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The Revolution against the Odds: an Interview on Rojava with Anya Rebrii and Liza Shishko (Part I: The Messiness of the Revolutionary Process)

Members of Qamishli’s central Mala Jin (Women’s House) at work. Photo by Anna Rebrii

Remember Rojava? There was a time not long ago, when not only leftist outlets but mainstream media, too, were offering extensive coverage of this most democratic and inspiring of political projects in the Middle East. The last time it flashed in the news globally was in early 2019, during Turkey’s third invasion of the region, which was green-lighted by Donald Trump—something that might have contributed to the coverage. Since then, much has happened to Rojava—or rather, to the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES), as this autonomous region calls itself. (Rojava—meaning “West” in Kurdish—was quietly dropped in recognition of the area’s ethnic make-up, comprising Kurdish, Arab, and to a lesser extent, Armenian, Assyrian, Yezidi and other populations.) As the project ceased to be ethnically Kurdish, so did its structures: the famous Kurdish self-defense units (YPG and its female counterpart YPJ), which stopped ISIS at Kobane in 2014, have morphed into a multi-ethnic, majority-Arab SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). What was originally a Kurdish, revolutionary, Ocalanist democratic confederalist model of governance—based on communes, cooperative economy, equal representation of women in decision-making—is now being exported to other ethnic communities. The process is by no means straightforward and has to contend with pre-existing social, especially tribal, patriarchal, structures and the high degree of distrust among the different ethnic groups, which pre-existed the Syrian Civil War, but were magnified by it. Moreover, DAANES exists in near-total economic blockade from all sides: from Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic, which seeks to place it back under its control; from Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, which sees DAANES’s democratic model as a competition for the authority of the Barzani family that rules it; and most dangerously, from Turkey and its Syrian proxies, which are mortally opposed to any attempt of Kurdish sovereignty. While waiting for its opportunity to annihilate DAANES, Turkey is conducting low-intensity warfare using its massive drone fleet, killing SDF soldiers, DAANES personnel, and countless civilians, as well as destroying vital infrastructure—hospitals, administrative buildings, water and electricity stations—to make life impossible, as they did on a massive scale in the last days of 2023.

DAANES is thus in an extremely precarious state and yet the processes taking place inside it over the last several years have been as fascinating as they have been invisible to most of us. This is why LeftEast is delighted to interview a couple of comrades who have lived there.

Anna Rebrii is a New York–based researcher and journalist focusing on the Kurdish issue in Syria and Turkey and indigenous movements in Mexico. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin, Truthout, openDemocracy, and other outlets. She is a member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava in the US.

Liza Shishko has lived and worked for more than seven years in the Middle East, including Northeast Syria, covering wars and politics in this region and in the Caucasus. She runs an Instagram blog @woman_life_freedom about Syria, Turkey, and Kurdistan.

LeftEast: Thank you so much, Anna and Liza, for agreeing to talk to LeftEast: we are immensely grateful. So, let me start with the first question. It seems as if after Turkey’s last invasion in 2019, Rojava has disappeared from the news, not only from the mainstream media, but even from most leftist outlets. Can you tell us in broad strokes what has happened since 2019?

Liza Shishko: Since 2019, there have been changes both in the military structures and civil structures of the Autonomous Administration. As you might have noticed, Turkey’s  war — first in Afrin in 2018 and then the invasion of Sere Kanye and Tel Abyad in 2019 — has been very disappointing for many organizations and social institutions. And so, it has led to some despair  among the people. But at the same time, new approaches have emerged from the Autonomous Administration in regards to its civil structures. The civil structures have gained more autonomy and independence from the Administration and revolutionary bodies. For example, we’ve seen the creation of the Armenian Social Council, a civil structure that brought together  Armenians of Northeast Syria. Through this council they started to learn the history of the Armenian people, of the region, of the genocide.

