 and 1998. After the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the autonomous status of the Kurdish area was formalised, with the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG retained close ties with the US. It also developed close ties with Turkey, despite the latter's extreme hostility to self-determination for its own Kurdish population. These links are partly based on economics (Turkey buys oil from the KRG and Turkish capitalists invest in Iraqi Kurdistan). But they are also based on a shared hostility to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a left-wing party which emerged in the Turkish part of Kurdistan.


The Turkish republic, established after fall of the Ottoman empire, followed a policy of "cultural and linguistic homogeneity" (Tax, p. 51). This meant the forced assimilation of minorities, including the Kurds. Turkey's policies towards the Kurds have included "forced population transfers; mass random killings; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme political repression" (p. 52). In response to this oppression, the PKK was formed in 1978 with the intention of waging a national liberation struggle leading to an independent Kurdish state. The PKK initiated armed struggle in 1984. Meanwhile some other Kurds tried legal methods. In 1990 they formed the Peoples Labour Party (HEP), a predominantly Kurdish political party. It won 22 seats in the 1991 elections. One of its new members of parliament was Leyla Zana, a campaigner for the rights of political prisoners who became the first Kurdish woman MP. But in 1993 the party was banned and its deputies prosecuted for alleged ties to the PKK. Several subsequent attempts to form a legal Kurdish party met a similar fate.


The Syrian Kurds were also oppressed. According to Tax: "In 1962, when Syria declared itself an Arab republic, 120,000 Kurds were stripped of citizenship on the claim that their ancestors had infiltrated into Syria from Turkey. This made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs who were strategically placed in an 'Arab belt' to break up the contiguous Kurdish area near the Turkish border" (p. 50). Nevertheless the Syrian government allowed PKK members fleeing from repression in Turkey to live in Syria. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan lived in Damascus from 1980 to 1998. Some Syrian Kurds joined the PKK. After 1998 the activity of PKK members in Syria was heavily repressed. Ocalan was expelled. After unsuccessfully seeking asylum in a number of countries, he was abducted from Kenya and taken to Turkey, where he was imprisoned. In 2003 Syrian members of the PKK founded the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Evolution of Ocalan's thinking

Both the PKK and PYD follow Ocalan's ideas. But these ideas have changed markedly since the early years of the PKK. When the PKK was founded in 1978, its perspective was to carry out an armed struggle for national liberation. Guerrilla warfare began in 1984. Guerrilla bases were established in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, near the Turkish border. The PKK carried out small scale attacks in Turkey, and began recruiting young people from Kurdish villages. However the government adopted tactics that were partially successful in countering the PKK, including the recruitment of village guards who were paid by the government and given bonuses for killing PKK members. Setbacks for the guerrillas resulted in paranoia within the PKK. More than 50 people were executed as suspected spies or traitors between 1985 and 1992. Meanwhile Kurdish people were carrying out other forms of struggle, including mass protests and electoral campaigns. These struggles eventually had an impact on the thinking of Ocalan and the PKK. They began to recognise that guerrilla war was not the only valid form of struggle. Tax comments:
In the eighties, the PKK was a small and fairly isolated group of militants focused on armed struggle and willing to use violence against civilians like teachers and the families of village guards. In the nineties, their message of Kurdish liberation was taken up by an increasing number of ordinary Kurds, and the struggle was gradually transformed by mass civil resistance as well as battles for political representation. In both these arenas, women were leading activists. And from the nineties on, these three forms of struggle - guerrilla warfare, mass civil resistance and parliamentary work - were linked and had a cumulative effect on the consciousness of people in south-eastern Turkey. (p. 105)
One early sign of the beginning of a change was the fact that the PKK urged people to vote for HEP candidates in the October 1991 election. Another was the offer of a ceasefire in December 1991. The government did not respond. In 1993 Ocalan again offered a ceasefire, but the Turkish army stepped up its repression. Tax quotes Turkish journalist Ismet G. Ismet, who wrote: "By the end of 1994, at least 2,664 Kurdish villages and hamlets in Turkey's troubled southeast region were recorded as completely evacuated or partially destroyed by government forces." (Tax, p. 117) Tax explains that "the object is to empty the villages and small towns on which guerrillas depend for supplies, thus starving them out." (P. 118) Many of the displaced people went to cities, either in the Kurdish region or in western Turkey. Ocalan and the PKK gradually came to recognise the importance of the struggle for democracy. Tax argues that: "This change must be attributed to the growing strength of the mass democratic movement in southeastern Turkey, which virtually demanded that the PKK pay attention to it, although the PKK did not fully grapple with this need until years after Ocalan was jailed." (p. 126) However the internal regime of the PKK remained problematic. There was "an exclusive emphasis on Ocalan's thought" that "led cadre towards seeing his words as catechism and venerating him as a prophet. This was not good for democratic dialogue and independent thinking in the PKK." (p. 126)

