In the midst of the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict, with Bashar al-Assad’s forces and allies having killed the vast majority of Syria’s 570,000 human victims since 2011, Syria’s last two semi-autonomous strongholds, Rojava and Idlib, urgently require solidarity and assistance. Instead, these regions in northern Syria are being bombed, shelled, betrayed, and abandoned. Their uprisings are being crushed, and their populations face genocide.
Despite years of regime and jihadist attacks, these regions in northern Syria have managed not only to survive but at least occasionally to establish what Rebecca Solnit has called “a paradise built in hell,” running society through democratic councils and committees where the distatorship has been pushed out. Opposing the attacks is not just about opposing slaughter, but also about supporting what remains of the uprisings.
Latest Versions of Hell
Trump gave a clear green light to Turkish dictator Erdogan last week to attack the mostly Kurdish region of Rojava in northeastern Syria. The New York Times understood Trump’s intent clearly when it reported, “President [Trump] Endorses Turkish Military Operation in Syria.” Trump was not removing troops from the Middle East but rather increasing their numbers. He took 1,000 troops out of Rojava (where the local population emphatically welcomed them) and plans to reposition them in Iraq, Kuwait, and possibly Jordan. Meanwhile, he ordered 3,000 troops to be sent to Saudi Arabia where they’ll be assisting a brutal tyranny committing war crimes in Yemen.
On one level, Trump’s abandonment of Rojava was predictable. The U.S. had found it convenient to ally with Rojava’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as long as they were fighting ISIS together, but since the SDF had seized the last of ISIS territory this spring, Trump saw no more use in backing them. Moreover, Trump was bound to eventually respect the wishes of its ally and fellow NATO member Turkey, which fiercely opposes Kurdish autonomy.
Still, the brazen manner of the announcement astounded even seasoned observers. Trump bizarrely complained on Twitter that Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War.” Aside from this comment being a non-sequitur, it wasn’t even true. (Kurds had fought among the Iraq Levies that toppled a pro-Nazi ruler in 1941, and many Kurdish refugees in the Soviet Union also fought on the Allies’ side of the war.) Trump claimed Turkey’s attack has “nothing to do with us,” even though Turkey’s military is heavily armed with aircraft, tanks, and other weapons supplied by the United States.
Sure enough, Turkey accepted Trump’s invitation and invaded Rojava last Wednesday, displacing 300,000 people and killing 71 civilians, including 21 children, over the past week. Turkish-backed soldiers have filmed themselves executing Kurdish prisoners in Rojava. Turkey’s brutal conquest last year of Rojava’s city of Afrin gave a taste of what is to come: widespread shelling of civilians, abduction, and rape of girls, and long-term displacement. Genocide Watch warns that Turkey plans further “genocide and crimes against humanity.” Making things even worse, U.S. officials report that Turkish-backed groups have deliberately released ISIS prisoners (contrary to Trump’s claims that Kurdish groups are doing this). Hundreds of ISIS supporters have escaped from the region’s jails and detention centers, and the group has already claimed responsibility for multiple attacks.
While it’s understandable that Rojava would reluctantly accept Assad’s help expelling Turkey, it’s likely that Assad’s forces will commit comparable atrocities in the region. Genocide Watch warns that there’s a “grave risk” the Syrian government will take genocidal action in reconquering the territory. Moreover, the Assad regime has effectively allied with ISIS throughout much of the conflict. As Rohini Hensman documents in Indefensible, the regime has bought oil from ISIS, sent engineers to work on ISIS-controlled oil fields, and jointly managed oil and gas facilities with ISIS. As ISIS defector has reflected, “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.” So, we can’t assume that Assad will go out of his way to halt ISIS’s reemergence.
Throughout Syria, Assad and his allies are responsible for more than 9 out of 10 civilian deaths in the conflict. Genocide Watch assesses that Syria is in the most intense phase, “Extermination,” of the “ten stages of genocide.” The U.S. Holocaust Museum reports that the relatively muted response to Assad’s “mass atrocities” proves that “the international community has failed to uphold the commitment of ‘Never Again.’”
Assad is pulling out all the stops in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province, the last region still under control by Arab opposition. CNN warned in 2018 that Idlib had already become “Syria’s latest version of Hell.” The region’s hellishness has further deepened with the current wave of attacks that began in April of this year.
Idlib now experiences the 21st century’s greatest displacement crisis, with more than 600,000 having fled their homes. These masses of refugees been provided with only 9,000 tents and many sleep in the open with no shelter whatsoever. More than 3 million people, half of them children, are stuck in Idlib. The UN has delivered only 6% of the funds considered necessary to provide even the most basic food, clean water, and sanitation. In these conditions, 40,000 people have contracted tropical disease. As the Syrian and White Helmet rescue worker Raed al Saleh wrote on Tuesday, “I can honestly say it’s the worst my country has been.”