At the same time, this development has also led to more problems because more and less experienced people started joining these civil structures. As more people became conscious of what was happening in the region, they started to take part in many actions. For example, during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Karabakh region, Armenians organized demonstrations to support Karabakh, to support Armenians.

And it was something that never existed in Northeast Syria before. This has been a new development since 2019, when people gained this power, gained this independence and autonomy to express themselves, to get to know themselves better, as particularly has been the case with  different ethno-religious groups of the region. And, of course, with more and less experienced people involved, we have seen more problems. For example, you have increased participation by Arab tribes who are okay with child marriage or giving power to one person, that is, sheikh [a tribal leader]. Clearly, it is easier to carry out a revolution among your fellow leftists rather than a tribe of a couple of thousand people who have just lived under ISIS occupation. But nonetheless it’s also interesting to see how this dynamic unfolds.

As to what has changed in the military structures, I can say that the SDF (the Syrian Democratic Forces) has become a predominantly Arab entity. That started happening already after the Manbij Operation [in 2016], but since the Turkish invasion in 2019, the commandment of the SDF has also changed, and there are more Arab commanders now. It’s not like before when the SDF commanders were predominantly Kurdish. This is what I see in terms of the changes that have taken place  since 2019.

Anna Rebrii: I’d like to emphasize a different aspect of the developments in the region. So, as you rightly pointed out, the region and the project have sort of disappeared from the mainstream news. There was an uptick in coverage in 2019, I think, primarily because it was Trump who greenlighted the Turkish invasion, which is why all the liberal media in the United States sort of jumped on the topic.

But then, after that, while the coverage has diminished greatly, the war has not stopped. Turkey’s war on Northeast Syria has continued through different means. It has been a war of lower intensity compared to the 2019 invasion, and that’s something that neither the media nor the international nation-state community has been paying attention to.

So, what has Turkey been able to do, lacking permission from other imperial powers –in particular the US and Russia, both of which have military presence in the region– to carry out another major invasion, which remains its goal? It has been able to attack the region continuously, nonstop, by bombarding the front lines from the area that it’s currently occupying, the northern strip of Syria. It has been carrying out frequent drone assassinations of the region’s civilian, political, and military leaders with barely any international condemnation. It has been killing civilians. It has carried out two major bombing campaigns since 2019: one in November last year, and another one  just two months ago when  it launched a full-on blitz attack targeting Northeast Syria’s civilian infrastructure, inflicting severe damage to power stations and water stations, oil fields, industrial factories, and even hospitals. And that happened with very little media coverage and zero condemnation from the international nation-state community.  In my opinion, Turkey has found a way to undermine the region, to undermine its autonomy without invading it again, which it is not able to do at the moment, as neither US nor Russia — both of which pursue their own geopolitical goals in the region — would allow it.

This strategy has worked on several levels. On the one hand, it has led to the demoralization of the population. That’s something that I saw when I visited the region in 2022 and then again, earlier this year. It has led to the worsening of the economic situation in the region, particularly due to the embargo that Turkey has imposed through its proxy statelet of the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government).

It aims to undermine popular support for Autonomous Administration. Of course, it has not succeeded in doing that. But it has succeeded in demoralizing people and creating, as Liza said, a sense of despair and hopelessness among the regular population. Many people with whom I talked when I was there just wanted to leave because of this worsening economic situation and constant atmosphere of fear. You just never know when you may find yourself in the wrong place or time and become a casualty of yet another drone assassination by Turkey. And there’s just the lack of prospects for the future. And that, I believe, has been greatly undermining the project.

Arab and Kurdish women dancing at a Mala Jin (Women’s House) Conference in Heseke, 2023. Women’s houses are part of North East Syria’s new justice system, dealing specifically with family and marriage issues. Photo by Anna Rebrii

LeftEast: Little of the journalistic coverage of Rojava has come from direct, on-the-ground accounts. Amazingly, both of you have spent time there, in Liza’s case, many years. And I was just wondering what changes you have noticed in the evolution of the revolutionary movement and social structures since you went there in 2018. Then, in Anna’s case, what surprised you during your first visit there in 2022, given that by then, you already knew far more about Rojava than most people did?

