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The Wounds of Afrin, the Promise of Rojava: an Interview with Nazan Üstündağ

Nazan Üstündağ is a sociologist in exile working on war, violence, feminist and postcolonial theory and a member of Women for Peace and Academics for Peace in Turkey. Before leaving the country, she taught at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul.

LeftEast interviewed sociologist and feminist Nazan Üstündağ on Afrin, Rojava and the social stakes of the resistance to Turkey’s current military intervention.

First, we’d like to thank you for agreeing to this interview. These days, when the Turkish propaganda machine has gone into overdrive, and any voice for peace inside the country is automatically branded “a terrorist supporter” and treated accordingly, we all too often find even foreign journalists repeating the Turkish state’s talking points: the PYD = the Syrian branch of the PKK, “legitimate security concerns,” a vast number of YPG militants “neutralized,” few Turkish army/FSA casualties, “utmost care” taken to protect Kurdish civilians. But even those Western-based accounts that are not so reliant on the Turkish point of view reduce the processes there to crude geopolitics and great-power struggles among the USA, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Iran. Of course, there is that as well, but we really wouldn’t have troubled you had we wanted to write a text about the new “great game.” Everybody these days can talk about Putin, Erdoğan, and Trump, “the Russians,” “the Turks,” and “the Americans.” Far fewer people can talk about the societies and lives on the ground. You are one of those people. You have visited Rojava and written about it. Could you tell us how this happened? What is the nature of governance in Rojava? Accounts range from one-party rule to anarchist utopia. What happens when emancipatory theories and practices meet traditional (often tribal) society?

Rally in Afrin against the Turkish invasion. February 2018. Courtesy of

I visited Rojava four times. Twice I visited the canton of Jazeera and twice that of Kobane. Three of these were as part of a research project I am pursuing concerning the transformation of the Kurdish Liberation Movement, its ideas and practices. In the canton of Jazeera I went to different cities and interviewed government representatives, YPG and YPJ fighters, representatives of neighborhood assemblies, individuals responsible for transforming the justice system, the education system and the university, women from the women’s movement and self-defense units and women’s houses where crimes against women are addressed and problems of women solved. I went to Kobane once to show solidarity with the fighters of Kobane against ISIS attacks. The second time I was there it was again for purposes of research but my interviews and observations occurred under conditions of post-war devastation. All of these occurred in the years 2015 and 2016. So, although I still watch it carefully, I must admit that some of my comments may be outdated.

The nature of governance in Rojava is inspired by the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, who is in the prison of the island of Imralı in Turkey since 1999. The interesting thing about Rojava is that while the YPG and YPJ are lauded worldwide for their struggle against the Islamic State, the fact remains that the solidarity shown for the Syrian Kurds is based on a notion of a common enemy rather than shared truths. While ISIS was globally understood in the terms of science fictional apocalypse, the city of Kobane became a metaphor for secularism, heroism, anti-terrorism and patriotism, all values assumed to prevent the arrival of the doomsday and behind which, the world, specifically the western world, would securely stand. Ironically however, the ideas that inspire what’s happening in Rojava developed from a critique of western paradigms of capitalism, positivism, individualism and professionalism. Therefore, it is urgent to become informed about the ideals of the Kurdish Liberation Movement and what it does on the ground so that now a larger support can be mobilized for it as it is dealing with Turkish attacks and its abandonment by the U.S., Russia and Europe.

Ocalan. Courtesy to NSNBC

Abdullah Öcalan, who is one of the main authors of Syrian Kurds’ ideals in Rojava, is neither a nativist nor an anti-modernist. On the contrary, he is fond of critical western thought and concepts as much as he is of myth and Islamic history. While adhering to a Marxist critique of capitalism, he nevertheless couples it with a radical critique of the state and patriarchy informed by anarchist, deconstructionist, poststructuralist and feminist theory. In the simplest form one could argue that in his view the problem of capitalist modernity is that the means by which societies produce and reproduce themselves have been usurped by men, the state and the bourgeoisie and, it is by reclaiming and democratizing those means that society and individuals will be emancipated and liberated. A (women’s) revolution in epistemology, ethics and aesthetics is fundamental to such a project. So is a new conception of self-defense: A web of relations, which will empower societies against the state.

