[Midden-Oosten] Rojava: A libertarian myth under scrutiny

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Zo Aug 7 15:09:43 CEST 2016


Rojava: A libertarian myth under scrutiny

The PKK claims to have shifted towards anarchism, but traces of authoritarianism are still visible in its "Syrian lab".

By Andrea Glioti   @andreaglioti

Since its establishment in late 2012, the de facto autonomous region of 
Rojava in northern Syria has attracted the attention of European leftists, 
mainly because of the influence of Murray Bookchin's theories about 
libertarian municipalism on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader 
Abdullah Ocalan.

Ocalan's writings gave way to a newborn political system in Rojava as the 
Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is in fact the 
driving force behind the institutions.

Bookchin envisioned a society founded on communalism and transnational 
direct democracy as an antidote to the bureaucratic nation state - a mission 
partially mirrored in the wording of the Rojava Charter of the Social Contract.

However, a balanced assessment of the achievements in this Syrian region 
should not overlook the grey areas, where there is still room for 
improvement against tribal, ethno-sectarian, capitalist and patriarchal 

     Ignoring some libertarian aspirations

For example, the top three officers of each municipality must include one 
Arab, one Kurd and one Christian, a rule which some have applauded as 
"careful ethnic balance", although it rather resembles the sectarian quotas 
adopted in Lebanon and Iraq.

The emphasis on ethno-sectarian identities is further echoed in the 
foundational statement of the Federal Democratic System, which is based on 
the representation of "community components".

As Syrian intellectual Jad Karim Jibai pointed out: "Nobody knows how an 
'entity', that is 'peoples and communities' (ie, clans and ethno-sectarian 
communities), could transcend national borders."

In other words, the insistence on these communitarian boundaries betrays the 
libertarian transnational aspirations.

This contradiction is also evident from the authority bestowed upon tribal 
leaders. For instance Shaykh Humaydi Daham al-Jarba, the head of a tribal 
Arab militia and an outspoken supporter of the Assad regime, was appointed 
as the governor of the Jazirah canton in Rojava in 2014.

His son is now the commander of the al-Sanadid Forces, one of the main Arab 
militias fighting alongside the PKK-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that 
is to say Rojava's army. The prominence of tribal leaders preserves their 
role as inhibitors of social change.

While the PKK has officially renounced its demands for an independent 
Kurdistan, it would be myopic to ignore the ongoing military expansion of 
the territories controlled by the Kurds, whose outcome means the de facto 
fragmentation of Syria along new borders.

Considering the rejection of the idea of nation-states in the Rojava 
declaration, this appears to be a move in the opposite direction, regardless 
of the threat posed by enemies in war times.

Moreover, private property is officially enshrined in the Charter, a 
provision that safeguards the privileges of landowners, while encouraging 
them to invest in agricultural projects sponsored by the Rojava authorities.

In order to reflect Bookchin's views on how libertarian municipalism is 
expected to replace private property, the text should have been phrased 
quite differently.

     A just order?

If this Syrian region is to stand as an alternative to capitalist federalist 
Iraqi Kurdistan, a significant effort is also needed to familiarise its 
inhabitants with its structures.

When I was living in Rojava with a Syrian Kurdish family in 2013, most of 
the people I met were busy dealing with the rising cost of living and had no 
idea of the difference between federalism and libertarian municipalism.

People's Houses (Mala Gel in Kurmanji), communal places where people gather, 
were already open, but I discovered their existence by reading the signs at 
their entrance, not because people mentioned it to me.

Another threat posed to democracy and decentralisation in Rojava is the 
PKK's Stalinist legacy. The party claims to have shifted towards anarchism a 
long time ago, but some traces of its authoritarian upbringing are still 
visible in its "Syrian lab": Ocalan's portraits are ubiquitous, often 
accompanied by the slogan "There's no life without a leader" (be serok jiyan 

The PKK supporters are not generally inclined to accept criticism of Ocalan, 
who has been often portrayed by his former "comrades" as a despot.

When I asked a PKK chief in charge of supervising education in Amuda, 
northern Syria, why they had decided to hang a party leader's portrait in 
schools, he told me that to him Ocalan was more a philosopher than a 
political leader.

Unfortunately, in Rojava, Ocalan looks like the only philosopher allowed to 
be portrayed everywhere.

I witnessed the PKK's worst crackdown on Syrian dissidents so far on June 
28, 2013, in Amuda, after the party's armed forces had killed six protesters 
the night before.

It was only the main episode in a long string of violations committed 
against dissidents and journalists.

Still, as a foreign journalist in Rojava, I faced almost no restrictions and 
was never at risk of being kidnapped, especially compared with some 
opposition-held regions in Syria.

Nevertheless, the way the PKK deals with dissent is worrisome for any 
movement claiming to have established a democratic confederation.

     The role of women

Lastly, women empowerment is undoubtedly part of the Rojava agenda. Civil 
marriages in Syria were introduced here thanks to a new legislation, a 
woman's testimony was made equal to a man's in spite of widely accepted 
Islamic norms, and the presence of women is encouraged in both political and 
military institutions as nowhere else in the country.

However, the militarisation of women and society at large is an alarming 
trend enforced through conscription and sanctioned by the social prestige 
enjoyed by the fighters' families. In fact, only the "martyrs"' pictures are 
"venerated" with the same devoutness of Ocalan's icons.

Consequently, women become worthy of respect as long as they turn into men 
of arms and sacrifice themselves on the battlefield.

Some would defend this militarised system of values with the current need to 
defend Rojava, but to assume that even minors should be forcibly enlisted to 
ensure the survival of a social utopia is a disturbing argument to say the 

It should also be noted that European leftist solidarity cherry-picked the 
so-called Rojava revolution, whereas other revolutionary theorists, such as 
Omar Aziz in Damascus, went completely ignored, because they were neither 
endorsed by one of the best equipped militias in the region such as the PKK, 
nor did they phrase their social utopia according to a libertarian terminology.

Yet, the horizontally structured self-governing bodies that were envisioned 
in Aziz's writings and established in opposition-held areas between 2012 and 
2013 bear some similarities to the Rojava communes - with the difference 
that the latter were spared from government shelling.

The Rojava "lab" is definitely a politically innovative experience, but the 
social utopia narrative should not overlook the reality on the ground and 
its contradictions.

Andrea Glioti is an Arabic-speaking freelance journalist and a research consultant covering the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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