Since September of 2014, the city of Kobani has been in the news as the site of a battle between Kurdish forces from the Rojava region and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). At the end of January, the Kurdish forces (YPG and YPJ) announced that Kobani had successfully repelled the attack. But ISIS is still in control of villages surrounding Kobani and maintaining its threat to other parts of Rojava.
Sardar Saadi is the coordinator of the Rojava Media Project, a media production and training project for young people in Rojava, the Kurdish region of Syria, and a doctoral student in anthropology based in Toronto. I interviewed him on February 7, 2015.
Justin Podur: Can you describe your visit to the Rojava region, and tell us a bit of the geography so we can orient ourselves.
Sardar Saadi: The Rojava region is the Syrian part of Kurdistan, in northern Syria, estimates are of a population of 3 million. It has borders with Turkey and with Iraqi Kurdistan, which is governed by Masoud Barzani. It has three enclaves or cantons: Jazeera, Kobani, and Afrin. I went to the Jazeera canton and Qamishli, which is the biggest Kurdish city in Syria, for three weeks in August 2014. I was there as part of a team to establish a training center for a media project, rojavamediaproject.com.
There is not a lot of info on our website right now, but you can find some basic information on what our goals from this project are. I was also very curious to see what’s going on on the ground in Rojava, and basically to talk to the people there and do some preliminary fieldwork for a possible future study.
JP: You have written an article describing what is happening in Rojava as a revolution. Anarchist writer David Graeber has described it in similar terms, as did an academic delegation that he was a part of, and numerous writers have compared the Rojava Revolution’s program and methods to those of the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Can you talk a bit about why you are calling it a revolution?
SS: I can go a bit into historical background of how the revolution started. The Kurdish movement in Syria is highly connected to the movement in Turkey led by the PKK (Kurdistan workers party). Because of the PKK’s relationship with Hafiz Assad, there wasn’t actually a strong presence of any kind of revolutionary/ insurgent/ militant movement in Syria against the regime. It doesn’t mean there wasn’t any persecution of Kurds – many Kurdish activists were in Assad’s jails. In 2004 the Qamishli uprising happened – about 30 people died in that uprising. That uprising was the first step for a reckoning in Rojava, for the Kurdish movement, and it influenced the PKK in a way that they could not compromise the potential of a revolution in that region.
In 2011 after the beginning of the revolution in Syria, which ended up in the Syrian civil war, the main Kurdish party, the PYD (Democratic Union Party) (which is known to be connected to the PKK) and based on Abdullah Ocalan’s (the PKK’s imprisoned leader) ideas of democratic confederalism, started political mobilization in the Kurdish cities in Syria.
The PYD’s military forces, YPG and YPJ (people’s and women’s protection units) started to take control of those cities and villages that were part of Kurdistan. In 2012, the Syrian regime’s forces started to withdraw from the Kurdish region and the PYD took control and started to form people’s assemblies, communes, and councils in the cities and other areas to create a political entity for Rojava.
The people in Rojava formed a founding council to write a kind of constitution for Rojava. By the end of 2013, the constitution was written and prepared and agreed upon: it’s called the Charter of Social Contract. By the beginning of 2014, they started forming their cantons, their political systems. One by one they declared their democratic autonomous self-administration. They are trying to avoid the language of “state” and “government” so they call themselves the “administration”.
All the daily affairs of these cantons are managed in councils at different levels. Each canton has its own council, and an executive body is in charge of the canton’s administrative and governmental work. The ethnic and religious representation is carefully chosen and the quota of 40% women is preserved at all levels. All of those communes have this quota and most of the time it’s exceeded – I personally saw some of the neighborhood communes and councils with over 70% of their active members being women, and not just young, but probably mostly middle-aged women. Those women that we think of in that region as housewives and mothers are actively involved in the neighborhood councils. There are also justice councils that have the same kind of system of organization – starting bottom-up from neighborhood communes to the canton.
JP: Which spokespeople should we search for their public statements?
SS: Both PYD’s co-chairs, Asya Abdullah and Salih Muslim, can be reached for this matter. Polat Can, who is very active on twitter, is a spokesperson for YPG who can also help with media inquiries, as well as Redur Xelil. There are representatives in Europe, namely Zuhat Kobane, who can also talk on behalf of the PYD.