For Öcalan, the Kurdish Liberation Movements in particular and Kurds in general have the potential of being pioneers in the construction of a new society and subjectivities, because they have no state and they are dispersed in at least four countries in the Middle East and as such what they construct will have consequences for the whole geography. Their partially traditional character and experience of colonization are both obstacles and opportunities. They are obstacles because these make Kurds conservative and at times supportive of ruling regimes. But in other ways, they are capable of wanting other social forms than those of capitalism and colonialism because they suffer from it and they can draw on their memory and traditional skills to imagine new forms. In Syrian Kurdistan, the process of constructing a new society had already begun before the 2011 Revolution, albeit underground and at the risk of imprisonment and severe punishment. When the Syrian Revolution started, the Kurdish Liberation Movement’s ideals represented by the political party PYD were already popular among the inhabitants of Rojava. Given that PYD did not appeal to sovereignty and operated with the assumption that the Syrian state will continue existing in one form or another under the rule of Assad or the opposition, PYD did not participate in an armed war to overthrow the regime but instead chose to organize its model in a peaceful fashion. It called this the third way and negotiated with different actors in Syria to deepen democracy and autonomy under the conditions of what transformed itself from a people’s revolution to a civil war. In 2012, the Rojava revolution occurred and the autonomy of the cantons were declared. That was followed by a Constitution that was defined as a voluntary agreement between people and groups with no unified identity. In certain parts of Rojava where there was still a population loyal to the state, the state’s presence remained intact in the form of universities, hospitals or schools. Conversation and struggle with these however, continued. Then of course it also became affected directly by the war as ISIS became a primary actor in Syria.

In discussing the new institutions of Rojava, a number of people emphasized the creation of People’s Parliaments as the primary means of democracy and discussed them in the framework of 21st-century socialism. While this is a very important dimension of the revolution, the transformation that occurred in Rojava is not restricted to the democratization of decision-making processes. I would describe what I have observed in the period I stayed Rojava as a revolution that democratizes governance (law, security, education) and decision making all at once.

Öcalan defines the primary needs of any society as nutrition, reproduction and defense. In order to meet these needs a society must organize its sociability, economy and knowledge without letting the means by which these are organized be appropriated by a centralized power. The Rojava Revolution involves the creation of gender equal-ist communes, cooperatives and academies at every level of society so that these means can be taken back by people and women and protected from the state, capitalism and patriarchy. While communes are the main social and political units that will define problems, come up with solutions and make decisions, cooperatives are economic units that are responsible for production and exchange. Academies on the other hand, accumulate and disseminate knowledge and struggle against hierarchization and monopolization of information. Communes have co-presidencies consisting of one woman and man and form committees as the need arises. Almost every commune has defense units and peace committees that protect people from violence and solve conflicts. Diplomacy, economy and ecology are examples of other topics around which committees are established. In each residential unit, along with mixed gender communes there are also all-women communes, which have the right to veto decisions made by the former.

Decision-making in Rojava. Courtesy of the WSM.

Last year when YPG and YPJ liberated more towns and villages from ISIS, new cantons were created that have predominantly Arab populations. As result of this and due to migration to Rojava by people who escaped the war of the regime, a complicated election system was put in place so that different communes, ethnicities, religions and ideologies could be represented at the level of canton governments. But of course radical democracy is not only about elections but also about institutions that prevent the default modes of neoliberal development, national exclusivity, patriotic anger and centralized judgment. I will give you examples of how institutions of defense, education and law are constituted.

In Rojava while younger people go to fight the Islamic State and join YPJ and YPG, it is their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who become responsible for public peace and safety. As with everything in Rojava, it was only when the need arose that public defense units were formed and this happened when ISIS began a campaign of suicide bombings against Kurds. However today, defense units have a number of sections that for example, fight against organized crime. Just like communes, each district have two defense units. One mixed gender and one all women.  Women’s defense units are exclusively responsible for crimes against women. All units have rules, regulations and bylaws that would impress most of HR NGOs since people who have suffered human rights violations have prepared these and since these defense units have themselves signed several humanitarian conventions. When I was in Rojava, defense unit members were working on innovating new “techniques of rehabilitation” such as reducing years of sentence if the person learns a new language, reads or writes a book.

Officials who will work in defense units must go through a short period of training before taking their post. This training is given by academies of security run by wounded fighters some of whom have not only witnessed war in Syria but also participated in the guerilla warfare against Turkey. One third of the trainees are women who will take posts in all-women security points. In the academy only half of the lessons involve “real” police or military business. The rest are about “how not to sacrifice the revolution to your feelings of anger, revenge and despair” as one of the teachers had said to me. There are poetry sessions and discussions of crimes the PKK committed in its early years, all of which aim at cultivating a consciousness of humanity and forgiveness as opposed to one of militarism and security.

