Rojava’s autonomous cantons: What a revolution looks like

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"A YPJ fighter (right) next to a very similar picture of a female fighter in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s. The comparison is apt. The presence of such a high proportion of female front line fighters is evidence of a profound social transformation that has been happening in liberated Rojava and  within the Kurdish revolutionary movement."

By Tony Iltis

November 1, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On November 1, protests were held worldwide in solidarity with Kobanê. Protests took place in most countries on every continent. Even in Afghanistan, protests were organised in six cities by left-wing anti-occupation groups.

After withstanding more than six weeks of intense siege by the terrorist group that calls itself “Islamic State” (IS), Kobanê (also called Kobani), a small majority-Kurdish town on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, has become one of the most well-known places on the planet.

The defenders of Kobanê mostly belong to the Syrian-Kurdish militias, the Peoples Defence Units (YPG) and Womens Defence Units (YPJ). The YPG has both male and female fighters. The YPJ is, as its name suggests, all female. Despite having held three cantons in Rojava as liberated zones since July 2012, until recently these militias were as obscure as Kobanê itself.

However, the besieged town’s resistance, and its increasing significance in the new, vaguely defined and open-ended Western air war against IS, has brought these fighters to the world’s attention.

One notable feature of the YPG and YPJ is their effectiveness as a fighting force. When IS forces swept into Iraq from Syria in June, they appeared unstoppable. In Mosul, the garrison of the Iraq government army, whose creation was the most touted achievement of the 2003-2011 US occupation, surrendered without firing a shot. IS executed the surrendered troops and filmed the mass execution.

In August, IS attacked Iraqi Kurdistan. The peshmerga, the forces of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who like the Iraq government army are beneficiaries of US arms and advisors, fled. The Yazidi religious minority in the Sinjar district were left at the mercy of IS. Thousands of men were killed and women and children literally carried off as slaves. Some were sold in the public market in Mosul.

It was the rescue of the remaining Yazidi Kurds that was the pretext for the new Western war. However, when US special forces arrived in Sinjar they had already been rescued — by the YPG, YPJ and their Turkish Kurdistan-based allies, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Despite long-standing hostility from the KRG toward the PKK and its allies, it was YPG, YPJ and PKK forces who defended the KRG capital, Irbil, from the IS. Sinjar continues to be threatened by IS and continues to be defended by forces of the YPG, YPJ and PKK together with the YBS, a local militia they created.


Also notable has been the high proportion of women in their ranks. Images of young women in military fatigues determinedly brandishing assault rifles, grenade launchers or machine-guns have flooded the world media and come to symbolise the resistance of Kobanê, contrasting dramatically with the image of IS fighters whose prolific social media output advertises their crazed misogyny as proudly as their crazed violence. While some Kurdistan solidarity activists have noted the decontextualised use of these images in mainstream media, the YPG and YPJ and Rojova liberated cantons administration have widely used such images themselves.

One image distributed by solidarity activists on social media is a picture of a YPJ fighter next to a very similar picture of a female fighter in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s. The comparison is apt. The presence of such a high proportion of female front line fighters is evidence of a profound social transformation that has been happening in liberated Rojava and before that within the Kurdish revolutionary movement.

When the Western imperialist powers created the present borders of the Middle East through the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Kurdistan was divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and have since suffered national oppression from all four nation states. Throughout the 20th century there were a number of Kurdish uprisings, insurgencies and attempts at forming an independent state. In Iraq, the conservative nationalist Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan achieved autonomy under US protection following the 1991 US-led war on Iraq. Separated from Iraq during the last 12 years of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the US uneasily integrated the KRG into the Iraq state they created after their 2003 invasion.

Formed in 1978, the PKK has been involved in armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, although a ceasefire was signed in March 2013. Tens of thousands of Kurds have been killed by Turkish counter-insurgency operations.