Liza Shishko: As I said before, since 2019, I have noticed the development of revolutionary structures. What I want to emphasize is that the local people participate much more now in the social institutions  that were formed at the beginning of the Rojava revolution. Before, it was more members of the revolutionary movement, that is, people with a really strong ideology [the ideology of democratic confederalism, developed by the imprisoned Kurdish movement’s leader Abdullah Ocalan]. But over the last several years, this has changed. People who were not interested before in the revolution of Rojava or politics in general, have become active participants in many of the structures the revolutionaries have created.

As far as I see, they have realized that they can make changes, they can do something in their daily life. Take, for example, the formation of the Assyrian military council. It’s something very meaningful because Assyrians, as a nation, were not interested in the Rojava revolution before. But right now, there is an Assyrian military council that protects all the frontlines near Tell Tamer, and they are also creating their own civilian structures.

But if you look back at the beginning of the Rojava revolution, there were no Assyrians. They didn’t participate in this; they didn’t want it. And before there was no Armenian council either. Before there was no Armenian battalion. Right now, there are around 300 Armenian fighters who, together with the Assyrian military council, protect this northern frontline near Tell Tamer.

So, as we can see, people participate at every level of the revolutionary practice, not just Kurds, but different ethno-religious groups, and they are becoming more conscious about what they are doing. They see their actions and what these actions can lead to.

And again, there is this despair that people have. It’s not just because of the loss of territories, it’s also because people stop believing in big powers. If before the Afrin invasion in 2018–before Turkey’s 2019 invasion—people had some sort of hope for the United States, thinking “We have American military bases here so Turkey will not invade”, right now, people no longer  have this hope. Yes, of course, they want to leave, they want to go away. But at the same time, there is no trust anymore in these big power states to protect you. This is why people are becoming more responsible for their own lives.

And they decide on their own whether they will protect this land because it is only them who can protect this land, this is their home, while Russia and the United States will eventually leave. — they have already proven that.

I can say a little more about what has happened since 2019. In 2020, ISIS staged a prison outbreak and almost occupied Al-Hasakah, one of the biggest cities in the region. Maybe it didn’t seem like that in Western media, but they tried to occupy this huge city, the biggest city under the control of the Autonomous Administration. While there was no air support from the United States, some local people protected it. They took up guns, and that was really surprising for many SDF commanders with whom I spoke about this. They said we didn’t even imagine receiving  so  much support from local civilians. They knew there were people who were against ISIS, who were on their side, but they couldn’t even imagine  that people would defend their own homes, their land. They fought ISIS, and they liberated the city, and it was a dangerous and important moment.

Anna Rebrii: Perhaps not something that surprised me, but something that I got a better understanding of when I went there, especially for the first time, was the pace of revolutionary changes. Obviously, I have spent so far only six months in the region through these two trips. But there are many sort of rosy… very rosy accounts of what’s happening in Rojava that are being produced by sympathetic leftists for a good reason: we need to build more international support for Rojava. But at the same time, I met several international volunteers who went to Rojava to support the movement on the ground – who were rather disappointed by what they saw when they got there because of all those rosy accounts that they had read before they decided to make the trip.

I think we, outside Rojava, have to be realistic about how revolutionary change takes place and at what pace. What you see in Rojava is that a revolution is not a finished event. It’s been more than 10 years since they started building and working on the revolution, and they have not achieved all their goals yet. One example that becomes quite obvious to internationalists who travel to the region is the situation with the communes, the situation with the new political system that’s supposed to function based on the principle of direct democracy. If you go there, you realize that the entire territory under the control of the Autonomous Administration has been administratively subdivided into communes. Every neighborhood has a commune through which residents of that neighborhood are supposed to govern themselves, to make decisions about whatever issues concern their collective affairs. So  formally, those communes have been created. But in reality, it’s very easy to observe that the participation of the people in these communes is rather low or it’s not high enough for these bodies, for these mechanisms to become the main decision-making units as they are supposed to be in theory that the Kurdish movement has developed and has been trying to implement.