Still, tensions develop. While defense units ideologically aim to get rid of any centralized understanding of defense and to return the means of defense to people themselves, an increasingly sophisticated and regulated system is being created as a result of the ongoing war. At times comparing one’s system to a less democratic and more oppressive one becomes enough reason to celebrate one’s self-created institutions. At other times, utopia becomes distanced as more dead bodies culminate in the war-stricken spaces of Rojava.

Let me also talk a bit about education. When I was in the canton of Jazeera, the education system was intact. Schools were running and teachers of the regime were paid their salaries. Accordingly, in regard to the education both the processes of construction and negotiation are operating. Kurdish, Assyrian and Arabic are recognized as languages of education and this is new, for example. But the curriculum still has not gone through radical changes.

Apart from the formal schooling system, the canton governments have opened up academies for the people in general and for women in particular, where they have discussions on the concepts of their new paradigm, such as power, the state, democracy, women’s freedom, ecology, ethics and aesthetics based on Öcalan’s writings. Since Öcalan’s epistemology is one where knowledge is seen to be already embedded in society’s practices and to survive despite its usurpation by capitalism, state and patriarchy, the aim of the academies is to “remember” as much as to learn. The teachers I interviewed there told me a story where one of the women who attended these academies responded to the question of “what is the state?” as “the one whom I lay next to every night” testifying to the intrinsic relationship between patriarchy and statehood. Such instances are widely circulated orally becoming part and parcel of the people’s theology that is being developed.

There is also a University in Jazeera called Mesopotamia. Now, I think there are canton universities in other places as well. In any case, this university comprises three departments: law, history and sociology and Kurdish language. Education (training) in each of these departments lasts less than a year. Each department of the university is designed to work against professionalization and expertise and aims at graduating students who will orient communes, cooperatives and academies at different regional levels. The fact that many teachers in the university are themselves non-professional(many professors left Syria) makes lectures in these universities into places where people’s knowledge become up-graded within the confines of a university so that they can acquire the value they deserve. To give you an example, an 80-year-old Kurdish woman teaches at the history and sociology department talking about Kurdish people’s fairy tales and her own life story and testimony. Books are scarce. Questions of how to evaluate students, how to assign them to their posts, how to conduct research and how to recruit new teachers at times push the university to imitate nation-state higher education institutions and that is one issue that the revolutionaries keep addressing and complaining about.

A women’s assembly at Qamislo, Rojava’s capita. Courtesy of STEPS Center.

Another area where “the process of construction” makes its imprint is the law and justice system. In Rojava people’s houses and women’s houses try to achieve the democratization of judgment through dialogue and debate. The cases that cannot be resolved in communal peace and justice committees are brought to these houses that exist in each city. Some members of these houses are selected from the communes, others are former legal professionals and graduates from the Mesopotamia Law School and yet some others respected and older members of society. I have seen not only Kurdish but also Arab and Assyrian women bringing their cases to women’s houses. What at the first sight might seem an easy issue has the potential of triggering a lot of debate and contemplation in these houses. For example, one woman came to the house to complain of her husband who wanted to take a second wife. Polygamy is forbidden according to the canton’s constitution. As a consequence the members of the house paid a visit to the woman who wanted to become the second wife to the man and found out that she wouldn’t give up her desire since she thought due to her age she couldn’t find a suitable husband under normal circumstances. While she decided to go on with the marriage, the women’s house members raided the wedding and cancelled it. They still debate whether their decision was a violation against the interests of the woman who wanted to get married and how to find her new opportunities for a future she would deem worth living.

The decisions that people’s and women’s houses do not go uncontested because they are often unconventional. Sometimes, they are threatened. Other times, the parties of the conflict appeal to the canton’s judicial institutions. Severe criminal cases are directly brought to the formal court. On the other hand, those who are loyal to the regime prefer to use the state’s legal system. Over all the Mesopotamia Law School’s statistics show that 90% of the cases are resolved in the community councils and people’s houses.

I have responded to your question not in a general way but by sharing my observations of different institutions, because I think that one must understand that the process in northern Syria is open-ended, uneven, partial but passionate. People experiment with different things as they try to apply theory to practice and encounter obstacles or feel like they are actually not coming up with a new thing but imitating the state and its system and sovereignty.  It is neither an anarchist utopia nor a one-party government. It has definitely a strong utopian component. Yet, war, attacks, the need to be represented and representable, the need for recognition as an entity, security issues, the need to be quick, the lack of support in terms of information, manpower and networking, all of these also move it to other directions and these different dynamics are locally negotiated at every place and institution.

