The following interview was conducted in partnership between the Rojava Report. Özgür Amed is a journalist, columnist, teacher and activist from Diyarbakir, where he gives courses on cinema and works with local civil society organisations as a project coordinator.
He writes regular editorials for the newspapers Ozgur Gundem and Ozgur Politika, contributes to various journals, assists foreign journalists working in Kurdistan and provides analysis of the region to foreign media outlets. He also conducts research on the Kurdish movement and its author of a book of humour, Works of Kurdology (Kürdocul İşler). He can be reached at email@example.com
Dylan Murphy: Can you briefly explain the origin of the Rojava cantons and the revolution more generally? When did they emerge and what is new about them?
The differences that this system presents is more clearly understood when one understands the reasons behind the revolution’s emergence and why it was necessary. Today the Rojava revolution’s most important road map is the Rojava constitution. This constitution [also known as the “Social Contract” — translator] was formed and accepted by the Legislative Assembly of the Rojava Administration of Democratic Autonomy on January 6, 2014 in the city of Amûdê in Rojava.
This is the document’s preamble:
We the peoples of the democratic autonomous regions — Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians (Assyrian Chaldeans, Arameans), Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens — by our free will have announced this contract to establish justice, freedom and democracy in accordance with the principle of ecological balance and equality without discrimination on the basis of religion, language, faith sect or gender; to realize the values of a democratic society and a life together based in a political and moral framework which promotes mutual understanding and coexistence within diversity; and to ensure the rights of women and children, protection, self-defense and the respect of the freedom of religion and belief.
The Administration of the Democratic Autonomous Regions does not accept any understanding based on the concept of the nation-state, nor the concept of a military or religious state, nor does it accept centralized administration or centralized power. The Administration of the Democratic Autonomous regions is open to social consensus, democracy and pluralism whereby all ethnic, social, cultural and national formations can express themselves through their own organizations.The Administration of the Democratic Autonomous Regions is committed to national and international peace and respectful of the borders of Syria and of human rights.
Given this, one must ask: Is there a better system than this system? If we are going to speak about human rights, democracy and freedom is there an alternative to what is expressed in the preamble to this constitution? Is there a better claim to governance in the Middle East? No … and yet the difficulty comes in struggling for something one believes in no matter what the cost. And it is here that the difference in this system lies.
So, how did we come to this situation and from where did the revolution emerge?
Syria, which lost its war with France in 1920 and remained under French colonial rule for 26 years, regained its independence in 1946. From this date until the 1970s the country experienced a period of chaos marked by repeated coups and the failure of the United Arab Republic (1958-61), which only ended with the Baath coup and the beginning of the new regime.
One of the first tasks undertaken by this regime was to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The children born to these Kurds lacked all rights and protections and were socially isolated. From the moment the Assad family came to power in 1971 until today Kurdish identity has remained under the threat of a cultural and political genocide.
Many dictatorial governments, once considered indestructible, fell apart with the emergence of the “Arab Spring”, which did so much to speed up the flow of history in the Middle East and has been the cause of such tumult. The lack of a pioneering and democratic structure that might have channelled the political and justified social anger of the people who came out into the streets against the authoritarian and autocratic governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries led to widespread chaos. International and regional powers, which tried to channel the accumulated historical rage of the people who came out into the streets for democracy and freedom for their own benefits, intervened in the Arab Spring. This is particularly true in the Syrian civil war, where the hopes of the people for freedom and democracy were destroyed by reactionary powers. However the people of Rojava, who within Syria have been long since cast off into a bottomless well and who for years had experienced the worst of denialist and assimilationist policies, were able to turn the Arab Spring into the democratic national revolution owing to a pioneering and democratic force that was the accumulation of decades of resistance.
