What About Those Syrian Kurds?

There are at least 30 to 40 million Kurds living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.  They are the largest ethnic group whose aspirations for self-determination were ignored by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles that officially ended World War I.  They’ve gone through more than their fair share of conflict and persecution since, including the latest betrayal they’ve suffered, this time at the hands of Donald Trump.  Despite this, and the serious losses inflicted in the last couple of months by the invading Turkish army and allied Arab militias, the United States military has found them too valuable in the fight against ISIS to abandon entirely.  

Back in 2016, I reviewed A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State by the writer, Meredith Tax, at the History News Network and in Jewish Currents.  These were mostly identical, but in my JC version, “An Egalitarian Democracy in Syria?” (Oct. 25, 2016), I ask if this will be another radical “utopia” eventually unmasked as other than advertised (e.g., the USSR, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Venezuela, Nicaragua); I also analogize with early Israel’s anarcho-syndicalist experiments (e.g., Histadrut-owned enterprises, kibbutzim and moshavim).  Jewish Currents recently published an interview with a young American Jewish anarchist who joined their fight against ISIS in 2015; he drew parallels with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and Jewish statelessness before Israel’s independence. 

The following is adapted from my review in the History News Network:

In the 1980s, a nascent Kurdish Communist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known as the PKK), expanded an armed insurgency in Turkey. Aside from attacking soldiers and police, the PKK often murdered public officials, civil servants and teachers — triggering its designation as “terrorist” by the US and Western authorities.  We don’t know from Tax’s book, however, if this label is still valid.

Abdullah Ocalan ruled his party as a Stalinist tyrant, generally viewing criticism, let alone opposition, as treasonous. Tax states that a dozen “high level cadre were killed between 1983 and 1985, gunned down in Europe or at the PKK’s camp in northern Iraq.”

One of the author’s sources wrote: “Paranoia seems quite rampant among the members of the PKK. They see enemies and traitors everywhere, which is one reason for their violent tendencies.” Another indicated that “over 50 people were executed between 1985 and 1992. “

Recruits, often forcibly conscripted or kidnapped, underwent “an education process designed to break down individual personality structures … cut ties with their families, and agree to sacrifice their personal lives so they could devote themselves totally to the needs of the revolution.” At its most extreme, sexual relations were forbidden: “Sexual relationships between cadre were considered a grave violation of the party’s commitment to women’s independence and autonomy, an indication of misplaced priorities, and a dangerous distraction to anyone in combat conditions. People who broke the rule were thrown out, and in the early days of the armed struggle, some were executed.”

To be fair, however, guaranteeing the virginity of young women enabled culturally conservative peasants to lend their daughters to the struggle and for women to feel safe in a part of the world where they are widely abused. The author discusses the practice with some depth, but arrives at no resolution.  And it’s not clear if celibacy remains compulsory or even prevalent today.

Over 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, are believed to have perished in this conflict, with the displacement of over one million civilians from about 2,000 villages. Ocalan was captured in 1999 and has been imprisoned ever since, but his influence has continued in surprising ways.  An inveterate reader, he’s been inspired by the writings of the late American anarchist Murray Bookchin, world systems theorists Immanuel Wallerstein and Fernand Braudel, gender-theorist Judith Butler, and social scientist Benedict Anderson to transform ideologically from Marxist-Leninism to a kind of communitarian anarchism that eschews nationalism.  Writing from prison, Ocalan coined the term “democratic confederalism” for his vision of Kurdish self-government while remaining minorities within their current nation-states.

This change has officially altered the ideology of the PKK and shaped its offshoot in Syria, the PYD (Democratic Union Party).  As the Assad regime focused its attention on defending its heartland, the Kurds overcame weak government forces in the north in 2012.  The PYD has spearheaded a radical reorganization of “Rojava,” as Syrian Kurdistan is known (“west” in the Kurdish language).  Governance in three geographically-separated enclaves, known as cantons, were described as beginning with neighborhoods of about 300 people organized as “communes” with male and female co-presidents. 

Women in the Kurdish Struggle; photo from “Emergency Committee For Rojava”

Tax elaborates: “Eighteen communes made up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them were on the district people’s council, which also had directly-elected members. The councils decided on matters like garbage collection, heating oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils were at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level . . . These determined policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence remained a problem, they also set up a system of shelters. If there was a conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils were able to overrule the mixed councils.”   

When I queried another publication about reviewing this book, the editor opined that the Kurdish women appear to belong to “a cult,” because they tend to parrot their views with the same words.  This may be an unfair criticism, or it may be spot on.

To her credit, Meredith Tax acknowledges such a concern in her final chapter, “Some Questions Remain.”  She admits that there still seems to be a “cult of personality” surrounding Abdullah Ocalan, with his image reported to inhabit “seemingly every interior space.” This underlines the question of how the PKK could change “from a totalitarian terrorist organization to a democratic one, [with] … some of the men who led it during its most Stalinist period, … still in charge.”

Finally, even if true to its declared commitment to egalitarian democracy, the Rojava experiment is going on in the midst of a bitter war, surrounded by hostile forces.  I share the author’s hope that Rojava succeeds.  I want to believe in a fundamentally different model than corporate-dominated economies and nationalistic political cultures, but I’m too conscientious a student of history to be very optimistic.