Female guerrilla fighters

Another aspect of the evolution of Ocalan's thinking was his growing emphasis on the role of women. He taught that "in the same way as the Turkish people ... have colonised and enslaved the Kurdish people, Kurdish men have colonised and enslaved Kurdish women." (Tax, p. 127) By 1993 a third of new PKK recruits were women. In that year separate women's guerrilla units were formed. Tax comments that: "These women-only units were key in giving women the confidence and leadership experience to make the leap to a fully separate women's army." (P. 136) The PKK also formed a parallel women's party structure, called the Party of Free Women of Kurdistan. The presence of armed female guerrilla fighters inspired other women. Tax quotes Newroz Seroxan, a Kurdish woman activist who said: "If women can fight and carry a gun, that means they can do anything - this is the approach that has developed in society." (p. 140)

Ocalan in prison

Ocalan was abducted from Kenya in February 1999. He was put on trial and sentenced to death. Taking advantage of Turkey's desire to join the European Union, he appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. For a long time Ocalan continued to lead the PKK from prison through messages sent via lawyers and family members. He was re-elected as leader at the PKK congress held in 2000 even though he was in jail. In recent years all communication has been cut off, but Ocalan is still described as leader. His ideas guide the activity of the PKK, PYD and related organisations. Ocalan read widely while in prison and wrote articles advocating democracy based on local councils, equality of the sexes and concern for ecology. He corresponded with US anarchist Murray Bookchin and was influenced by the latter's ideas. Influenced also by the writings of Benedict Anderson, Ocalan developed a critique of the nation-state, and abandoned the idea of establishing a Kurdish state: " I understood that the nation-state model was an iron cage for societies, I realised that freedom and community were more important concepts." (Tax, p. 151) Despite his critique of the state, Ocalan said that the democratic structures built up from below could coexist with the state, provided it was a democratic state that respected human rights.

Democratic autonomy in Turkey

The PKK began trying to implement these ideas, setting up organs of self-rule in various localities. Meanwhile some Kurdish MPs who had been released from prison in 2004 established a new party to replace their previous party which had been banned. The Democratic Society Party won 22 seats in the 2007 elections. Tax writes: "In October 2007, following its electoral breakthrough, the Democratic Society Party called a conference to form a new mass organisation: the Democratic Society Congress. The conference brought Kurdish representatives from every part of Turkey to Diyarbakir to discuss what they called democratic autonomy, which, like Ocalan's 'democratic confederalism', was a bottom up, participatory, culturally diverse method of getting things done." (p. 157) In March 2009 the Democratic Society Party won control of nearly 100 local governments, including Diyarbakir and seven other important cities. But in December 2009 the party was shut down. In October 2009, 152 DSP members, including 8 mayors, were put on trial. The movement for democratic autonomy continued however. Communes and neighbourhood councils were built by activists in Kurdish areas. In 2011 a thousand people attended a conference of the movement in Diyarbakir. The movement established neighbourhood councils, which were required to include at least 40 percent women, and which had male and female co-chairs. Tax reports that: "Much of the energy of these local councils went into restorative justice and conflict mediation." (p. 160) Progressive imams and Islamic scholars organised alternative Friday prayer services conducted in Kurdish rather than Turkish.