While the KRG has been willing to limit its ambitions to Iraqi Kurdistan (forming close political and economic ties to Turkey and Iran, despite these states’ repression of their Kurdish populations), the PKK has always been committed to the liberation of the whole of Kurdistan. However, since 1999 they have sought to achieve this through a framework of community self-management rather than creating an independent state.

As part of this shift, PKK supporters in the Kurdish areas of Syria, Iraq and Iran formed their own parties. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed in 2003.

The PKK has always had a left-wing revolutionary ideology, including a commitment to women’s liberation. Since the outset of the PKK’s armed struggle female fighters have been an increasing presence in their ranks. As its ideology involved it developed a commitment to creating women-only structures alongside mixed-gender organisations, which has been carried through to its military structures.

'Democratic confederalism'

The move away from fighting for a Kurdish nation state to community self-management was part of a broader ideological shift toward what they call “Democratic Confederalism”. This began as an attempt by the PKK to create parallel structures to the Turkish state at the community level, however this was crushed by violent repression and mass imprisonment. In Rojava, the disintegration of Syria in a multi-sided civil war following the 2011 uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar Assad created both the opportunity and necessity to realise it more fully.

The Assad regime withdrew most of its forces from Rojava when rebel forces reached the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and largest city, Aleppo. At the same time Rojava was threatened with becoming a battlefield between various forces — government, secular opposition and Islamist — most of whom viewed Syria as an Arab nation and were hostile to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. In this vacuum, the PYD initiated the establishment of the civilian and military structures of democratic confederalism, including the YPG and YPJ, which established themselves in three geographically separated cantons: Efrîn, Kobanê, Cizîre.

The principles of democratic confederalism are gender equality, participatory democracy, local autonomy, religious tolerance and an ecological socialist economy. This includes autonomy for all ethnic groups including the right to education in one's own languages. The constitution of the Rojava cantons embodies these principles: with parallel women-only and mixed-gender structures, a minimum of 40% female participation in all decision-making bodies, neighbourhood, municipal and district self-government, representation of all ethnic communities and multilingualism, and a system of having co-leaders of various bodies to guarantee representation of all genders and ethnicities. All religions are tolerated but no religion is allowed to impose itself.

Domestic violence against women and children is actively opposed.

While the contingencies of war have placed limits on the realisation of this constitution in practice, the extent to which it has is made possible by the high degree of support the then-underground PYD enjoyed in Rojava before the 2011 uprising and fragmentation of the Syrian state.


While this revolution passed mostly unnoticed by most of the world’s media, to the Turkish state it represented a threat. Turkey had supported the opposition to Assad since 2011 and allowed fighters from several of the rebel groups to use its territory as a rear base. However, it sealed its borders to Kurds. Furthermore, despite being a NATO member, while NATO (and Australia) launched its air war against IS, Turkey allowed IS to transport troops and weapons across the border to mass its forces for the assault on Kobanê, which began in mid-September.

The West’s response has been confused. Turkey has long been a significant regional ally for the West, one of the few regional states to be openly allied to Israel, for example. Not surprisingly the West has historically been hostile to the PKK, which is listed as a "terrorist" organisation in Australia, the US and the European Union.

The radical ecological socialist experiment in Rojava contrasts starkly with the West’s preferred “development” model — the foreign investment-fuelled boom in resource extraction and construction in the nepotistic but vaguely democratic KRG-ruled part of Iraq being an example.

US motive

However, the West’s air war is largely motivated by the US need to challenge the perception of its global and regional rivals that it was politically unable to intervene in the region because of the domestic unpopularity of its previous 2003-2011 war in Iraq and the exposure of the lies that justified it.

The ultraviolence of IS, and their penchant for advertising it, provided the US with a domestically acceptable reason for war. However, nervousness about domestic opposition has precluded overt deployment of Western ground troops. This has meant the need to use local forces as allies.