Rojava, which is the smallest part of [divided] Kurdistan, introduced the Rojava revolution to the world from Kobanê on July 19, 2012. The fate of the 3 million Kurds, who had for many years lived under occupation by the Syrian regime, entered a new era in the form of a rebellion against the nation state…
The cantons themselves were formed a short while later following the acceptance of the constitution. The Cizîre Canton was officially proclaimed on January 21, 2014, the Kobanê Canton on January 27 and the Efrîn Canton on January 29. The Democratic Autonomous Canton Administrations (Cizîrê, Kobanê and Efrîn) remain a part of Syrian territory. In every canton there exists a Legislative Assembly, an Executive Assembly, a High Election Commission, a Constitutional Assembly and regional assemblies. These are formed from various local units. These cantons do not involve themselves with any of the tasks of a state, they defend the rights of local communities and take as the principle the resolution of problems through peaceful means. Once more each of these cantons has the right to its own flag, emblem and anthem.
Who are the forces defending Kobanê? How have they been able to defend the city from ISIS, which is much better armed?
Today Kobanê’s official defence force is the People,s Defence Units (YPG), which was formed in 2004 and officially declared in 2011, and the Women,s Defence Force (YPJ), which was formed independently and in association [with the YPG]. These are the two military forces that are responsible for the self-defence of the whole of Rojava.
The heaviest attack on Kobanê to date began on September 10, 2014 and … continues to this day. Over the course of this battle various other forces joined in the defence of Kobanê … One of the most important of these is a group known as El Ekrad (Cebhet’ül Ekrad in Arabic) or the Kurdish Front. It began as a part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) during the Syrian civil war and later separated.
Over the last couple of months Peshmerga fighters [the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government] are also there. One hundred and fifty Peshmerga fighters went to Kobanê following a decision of the [South] Kurdistan parliament. Not only these forces, but also groups such as the Ehrar Syria, the Siwar El Raqa (Şoreşgerê Reqa), Şems-î Şîmal are fighting. It is not only Kurds who are fighting in Kobanê… There are also revolutionary groups from Turkey there. The MLKP is one of these… There are fighters from all over the world. There are also people from America, Holland and Africa who have come as individuals to join the fight. These are the forces taking part in the battle.
A war can be lost when one puts down their weapons. It can be lost when one loses their hope or faith. According to the fighters themselves one of the most important sources of motivation is the great injustice that is being perpetrated there. It is the knowledge that if it is not confronted today it will grow much larger tomorrow.
Much has been made of ISIS’s barbaric attitudes toward women. At the same time women face violence and oppression all over the world. What role have women had in the Rojava revolution?
There is a reality which has already been expressed by Asya Abdullah, the co-president of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD). [The PYD is the largest political party in Rojava and the Syrian member of the transnational KCK [Kurdistan Communities Union], an umbrella body coordinating the Kurdish movement throughout the Middle East and in Europe]. She said that “when the revolution began Kurdish women took part with all their might.” This is to say Kurdish women were already engaged in struggle before the revolution began in Rojava and had organised in all spheres of life. When the revolution began, Kurdish women were ready. They took part in the revolution already prepared. We can say that Kurdish women led the Rojava revolution. Women have a part in every decision taken in Rojava. The colour of the Rojava revolution is the colour of women.
Women in Rojava have led this revolution and are leading in the conflict that continues to this day. An example is one of the symbols of the Kobanê resistance, Arîn Mîrkan. It is women and children who suffer the most in war. Right now ISIS is selling women from Sinjar in their slave markets and this is happening in the 21st century! Its attacks target women systematically. War thereby affects them twice over. Therefore, when one considers all of these factors, the role that women have in the revolution and the reason they can be found on the front lines becomes clearer.
The women who are fighting define this revolution and this resistance the possibility to “breathe”. These women are not only fighting for the rights and organisation of women in the Middle East but all over the world. They always underline this when they express themselves. A woman fighter in Kobanê is protecting the rights of a woman in Diyarbakir and the rights of a working woman in New Jersey and contributes to their struggle.