But that does not mean that the revolutionary movement has failed, that does not mean that they are not trying hard enough, nor does it mean that they are not genuinely committed to transforming the political system. That just means that inevitably, it takes a very long time to create a culture of popular participation, direct participation in politics that did not exist in Northeast Syria before the revolution, and that does not exist in many places where we are organizing. Try to set up a commune in your neighborhood in New York City and see how many people will show up. First, you need to convince the people that it’s something in their interest and that it’s a more effective form of governance, that their time will be put to good use. Rather than going to vote for someone once a year, you have to commit to attending regular meetings, perhaps every month, that tend to last for hours because everyone wants and is supposed to speak. You have to convince them that this time commitment will pay off. And especially under the circumstances that we are witnessing currently in Northeast Syria, given all the other hardships that people have to deal with daily. I already mentioned that the economic situation is a big factor. People have to get more than one job just to feed their families. You don’t even have time to engage in politics on such an intimate level. Thus, it’s a project in progress. But what’s important is that there has been a lot of education. Education is central to the revolutionary strategy in the region. You have to first and foremost convince people why they should adopt, should engage in these new revolutionary institutions, and this is what the movement has been trying to do.

A Kurdish woman dancing at a celebration of the revolution in Qamishli, 2023. Photo by Anna Rebrii

LeftEast: The next question continues the theme of the incredibly constrained circumstances in which this revolution is taking place. Rojava has been explicitly envisaged as a democratic, confederalist, libertarian, socialist, feminist, and ethnically pluralist project. And that’s just to be created in the face of really existential danger from the Turkish state and, as you pointed out, in the circumstances of extreme isolation and economic blockade from the outside world and the embeddedness in a very poor and deeply patriarchal society traumatized by ISIS and the Civil War. And I’m just wondering, especially given the inevitable degree of militarization that has to happen to defend Rojava from the Turkish state and from its other enemies, how possible it is to create such a democratic project?

Liza Shishko: The Western mindset carries certain ideas of democracy, revolution, and freedom. But I want to emphasize that Rojava is part of the Middle East and how Westerners see the Middle East is different from reality. The development of democracy, development of any sort of governmental changes in Rojava is critically different from what we imagine—we who grew up in a different society with totally different traditions. Because Northeast Syria is a tribal society, the opinion of the sheikh [traditional tribal leader] remains very important even now, even during the revolution. When I give interviews in the Western media and mention something about tribes, let’s say that Arab tribes and sheikhs met with the Autonomous Administration’s representatives, they say, ‘’How? How is that possible?’’ because the tribal system seems to them something so different, so patriarchal, and undemocratic. But working with the tribal system, especially in the Arab regions, is an important part of this revolution. The revolution in Rojava is happening without destroying the actual way people live, how people used to live for centuries. And it is not top down. The way the Western media often sees it, the Autonomous Administration kicked out Assad, then started to implement its ideas, and the people accepted this. But in reality such things don’t work out so neatly because it’s the Middle East. It is the tribes that traditionally decide things. They decide, for example, “We will protect this region. We will protect this front line. We will create this council. We will open the Women’s Association in Raqqa, the ex-capital of Isis.’’ This is something we have to understand. Or to give you another example, when Westerners, when foreigners see women in Raqqa, in these women’s associations, see that they cover their heads, that they wear hijabs, they say, “No, this is not a feminist revolution. This is bad. This is not real feminism, this is not real democracy.’’ But it’s not like that. This is the main problem of Western society, you know — it sees itself as a more progressive society, as more conscious and more developed. But actually, it’s not always true.

