Some contradictions are bigger than others: a reply on Rojava


The opening ceremony for the PYD's office in Moscow.

The opening ceremony for the PYD’s office in Moscow.

The recent interview with Peter Loo is well worth reading for a fairly detailed look at what’s happening in Rojava. As a first-hand account from the region, it’s a useful source of information; but the polemical aspects of the interview are a bit more dubious, as they tend to focus on some of the weakest criticisms that get made of the Rojava project, while passing over more substantial ones.

Most importantly, while there’s some discussion of the complex relationship between the PYD and the Assad regime, there’s no attempt to tease out what this actually means, and what conclusions we can draw from it. Loo mentions that Rojava has relied on the support of large states, including “(at times) Russia”, and also gives a passing mention of how the YPG/YPJ in Aleppo “aided Assad’s forces at some points in the fighting”, but doesn’t give any commentary on this, making it impossible to tell what he – and, by extension, “Rojavaist/Apoist” sympathisers more broadly – think about this matter. The crushing of Aleppo was horrific, and by Loo’s own admission the YPG/YPJ have some of that blood on their hands.

It’s hard to imagine anyone on the anti-authoritarian left casually mentioning that someone they support had “aided ISIS at some points in the fighting” and then moving on without it provoking any further comment. It’s well-documented that Assad has killed many more civilians than ISIS, so why is there so little critical discussion of this collaboration with some of the worst forces in the situation?

I understand that (to borrow a term from Obama) many people don’t seem to see the YPG/YPJ’s role in the Aleppo tragedy as a “red line”. I’m not necessarily saying they should, but I would like to understand more about why this is – is it seen as a necessary evil? Not as bad as it looks? And, if you can tolerate this, where do your “red lines” lie?

Just to stress, I really don’t have any hard conclusions on this subject. I’ve had to change my mind about lots of things – both related to Syria and otherwise – after learning things I didn’t know before, and I’m open to doing that here as well. But for that to happen I’d have to see a serious discussion of the subject from PYD-sympathising types, and so far the only real discussions I’ve seen of it have been from more critical voices.

In passing, Loo refers to “a recent article by Gilles Dauvé [arguing] that the women’s revolution in Rojava is limited to the women in the YPJ”. As anyone who’s read the article in question will realise, this is a complete mischaracterisation of the piece, which actually states that:

“Co-ed schools are the norm. Women no longer stay indoors all day. Meetings are held with at least 40% woman attendance. All bodies have two heads, feminine and masculine. Encouragement is given to a women’s world-view and even to a new field of knowledge, jinology (“science of women”). Though feminism has been strong in the Kurdish liberation movement for a long time, these changes are no small innovation in the Middle East, and in some respects sex equality seems more advanced in Rojava than in Europe… Self-organisation does improve the everyday life of a previously neglected and repressed population.”

Of course, Dauvé is a big boy by now, and more than capable of looking after himself, but it is worth pointing out how inaccurate and unhelpful this reading is.

Discussing “What Do You Mean You Support Rojava?”, a previous article published by Plan C, Loo mentions how it made the point that “working in Rojava is not neutral. The choices of who and how we work with here will strengthen some groups, individuals and dynamics rather than others, and we need to be aware of this” and then somewhat oddly proceeds to add that “I read this as making the implicit argument common to many on the anti-authoritarian left to support the people or the social movements rather than organised parties”. Instead, he says that “the revolutionary left needs to be supporting the PYD and Apoist movements across the Middle East rather than some loosely defined, potentially fictitious unaligned ‘people’”.

It’s feels like there’s a strange sort of slippage here, where one moment we’re talking about “social movements”, and in the next about “some loosely defined, potentially fictitious unaligned ‘people’”. I’d agree that any politics which relies on invoking “some loosely defined… ‘people’” is unlikely to be of much use – and, indeed, I’d add that those variants of ultra-leftism that fall back on hoping for some pure explosion of proletarian antagonism, without any of the impurities that tend to accompany real-world movements, are not much better. But I really don’t think that’s what the authors of WDYMYSR were arguing.

To say that, for instance, people should prioritise supporting TEV-DEM over the PYD is to talk about a specific force, not an abstraction. To say that people should prioritise supporting Kongreya Star over the PYD is to talk about a specific force, not an abstraction. To say that people should prioritise supporting the local communes, or that one bakery for that matter, over “supporting the PYD” is to talk about a specific force, not an abstraction.

