The Western Left has become increasingly enamored with the “revolution” in Northern Syria, known to many as “Rojava”. Many Western leftists have taken up the cause, from creating tweet threads, YouTube videos, podcasts, funding, protesting, and even volunteering for the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
After the news about Turkey’s invasion last year, there were many demonstrations across the West, centering around Rojava specifically. With Rojava slowly beginning to reintegrate into Syria, many have even cried out against this as a return to “oppression.” Apparently, being a US proxy is better than a united Syria.
Western leftists have been largely defensive in response to criticism about Rojava and have engaged in the same several counter-arguments time and time again.
Let’s discuss several key reasons why most Western leftists are being misled about this, and address a few key arguments:
Is Rojava socialist?
Article 43 of Rojava’s constitution enshrines private property. This does not necessarily refute the possibility of it having any socialist character though, as the Soviet Union, People’s Republic of China, Republic of Cuba, and other states have at various times allowed small property as part of the alliance of the proletariat and peasantry and the process of developing socialized appropriation. But Rojava is not part of such long-term development of socialism.
As for cooperatives, they are not socialist in and of themselves. The cooperative Mondragon Corporation in Spain is not socialist. It was even praised by Falangistas as proof that El Caudillo’s “enlightened” rule had eliminated class conflict among the Spanish people, and that class collaboration is possible. Even Ronald Reagan called co-ops “the future of capitalism”.
Israel had and has cooperatives and agricultural communes called kibbutzim. They are specifically organized as utopian socialist communities, intended to exemplify the values and ideology of the once-dominant Labor Zionist tendency in the global Zionist movement. Regardless of their ostensible socialism, Israel remained and remains a Western imperialist proxy in WANA, and an integral part of the global capitalist system. This is the key aspect to keep in mind. Any country’s socialist character or lack thereof cannot be evaluated in a void. Rather, it must be emphasized that their place in the global capitalist system, as a reproducer of imperialist power or an opponent, must be accounted for.
Socialism is not merely democratic production. In Capital Volume 3, Karl Marx states, “The co-operative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old [i.e, capitalist] form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form, even though they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them. But the opposition between capital and labour is abolished there, even if at first only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalists, i.e., they use the means of production to valorise their labour.”
So what represents a tendency toward socialism for co-ops? Socialization of production and appropriation among them. This means a unified system, which centralization, not decentralization, favors. Rojava has a localized cooperative system, thanks to their utopian worship of decentralization. This stands as a bad sign for progress toward socialism.
In the course of the victory of the Russian Revolution, the Soviets were unified into a centralized, planned economy; production and appropriation were socialized. Rojava’s tendency is toward decentralization, and disfavors such development. Its ideals beat back anything representing a successful path toward socialism.
Abdullah Öcalan, in his book Democratic Confederalism, essentially focuses on political processes and rights alone as securing “freedom”, and nothing about socialization of the economy. Ironically, the anarchist site libcom.org even acknowledges this, writing,
“For Öcalan, socialism and workers’ struggles are of secondary importance compared to questions of religious and ethnic identity and democratic freedoms. This assessment seems to be shared by many of his followers. When a group of German leftists visited North Kurdistan to see the system of democratic autonomy ’in practice,’ a topic like land reform was not even discussed[…]”
As part of this class-blind perspective, Rojava fails to even make attempts at disenfranchising the comprador bourgeoisie, a necessity for throwing off the power of imperialism, much less developing in a socialist direction. Unlike countries such as the aforementioned USSR, PRC, and ROC, Rojava remains a dependent proxy integrated into the global capitalist-imperialist system.
Even beyond socialist considerations, Rojava is not the perfect democratic utopia people think it is. The political system is not a direct democratic utopia, with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and associated parties having a strong influence on decisions. The YPG have suppressed dissenters, indicating Rojava as a state, not stateless, society.
Every state organizes repression of someone for some end, so what is the case for Rojava? The suppression was largely of people protesting Rojava’s Kurdish ethnonationalism, which brings us to our next point.
We will briefly cover Iraqi Kurdistan before moving back to Rojava.
The KRG, or Kurdistan Regional Government, which governs Iraqi Kurdistan, has engaged in several human rights abuses and oppressive actions. Its military force, the Peshmerga, disarmed and abandoned Assyrians and Yazidis in 2014 as ISIS were approaching.
In July 2017, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) deposed the democratically elected mayor of Alqosh, Faiez Abed Jahwareh, and replaced him with KDP loyalist Lara Yousif.