If today the entire world is speaking about the the fighting Kurdish woman there is a depth, an historical program and a great struggle behind this. Most have been speaking about the “women’s battalions”. The first all-woman battalion was the Martyr Ruken Battalion, formed on March 5, 2013, in Efrîn. After that the organisation quickly spread around Rojava. The formation of these battalions, which first took place in secret, is now occurring everywhere quite openly.
What model of democracy is being implemented in Rojava and how has it worked to empower ordinary people?
The model that has emerged in Rojava is the system of “democratic autonomy”. If the democratic nation is its spirit, democratic autonomy is its body. Democratic autonomy is the state by which the construction of the democratic nation comes to take on flesh and bones and is realised concretely.
A short summary of this system’s essentials goes like this: The source of power is the people and it is the people who possess the power. Administration is provided for by organisations and assemblies chosen by elections. No government can remain outside or above the Social Contract established by the Administration of Democratic Autonomy and be considered legitimate. The source of the assemblies and governing bodies founded on a democratic foundation is the people. No body which acts by itself or in the interest of a single group is accepted.
In sociology and philosophy “autonomy’ has the opposite meaning of the Latin concept of “authority”, and in political science it has opposite meaning of “heteronomy”. The concept comes from the combination of the Greek autos (self) and nomos (law, norm, rule) and from this root it has taken on a meaning of “making one’s own law” or “being subject to one’s own law”.’ What exists in Rojava is foremost a form of “political autonomy”.
Political autonomy here means fundamentally the transfer of executive and legislative powers in a constitutional and participatory manner from the central state to regional bodies chosen democratically in a manner that sufficiently protects cultural and ethnic minorities living in their traditional homelands.
We are talking about a model that, when the Syrian civil war was beginning, found its own way (its thirrd way theory) without taking sides and demanded to govern itself using its own means and resources; a model that favours the will of a society as a political whole and a system that it develops itself; and a model that is now preoccupied with the greatest savagery in the world today. The peoples who believe in this [model] are now fighting together on the same front. Armenians, Assyrians, Arabs, Turks and many other peoples have declared their desire to live freely under this model and have become the drivers of this revolution.
The capitalist world is still recovering from the 2008 economic crisis and wealth inequality is increasing in many places around the globe. What economic alternatives are being proposed in Rojava?
The economic pillar has been an essential part of the Rojava revolution! It defends an autonomous economic model and is working to put it into practice. Capitalism has surrounded everyone and everything, and in a century in which it is difficult to breathe and where we are seemingly bereft of alternatives, an exit is now being discovered through an alternative economic model and a communal economy.
Dr. Ahmet Yusuf, the economic minister of the Efrîn Canton, made some important remarks recently at conference held on the “democratic autonomous economy”. He said:
We take as a principle the protection and defence of natural resources. What we mean by defence is not defence in a military sense, but the self-defence against the exploitation and oppression that society now faces.
There are many obstacles to restructuring the communal economy in Rojava. Systems that take capitalist systems as their reference have attempted to to obstruct our progress in the economic as well as the social spheres. We ourselves take the communal economy for our principle. We are working to create a system that combines anti-liberalism, ecological sustainability and moral common property with communal and cultural production.
One of the foundational arguments coming out against this in Rojava is the reality that all modes of production and relations of production are based on a foundation of hierarchy and class. This
is to say that the claim that labour is being liberated hides how the system of hegemony and colonialism comes to govern in an implicit but even more active manner.
This revolution is developing cooperatives based on a social economy as its economic alternative. For example, any companies that will come to Rojava will take a place in the service of these cooperatives. The communes will be a primary force within the people’s assemblies. The cooperatives that are founded are being given enough space within the economic sphere to sustain themselves. The strength exists in the three cantons to found an economy along a socialised principle in the agriculture, livestock, industry and service sectors.
