Before the siege of Kobane, the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) had captured large swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria. The lack of resistance and the relative ease with which it had taken control took most of the world by surprise. Why had an Iraqi army of tens of thousands, equipped with state-of-the-art US weapons, been defeated by a few thousand jihadists who arrived in Mosul in jeeps?
Likewise, when ISIS took the mainly Yazidi town of Şengal (Sinjar in Arabic) in late August, the Kurdish peshmerga had offered little defence and had fled for their lives, leaving thousands of Yazidis at the hands of ISIS’s barbarianism. They butchered the menfolk of a people they called ‘devil worshippers’ and enslaved the women, boasting about having done so on social media and in print. As the Yazidis sought refuge in the mountains, where up to 10,000 former residents of Sengal still remain, it seemed that no force in the Middle East was able or willing to tackle ISIS.
It was only when the extreme Islamists of the self-declared caliphate turned their attention towards the Syrian Kurds in Kobane that they faced tougher resistance. There the YPG/J (People’s/Women’s Defence Units), backed by perhaps 200 supporters from the Syrian Free Army, have resisted ISIS advances against all odds. In doing so, they have defied the early predictions of their downfall – most notably from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who declared in October that ‘Kobane is about to fall’ and air strikes would not save it. They have also forced the US to backtrack on its original view, as expressed by secretary of state John Kerry, that Kobane was not a strategic objective and to provide the air support that the Kurds had been demanding.
Above all, the defenders of Kobane have shown that they possess a belief in secular, democratic ideals and a commitment to self-determination in the autonomous region they have carved out in northern Syria to match the jihadi fervour of ISIS. So what are these ideals?
Rojava’s democratic revolution
When the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was founded in 1978 (its armed struggle against the Turkish state started in 1984), its objective was an independent state of Kurdistan based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. During the 1990s, however, the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan began to question such aspirations. While imprisoned on Imralı island, following his arrest and life sentence in 1999, he changed the central demand of the PKK from an independent nation to democratic autonomy. He came to regard nation states as part of the inescapable capitalist hegemony and hierarchical structures, and instead argued that true freedom could only come through localised, self-governed, democratic municipalities.
When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces vacated the Kurdish areas in northern Syria in 2011, Kurds who had been continuously oppressed in the region (Rojava in Kurdish) seized on the power vacuum and began to practise self-governance. The PYD, the largest party in Rojava and ideologically aligned with the PKK, quickly began putting what they call ‘democratic confederalism’ into practice across the three cantons of Afrid, Kobane and Jazere.
While I was in Diyarbakır, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan, I visited the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) headquarters. The DBP is also closely attached to the ideas of democratic confederalism and sees it as the future model for Turkey too. Huseyin Kocak, the joint mayoral secretary, stressed that ‘the resistance in Kobane is the same as the resistance of Turkish Kurds’. He says that ‘opponent[s] of the Kurdish movement [don’t] want to see the Rojava administration flourish for the simple fact that it is the product of the PKK’s struggle over the last 30 years.’
At the heart of this democratic confederalism is participatory democracy. ‘People’s councils’ take place in the cities, towns and villages. No decision can be made without at least 40 per cent participation by women in any decision-making body. A social charter states that ‘men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The charter guarantees the effective realisation of equality of women and works towards the total elimination of gender discrimination.’
Another important aspect of Rojava is its diversity. Unlike the sectarianism of ISIS, the Rojava administration recognises the rights of other ethnicities, religions and cultures, especially in Jazere, where Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis and Assyrians live side by side.
On 9 September, the US announced that it was beginning airstrikes in Syria, and many Kurds presumed this would prevent ISIS from reaching Kobane. It didn’t happen. At the same time, Turkish tanks and other armed forces stood by and watched the ISIS advance from across the border. The US inaction was partly a result of its assessment of the strategic unimportance of Kobane, as expressed by John Kerry, and partly due to a desire not to offend its ally Turkey. Although it was engaged in a two-year-old peace process and ceasefire with the PKK, the Turkish government still saw it as a terrorist organisation and was no doubt happy to leave it to slug it out with ISIS in Kobane. Indeed, the Turkish military even bombed PKK guerrillas in south-east Turkey in mid-October.
What neither the US nor the Turkish governments counted on, however, was the unyielding resistance of the defenders of Kobane – and the strength of the protests in their support. When Kurds across Europe staged sit-ins at airports, train stations and even stormed some parliaments, it brought much-needed attention to the YPG/J’s resistance. The left worldwide at last began to awaken to the unfolding crisis. The political activist and LSE professor David Graeber compared the defenders of Kobane to the mujeres libres in the Spanish civil war, and asked why the revolutionary Kurds were being ignored in the face of Islamist barbarism.
In a matter of weeks, the Kurds of Rojava went from relative obscurity and political isolation to worldwide attention. The US realised that it could not afford to let Kobane fall. The seemingly inconceivable occurrence of US bombs being deployed in support of left-wing revolutionaries had become a reality.
So does this mean that the YPG/J, and the Kobane resistance are now fighting on the same side as the forces of imperialism? When I put this question to Huseyin Kocak, he countered, ‘Whose weapons are we fighting against in Kobane? US-made weapons seized by ISIS when they took Iraqi-controlled Mosul.’
As we sat in a cafe in the Turkish border town of Suruç, the foreign minister of the Kobane canton Idriss Nassan, explained the lack of choices facing the YPG in trying to prise ISIS out of the parts of Kobane they have captured. ‘In urban warfare, it is very hard to do an offensive; the defenders have a natural advantage. Without heavy weapons, how can we drive ISIS out of the city, with just Kalashnikovs?’
The Kurds are fully aware that the US – and perhaps even more so Turkey – will try to reassert their own agenda once ISIS is defeated in Kobane. This can even lead to suspicion of other fighters who have joined the fight for the city. One Kobane refugee I met on the border explained the YPG’s distrust of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because ‘the FSA had been supported by the west for so long. We know the west has an agenda in the region and for this reason we have been wary of trusting them.’ A Kurdish activist I met said, ‘This is what the Turkish president, Erdogan, is doing: now he knows that the YPG can’t be defeated, he is insisting on sending his allies, the FSA and the peshmerga, into Kobane to force his agenda through.’
Huseyin Koçak says that the YPG has never asked for the help of foreign troops on the ground for fear of such agendas. From the start of the siege, ‘we have clearly stated our main demand: an opening of a corridor for guerrillas and arms to come through Turkey.’ Such a demand clearly highlights how wary the Kurdish guerrilla forces are of foreign intervention; they are clear in their desire to be in full control of their own destiny.
They are also adamant that they will resist any compromises in their commitment to their democratic ideals. One activist told me, ‘When a guerrilla first goes to the mountain, the first thing they learn is their ideology and not to concede any of it.’ The determination to continue the Rojava revolution lies at the heart of the effective defence of Kobane, and Kurdish fighters and activists are under no illusions about the dangers that lie ahead.
Despite their current preoccupation with ISIS, the US, Turkey and the other regional powers remain wary of a grassroots, self-governing revolutionary alternative taking hold in the region. Not only would it become a platform for Kurdish self-determination, but it could have the potential to transform notions of democracy and government across the Middle East.
‘Öcalan has always asserted that he is an internationalist,’ says Huseyin Koçak. ‘This idea of democratic confederalism is not just for Kurdish provinces, but the whole of Turkey and the Middle East. We are terrifying all the capitalist powers with our experiments.’
Yvo Fitzherbert studied history at the School of Oriental and African Studies before moving to Turkey
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
Greenwald speaks Trump, War on Terror, and citizen activism
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas