Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Siege of the Kobanê Commune

Freedom fighters who battled IS in Kobanê
The state siege in and around the majority Kurdish city of Kobanê is a horrific event, which strengthens the position of the brutal Islamic State, and constitutes a humanitarian catastrophe. But more than this, Kobanê is one of three 'cantons' which declared their autonomy last year, as part of the Kurdish 'Rojava revolution' (Rojava being the part of Kurdistan which lies within the borders of the Syrian state). In each of these communes, the population are engaged in a long term socialist project to build equality and freedom. But before this week, few in the UK and wider western left had heard of this process. We owe it to the martyrs of Kobanê - and ourselves - to educate each other, and offer solidarity where we can.

Even by its own standards, the US policy towards Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey - the four states which contain Kurdistan - is extremely complicated at the moment. Obama claims his motivations are humanitarian, and this current military campaign was initially justified by concerns that IS would wipe out another group of Kurds - the Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar.

But since August, the mission has creeped - as it was surely always intended to do, considering Obama sought war in Syria just over year ago. The US and its allies are effectively now at war with IS - a state whose very existence all coalition partners bear at least some degree of responsibility for. The coalition says it is targeting IS across Iraq and Syria, where a conflict between US-led forces and the Assad regime will inevitably be manufactured. The driving impulse behind all this is not disgust at atrocities carried out by Assad, but the need to establish control over the whole oil-rich region, and knock down business partners of the Chinese and the Russians - the US's main rivals on the 'grand chessboard'.

Considering all this, you might think the US would compel neighbouring Turkey compel to destroy IS around Kobanê, or do the job itself. But no. The US and Turkey are terrified of the example which the majority-Kurdish cantons set. Turkey is particularly afraid because Kurdish nationalism has been a thorn in its side ever since the modern state's borders were artificially drawn up in the aftermath of World War One. But more than this, all powers fear the example of something approaching socialism. And far better - from their perspective - to let current bogeyman IS do the dirty work of nipping this flower in the bud. This explains the Turkish military sitting on its hands while a force it is ostensibly at war with takes over a city on its border. In return for opening up the border for Kurds crossing to Rojava, Turkey is demanding the dismantling of the autonomous cantons, loyalty to the 'Free Syrian Army' and the establishing of a "buffer zone".

So what is so terrifying about this example? Well, for various reasons, details are hard to find. But in August, RoarMag reported the following bottom-up, federal structure as spreading through Turkish and Syrian Kurdistan:
'Jongerden and Akkaya note that “the free municipalism model aims to realize a bottom-up, participative administrative body, from local to provincial levels.” The “concept of the free citizen (ozgur yarttas) [is] its starting point,” which “includes basic civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech and organization.” The core unit of the model is the neighborhood assembly or the “councils,” as they are referred to interchangeably. There is popular participation in the councils, including from non-Kurdish people, and whilst neighbourhood assemblies are strong in various provinces, “in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkish Kurdistan, there are assemblies almost everywhere.” Elsewhere, “in the provinces of Hakkari and Sirnak … there are two parallel authorities [the KCK and the state], of which the democratic confederal structure is more powerful in practice.” The KCK in Turkey “is organized at the levels of the village (köy), urban neighbourhood (mahalle), district (ilçe), city (kent), and the region (bölge), which is referred to as “northern Kurdistan.”'
Speaking specifically of the Rojava side of things, Anarkismo this week told how:
"Aiming at decentralizing decision-making and realizing self-rule, village- or street communes consisting of 30-150 households have been organised. These communes decide on questions regarding administration, electricity, provision of nutrition, as well as discussing and solving other social problems. They have commissions for the organisation of defence, justice, infrastructure, ecology, youth, as well as economy. Some have erected communal cooperatives, e.g. bakeries, sewing workshops or agricultural initiatives. They also organise the support of the poorest of the community with basic nutrition and fuel. Delegates of the communes form together a council for 7-10 villages or a city-district, and every city has yet another city council. The city council is made up of representatives of the communes, all political parties, the organisation of the fallen fighters, the women’s organisation, and the youth organisation. All councils as well as the communes have a 40% quota for women. The decisions are to be made on basis of consensus and equal speaking-time is enforced. Besides this, a co-chairperson system has been implemented for all organisations, which means that all councils have both a female and male chairperson. All members are suggested and elected by the population."
Tearing down borders: Kurds from Turkey and Syria have united against IS
This vast political change has been ascribed to imprisoned PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) leader Abdullah Öcalan, who is said to have abandoned his version of Leninism after reading the works of the late US libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Certainly, Öcalan's popularity remains strong amongst sections of poor Kurds, and this is mirrored by the photos of Kurdish solidarity protesters carrying pictures of him over the last few days.

But this can't be all there is to it. After all, if the majority of Kurds were well-served by the development of capitalism, and the provision of the states within whose borders they live, Öcalan's proposed experiment' would not have got off the ground. And if it were not practically possible - either due to the much fabled 'human nature' beloved of capitalist philosophers, or lack of sufficient material resources - it would not have taken hold in the way that it has.

Though some have made comparisons to the Zapatistas, my readings this week have brought to mind other great movements of the oppressed. Firstly, I thought of the Paris Commune - how poor people made even poorer by a war in which they had no stake rose up and took control of their city. Next, I considered parallels and differences with the Spanish Revolution. For one thing, major powers allowed Franco, Hitler, and yes, even Stalin to play their parts in strangling that uprising, rather than do the bloodletting themselves. But unlike Kobanê, revolutionary Spain was not left isolated. Working class fighters from around the world rallied to defend the gains that had been made, recognising that their struggles were one and the same.

Today a message sent by someone in Kurdistan could reach us in the blink of an eye. So why didn't we in the British and Irish left even really know about this until recently, never mind do a thing in solidarity? The complexity of the geopolitics involved may play a role (it took me more than 300 words to sketch it as simply as I could). The limited global reach of the Kurdish language might also factor.

But far more important, I think, is the fact that unlike in the 1930s for example, there isn't a working class movement to speak of in our part of the world. Struggles break out here and there, but they are quickly isolated and repressed by trade union leaders and cops. Massive social pressures seem close to widespread eruption, but this isn't enough in of itself to create the kind of class consciousness necessary for many in Britain and Ireland to peer into the murk that is Middle Eastern politics, and identify with the struggles of Kurdish toilers. Of course, so many of us in these countries are 'anti-war', as in we don't want to pay for 'our' soldiers to fight and die overseas. The experiences of Bush Jnr and Blair's Iraq invasion proved to us that no good and much harm must follow this. But they also taught us that even getting millions onto the streets can't stop the politicians spilling 'blood for oil'. And without that class consciousness, we can't collectively envisage anything better.

So what can we do? Well, we can honour those autonomous solidiers who fight and fought IS in Kobanê, and those who continue to fight for equality throughout Kurdistan, as well as everyone rising in solidarity with them throughout the world. We can research and tell others in the 'left' and in our general lives about the commune-based example set in the autonomous Kurdish areas. And of course, we continue to fight our own battles, as a necessary stage in developing class consciousness. Most practically in the immediate term, we can donate to the fund set up in solidarity with Turkish anarchist group DAF. In addition, the Middle Eastern Feminist Facebook page has compiled a list of suggested ways to help.
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