The Economic Development Organisation that has been founded in Rojava is an organisation that deserves to be watched carefully. It is directing the projects that are building an independent economy. It is carrying on its activities around six main headings — commerce, service, construction, agriculture, industry and fuel. This system has managed to rely entirely on its own strength!
Discrimination based on ethnicity or race is common throughout much of the world, and violence against minorities is increasing in many places. How does the model in Rojava project minorities?
In order to understand and to give meaning to the policy around minorities in Rojava we can explain better by focusing on three small examples under three principal headings.
The first is the issue of “faith”. Right now we see a fundamentalist radicalism spreading through the Middle East. Hegemonic and centralising powers want to homogenise the Middle East, which has been a garden of peoples. The only place where this is being resisted at present is the Rojava region and its cantons. For example, Rojava is one if not the only places where churches have not been destroyed, faiths can be practiced freely and guarantees have been secured from the government.
The second is the “government” factor. In the co-presidency of every canton there is a minority. They have guarantees in the Rojava constitution by which to express and defend themselves and their rights, and to speak their native languages and to work to protect and develop them.
The third is the”‘war” factor. Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs and many members of other minorities are fighting on the frontline in the current conflict. They have taken up weapons and are fighting to defend this model. This is something important. They have mobilised and taken sides in a war for freedom without being forced to, as a matter of trust and faith.
When we collect all these different elements together we are left with some hard data on the question of “How must we live together?” This is the reason that today, what is called in the battle of Kobanê and all over Rojava the “revolution of the peoples”. The Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians, Chaldeans and other peoples living in Rojava are taking ownership of the Rojava revolution. The system that is being proclaimed is a system of the peoples. A lawyer and the president of the Christian Minorities Administration, Cemil Abdulehed, provides a qualified summary of the situation when he says, “we also are seeing that we are part of a system in which everyone’s own language, culture, faith and colour can have its place. We are working to put this system into place.” In the Rojava constitution you cannot find any reference to, nor stress laid upon, any ethnic or religious allegiance.
Following ISIS advances in Syria and Iraq many US neo-conservatives and Republicans have called for a return of US soldiers to the Middle East. Are US soldiers needed on the ground in Syria or Iraq?
I believe that before coming to the question of whether or not US soldiers are needed in Iraq or Syria one needs to ask, “What is the task of US soldiers in Syria and Iraq?” There is well-known policy of divide et impera, that is divide and rule! Until now this is more or less what has been going on. If we look at the problem focusing not on the results but on the process we see that one of the biggest reasons for what is happening today is the US and its Middle East policy. ISIS is also a result of this policy. The intervention of the United States in Kobanê came in conjunction with the beginning of ISIS’s complete takeover of the oil-producing regions in southern Kurdistan [in Iraq]. In fact Rear Admiral John Kirby has admitted this in his official capacity as Pentagon spokesperson.
The US claims to bring freedom. In my life I have never seen such bloody freedom! The presence of those soldiers here has been nothing other than getting people to accept to the bad to avoid the worse. These countries possess the minds and the past needed to solve their own internal problems. But everything has been driven so far off course and made so chaotic that the US, which pushes itself as the only political-economic power capable of producing a solution, can become the apostle of freedom. This is a form of hegemony.
Critics of US foreign policy have claimed that the US had a role in the development of ISIS, and that initially their only concern was the removal of Assad. Would you agree with this view? What is responsible for the rise of ISIS?
In particular I would like to touch upon the rise of ISIS. One of the greatest factors in its rise was its production as a “phenomenon”. Every news story produced in the media about it was at the same time a kind of support for it. ISIS describes itself as anti-modern. But you can come and see how it is modern enough to use scenes from the Oscar-winner Zero Dark Thirty. Their videos of death and killing have been shot in HD and have effects that take hours of work. Everything is like a video-game fantasy. The words of an English youth nicknamed “Ebu Sümeyye El-Britani” have been widely circulated. He is supposed to have said that “fighting on the front in Syria is much better than playing the computer game Call of Duty.” This is the socio-psychological side of this “phenomenon”.