Democratic autonomy in Rojava

Repression made it impossible to fully implement democratic autonomy in Turkey. But the 2011 uprising in Syria weakened the Assad regime and created circumstances in which it was possible to test out these new ideas. Tax explains: "Even before 2011, while the PYD was still underground, it had begun to develop local councils along the lines of those in Turkey, concentrating mainly on conflict mediation and restorative justice." (p. 168-169) As soon as the uprising began, according to Salih Muslim, a leader of the PYD, "local councils popped up everywhere. Developed under the umbrella of democratic confederalism, these councils had been active already as a parallel structure of government to that of the state since 2007, organising justice and mediating in conflict; with the collapse of the state, they came out into the open." (p. 169) According to Tax, "Salih Muslim viewed local councils as part of a structure that could eventually replace a repressive state with local self-governing administrations in all of Syria, not just in the three liberated cantons of Rojava." (p. 169) Rojava is the collective name for three predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria. By July 2012 the local councils had developed to the point where they were ready to take control of the Kurdish areas of northern Syria. They were helped by the fact that the Assad regime had withdrawn most of its troops from these areas to fight elsewhere. In most places the takeover was peaceful, with the government soldiers surrendering and handing over their weapons without firing a shot. In Derik there was a battle lasting several hours before the soldiers surrendered. This made it possible to create a system of democratic self-administration in Rojava. Tax outlines the system:
By January 2014, they had established a system of participatory democracy in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils, and social service and legal questions administered by civil society structures under the umbrella of a coalition called TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). (p. 53-54)
All of a city's ethnic and religious groups were represented in TEV-DEM by quotas, along with civil society organisations and political parties. Many parties were represented, though the coalition's ideological leadership clearly came from the PYD. (p. 169)
Over time the system developed further, with councils at the neighbourhood, district, city and canton levels. This system of democratic self-administration, first applied in Rojava and in Sheikh Maqsoud, a predominantly Kurdish area of Aleppo city, was later extended to other areas, including those liberated from ISIS. The name "Democratic Federation of Northern Syria" (DFNS) was adopted in 2016.

Syria: repression, rebellion and reactionary influences

While the democratic revolution in Rojava was relatively peaceful, elsewhere anti-Assad protests faced violent repression. This led to the growth of armed resistance. The rebels got arms and money from Turkey and the Gulf states. But this aid was used to coopt the rebel movement and influence it in a reactionary direction. Tax notes that the ideas implemented in northern Syria under the leadership of the PYD were similar to those put forward by democratic activists elsewhere in Syria. These activists encouraged the formation of Local Coordinating Committees. Tax says that "...the original Local Coordinating Committees, which still existed in some places in 2016, resembled Rojava communes in many ways, although they were more disparate ideologically, and some were dominated by Islamists." (p. 166) However the LCCs were soon overshadowed by armed rebel groups which were often reactionary. Tax quotes academic Kamran Matin, who said:
We should remember that for many months after the outbreak of anti-Assad protests, secular-progressive forces such as the Local Coordination Committees of Syria were in the forefront of the popular uprising. They lost their political clout only when Assad's forces' incessant violence against peaceful protests led to the militarisation of the opposition, which was in turn quickly sectarianised as a result of the indirect intervention of regional reactionary pro-Western, anti-Assad states of Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which sought Assad's downfall at any price. (Tax, p. 165)

"Third way"

