The Kurdish Question and the Rojava Revolution Harun Ercan
Photo: Erin Trieb
In the aftermath of state breakdowns in Iraq and Syria and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) as a serious threat against the status quo in the Middle East, the Kurds began receiving unforeseen coverage in international media as both victims of ISIS and heroes/heroines resisting ISIS terror. The biggest stateless ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds have been struggling for freedom and to secure their right to live since the First World War. They have not attracted much attention throughout their history except as subjects of massacres. Non-specialists of the region might simply think that Kurdish/Kurdistan question is yet another of those ethnic conflicts in the world. This is fallacious for two reasons.
First, although the Kurdish population makes up about 30 million people, the majority of the Kurds—with the notable exception of the Kurds of Iraq—still have no right to self-determination. They constitute the largest stateless nation in the Middle East. Syrian Kurds have de factoautonomy today, but this is not yet recognized by the international community. More importantly, though the Kurds live in politically divided territories, these regions they inhabit are contiguous; this constitutes the basis for a possible Kurdish nation-state.
Second, since the end of the Cold War and the demise of leftist movements (with the exception of indigenous movements) in the new neoliberal world order, the left in general could not come up with a workable political project in any part of the world whether in the core, the semi-periphery or the periphery of the modern world-system. Today, however, we have the opportunity to discuss a new anti-systemic project in the Middle East: the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistani), a so-called “terrorist” organization that is the main driving force for the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran, seems to be the main agent of that possibility. The PKK is one of the rare political movements that emerged during the Cold War period with a Marxist agenda, and it has survived to this day thanks to its substantial guerilla force and social base. It is now trying “something new” in Syrian Kurdistan that might constitute an example for all anti-systemic movements. This article analyzes the ways in which the Kurds hold a distinct status in the nation-state system unlike other oppressed ethno-national groups in the world. It then explores two possible trajectories that the Kurdish struggle might take, one being a pragmatic self-determination path; the other being the latest anti-systemic project of the New Left. More importantly, this article will focus on how US hegemony now tries to contain the latest anti-systemic revolution initiated in Syrian Kurdistan by comparing it with Chiapas.
Defining Kurdish Exceptionalism
Three historical facts make the Kurds unique in the world ethnic conflict map. First, when the nation-state system crystallized just after World War I, imperial powers considered Kurdish-speaking populations in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria to be indigenous people incapable of self-government. Thus, all Kurds were left without recognition, status or protection, just as millions of other people living under colonial rule. Millions of Kurds with strong social, economic and cultural relations were separated by the boundaries of four states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria), and exposed to systematic assimilation, exploitation and forced migration policies. Second, a majority of colonized communities all over the world created successful national liberation movements that could seize a certain degree of state power during the Cold War era (1945-1991). However, unlike their counterparts in Africa, Asia or the Middle East, the Kurds gained no such power in the Cold War period, and instead faced massacres, systematic imprisonment, and exile when they struggled for their collective rights. Third, unlike Palestinians, the Kurds have had no stable or crucial allies in the Middle East, except for relatively weak Marxist parties for short periods. Additionally Kurds received little to no support from any imperialist powers either, with the exception of short intervals during which imperialists deceived and used the Kurds instrumentally against the nation-states that suppressed them. Although the end of the Cold War caused a series of changes in geopolitical dynamics in the Middle East, little changed for the Kurds. Only the Kurds in Iraq were able to gain autonomy in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Prior to the beginning of civil war in Syria in 2011, the rest of the Kurdish population remained in more or less the same situation as previous decades. Overall, although the Kurds formed various political parties and did not refrain from resorting to armed struggle when all avenues for peaceful collective action were closed, they kept struggling to survive with their own identity throughout the entire twentieth century.