As historical background the Afghanistan war experiment is important. Since the occupation of Afghanistan following September 11 and the Iraq War, the United States continues to protect the underground riches and the important deals that it has made with other states around them. ISIS has used the current chaos to attract thousands of fighters. In breaking its social ties with Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda and expanding its field of effective operations, it also increased its ability to grow and find supporters. In this context, its references to itself through Islam and its ideological work to create a Jihadist image have made its propaganda work easier. In this way it has been able to draw thousands of people from Europe simply through the growing Islamaphobia there.
Another reason for the rise of ISIS was its gradual recognition as the kind of organisation capable of killing and carrying out all kinds of massacres. This factor was not thought about or debated enough and therefore no precautions were taken.
This organisation has entered into our lives to a much greater extent that any classic fundamentalist organisation in the Middle East. It did this by relying on a certain kind of ideology. For example, in rationalising decapitations it was employing a reference strong enough to attract thousands of people to its ranks. This was not sufficiently analysed … and when this began to attract attention it was too late …
However the biggest force behind the growth of ISIS was the economy. The network of relationships that it derived from the past, that is from the culture that grew up around Al Qaeda, includes an enormous amount of support from the Arab Gulf states. It is also important to point out how, following its occupation of Mosul and its capture of an area rich in natural resources, it became an oil producer. US secretary of state John Kerry has confirmed that Turkey is among the countries buying oil from ISIS.
I don’t believe the United States ignored anything. They were entirely aware of ISIS and its rise. If it worked towards its own interests they could work together with them tomorrow or the next day, and no one should be surprised by this. ISIS and similar groups function to keep the United States in the region. Today it is ISIS, tomorrow it will be something else. In this sense ISIS is just a mask. When it’s gone they will leave another organisation with another form in its place.
Some people on the left have made comparisons between the situation in Kobanê and the Spanish Civil War, when thousands of anti-fascists from all over the world went to fight against fascism. Do think that this a valid comparison?
All resistances in history resemble each other. The resistance in Kobanê has been most identified [among commentators in the Kurdish movement] with the battle of Stalingrad. But if you ask me it most closely resembles the war of Algerian independence. Or take his holiness Hussein’s fight with Yazid the First, or the struggles of Sheikh Bedreddin or John Ball, or Warsaw’s fearless resistance against the Nazis — each one was an experiment for Kobanê.
In every place where there is such resistance, only the time and location changes. The essence is the same! What goes on in the course of the battle is the same. The attitudes of the enemy, its motivation to destroy is the same.. Fascism’s universality derives from this.
I will say that there are similarities between the international anti-fascist solidarity that emerged during the Spanish Civil War and around Kobanê. When we look at Spain in 1936, Russia in 1940, Italy in 1941, France in 1942, Cuba in the 1950s and many other historical resistances, we will see close resemblances between the people fighting on the front.
What can ordinary people across the world do to support the revolution in the Rojava cantons?
The most important thing that people can do is show support for the recognition of the cantons and their autonomous structures. Right now, the events in Rojava and the justified struggle that is a central political issue must be understood clearly. Lives have been lost in every step taken toward the democratic values that are emerging there.
The second thing is to show revolutionary solidarity. It has become clear that we are obligated to do so. ISIS is attempting to slip in on every side. In my opinion there is a similar threat to every place that rejects the nation-state model.
The third thing is to establish diplomatic relations. Rojava should not be isolated politically. Because it is not only developments in the Middle East that are affecting this. Rojava is the target of many other countries, and in particular from Turkey. The other day [Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan] said that the formation of the cantons is “a threat to our country”. In reality, it is impossible to understand how the cantons constitute a threat.
With every diplomatic step taken, this kind of discourse will die down a little. The Rojava revolution is a people’s revolution and is a struggle for the construction of democracy. It is a fight for freedom and not some cover for anything else. It is within this framework that support must be given.