Hence the PYD kept its distance from the rest of the Syrian opposition, adopting a policy called the "third way". They were "not aligned with either the rebellion, increasingly dominated by Islamists, or the Assad government." (p. 165) Speaking in October 2011, Salih Muslim said:
We do not kill anyone and we also do not fight against anyone ... We demand a fundamental change to the oppressive system ... The ruling powers in Damascus come and go. For us Kurds, this isn't so important. What is important is that we Kurds assert our existence. The current regime does not accept us, nor do those who will potentially come into power." (p. 167)
The PYD's suspicion of the rebel movement was understandable. The rebels were backed by the Turkish state, which had a history of ruthless repression against its own Kurdish population. Some rebel groups were funded by the Gulf states and/or private sources in the Gulf that tended to favour the most reactionary groups within the rebel movement. The rebel movement was also hostile to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. This was admitted by Robin Yassin Kassab, a supporter of the uprising, who said: "The myth that a strong central state ensures the strength and dignity of its people runs deep in oppositional consciousness - nationalist, Leftist , and Islamist - despite all the evidence to the contrary." (Tax, p. 166-167) It was not just the PYD who had problems with these attitudes. Some small Kurdish parties that had joined the Syrian National Council (the Turkey-based opposition coalition) became disillusioned and withdrew in March 2012. Tax explains: "When the Syrian opposition refused to discuss Kurdish autonomy until after Assad was overthrown, all the Kurdish parties withdrew from the coalition." (p. 165) Most of these small Kurdish parties were close to the Iraqi KDP. Barzani, hoping to become a power broker in Syria, sponsored a coalition of 16 groups called the Kurdish National Council. The PYD agreed to cooperate with the KNC. However cooperation broke down when the leaders of these small groups each wanted to keep their own militia, whereas the PYD wanted a unified command. Tax notes that: "Some of the sixteen parties in the Kurdish National Council eventually decided to work with the PYD and joined TEV-DEM, while others remained outside." (p. 192)

Criticisms of the "third way" policy

The "third way" policy of the PYD was denounced by many supporters of the rebel movement, including by some leftists. For example, Yassin al-Haj Saleh said:
What we are witnessing is, in my view, the building of an ultranationalist, one-party system, with hidden connections to the Assad regime, and less hidden ones with the US and Russia. (p. 166)
The accusation of "ultranationalism" is clearly false. The PYD does not aim for an independent Kurdish state but a democratic Syria with autonomy for local areas, including Kurdish-majority areas. All ethnic groups are included in the system of democratic self-administration. The DFNS is not a one-party state. Parties other than the PYD participate, though the PYD has played a leading role. Relations with the Assad regime have been hostile. There have been numerous armed clashes, even if falling short of all-out war. The DFNS has tried to build relations with the United States and Russia as a deterrent to attacks by Turkey and other hostile forces. There has been cooperation between the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS. However the US has not insisted on SDF participation in peace talks, and has done nothing to stop Turkey's invasion of Afrin. For a time Russia helped deter a Turkish invasion. But since 2016 Russia has done deals with Turkey allowing Turkish forces to bomb and invade parts of Syria, including most recently Afrin.

Economic policy in Rojava

Tax quotes Dara Kurdaxi, an economist and member of the committee for economic revival and development in the Afrin canton, who said the aim was "an alternative economic policy, one based not on profit but on the fairer redistribution of wealth." (p. 175) Kurdaxi also said that:
The oil industry is under the control of the councils and managed by the workers' committee. The refineries produce cheap benzine for cooperatives and the staff of the autonomous government. A great deal of land which was previously nationalised under Assad as part of the anti-Kurdish policies is now managed by free Rojava through agricultural cooperatives. Doctors' committees are working to form a free health system. (p. 175)
However, Tax noted that the ability of Rojava to implement such a policy was limited by blockade and aggression:
Because so much of the Rojava economy has had to be devoted to war, the cantons have not been able to move very quickly towards a democratic, cooperative and ecologically sound form of economic development. (p. 175)
In February 2016, the Afrin canton administration issued a statement on the blockade:
For three years, the Afrin canton has been under a dual siege. On the one hand, there are armed groups in the east and south that launch assaults, block roads, ban the entry of food and medical aid to the canton, obstruct movement of civilians from and to the canton and kidnap them. On the other hand, the Turkish government imposes a firm closure on the border from north and west... (p. 174)
Turkey's full scale invasion of Afrin occurred after the book was published. But Tax shows how Turkey has supported attacks on Rojava and the DFNS by a number of armed groups, including Daesh.