Assad and Putin have overseen the killing of 1,000 civilians and the repeated bombing of hospitals and rescue centers in Idlib since April. More than 50 of Idlib’s health care facilities have been systematically attacked. The New York Times reported on Sunday that Russian pilots had been bombing hospitals named on a list of humanitarian locations that the UN provided to Russia. “It’s worked,” one pilot celebrated as he bombed a hospital in the province, according to leaked Russian Air Force communications.
The United States bears some responsibility for Assad’s atrocities, since it has acted for years to keep Assad in power. Back in 2011, Obama’s administration officials Hillary Clinton and John Kerry called Assad a “reformer” and advocated making “progress in that relationship” with the regime. When Washington aided Syrian rebel groups, it directed these groups to attack jihadists but not Assad’s regime. Washington’s abandonment of Syrians, then, began long before Trump and thus won’t be reversed by merely electing a Democrat.
Democracy, Feminism, and Ecology
Idlib and Rojava are the last strongholds of the 2011 Syrian Revolution and the 2012 Rojava Revolution. Although some neoliberals criticize the global betrayal of these regions, they rarely discuss the radically democratic elements of the movements there. In fact, one of the most tragic aspects of the current crackdowns is that they crush some of the last hopes for Syrian democracy.
Unfortunately, supporters of each uprising often dismiss the other one. Given modern histories of ethnic conflict, it is understandable, though regrettable, that the two uprisings did not join together to overthrow Assad. The Arab opposition did not generally support Kurdish autonomy and even sought assistance from Erdogan’s staunchly anti-Kurdish regime. Rojava’s troops, meanwhile, sought geographic continuity between its three cantons, and this goal led them to conquer many majority-Arab communities that didn’t want to join the Rojava project.
Despite these contradictions, there are reasons to at least hope (though not expect) that the two revolutions will ultimately join forces. It is because Syrians rose up to overthrow Assad in 2011 that the dictator felt a need to withdraw from Rojava in 2012, to focus on confronting the uprising, enabling autonomy in the Kurdish region. As the Syrian-Swiss scholar, Joseph Daher told me and my colleague S. Maja last year, “We can see that defeat of the Syrian uprising would probably mark the end of the Rojava experience and the return to an era of oppression for the Kurds of Syria.”
Moreover, the two uprisings actually have a number of similar Anarchist, democratic, feminist, and ecological orientations. Partisans of one or the other side often overlook these parallels.
Both the Syrian and Rojava revolutions have been influenced by Anarchist ideas of direct democratic self-governance. The Syrian Revolution was influenced early on by the Anarchist economist Omar Aziz who advocated the construction of local self-governance councils in areas where the state had been pushed out. By 2016, there were about 400 such councils in Syria, with more than 150 in Idlib. Many of these councils ran the first free elections since 1954, and councils have taken on tasks such as growing and distributing food and supervising emergency medical care. Alongside these councils, Syrians organized grassroots committees that planned protests, documented regime abuses, and supplied aid and medicine. In Rojava, meanwhile, Kurdish organizations adopted a “democratic confederalist” strategy explicitly influenced by the works of a Vermont-based Anarchist. Decisions on local affairs are made by democratic assemblies and they send delegates to regional councils organized along anarchistic lines. A visiting diplomat wrote in the NYT, “I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups.” Rojava has also extended democracy to the economy, by establishing networks of worker cooperatives devoted to reforestation, farming, “bread-baking, textile production, sewing and alterations, cheese-making and other dairy production, growing peanuts and lentils, and selling cleaning materials.”
Both revolutions empowered women in the context of highly patriarchal societies. Women in the Syrian Revolution formed a radio station in Aleppo that promoted gender equality. Women planned protests even in highly conservative regions, and often they wore veils to disguise their identities from police. The uprisings expanded career options available to women, according to the Syrian activist Hiba al-Ahaji. She remarked last year, “It’s impossible to go back to the way things were.” In Rojava, the major Kurdish organizations adopted a staunchly feminist stance. From the most local to the regional level, every council and administration is co-chaired by a woman, and meetings need to consist of at least 40 percent women to meet quorum. Women are among the leadership of the co-educational YPG militia and of course the all-women YPJ (both affiliated with the SDF). A woman from a conservative religious sect, who previously was not even permitted to leave her home, has celebrated her participation in Rojava’s autonomous democracy, “Now I actively shape my own community. People come to me to seek help in solving social issues.”
Both revolutions also incorporate ecological ways of life. Among Syria’s Arab opposition, many were small-scale farmers and gardeners who wanted to defend their lifestyles from the regime’s repression and displacement. Emphasizing the sustainability of Syria’s rebellious population, La Via Campesina reported in 2016:
“[T]here are women who are making gardens when their whole city is under siege, with food-producing plants in every corner possible out of the snipers’ aim. There are community gardens that built the capacity to feed thousands of people; there are farmers’ networks for work and skill exchange; there are seed reproducers and sharers […] and networks for educating communities in closed-cycle methods: like trash recycling, small scale bio-gas producing and local fertilizing cycles.”