Perhaps the oddest bit here is that Loo mentions that “the Apoist movement has transcended the boundaries of its political parties and is also a mass social movement with elements of self-organisation beyond the parties” – but surely recognising this can only lead us to reject the idea that “supporting Rojava” has to mean backing the PYD? The fact that self-organisation beyond the parties exists is precisely the factor that makes it possible to have a meaningful conversation about “supporting Rojava” that doesn’t begin and end with the PYD.

The suggestion that we should also prioritise supporting “Apoist movements across the Middle East” also seems problematic. Other than some of the junior partners in the SDF, I’m not aware of any non-Kurdish Apoist movements, so taking this as a criterion across the Middle East would seem to suggest an attitude of “Up (some of) the Kurds, everyone else can look after themselves”. Even just confining ourselves to the places where they do exist, I know a little bit about the situation in Turkey and Syria, and how groups like the PYD and HPD fit into things there; I don’t really understand much about current dynamics in Iran or Iraq. It’s possible that the PJAK and PCDK might be among the most important progressive forces in those places, and worth supporting on some grounds; but all of that is an argument that needs to actually be made, not just assumed.

Just to confuse things further, a few paragraphs on Loo also mentions meeting “a European Marxist-Leninist here who was convinced the anarchists had got the entire revolution wrong and that the communes had a very peripheral role in what was going on. For him, the revolution was dominated by the PYD with the YPG and YPJ providing the muscle behind it. When he met one of the international Marxist-Leninist parties here doing consistent community work promoting and actually setting up communes his whole attitude completely changed.”

Again, this is all well and good, but it seems to completely contradict the idea that trying to look for forces other than the PYD automatically means being stuck with vague abstractions like “the people”.

Throughout the interview, Loo repeats the idea that those with more critical positions are “afraid of… having real power to make change”, or are “rejecting [Rojava] out of hand” because it “isn’t full communism right here and right now”. Certainly, there are some critiques that could be described in those terms, but it’s not helpful to talk as if all criticism can be dismissed so easily.

It’s one thing to accept that “coercion of some kind will be necessary to prevent the bourgeois state from returning in full force with unbridled terror” (although, of course, Rojava is not somewhere where the old state has completely gone away, but somewhere where it still coexists alongside the new system), but to accept this as a general principle doesn’t necessarily mean accepting, for instance, that the arrests of KNC supporters in August 2016, or the recent attacks on the offices of Kurdish opposition parties, were justified.

Loo rightly says that “a real revolution is a mass of contradictions which must be fought through”, but doing that means dealing with these contradictions honestly and openly, not just waving them away. That means talking about the attacks in Qamishlo, or the Asayish taking “appropriate measures” against people who hold demonstrations without a permit, and it definitely means talking about the PYD/YPG/YPJ/SDF collaboration with the Russian/Assadist slaughter in Aleppo. Just over the last few days, reports have come through of the SDF’s Manbij Military Council actively handing territory over to Assad’s army*.

At this point, it’s worth citing the words of the Hamilton Institute:

“However, the open collaboration of the PYD/YPG with the Assad regime as it crushed free Aleppo barely caused a ripple. The YPG helped to cut supply lines, prevent retreats, and attack positions. The relations between Sheikh Maqsoud and Efrin Canton with non-PYD armed groups around Aleppo has been complicated, but even if we can accept some of these maneuvers, how can we accept that a revolutionary project has been content to watch another be crushed right in front of it? How can we explain that a movement based on the spread of directly democratic assemblies fought to opportunistically seize territory that had been held by other popular decision-making structures, the dozens of local councils that existed in Aleppo? Wouldn’t a truly revolutionary position involve encouraging the autonomy of other areas, not monopolizing power and striking alliances of convenience with authoritarians?

…I don’t think anyone is asking the YPG to save Aleppo from Russia and Assad, but many are disapointed to see that after four years of neutrality, when at least some battalions affiliated with Rojava took sides, it was with Assad. Starting last winter with the cutting of crucial supply lines to Aleppo, the SDF helped initiate what would become the siege of Aleppo over the summer. And in late summer and early fall, the YPG captured positions adjacent to Sheikh Maqsood under Russian air cover.

I think this matters. I think it’s insufficient to throw back a bunch of “what abouts” and to try to paint everyone impacted as terrorists.

It’s true that relations between the increasingly authoritarian and sectarian armed groups in Aleppo and Kurdish communities had gotten really bad and there’s no excuse for shelling civilian areas. But Eastern Aleppo was hundreds of thousands of people, and many grassroots activists opposed the belligerence against Kurdish groups — the actions of the YPG against the city weakened would-be allies as well enemies. These activists and locally rooted FSA battalions are the ones that pushed ISIS out of the city and then drove out al-Nosra.