Kobane and Sinjar

In 2014 Daesh launched a huge offensive against Rojava. Their aim was to capture Kobane, a city on the Turkish border. Daesh used heavy weapons captured from the Iraqi army. Tax says:
The combined People's Protection Units and Women's Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) turned back the first attacks, but on July 2, Daesh began a concerted assault, using thermal missiles and heavy artillery they had captured from the Iraqi army in Mosul. They also had Humvees, night vision goggles, M-16 rifles, and at least one $4 million tank, not to mention a seemingly unlimited supply of jihadis. In fact, Daesh had so many weapons they were able to fire three thousand mortar rounds at Kobane over a period of four days in July. (p. 180)
Meanwhile Turkey was blockading the border to prevent supplies reaching the defenders of Kobane. Thousands of Turkish Kurds massed at the border and defied water cannon and tear gas to get some supplies in. In August that year Daesh attacked Sinjar, a town in Iraq inhabited by members of the Yazidi religious minority. Thousands were massacred and thousands of women raped. The YPG-YPJ came to the rescue of the many Yazidis who had fled to Sinjar mountain. The US government was worried at the rapid expansion of Daesh and needed local allies to combat it. Left-wing Kurds were not the preferred option, but after the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul the US was becoming desperate. In addition, media coverage of events in Sinjar and Kobane created popular pressure to support the women fighters of the YPJ against the misogynist Daesh. Eventually military cooperation with the YPG/YPJ against Daesh was established, though this did not mean US political support for the PYD's goals, and the PKK was still classified by the US as a "terrorist" organisation. Turkey continued to support Daesh in a range of ways, including buying oil from areas under its control and supplying weapons.

Escalating violence in Turkey

Turkey's war against the Kurdish-led democratic revolution in Syria was accompanied by a war against the Turkish Kurds at home. Demonstrations across Turkey called by the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in solidarity with Kobane were attacked by police and fascists. Tax reports that "there were fifty-five deaths between October 7 and October 10 [2014]". (p. 184) In the May 2015 parliamentary election the HDP got 13.1% of the vote, exceeding the 10% threshold for entering parliament. Erdogan, aiming to change this outcome, called a new election for November. In July 2015 a suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish rally in Suruc, killing 33 people. The police were accused of collusion with the bomber. The PKK retaliated by killing two police. This gave Erdogan an excuse for a wave of repression. Tax reports that: "By August 2015, 1,464 HDP elected officials had been arrested, and 224 were in jail, including the co-mayors of Hakkari, Sur, Silvan and Edremit." (p. 250) The government put Kurdish cities under martial law. In Cizre for example the whole town was under 24 hour curfew for nine days. Army snipers in high buildings shot civilians at random. Some towns were bombed from the air or shelled by tanks. The civil resistance movement responded by declaring autonomy in town after town, digging ditches and building barricades in an attempt to keep the army out. Meanwhile in Ankara 102 people were killed in the bombing of a peace rally on October 10. Once again the police were accused of collusion. In the November 2015 election, the HDP vote was down due to the climate of fear, but still exceeded 10 percent.

The future of the revolution

Tax highlights the importance of solidarity with the revolution. She quotes David Graeber, who says:
I don't think there's any guarantee this one will work out in the end, that it won't be crushed, but it certainly won't [succeed] if everyone decides in advance that no revolution is possible and refuse[s] to give to give active support.... (p. 260)
Tax herself says: "I am excited by Rojava because the people there are trying something new, and women are in the center of it all." (p. 260) At the same time, she is conscious of the enormous difficulty of making a democratic revolution under conditions of war. She is also still a bit distrustful of the PKK, despite its commitment to democracy:
To me, there are inherent contradictions in trying to mesh a top down party-type organisation like the PKK with the bottom-up grass-roots democratic politics of communes and councils. What happens when differences of opinion arise? Under peacetime conditions, these differences can be worked through....But under conditions of war, a disciplined party and military command structure will probably prevail in most cases.
In other words, as long as the war goes on, the voices of the PKK military leaders in Qandil are likely to overrule the voices of civilian politicians like Leyla Zana and Selahattin Demirtas [a HDP leader]....
I don't mean to say that democracy is impossible under conditions of war. But it is more likely to thrive under conditions of peace, when all the differences of opinion, affiliation, and material interest can come out into the open, unconstrained by the need for unity against an external enemy. On the other hand, any revolutionary society is likely to be threatened from the outside, so there will still be pressure to conform, even if no shooting war is going on...
There are reasons, based on past revolutions, to fear the worst and there are reasons to believe that, like the rest of us, the Kurds have learned from these past revolutions and are looking for a different way. (p. 261-2)
Hence the future is still uncertain. It is "a road unforeseen."