Kurdish exceptionalism is generally used in pro-Kurdish intellectual circles to legitimize Kurdish demands for a sovereign nation-state. But for those who do not recognize the Kurds’ right for self-determination, the Kurdish question has generally been associated with further chaotic scenarios in the Middle East. This popular discussion on Kurdish independence has overshadowed the main issue at stake. Today, some Kurds are struggling for a political project that goes far beyond Kurdish freedom.
Two Competing Projects for the Future of the Kurds
After the demise of the Old Left, following the ebb of the 1968 revolutionary wave, a neoliberal counter-offensive by the Right began in the 1970s, targeting the oppressed and exploited segments of the world; and the Right ended up claiming victory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the decline of reformist or revolutionary movements and fierce class struggle after 1990, the New Left began to question some of the basic strategies proposed by the Old Left. As Immanuel Wallerstein (2010) highlights, the Old Left before 1968 had a two-fold strategy to transform the world that involved taking state power first and then changing the world. The Old Left’s inability to fulfill the promise of eliminating the structural inequalities in the world was just one reason for its failure. Meanwhile, the role of armed struggle as a means through which revolutionary movements gain power has been questioned seriously. This rethinking is partly a result of effective propaganda on the part of states encouraging non-violence for all sorts of social movements. Another vein of this discussion was shaped by the following criticism: “the Old Left had ignored the forgotten peoples—those downtrodden because of their race, gender, ethnicity or sexuality. The militants insisted that demands for equal treatment could no longer be deferred—they constituted part of the urgent present.” As the salience of ethno-national movements increased following the end of the Cold War, the New Left focused more and more on one question: “How do indigenism and ethnification threaten or weaken the hegemony of the capitalist civilizational project?”
Discussions around this question overwhelmingly focused on indigenous movements in Latin America (e.g. the Zapatistas in Mexico), and the Kurds were rarely part of the debate that took place within this framework. One might ask if it is now too late to have such a discussion for the Kurdish national liberation movement. The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because, at least in the Middle East, it was mainly Jihadist movements (more than indigenous and ethno-nationalist movements) that weakened the hegemony of the capitalist civilizational project in the last decades. Jihadist movements brought armed struggle back into the debate and showed that repressive regimes rarely leave space for non-violence. Hence, political gains might only be possible through political violence directed against weak repressive states. Thousands of civilians were killed in the last year by Jihadists, and hundreds of thousands of them became refugees in the Middle East. This should remind us that, on the one hand, the capacity for armed resistance can also be a necessity, rather than simply a matter of strategic choice for the oppressed people. The brutality of Jihadist terror, on the other hand, created a crucial political opportunity for the PKK in the Middle East to claim that all oppressed communities should have self-defense forces against state or non-state terror.
Non-specialists on the Kurdistan question tend to consider the Kurdish national movement(s) a homogenous political force that only fights for Kurdish freedom. Contrary to popular perception, there are two different self-determination projects for the future of Kurds, and these projects have been competing for decades. The right-wing, pro-capitalist and pro-US wing is led by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, while the left is represented by the PKK (Workers’ Party of Kurdistan), which has been an anti-systemic movement since its inception in 1978. The PKK emerged as a national liberation movement pursuing Marxist-Leninist ideology and aiming to seize power initially in the Kurdish region of Turkey. After thirty years of bloody armed conflict with the Turkish state, the PKK now advocates autonomy and decentralization in the Middle East, fights for gender equality and the empowerment of women, promises to implement economic policies that undermine market capitalism, and also pursues ethnic and religious pluralism. More significantly, the PKK has maintained its Leninist party structure and effectively monopolizes power in every Kurdish region in which they struggle, leaving no space for rival Kurdish movement organizations. Although the PKK seems to be the only force with the military capacity to resist ISIS terror, it is listed as a terrorist organization by the US and EU. This denomination has created a serious impediment for the PKK to make its voice heard in the international community in the last decades.