JP: In many new revolutionary situations, there are some regions or communities that are, for historical reasons, better organized than others. Is there any unevenness in the organization?
SS: Historically, there was a kind of neighborhood organization based on a clandestine political party. Most of those neighborhood councils, communes, most of what we saw, are because of the organizing power of the PYD’s political body. There are two main bodies in terms of popular organizing that are called Democratic Society’s Movement (known by its Kurdish acronym TEV-DEM) and Democratic Culture’s Movement (known by its Kurdish acronym TEV-CAND). These two are doing most of the work.
People are calling it a social revolution as they are incredibly involved in every level of the social, political and economic life there. Most of the people involved are those who have never been active, and now they are actively engaged and organizing around their communities. And it is not necessarily for the PYD, it is for the sake of their own communities, neighborhoods, for themselves. For example, they decide how public resources such as a piece of public-owned land in their neighborhood to be used. They decide on the public use of these spaces, and then, they propose their plan to the municipality.
JP: What are the economic activities there?
SS: The Jazeera region is very rich in oil and wheat. In one of the interviews with Salih Muslim, he says that they are producing more wheat than they need in that canton. Jazeera is known to be Syria’s breadbasket. They produce over 70 percent of the wheat and other grains, so in terms of agriculture, it’s very rich.
Most of Syria’s oil also comes from there. While I was there, I heard that there are over 2300 oil wells in that region, but right now Jazeera canton’s administration has decided to have only 300 of them running.
Because of the economic embargo by the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurdish regional government (Barzani’s administration) they can’t export any of what they produce – not oil, not wheat – nothing. And they can’t get anything from outside.
They have to smuggle anything they need. They run a small refinery for their own needs. Electricity is produced from small neighborhood generators that depend on this refinery. Transportation also depends on this refinery. In terms of people’s livelihoods, as much as I saw, they are working mainly for subsistence. I have heard the PYD have a committee working on developing a new paradigm for how to do self-government or autonomy in the economic area (see this article on the economic aspirations). Many cooperatives are starting up, if slowly. I think it’s the most difficult task of the revolution to convince people used to their mode of production, either traditional or modern capitalist one, to leave behind the idea of private property and produce cooperatively. However, if it succeeds, it could develop something fundamentally new and transformative in the whole region and even in the world. It could claim that hey, there is an alternative to the capitalist system, and it is working.
JP: Who controlled the economy traditionally? Are there big landlords? Merchants?
SS: I met one rich guy while I was there. I was told that he was the only one who stayed. Most of the landlords or those known to be wealthy, they have left – they sold everything and went to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan, or Europe or somewhere else. And also there’s a kind of ethnic side to this class relationship, in Qamichlu. Many of the merchant class are from the Assyrian minority. The financial and banking systems are ethnically based. The Assyrian minority has a good relationship with the Kurdish community, but unfortunately, they are all trying to leave. They are all scared of what’s happening in the Syrian civil war. Whoever you speak to, they don’t want to stay in that situation.
JP: The Rojava revolution is surrounded by enemies, the Syrian government and ISIS, the Turkish government, even Iraqi Kurdistan, no one wants the revolution to succeed.
SS: I would relate this to the PKK and Ocalan’s idea of democratic confederalism. The PKK is the only revolutionary force that you can encounter in Kurdistan and maybe in the whole region. The PKK has shifted its politics from seeking an independent Kurdistan to a democratic Middle East in the last decade or so.
Unfortunately many analysts who follow what’s happening in Kurdistan, they think of the PKK as a nationalist movement. That’s not true. They are really trying to convince people that what they are trying to do is about the whole Middle East. I think it’s a smart move, and it is working. The PKK and Kurdish movement has long tried to establish a kind of geographic unit for the Kurds throughout the 20th century. In the end, there is only a little part of Iraqi Kurdistan that has been freed, which I believe is not truly free. After Rojava everyone saw that the politics of the Kurdish movement matters more than how much territory they control. That’s how the PKK is winning. In terms of social and political activism, the PKK has become a Jacobinian force in Kurdistan, trying to push people to organize around peoples’ assemblies, communes, and councils. What we currently see in this region is that the people have no option rather than being subjected to the state’s politics (Iraq, Iran, Syria) and imperialist rule or to Islamic organizations. The PKK is the only Left option.