At least three protests were carried out by the residents of Alqosh since Yousif’s appointment, which received little to no attention on an international scale. There are also the horrific socioeconomic conditions that many Assyrians live under in Iraqi Kurdistan. Assyrians in villages “often do not receive electricity until midday” and “do not have access to clean drinking water”. Their schools are “in disrepair,” and a teacher was quoted as saying, “we receive nothing from the government except for promises”. There has also been ongoing suppression of dissidents and journalists.
There is also the issue of ongoing land theft, “Out of 96 locations in Duhok alone in which Assyrians live — beginning with very small villages to areas of the city of Duhok, 53 locations have been targeted with illegal encroachments by Kurds” and “There are over 130 illegal village and farmland seizures” across Iraqi Kurdistan.
A detailed look at this situation can be read in the report ERASING ASSYRIANS: How the KRG Abuses Human Rights, Undermines Democracy, and Conquers Minority Homelands.
Ethnic Oppression and Rojava
Western leftists who are supportive of Rojava accuse people of purposely conflating the YPG and KRG.
For Assyrians and Yazidis, there is little difference between the two groups. The progressive facade of Rojava is wiped away when you get down to reality.
In 2015, David Jindo, who was the leader of the Assyrian-led force Khabur Guards in Syria, was abducted and assassinated by the YPG. This came to be after he initially refused to use the term “Rojava” (which in Kurdish translates to “West” — as in, Western Kurdistan), stood committed to a unified Syria, and spoke out against the looting of Assyrian towns by the YPG and their allies the Syriac Military Council (MFS).
In August 2018, PYD officials ordered the closure of several Assyrian schools. These schools were under the control of the Syriac Orthodox Church, and offered the curriculum of the Syrian government, as well as Assyrian classes for liturgical purposes. These schools were actually also attended by many Arabs and Kurds. In the Assyrian town of Qamishli, the authorities, under the leadership of the PYD, decided to expel all teachers and personnel, and forcibly closed down the schools, because they weren’t following the curriculum imposed by the PYD.
How does “democratic confederalism” supposedly defend the rights of every ethnicity and religion when it forcibly obstructs Christian Assyrians from teaching their own language and liturgy to their children?
Assyrian journalist Solueman Yusuph was arrested by the PYD for reporting on the school closures. He was held for at least four days, and describes the ethnonationalist policies of Rojava, explaining that Assyrians are increasingly leaving Northern Syria.
If Rojava is supposedly anarchist and thus against nationalism, then why is their own imposed school curriculum in opposition to this? School materials, rather than support an anti-nationalist conception of community, promote imagery of a “Greater Kurdistan”. Such an idea, taken with abuses of Assyrian civil rights in hand, is an attack on indigenous and minority rights.
While cultural material is suppressed, educational materials glorifying the ethnonationalist agenda have been increasingly published. For example, a 600 page book lionizing Simko Shakak, a warlord who led several massacres against Assyrians and assassinated Assyrian political figures, such as the patriarch Mar Shimun, has been circulated around Rojava. Both Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan (as Rojava is also being referred to) are engaging in historical revisionism, ethnocentrism, and whitewashing of historical figures who have committed egregious crimes.
“But there are Assyrians allied with the YPG and there are Assyrians in the SDF!”
While Assyrians are present in groups like the MFS, imagining that this fact makes anti-Assyrian actions committed by the YPG false or exaggerated is ridiculous. The MFS is largely dominated by Arabs and Kurds. Assyrians make up a minority of the force. Additionally, it is not uncommon for members of an oppressed ethnic group to seek representation in institutions that oppress them.
For example, pointing to the presence of African-Americans in the US army or police force does not change the anti-black character of these institutions or “disprove” institutional racism. It is as if supporters of Rojava choose to ignore the existence of tokenized minorities and traitors when convenient to them. Remember that we mentioned Lara Yousif earlier? Despite being a Chaldean Assyrian herself, she is widely reviled by Assyrians for her unjust replacement of Faiz Jawareh as the mayor of Alqosh in Iraq.
As for Assyrians in the MFS or Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), many have been forcefully conscripted or threatened into joining. Those who do join voluntarily are not representative of the majority of Assyrians, and often do so out of fear. To opportunistically point toward the product of ethnic violence and conscription of Assyrians in an attempt to disprove ethnic violence against Assyrians is the type of theoretical confusion that permeates the Western left.
The role of US imperialism
A further looming shadow over potential for Rojava to develop in a socialist manner is their previous alignment with the US and their constant deference toward them. Rojava can not exist without the US, as it has refused to ally with Syria in multiple strategically essential cases. This represents a complete limit to any possibility of truly revolutionary development.
One may try to draw a parallel between Rojava’s alliance with the US today and the USSR’s alliance with the US during WWII. This is an invalid comparison. The USSR was an independent, self-asserting power when it formed a strategic pact with the West. Its strength and unity was consolidated in the form of state control of both the economy and army. These conditions are lacking in Rojava.