Initially the US appeared quite happy to ignore the siege of Kobanê. US Secretary of State John Kerry made a number of statements during the first three weeks of the siege in which he portrayed the town’s fall as a tragic inevitability. The defeat of the YPG and YPJ forces would have removed a potential threat to imperialist interests and pleased Turkey; the inevitable IS videos of mass atrocities that would have followed Kobanê’s fall would have served to justify an increased military involvement.

However, the tenacious resistance of the YPG and YPJ (despite lacking heavy weapons), violently repressed protests by Kurds and supporters in Turkey, and protests by the Kurdish diaspora, meant that the justification for the air war became increasingly less credible the longer the air strikes weren’t hitting the main concentration of IS forces. Kobanê’s defenders capturing the world’s attention meant that the fall of the town would be a propaganda disaster for the West. Eventually, the US started striking the IS forces outside the town and talking to the YPG and YPJ forces inside.

Heavy weapons

The air strikes benefited Kobanê’s defence. The much-hyped air drops of weapons less so — the town’s defenders have continuously stressed the need for heavy weapons to take out the armour that IS has acquired from fleeing Iraq, KRG and Assad regime forces and covertly supplied from Turkey. YPG and YPJ forces in the other two Rojava cantons have heavy weapons. However, the Syrian territory between the cantons is IS-infested, so the YPG and YPJ have been demanding access for their fighters through Turkish territory.

This is naturally unacceptable to the government of Turkey. However, US pressure has meant that Turkey has said it would allow KRG forces to travel to Kobanê. On November 1, ABC radio reported that a small contingent of KRG peshmerga had arrived. This has been accompanied by agreements between the Rojava administration and the KRG. In the past fortnight statements from the YPG, YPJ and PYD have replaced sharp criticism of the KRG and its allied Syrian-Kurdish parties with rhetoric on Kurdish unity. At the same time, statements by the Kobanê defenders make clear that they are less interested in the peshmerga than in the heavy weapons they are bringing with them.

Free Syrian Army

The other force that Turkey said it would allow to travel to aid the defence of Kobanê is a group from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is the name used by most of the Syrian rebel forces that have been fighting the Assad regime since 2011. However, in an October 31 interview on, YPG Kobanê spokesperson Polat Can said, “The head of the Aleppo Military Council Zahir Es Sakid denied that they had any such force, right after Mr. Erdogan’s statement. Not only that but he also said that they would not abandon their front in Aleppo when it had the upper hand against the regime, to go to Kobanê.”

He went on to point out that the YPG and YPJ were already fighting alongside some FSA groups in Kobanê, Efrîn and Aleppo, and added that FSA reinforcements would be more useful in Aleppo, where FSA groups are pressed between IS and government forces, than in Kobanê. The relationship between the Rojava revolutionaries and the FSA is extremely complicated.

While the PYD supported the 2011 uprising against Assad, the Western-supported exile opposition “leaderships” insisted that they were excluded unless they accepted that Syria should be a unitary Arab state. While these successive opposition governments-in-exile have held little sway over the civilian or military opposition inside the country, the military opposition that developed in response to Assad using the army against protesters was ideologically heterogeneous, organisationally disunited and some elements of it were influenced by Arab chauvinism and religious communalism.

The PYD decided that military opposition was misguided, despite the regime’s use of military force.

Since the establishment of the Rojava liberated cantons, the YPG and YPJ have, at different times and in different places, fought on the same side as and against FSA groups. This reflects that the FSA is not a single force.

Joseph Daher, an exiled member of the Revolutionary Left Current, an active but very small Syrian Marxist group wrote in the October 26 International Viewpoint: “The FSA is still not a unified institution. It is rather the collective designation of independent armed groups, localised in various regions of the country … The opposition consists currently of more than 1000 armed groups with multiple and varied alliances according to regions and contextual dynamic.”