After the liberation of Kobani, Turkey’s PM Erdogan just said they don’t accept any entity from “North Syria” comparing it to “North Iraq”. The Turkish state’s politics has been a politics of denial, of not accepting any kind of political formation, especially by the PKK.
There is a lot of talk about ISIS, but the person with aspirations to be Caliph is Erdogan, not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On the other hand, Barzani’s politics are similar to Erdogan’s and aligned with the West to develop the neoliberal market in the region. Internally, in Kurdish politics there’s a huge division between political parties and movements and personalities: those aligned and close to the PKK, in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where it is dominant, and those close to Barzani who are mainly traditional statists and Kurdish nationalists who believe that the PKK is not serving the people’s ambitions in Kurdistan and who think the whole idea of a democratic Middle East is not serving the Kurds.
JP: Is the battle for Kobani over?
SS: In the centre of Kobani it’s over. The YPG is spreading and gaining control of the surrounding areas. However, the fight against ISIS is far from over. There’s a possibility that ISIS could come back, but right now, they on the defensive. They are going to change direction toward other cantons of Rojava. Afrin is in danger: it’s small, it’s close to Aleppo, and the political development in Aleppo between FSA, the Syrian regime, ISIS, and Al-Nusra front is very crucial for the fate of Afrin. But on the other hand, it’s more mountainous and defensible compared to Kobani.
Right now the fighting is happening on the eastern front toward Gire Spi or Tal Abyad. The YPG’s strategy is to liberate there next. There were some news reports that they want to contact Arab tribes of that area to collaboratively liberate the city from ISIS. If they do that, Jazeera and Kobani will be connected. They are about 120km apart, and the area in between is under ISIS control. It would be a strategic move, but very difficult to accomplish. The Sunni Arab tribes and the Kurds of Rojava do not have a good relationship. The Arabs think of the Kurds as Assad’s agents, and the Kurds think of the Arabs as occupiers who moved to those areas in the 1950s-60s because of Assad’s “Arabization” policies. Nonetheless, the PYD’s politics is based on co-existence with each other on a shared homeland. It will be a test of the idea of the democratic Middle East.
JP: How important were the western airstrikes? They are advertised as if they were the only factor.
SS: That’s how they want to portray the liberation of Kobani in the mainstream media, as if it was solely because of the airstrikes. CNN did a shitty piece that says the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish forces) liberated Kobani. There were only 200 peshmerga in Kobani. About 410 YPG and YPJ fighters died fighting ISIS, and, as far as I know, only one peshmerga fighter was killed. No one can deny their help for the liberation of Kobani and the YPG in many occasions thanked them. However, they were only logistical forces and not on the front line. But according to CNN, it was the Peshmerga, and airstrikes by coalition forces, that did the whole job.
The YPG’s position from the beginning has been: ISIS is not the Kurds and YPG’s problem. ISIS comes out of NATO’s politics against the Syrian regime. Now the YPG and YPJ is fighting ISIS on behalf of everyone in the region. Kobani is liberated but it is in ruins. No building is undamaged by coalition’s airstrikes and ISIS’ shelling the city.
Back in summer 2014 when ISIS attacked Kobani canton, it was 2-3 weeks that the YPG called for help. It was the time that the airstrikes could have stopped ISIS outside of the city. In one interview with YPG in Kobani, a spokesperson pointed out that it was NATO’s mistakes that saw all their heavy weaponry end up in ISIS’s hands, and all we asked was for coalition forces to destroy those tanks and artillery that they had indirectly supplied ISIS, could they at least destroy their own stuff. The coalition forces didn’t help the YPG and YPJ forces until the media paid attention to the resistance in Kobani. The Western mainstream media just found out that there’s something happening there even though what they did was to show this resistance through sexualized depictions of Kurdish women fighters against Islamic extremists. The depictions were awful, but the media attention did help. Turkey was pushing really hard against the airstrikes, arguing why not just let this one city fall. So to answer your question, yes the airstrikes did help, but the brave men and women of YPG and YPJ liberated the city.
First published on TeleSUR English