In 1995, in an interview with the Middle Eastern Quarterly, Öcalan said, “It is not possible for us to be communists. Why did the Soviet Union collapse and the United States has not? It is because communism made the government everything, but the human being nothing. The United States represents development.”
The creation of the SDF, which is dominated by the YPG, was initiated by the US. US Army General Raymond Thomas was quoted as saying to Reuters about the YPG, “We literally played back to them: ‘You have got to change your brand. What do you want to call yourselves besides the YPG?’ With about a day’s notice they declared that they are the Syrian Democratic Forces. I thought it was a stroke of brilliance to put democracy in there somewhere. But it gave them a little bit of credibility.”
The SDF receives much of its arms from the US, and generally has depended on US support for survival. This dependency seals its fate as a US proxy as it presently exists. Its only option for breaking out of that relation is reintegration into Syria.
Rojava has allowed US military bases to be built in the region. Back in August 2017, Reuters reported that the “United States had established seven military bases in areas of northern Syria controlled by the YPG or SDF, including a major air base near Kobani, a town at the border with Turkey”.
SDF spokesman Talal Silo was quoted as saying, “They have a strategy policy for decades to come. There will be military, economic and political agreements in the long term between the leadership of the northern areas [of Syria] … and the U.S. administration…”
This is yet another sign pointing to the obvious reality that the US has not withdrawn from the region and will not be doing so any time soon. With the news of Turkey’s invasion of Syria in October 2019, it was widely reported that the US was “pulling out of the region”. In reality, they were merely redeploying and their bases in Northern Syria were not liquidated in any capacity. The “revolutionary” region of Rojava was, in their alliance to the US, reduced to nothing more than an imperial outpost. Even US imperialists are open about seeking hegemony in the region in order to acquire raw resources for capital accumulation.
The US has also outright stated that it intends for Rojava to be “another Israel in the region [West Asia]”. As such, leftists supporting this project do not make sense, and are ultimately hypocritical given their unwavering support for Palestine. Even Israeli settlers acknowledge their fraternity with the imperial outpost of Rojava, in both being arms of Western imperialism, and in Israel’s interest in exploiting Kurdish grievances to destabilize their enemies. A strategy in line with the general Western policy toward Kurds. A man famous for apparently being critical of US imperialist policy, Noam Chomsky, even proudly proclaimed his support for the US remaining in the region to back Rojava. It should be remembered that many communist movements and organizations initially supported Israel, and Israel was even supported at the time largely by leftists; the Labor Zionists. So history is repeating itself — socialists are making mistakes.
“The Kurds had no choice but to ally with the US!”
Erdogan has more to offer for US imperial interests than the SDF, which was just a handy tool for asserting US hegemony in the region. They were thrown under the bus because the SDF have served their purpose for the imperialists. Now the SDF begs both the US and Assad for the survival of the ethnonationalist project. Assad’s government was the primary ally of the PYD in Northern Syria before and up until 2011, when the PYD made an about-face and sought an alliance with the US during the Siege of Kobanî.
They could have remained aligned to the Syrian state in the first place, and not ended up in the present conundrum, which is only being solved by the reintegration process. Many may claim that if they continued alliance with Assad’s government, that they would lose their autonomy and face genocide. This argument is ironic considering that this is what happened by allying with the US. They became puppets of finance capital and outposts of empire.
Kurdish nationalists have had a mixed relationship with the US since the late 1950s. This “betrayal” that people are speaking of has hardly been the first time. The US will work with them when it is in their interests and abandon them when it isn’t.
The excuses for Rojava’s conciliation to US imperialism rely on arguments that are devoid of historical analysis.
“But the sources are right wing! And you’re being biased!”
Are you in support of Rojava out of real investigation and evaluation? How are you not being biased with your views and the sources you present? Are the sources we have included actually right-wing? For the ones that are, why aren’t there leftists covering the issues at hand instead? And why do they only promote propagandistic sources showering nothing but praise on Rojava, dismissing most criticisms? And what about the large amount of right-wing sources that are positively covering Rojava, including The Spectator?
Many of those completely hostile to any critical views of Rojava have accused said critics of saying “the Kurds”, and homogenizing them as a people, when this is often not the case. Generally, actions by the SDF/YPG and the KRG are specifically mentioned, and such inexact and inaccurate language isn’t used. Ironically, Eurocentric leftists often do exactly what they accuse us of, simplifying the demographics of the region into the “Arab world” or “Muslim world”, ignoring diasporas, particularly minoritized ethnic and religious groups. Regarding Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria last year, many people discussed this by saying “Support the Kurds!”, completely erasing non-Kurds in the region, particularly Assyrians and Yazidis.