Daher explained that, as in countries across the region at the time, the 2011 Syrian uprising was the result of decades of ruthless dictatorship and lack of civil rights and 10 years of neoliberal economic reform that had impoverished the majority of people while enriching a nepotistic elite. The FSA emerged as small armed groups protecting protests from the regime’s military response, boosted by defectors from the army unwilling to use violence against the people. At the same time, popular committees were formed, some of which are brought together by the Coordination of Local Committees (CLC).

The relationship between the popular committees and the FSA is mixed. A 2012 CLC statement (quoted in International Viewpoint) said: “The fate of our Revolution has been entrusted to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), composed of deserters and civilians who bear arms to defend themselves. This group is devoid of any sustainable basis and does not have a unified command. At the same time, the FSA has remarkably and courageously defended unarmed civilians and their living areas with light weapons and little ammunition. As could be expected, the war machine of the repressive regime has been able to concentrate its repression and anger on the residents of these areas where the FSA has taken a position. The war machine of the regime has carried out acts of reprisal that have doubled the number of victims, resulting in humanitarian crises and causing the appearance of disaster zones in many regions of the country.”

The armed opposition looked to the West and its regional allies for material support. While some military aid has been forthcoming it has created its own problems. First, the West, perhaps finding a failed state less threatening than either the existing regime or a democratic alternative, have drip-fed assistance, sufficient to keep the opposition fighting but insufficient for them to win. Second, much of the aid was funnelled through the main Western allies in the Muslim Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

These regimes then channelled the aid to their own proxies: various Sunni Islamist groups. By 2012, the FSA was being overshadowed by Islamist coalitions. These included the Nusra Front (the Syrian al Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic Front. In 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria emerged as the biggest, best-resourced and most-violent group. Originally, the al Qaeda franchise in Iraq it broke with al Qaeda after the latter opposed its attempt to take over the Nusra Front. By renaming itself simply Islamic State, it was projecting itself as the sole legitimate Islamist force in the world, which among other things led to a cessation of Saudi aid.

The groups who call still call themselves the FSA have a variety of ideological stances: some are Islamist, some liberal, some are even Baathist. Other FSA groups have no ideology and some have become predatory and been denounced by other FSA groups. Western aid to FSA groups has decreased since the air war against IS was launched and despite the apparent new-found Western support for the Rojava revolution, FSA groups who joined the YPG and YPJ in the defence of Kobanê have had all assistance cut off.

In the Rojava cantons, the YPG and YPJ have repeatedly fought off attacks from the Nusra Front, Islamic Front and IS, and less frequently from regime forces or hostile FSA groups. In late 2013, an alliance of the Nusra and Islamic fronts and FSA fought the IS.

The Syrian revolution is more than just the military opposition. Protests against the regime, Islamist groups and abuses by armed groups continue. Daher notes that in many of these women have played a visible role. The popular committees continue to organise. While Daher notes the role they play in local administration and political organising as well as their statements in support of “a free and democratic Syria in which all religious communities and ethnic groups would be treated equally”, he acknowledges there are “limits to these popular councils, such as the lack of representation of women, or of certain minorities”.

Participation of women in the FSA is almost non-existant.

Rojava as model for Syria?

The three Rojava cantons stand out as the site of a revolutionary transformation that has gone further than in the rest of Syria, and indeed the rest of the Middle East. What also stands out is their ethnic and religious inclusivity raising the possibility that democratic confederalism could transcend Kurdistan and provide a way forward for the revolution throughout Syria. The  constitution of the Rojava Cantons is written as a document that could form the basis of a new Syrian constitution and, in March 2014, the Rojava administration launched the Kurdish Initiative for Democratic Syria as a proposal to end the civil war by adopting a pluralistic society along the lines of that being created in Rojava.

For the time being, however, the YPG and YPJ are still besieged and outgunned and looking broadly for allies. As well as reflecting the rapprochements with the KRG and its allies and with the US-led coalition, recent YPG and YPJ statements stress their willingness to work with friendly FSA groups.

[Tony Iltis is active in the Australian Socialist Alliance and writes regularly for Green Left Weekly.]