And yes, we won’t be the first to notice that it’s no longer even a civil war, it’s a proxy war. Alliances of necessity and convenience on all sides. But this is another counter-revolutionary dynamic, because it privileges those able and willing to dialogue with states, giving them power over internal dynamics — that is the threat Rojava will face as the fighting dies down. There will likely be a tug of war between those cliques whose power and influence came from war and the grassroots revolutionaries — that’s a big reason why critical solidarity is important.”

Echoing this, I’ve come to feel that that the best approach to Rojava, and the wider region, is not “up the PYD!” or anything similar, but doing what we can to support self-organised projects, whether those are the communes in Rojava or the surviving local councils in the rebel areas, and trying to disentangle this as far as possible from backing state/para-state organisations like the PYD or FSA. Of course, this is complex, especially from a distance – giving support to big-P Political figureheads that are recognised as representatives by the states they deal with is much easier and simpler than finding ways to connect with more grassroots projects.

I’m not an authority on these topics by any means, and I could be wrong about all of this. Perhaps all the criticisms I’ve mentioned relate to necessary evils, or things that aren’t as bad as they look, or whatever. But the issues have to be argued out honestly and openly. Trying to sweep away all criticism as the work of abstract purists – or just making up arguments and then attributing them to opponents, as Loo appears to do with Dauvé – doesn’t do anyone any favours.



*If nothing else, this deal makes the Bookchin quote appear positively ludicrous – it’s an odd contortion to talk about the need to “prevent the bourgeois state from returning in full force”, while backing a force which is actively handing territory over to that very state.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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7 Responses to Some contradictions are bigger than others: a reply on Rojava

  1. I especially like what you wrote about the need to support concrete structures, but that those structures are much more than just the acronym party that happens to be present in a territory. One of the critiques we’ve received when trying to critique the YPG’s participation in the siege of Aleppo on the grounds that it was an attack on the Syrian revolution is something like: “Name one anarchist group operating in Aleppo. What is one group of revolutionaries we should be listening to.” This is an understandable question and its one that’s hard to answer only because a lot of the organizing that happens in Aleppo, the rest of Syria, and throughout Rojava doesn’t have a name attached (other than general things like “local council of suchandsuch place), doesn’t release communiques that often, and doesn’t speak English. We can see the broad strokes of what’s happening, but it can take a lot of time and work to identify the specific structures.

    You’re totally right to emphasize that there is currently a tension in the territory of Rojava between centralizing forces whose legitimacy and power come from war (PYD, YPG) and popular structures engaged in a social revolution. You’re right that things being messy is no reason to not support an inspiring struggle like Rojava. Though what that can mean is far from clear… Is there a form of solidarity we can give that can meaningfully tip the balance when the more authoritarian section is receiving weapons and money from western states?

    Thanks for leaving a comment and tipping us off about your site!

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. Also, just to add to the question about what we can do when authoritarians are receiving support from western states, I think one of the things that’s so challenging about the situation in Syria is how we deal with reactionary forces that *aren’t* receiving any backing from the West. Like, Turkey is a NATO country, and has friendly relations and shared business interests with “our” rulers, and so if we want to manifest solidarity with “Rojava” (or whatever your favoured term is) against Turkish imperialism then it’s relatively easy to think of ways one might be able to identify appropriate targets. But with some of the other actors that gets harder – certainly, it’s not like there are many ISIS embassies to demonstrate outside, and more broadly I think having a critique of what Russia’s being doing in Syria is vital, but I don’t really know what it means to have a position “against the Russian state” at a time when so much of our ruling classes are also whipping up anti-Russian feeling. Don’t really know where I’m going with this, but it’s worth thinking about.

  2. @pplswar says:

    Yours is one of the few blogs discussing the question of Rojava in a serious and open-minded way, so kudos to you.