Comparing the Chiapas and Rojava Revolutions
The PKK has sought power for decades mainly in the Kurdish region of Turkey, but it could not find any opportunity to turn its ideology into practice until the Syrian civil war broke out. While the possibility of a re-escalation of armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK is likely, the two-year long cease-fire persists between the two parties, and the Kurdish movement in Turkey continues to gradually become institutionalized. In 2012, the PKK finally put forth an anti-systemic political project in the three regions (now cantons) of Syrian Kurdistan. The novelties of the Rojava revolution can be evaluated in comparison to what the Zapatistas achieved in Chiapas after 1994. To stop the incorporation of Chiapas into the capitalist market economy, the Zapatistas mainly used the threat of violence rather than engage in a serious armed struggle against the Mexican state. They achieved the mobilization of an international audience by relying on the legitimacy of their cause in order to deter violent attacks. Unfortunately, no major international mobilization materialized around the Rojava revolution. The PKK is conducting an “old-school” revolution that primarily aims at monopolizing the means of violence in a particular territory following a long-term armed revolutionary struggle. That said, the PKK is still trying something new instead of establishing a state that is defined as “…the culmination of a process of concentration of different species of capital: capital of physical force or instruments of coercion (army, police), economic capital, cultural or (better) informational capital, and symbolic capital.” The political environment where the Rojava project was launched witnesses a serious competition for power. Thus, as opposed to the threat of violence that brought autonomy in Chiapas, Rojava can only survive with a concentration of military power, whose place is central to the process of state-making in Syrian Kurdistan.
In Chiapas, revolutionaries disregarded mechanisms like institutionalization, professionalization, and representative democracy, and established a genuine horizontal autonomous system step by step to prevent a concentration of power. Kurds in Syria are not following the same path. Instead, the Rojava project is an attempt to establish an autonomous political system based on the principles of radical democracy, anti-capitalism, pluralism, and gender-equality via different means than the Zapatistas pursued. Executive, legislative, and judicial fields of power are defined clearly in the constitution of Rojava, in addition to a strong system of checks and balances and mechanisms of direct democracy through people’s assemblies. Additionally, some economic principles written in the constitution specifically aim at preventing capital accumulation:
…The purpose of developing production and economic activities shall aim at guaranteeing the daily needs of people and to ensure a dignified life. Based on the principle of “from each according to her/his labor”, democratic Autonomous Administrations accept a shared economy and legitimate competition, forbid stock-piling and engender social justice… (Article 42)
The Rojava project is crucial for the future of the Left because it will reveal the structural limitations that any anti-systemic movement might face today in the neoliberal era. The Rojava project is not located in a geo-strategically insignificant zone where there is no competition for power. Rather, the cantons of Rojava and the PKK’s anti-systemic project as a whole are now under serious attack by radical Jihadists in Syria. In the absence of powerful allies, logistical support, and high-tech weaponry, the PKK has had to rely on US military support in order to continue the resistance against ISIS attacks in the surrounded city of Kobanê. Until October 2014, the PKK defended Kobanê as much as it could without the support of any regional actor. Nevertheless, if the US had not launched airstrikes on ISIS targets, ISIS would have likely gained control over the Kobanê canton. Iraqi Kurds have been the most stable ally of the US in Iraq in the last two decades. Though the PKK was considered a mere terrorist organization, it managed to gain some positive international recognition during its defense of Kobanê. Despite endless endeavors by Turkey to prevent US support to the PKK, the US decided to recognize and provide military support for the PKK simply because it is one of the rare organized guerilla forces in the Middle East that can stand against ISIS. The US is now repeating an old tactic on the PKK that has been used against most anti-systemic national liberation movements in previous decades: it is trying to co-opt the movement by leveling down its revolutionary potential. Although turning into a pro-systemic movement is one of the possible routes that the PKK might follow in the long term (following in the footsteps of the Iraqi Kurds), the recent tactical alliance of the PKK and the US against ISIS has not triggered any ideological shift within the PKK. Nevertheless, if the anti-systemic Rojava project continues to remain unrecognized by the Left and the international community alike, the hope burgeoning for all the oppressed and exploited people in the region might be strangled by the capitalist civilizational project again, like the majority of other ethno-national movements in history.