Is it possible to build a democratic society at a time of war, when the battle front as well as the home front need utmost mobilization, centralization, and discipline? The experience of the Russian Civil War–forgive the remote example, but I am a student of Russian culture –seems to suggest a negative answer. Is the Kurdish experience any different? 

YPJ greet the YPG. Courtesy to ABC.

You are very right. This is a very important question. I think one thing that is specific to Rojava is that it is divided into cantons. On the one hand, there is a push to centralization during war in terms of resource allocation, decision-making, recruitment and security. On the other hand, because each canton is very different in terms of population composition, geography, resources, accessibility, alliances etc., there is a space for autonomy and diversity. Also, because of war and because cantons are developing democracy and autonomy within an existing state, everything is very fragile and this forces the government and the revolutionaries to be extremely careful while adapting to the wishes of people against PYD or ethnic groups other than Kurds. They know very well because of their experience in Turkey that they can only survive by appealing to people who are not like them and that forces them to become democratic as well apart from the fact their ideology commands them to be. But of course there are questions we should address that concern them as much as us. For example, how will they/we deal with the fighters of ISIS, people sympathetic of ISIS? What does justice mean under these circumstances? How are they going to de-demonize ISIS? After all right now many people in Raqqa have allied themselves with ISIS. I didn’t have a chance to ask these questions in Rojava because the war was painful.

Two more examples: When I was in Rojava there were two important debates. One was what to do with the devastated geography of Kobane. Many fighters wanted to keep the ruins intact because they had lost so many people there. They wanted to keep it as a memorial and they would become angry when they saw that people resumed life, sold stuff, and broke in laughter and I don’t know what in places where their comrades were murdered. Residents, on the other hand, and many of them had fled Kobane during the siege, wanted to rebuild the city immediately and leave no trace of the occupation and get on with life. In the end after many negotiations a very little spot has been reserved for the memorial.

Another example is mandatory military service. Of course, many people did not want that. Yet, not only does YPG need soldiers but also the government feels that voluntary military duty creates inequality. Those whose sons or daughters get killed during war believe they paid a price for Rojava and hence deserve more. How is this going to be solved? I think at this point it is only in some regions that there is a mandatory military duty. Such examples can be multiplied. Once again my argument is that you are absolutely right; war pushes for control, security, homogeneity and centralization. However, the built-in structures of democratic autonomy checks and balances these demands, although not necessarily with results that make everyone happy.

In addition, in its extraordinary quest for survival, surrounded by entities bent on destroying it–from the Turkish and Syrian states to a significant section of the Syrian opposition, which is providing most of the bodies for the Turkish offensive against Afrin (and let’s call that section what it has unfortunately become–Turkish mercenaries),–the PYD/YPG has allied itself with not only one but two imperialist powers: Russia and the United States. Have these alliances involved ideological compromises in its approach to self-governance? 

As far as I know, no. But I must be on the field to respond to this question. I only know two things. First: the Kurdish Liberation Movement condemns the use of expressions like “we, Kurds, have no friends,” or “America forgot us,” “Russia betrayed us,” etc. because they see their alliances with states as only tactical and tries to discourage popular reliance on them. Strategic alliances could only be with people because their ideology is deeply critical of states and surely, imperialism. Second, they think that eventually it is only their networks with people and specifically women in Syria, the Middle East and the world and the institutions they create that can safeguard them against attacks. They believe firmly that their utopia is one that will always anger states, capital and men and hence they can only self-defend themselves by the power that people’s collective action generates.

PYD started as the (illegal) political party of a Kurdish minority struggling for basic rights. Over the course of the war, its reach has extended beyond traditionally Kurdish areas and it has tried to represent Arab, Syriac, Turkmen, etc., etc., etc. people, as reflected in the name change of the political entity, from Rojava (a Kurdish name meaning West) to “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.” Was this transformation of PYD/ Rojava from a Kurdish nationalist project to a multi-cultural, pan-Syrian one purely a function of war exigency? Do you have a sense of how its expansion has worked out beyond the traditional Kurdish core?

Definitely not an exigency of war. I am not saying that Kurds are not patriotic or have no prejudices against other people. Surely, they do. But the ideology of the Kurdish Liberation Movement defines itself to be against prioritizing any identity and in Turkey and Syria it proposed the democratic autonomy project always for everyone in the nation-state. The alliance with other minorities did not only occur in Rojava but also in Turkey where HDP included Armenians, Alevis, LGBTQ and other oppressed people. In response to your first question I also mentioned the new electoral system that is fashioned to increase the representation of Arabs and Assyrians and others.