    The Syrian uprising in 2011 which transformed into a civil war by 2012 has exposed a yooj number of faults and contradictions among Western leftists. They treated the 2011 Arab Spring in U.S.-backed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt as a good thing but when this struggle for bourgeois freedom and democracy ignored the Western left’s black-and-white pro/anti-U.S. worldview and spread to U.S-opposed dictatorships in Libya and Syria, suddenly what was good became not so good. Libyan revolutionaries were denounced as NATO pawns and Al-Qaeda terrorists which provided the template for Syria which initially was largely ignored as all attention was focused on the overthrow of Ghadafi. But starting in 2012, Western leftists began repeating about Syrian rebels what they said about Libyan rebels. When Assad crossed Obama’s nominal red line in fall of 2013, pro-Assad forces on the left succeeded in mobilizing people to take to the streets to stop U.S./U.K. military strikes on the regime and that helped shift public opinion in their favor. U.S intervention into the anti-Assad struggle was thwarted, clearing the way for the rise of ISIS in 2014 which, in turn, triggered U.S. military action to rollback and destroy ISIS after the fall of Mosul. In summer/fall of 2014, anti-interventionists tried to repeat their success in 2013 but failed miserably; the public saw ISIS as a threat to the West and as an enemy worth fighting due to their genocide against Yezidis and barbaric practices like taking/selling/buying women as sex slaves. Furthermore, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Kurds in the U.S. and U.K. mobilized in support of U.S./U.K. military action to smash ISIS and although these communities are tiny, they were swimming in the same direction that the vast tide of public opinion was already moving.

    It was in this context that the Western left and the Obama administration both suddenly discovered the existence of the YPG after years of ignoring it as part of their anti-intervention policy towards the war in Syria. Articles in the bourgeois press began to appear about the YPG and its leftist-feminist-anarchist-Marxist politics at the same time the first Western volunteers began traveling to join Kurdish forces fighting ISIS (both YPG and KRG in Iraq). Some of these volunteers (like Jordan Matson) were right-wing U.S. veterans but others were diehard leftists like Ivana Hoffmann. It wasn’t long before the YPG and its struggle against ISIS became a cause célèbre among Western anti-capitalists. Suddenly, an identifiably left-wing force was at the forefront of a major regional and perhaps world war against an enemy whose reactionary and unjust nature was so extreme that nobody can really defend it (reminiscent of the Nazis). As I have written elsewhere, “radicals, frustrated by decidedly un-radical conditions in the United States and the un-radical struggles over basics like wages, hours, benefits, and affordable housing that such conditions give rise to, often become infatuated with more radical struggles abroad” and this infatuation is why there is very little or no critical appraisal of the YPG’s flaws, mistakes, and/or crimes. The defensive rejoinder “name one anarchist group operating in Aleppo” is a reflex of this infatuation. As Marxist-Leninists should have learned from the Soviet and Chinese experiences, infatuation is no basis for solidarity or an internationalist response.

    Personally I take a very dim view of YPG’s collaboration with the Assad regime’s destruction of rebel-held Aleppo which cannot be justified even in purely realpolitik terms. YPG’s basic strength and ability to govern large swathes of Rojava comes not from overwhelming popular support from the Kurdish majority/plurality living there for ‘democratic confederalism’ but from the political space opened by the devastating rebel-regime war which has left both of those sides too weak to suppress the YPG. A proper realpolitik YPG policy in the context of 2016 Aleppo would have been to stay out of the rebel-regime conflict as long as possible and/or ensure that conflict’s continuation as long as possible the better to exhaust and weaken both sides which would ipso facto maximize YPG’s power and leverage. Instead, the YPG joined with the strong in defeating, starving, and bombing the weak. Doing so means that the YPG has made a permanent enemy of anti-Assad rebels and that YPG will face the regime alone in its quest for some kind of autonomy or federalism within the regime’s fascist political system. Perhaps YPG supporters can justify this move in their minds by pointing to the need for an ally against a hostile Turkey — a strategy that seems to have worked to prevent ‘TFSA’ (Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army) from taking Manbij from YPG by force — but that doesn’t change the political consequences of this strategic choice which ultimately strengthens the biggest and most serious long-term enemy of Syrian-Kurdish freedom, the Assad regime. Strengthening Assad at the expense of the rebels is doubly dangerous because it has become abundantly clear that the U.S. won’t take any action against the regime in defense of its rebel allies and so the YPG will have basically no international allies whatsoever in any confrontation (armed or peaceful) with the regime while the regime will enjoy the support of Russia and Iran. If Assad defeats the rebels with the help of the YPG and the YPG defeats ISIS with the help of the U.S., there’s nothing to stop Assad from defeating the YPG and re-taking the entire country (aside from the Turkish buffer zone) by force and restoring pre-2011 political arrangements en toto. If that happens, all the blood shed on Rojava’s behalf will have been for naught.

  3. Pingback: Soft answers to hard questions: more on imperialism, solidarity, Crimethinc and Rojava | Cautiously pessimistic

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