Appendix: A Political and Demographic Map of the Kurds in the Middle East
Kurds in Iran
There are approximately 6 million Kurds in Iran. They have no social, cultural or political rights. The Iranian state considers Kurdish demands for collective rights threats against the integrity of Iran. The majority of the Kurds in Iran are Sunni Kurds, which adds a religious dimension to tensions between the Iranian state and the Kurds. Both before the Iranian revolution (1979) and after Shia Islamists seized power, the rights of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group were not recognized and massacres took place whenever the Kurds engaged in collective actions. PJAK (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, i.e the Iranian wing of the PKK) was established in 2004. PJAK started an armed resistance, killing hundreds of Iranian soldiers in the following years, but clashes fizzled out after a ceasefire was declared in 2011 and has been enforced since. Recently, however, the Iranian state executed more than a dozen Kurds on allegations of their being affiliated with the PJAK.
Kurds in Syria
About 2.5 million Kurds used to live in Syrian Kurdistan before the civil war broke out. Hundreds of thousands of them did not even have the right to citizenship following the 1962 census. Post-colonial Syria did not grant any collective rights to the Kurds while Baath rule increased the level of repression in last four decades. The latest Kurdish uprisings occurred in 2003, but were harshly suppressed by the Syrian regime. Thereafter, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or Democratic Union Party), which is affiliated with the PKK, started to organize Kurds in Syria and finally gained power in Kurdish areas and established self-rule in July 2012. The PYD established three cantons although they are devoid of territorial unity. The Kurds established autonomous cantons in Syria in 2014, but Jihadist Islamist groups have been attacking them ever since.
Kurds in Turkey
The estimations of the Kurdish population in Turkey are quite controversial due to the assimilation policies of the Turkish state. There are about 15 million Kurds who are citizens of the Turkish Republic. Most of them live in the Kurdish region but about 2 million were forced to migrate to Turkish cities during the peak of the civil war in the 1990s. The Kurds used non-violent tactics from 1959 to 1984. Meanwhile, the Turkish state relied on denial policies accompanied by violence, imprisonment, and systematic torture targeting Kurdish activists. Tens of thousands of people died due to civil war (1984-1999), and the Turkish state resorted to blatant human rights violations in order to stop the Kurdish movement.
Kurds in Iraq
There are approximately 6.5 million Kurds in Iraq, and the autonomy of the Kurdistan Regional Government is recognized by the international community. After decades of struggle for freedom during which they faced repeated massacres, the Kurds of Iraq gained de facto autonomy in the 1990s. The Iraqi central government recognized their autonomy after the US invaded Iraq in 2003. The main leading parties in this part of Kurdistan are the KDP (Partîya Demokrata Kurdistanê, or Kurdistan Democratic Party) and the YNK (Yekêtiy Niştîmaniy Kurdistan, or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), while the PKK has no significant power in Southern Kurdistan. This region is rich in oil reserves, providing the main source of income for the regional government.
 Wallerstein, Immanuel. 2010. “Structural Crises,” New Left Review, 62: 133-142
 Dunaway, Wilma. 2003. “Ethnic Conflict in the Modern World System: The Dialectics of
Counter-Hegemonic Resistance in an Age of Transition.” Journal of World-Systems Research, 9: 3-34
 One might also claim that radical Islamic movements have been instrumentally used by the US to legitimize its imperial aggression over the world through the campaigns of the war on terror. This argument was quite popular after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq in leftist circles. Nevertheless, as of today, especially after ISIS gained control of territories in Iraq and Syria, Jihadist Islamists constitute the most serious threat against US interests in the Middle East and North Africa.
 Bourdieu, Pierre, Wacquant, Loic and Farage, Samar 1994. “Rethinking the state: Genesis and structure of the bureaucratic field.”Sociological Theory, (1): 1-18.