Kurdish liberation from national oppression, and their right to self-determination, is important. The issue is where Kurdish liberation comes at the expense of indigenous Assyrians, who are already suffering a genocide that has been ongoing for over a century. Why does Kurdish national oppression, compared to Assyrian national oppression, receive far more attention? Why is it acceptable for Kurdish self-determination to come at the cost of Assyrian self-determination? It doesn’t escape the national antagonisms of West Asia, as the “democratic confederalists” claim. In fact, it merely reproduces them.
As Friedrich Engels said as long ago as 1847, “A nation cannot become free and at the same time continue to oppress other nations.” National oppression creates antagonistic social relations: colonizer against colonized, settler against native, loyalists against nationalists. Synthesis of nations cannot be accomplished while national oppression exists, while one nation’s benefit means another’s detriment.
Rojava’s system as it stands has no future of synthesis, only continued antagonism. The solution for West Asia and North Africa broadly cannot be in the national liberation of a single, homogenized nation. WANA is a region of many overlapping nations, both in geography and diasporas. WANA national liberation must make a place for self-determination among nations, whether that means regions autonomous to varying degrees within a state or an independent state. Unless Rojava ceases to oppress Assyrians in the name of a “Greater Kurdistan”, and recognizes their right to self-determination, then national antagonisms will be pronounced, not reduced.
If you are aware of these issues and continue to adamantly defend Rojava, why don’t you engage in self-reflection on that support? And if you were unaware of this, does this information not pose as something that should lead to a change in your position? One cannot always be correct. It’s better to admit that to oneself and to others, and to identify the source of one’s incorrectness, to undo the harm their incorrectness has done and ensure others don’t make the same mistake.
In this case, Western leftists need to recognize the influence their own Eurocentrism has on their understanding of this situation. Many people have become overly defensive of a “revolution” where the only information they listen to is from Western media outlets and the propaganda of the YPG. Most Westerners know little to nothing about WANA nations, issues, or peoples. Before this “revolution,” many leftists knew little to nothing about the Kurdish people, and didn’t care for their self-determination half as much as they do now.
When they heard the voices of Assyrians and Yazidis crying out against their oppression at the hands of this so-called revolution, they were dismissed as liars or collateral damage. Western leftists spoke over the voices of indigenous people far more familiar with the situation than they are. They say there is “no alternative” to supporting Rojava, as if the Balkanization of Syria and the oppression of Assyrians via Rojava is of no concern, or the only solution.
Further, Western leftists usually incorrectly conflate indigenous Christians oppressed by the homogenization of Muslim-majority societies with the experiences of privileged White European and Euro-American Christians in the West. They act as if all Christianity is the same and as if all Christians are imperialists, rather than most European imperialists being Christians.
Most of the Western left’s opposition to the Syrian state, and discussion surrounding the war in general, is often guided by imperialist lies and exaggeration, and bourgeois ideals about freedom as opposed to material reality. As such, they wave away all critics of Rojava as “Assadists” because said critics would rather rightfully defend a unified Syria and its sovereignty over an imperialist-backed balkanization project.
When Western leftists are addressed with issues particularly about Iraqi Kurdistan, they state they don’t support it. However, this is the only time these statements are made — simply in response to it being mentioned. On a mass scale, there has been no action taken in solidarity with the Assyrians and Yazidis, and certainly almost no lengthy articles or videos, let alone any major protests.
What to Do Going Forward
Marx and Engels, in their early years as Communists (in the 1840s), believed colonial, Eurocentric lies of European colonialism being a developing force in the colonized world. After further investigation in their later lives (around the 1850s), they began to take a far less Eurocentric position, with Marx expressing support for Indian national liberation from Britain in The British Rule in India.
Marx’s position on the state changed after he investigated the Paris Commune. He engaged in scientific analysis, not dogmatic re-application of his old analysis to avoid being caught making a mistake. Both began as utopian socialists, arguing for socialism on the basis of humanism and moral goodness. After investigation, they changed their position into scientific socialism, and spent the rest of their lives critiquing utopianism. They were willing to recognize incorrectness and change their positions accordingly.
Do you care more about marketing your image? Do you give greater weight to petit-bourgeois concerns? Or do you truly care about revolutionary success and the national liberation of oppressed peoples? How you choose to respond to this will reveal the truth of that matter. Self-criticize and change, or continue to engage in Eurocentric deception for your own reputation.
Today, Rojava and Syria have already commenced negotiations for the terms of Rojava being reintegrated into Syria. We hope that the reintegration will eventually be successful, and that the Kurdish chauvinism of the Rojava administration ceases.