Also, the Rojava Constitution appeals to no singular ethnic identity and binds all people who voluntarily agree to live in a non-ethnic, autonomous and democratic society. We must remember, that in northern Syria all the diversity for the Middle East is represented, Circassians, Chechens, Turkmens, Assyrians, Arabs, Kurds and Armenians. Of course, some of these are more willing to participate in the new institutions than others and in different capacities. Assyrian women are more active for example. Assyrians, Arab , Yazidis and Alevites have their own defense units under the umbrella of the YPG. The co-president of the Jazeera canton is an Arab sheikh who controls the 30% of an ashiret (tribe) that reaches out from Yemen to Iraq. But when we talked, he was enthusiastic about ethnic diversity but not gender equality. I heard he thinks differently now.

Except for purely geopolitical considerations (the absence of the Americans, the presence of the Russians), what is specific about Afrin society vis-a-vis the rest of Rojava?

Afrin under Turkish invasion. Courtesy to Oriental Review.

Most significantly, Afrin had not experienced the war until the recent attacks by Turkey. It was both a safe heaven due to its economy and geographical remoteness for those who escaped the war. It is very mountainous and full with olive trees. Many groups and families migrated there, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Alevis, etc. The first family who got massacred by Turkish bombing for example, was an Arab family who had come to Afrin during war for safety. Afrin’s economy unevenly participates in the economy of the Rojava cantons because it is agriculturally very productive. I find it monstrously ironic that Turkey calls its attacks on Afrin Operation Olive Branch.

Rojava has existed under conditions of civil war, state collapse, and economic blockade. Can you tell us a little bit about life in the places you saw–what is the economy like? Is there any provision of electricity, water, phone and internet connections, or basic state services such as trash collection, etc.

When I was there, consultants of the Jazeera canton government explained to me that currently three different economies exist in Rojava: a “war economy,” an “open economy” and a “commune economy.” The war economy finances the war. I would assume that this is a largely an informal economy given that the cantons are not recognized internationally and have no legal standing. Also what the canton governments produce (for example, they have workshops where the uniforms of the fighters are made) is oriented towards the war. The open-economy is regulated by the ministry of economy, which sets consumer taxes and prices. The commune economy on the other hand, is only slowly created and is based on the cooperatives. Most of these cooperatives are agricultural cooperatives that are formed in the land that was previously state owned and now distributed to the communes by the canton government. The canton government plays an important role in the economy as buyer of the goods produced by cooperatives and individual wheat cultivators and also as producer specifically of oil.

I must say that the open economy is a very difficult area for PYD to interfere with. People quickly become alienated by radical transformations since their habits were formed in a national, capitalist, patriarchal economy. Still, the canton governments win the trust of people by providing them with free electricity and water. Internet connection depends on Turkish and Syrian firms.

An impossible and helpless question, but one we have to ask: what meaningful forms of solidarity with Rojava exist for those of us located outside of it.

When the war of ISIS over Kobane was waged, the YPG and YPJ were in a very, very bad condition until people all over the world organized rallies in their support. That’s how the coalition became convinced to interfere and supported the fighters on the ground with air bombing. Magazines were then showing YPJ women every day as if they were the elves. I think that support has to be renewed not because Turkey is evil–it is,–but I guess that a state is evil is something usual that calls for no response,–but because the Kurds in northern Syria along with other populations are struggling to create something new and beautiful that should and could inspire all of us. I cannot forget the picture of the Kurdish female commander with her all-women unit addressing the world when ISIS was defeated in Raqqa. She spoke in Arabic and she said she was doing this out of respect for the heroic Arab women who endured ISIS occupation and dedicated their glory against ISIS to women in the world. How can women now remain silent when it is once again women who are being killed by the Turkish army, who fight against occupation and whose bodies are mutilated, filmed and tweeted by Turkish mercenaries?  There is a lot that people outside of Afrin can do. It is only people’s alliance, rallies, slogans, writings, petitions that can mobilize their states to do something about this atrocity. Moreover, that would not only be a win for Afrin but a win for those who rallied and generated civil power to affect world politics.

And finally, what is it like to be a scholar of this topic in Turkey?

Well, I had to leave Turkey. But I count myself lucky to have been a witness to the perseverance and struggle of the Kurdish Liberation Movement and the Kurdish people and their allies. Their resistance and creativity brings magic to the world as a very good friend of mine who died in Kobane while fighting against ISIS would say. They force us to think in new ways to develop new concepts and theories. They demand that we be much more tuned with what’s happening on the ground. What more can a feminist, a sociologist, a communist want?