The Kurdish experiment: democracy and freedom in the 21st century

Thousands of Yazidis were rescued in August by terrorists. Wait, I thought ISIS (Daesh) were the terrorists?

Oh they are, to be sure. Just that the United States government hasn’t been eager to admit that it wasn’t United States humanitarian intervention that saved these people hidden in those Iraqi mountains. It was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, best known by their acronym, PKK.

Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.  Taken August 25, 2014.
Three PKK fighters pose with an captured ISIS tank.
Taken August 25, 2014.

The PKK has a history of violent conflict with Turkey, which earned it a spot on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list. The past few years have seen one of the most radical political transformations in modern history. Led by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK has ended their armed conflict and replaced that struggle with another. Something special is happening in parts of Kurdistan- the most daring democratic experiment of the 21st century.

Writing for The Guardian, David Graeber gives an idea of the political transformation led by the PKK and its Syrian sister party, the PYD:

But what has happened in Rojava, where the Syrian revolution gave Kurdish radicals the chance to carry out such experiments in a large, contiguous territory, suggests this is anything but window dressing. Councils, assemblies and popular militias have been formed, regime property has been turned over to worker-managed co-operatives – and all despite continual attacks by the extreme rightwing forces of Isis. The results meet any definition of a social revolution.

These assemblies start at the lowest level, electing higher levels. Diversity is mandated, including women in positions of authority. Radical literature is discussed frequently in meetings. In some places, the non-state assembly structure is more powerful than the regular government. In some sense, the PKK is replacing the independent country they cannot have with a new sort of free society- one that comes from direct democracy and an end to oppressive institutions.

As Reflections on a Revolution (ROAR) published earlier this year, the PKK has gone through a earnest transformation thanks in part to the honesty of its leader:

Öcalan embarked, in his prison writings, on a thorough re-examination and self-criticism of the terrible violence, dogmatism, personality cult and authoritarianism he had fostered: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us. Even though we opposed it in principle and rhetoric, we nonetheless accepted it as inevitable.” Once the unquestioned leader, Öcalan now reasoned that “dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.”

So many hardline Marxist-Leninist militias are unable to break out of their dogma, and they either forsake socialism altogether, or ossify into obscurity. Perhaps there is another way to move forward, to transform from a failed revolution to a thriving one.

Everything that is reprehensible about ISIS is countered by the Kurdish revolutionaries. Clearly they are not terrorists of the same ilk.

Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.
Female and male PKK fighters pose during training.

Thankfully the past day has seen CNBC post a short editorial with a simple title- “Why the US should take PKK off the terror list“. Put simply, the United States has gotten its ass saved by the PKK showing up to save Yazidi- especially after the US-trained peshmerga forces ran away after a brief fight with ISIS. For Western powers, the story of PKK should be positive- an enemy has become a friend. Not due to shifting alliances (the old Cold War mentality), but the transformation of a strong, dedicated group of people.

ROAR ends their feature with a call to action:

those of us who value the idea of civilization owe our gratitude to the Kurds, who are fighting the jihadists of Islamist fascism day and night on the frontlines in Syria and Iraq, defending radical democratic values with their lives.

The Kurds, in particular the PKK and the PYD, should be the talk of the radical left, and any that oppose what ISIS is doing to Iraq and Syria. But the Kurds are often ignored, and even moreso the democratic revolution that is going on in some areas. Let that not be the case. The Kurds are a stateless people, their history is one of cultural loss, genocide, and struggle- armed and unarmed. They have a story to tell us all, we only need listen.

The Kurds- the Syrian civil war’s third side

A group of YPG (Kurdish militia) fighters in Syria
A group of YPG (Kurdish militia) fighters in Syria

 

The Kurds in Syria have declared an autonomous region in the northern and eastern parts of the country where they have large populations.

The announcement comes on the heels of battle successes against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), among the most powerful of the myriad homegrown and foreign forces fighting the Assad regime.

Since the latest fighting between the Syrian Kurds and Al Qaeda affiliates broke out in July, the dominant Kurdish organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has used its battle successes to burnish its image among Kurds and consolidate its hold over the region.

With a population of somewhere between 30 and 40 million, the Kurds are among the largest people to not have their own sovereign state. Saddam Hussein launched a bloody campaign against the Kurds in the northern portion of Iraq, after they sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq War that lasted through most of the 1980s. Towards the end of the conflict in 1988 a large-scale gas attack killed several thousand people. A large number of Kurds also live in southern Turkey, where the far-left Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fought a long conflict for independence, which stopped earlier this year after a unilateral ceasefire (though the conflict may get hot again, over Syria). The PYD draws a lot of support from the PKK, and a lot of material support from the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, which has a relative level of stability and economic prosperity.

How groups create and reinforce their identity, and through that their claims to political autonomy or independence, fascinates me. And the situation of the Kurds is interesting- a very large amount of people forming important minorities in several separate countries. They form a third side in Syria, between anti-Assad and pro-Assad coalitions, but it doesn’t quite sync up. Mostly, the Kurds want control over the regions they inhabit, and thus don’t share the goal of keeping or removing Assad from power. By fighting ISIS and hardline Sunni militants, they are helping the Shite Assad in his campaign to defeat moderate and extreme rebel factions. However, at some point the politics of the region boil down to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Moderate rebels may fear or despise the al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters, but their mutual hatred of of the ruling regime always encourages cooperation as much as division. Kurds may be ambivalent to Assad, but need support to keep their territory together and keep connections to other groups in other countries open.

A couple months ago, when Western intervention seemed obvious, I attempted to draw a diagram of all the nations, governments, factions, militias, and coalitions in the Syrian conflict. Ultimately my piece of paper was a complete mess- and I know I left out a bunch of key and secondary players. The conflict is being fought until one or more sides is ground into dust, and the desperation brings an aggressive, merciless politics along with it.

In some ways, this is just the latest chapter in the Kurdish story- one of conflict and separation that predates the Syrian civil war by a long, long long time.