Rojava’s councils also sought to protect the environment, and participants have espoused the goals of protecting “the environment we live in” and “maintaining friendship [sic] with the animals.” This outlook has led to certain bans on overhunting and over-logging, and some of the militants have given up eating meat. Meanwhile, Rojava rebels have sought to expand green spaces as a way of improving public health.
So, when Rojava solidarity advocates sometimes claim that Syria’s 2011 uprising never “bec[a]me a revolution,” and when Syria solidarity advocates sometimes dismiss the Rojava project as an “illusion” or “counter-revolution,” I think they make a mistake. Each side has many fair criticisms of the other, but some of the critiques are likely overblown. For example, some accuse Rojava’s militias of “ethnic cleansing” against Arabs, even though a 2017 UN report cleared them of this serious charge. And some conflate Syria’s democratic opposition with jihadists, even though the democratic groups have protested the jihadist HTS and called for them to “get out” of Idlib.
The Revolution Lives?
Reports of the Syrian and Rojava revolutions’ demise have been constant for some time. “Turkey had managed to quash the dream of Kurdish-led self-rule that had been growing for years in less than a week,” the New York Times reported on Monday. On Tuesday, Haaretz announced that “Bashar Assad Won in Syria.” While prospects indeed look grim, it may be too early to declare either of the revolutions over.
In Idlib, demonstrations against Assad persist, and thousands of protesters stormed the Turkish border in August after photos emerged of Erdogan and Putin enjoying a friendly meeting over ice cream. A music video released last fall by Connecticut musician Dylan Connor proclaimed that “The Revolution Lives” and displayed a number of Syrians keeping hope alive in Idlib. A year later, many of these advocates continue to speak out, although at least one, Radio Fresh host Raed Fares, has since been assassinated. Rania Kisar, a Syrian-American woman in Idlib, is still loudly condemning the “apathy of the top leaders of the world.” As Idlib’s rapper Amir Almuarri says,“The people are the revolution, the revolution is ideas, and ideas cannot die.”
Rojava’s revolutionaries are also not going down without a fight. “Syrian Kurds are using a sophisticated network of tunnels and other battlefield tactics to recaptures some of the territory seized by Turkish-backed forces,” Foreign Policy reported on Tuesday. In a widely shared video last Friday, Rojava’s fighters blasted Rage Against the Machine music as they drove to defend Serekaniye/Ras al-Ayn. As of this Wednesday, the SDF has recaptured that city as well as Tal Half.
Worldwide, grassroots supporters have organized rallies against Turkey’s attack on Rojava over the past week. 20,000 demonstrated in London, and another 20,000 gathered in Paris. 15,000 gathered in Stockholm, and 10,000 rallied in Cologne. Protests propped up across North America, in Australia, and in Africa. A courageous crowd protested in Istanbul, and Istanbul’s chapter of Industrial Workers of the World has also condemned the attack, calling on workers “not to join this war, but to unite against it.”
These protests may have pressured European Union countries to limit arms sales to Turkey, and the United States to impose sanctions. People in Rojava are calling for boycotts of Turkish companies, including airlines and banks. and disruptions of weapons companies supplying Turkey. An Anarchist in Rojava told Freedom News, “If you want to know how to support us, it’s three simple things. Direct action. Direct action. Direct action.”
Meanwhile, Syrian solidarity activists are boycotting Russia and organizing events in solidarity with Idlib. Syria Solidarity NYC has held weekly Idlib solidarity vigils for over a year. Still, there has been a shameful lack of solidarity with the rebellions of Idlib. The Syrian-American peace campaigner Shiyam Ghalyoun compellingly argued: “I need to challenge my non-Kurdish friends to reflect on why their justified urgency around the Turkish assault on Northern Syria did not have room for urgency around the Syrian regime and Russia’s bombing of Idlib, a military offensive that has been going on since April of this year.”
To some degree, we might be able to pressure world leaders to stop massacring and displacing people in Rojava and Idlib, but in the long term, we will need to confront the fact the status quo that has failed Syrians and Kurds pretty consistently. States have been the main oppressors, an indication that we may need what Kurdish writer Dilar Dirik calls “democracy without the state.” This could mean forming our own local councils and coordinating committees in order to construct a freer and more life-loving world. It could mean reclaiming the word “revolution” from “hip” corporations and politicians. In the midst of collapse, Syrians and Kurds have survived, in part, by building autonomous social structures to meet their needs. In some cases, they have even built paradises in hell. If they can accomplish that in the midst of genocide, can’t we, from the relative comfort of the First World, not only support them but also build radical democracy here where we live?