These internationalists who come to Rojava and especially the journalists who come here and say, ‘’Oh my God, it is a disaster here. People sleep on the floor.’’ I’m sorry, but most of the people sleep on the floor in the region. This is something about Western understanding of comfort and development. This is about how poorly educated we are about the whole world. As an example, there was a UN delegation that visited ISIS prisons, and they said, “The prisoners live in very bad conditions. They don’t have electricity, and they sleep on the floor.’’ And they wrote a report about the prisons, saying that the Autonomous Administration was a very bad government, that they treated prisoners badly. But at the very same moment, I was also living like this: without electricity, sleeping on the floor for five years. And all of my friends were doing the same. They don’t have electricity, they count every coin to get some food, to buy bread, and they sleep on the floor, this is how it is. I think this is a very important part of our understanding of the Rojava revolution, of the changes that are happening in the region because it’s not how we imagine it. It’s not how it’s supposed to be in our imagination.

LeftEast: To be honest, this reminds me of any number of Western visitors to any revolution in the 20th century, starting from the Bolshevik one, which took place in a very poor, so-called backward, highly heterogeneous society. It wasn’t the neat transition from advanced capitalism to communism, which Second-International Marxists had envisaged. The Bolsheviks had to invent the revolution from scratch, with very little by way of prior experience of true and tried guidelines. And as we know, they made many mistakes. But the assumptions (typically Western) visitors bring with them when visiting a revolution as some process happening in laboratory conditions, without any knowledge of local realities and histories, in which these processes are taking place, can be astounding. And at least the Bolsheviks did inherit a powerful and centralized state, a powerful economy with resources to revolutionize society, which is not something Rojava could benefit from. As much as DAANES’s leadership wants to improve the economic conditions in which the people of the region live, they simply cannot launch a five-year industrialization plan with such meager resources, in conditions of near-total economic blockade.

Anna Rebrii: Yes, whenever we assess what’s happening there and the achievements or the lack of achievements of the revolution so far we have to pay attention to the existing conditions. What was their starting point and how have theyprogressed compared to their starting point rather than compared to whatever Western standards we have in our minds. At the same time, we have to pay close attention to the counter-revolution. Every revolution creates its counter-revolution, and the counter-revolution inevitably impacts the course and the ability of the revolution to implement its goals and ideas. I think whatever aspect of the revolutionary project in Northeast Syria, we look at, we can see how external pressures have prevented the Autonomous Administration, the revolutionary movement from implementing their ambitious ideas. I just talked about the direct democracy aspect of this project. From my experience, from my conversations, I see that the demoralization that Turkey has been creating through its actions is at least one factor why people are less enthusiastic about participating in this project.

If you look at the economic agenda of the Autonomous Administration, they are trying to democratize the economy just as they’re trying to democratize politics by encouraging people to set up cooperatives. And they have been very intentional with that. They have dedicated a lot of resources, encouraging people through training,  providing funding and land to set up these cooperatives. And part of their agenda to democratize the economy is to eliminate monopolies, but they have not had much advance on that front. One big reason is the de facto economic blockade that the region is under; they have had to rely on war profiteers and black market traders to be able to import even basic necessities from the KRG or the territory controlled by the Syrian government.

They don’t want to support private interests. That’s not the end goal. But they have no other option if they want to continue providing the population with basic goods and services.

If we talk about the effort to build a pluralistic society, which Liza has already highlighted, indeed we see  a lot of participation by other ethno-religious groups: Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians, etc. And if you talk to them, they get offended if you call this a Kurdish administration, or if you ask them whether they live under Kurdish occupation: they own this project. The other groups have been involved from the very beginning, working together with the Kurdish movement, but as representatives of their own peoples. But at the same time, I was told some people are afraid of supporting the project because they don’t believe it will exist for too long. They have already seen, as Liza said, that the external powers that are on the ground are not a guarantee for the survival of the project. There is fear, especially among the Arabs, but also among the Christian communities of Northeast Syria, that once the Assad regime comes back, there will be retribution for anyone who took part in the autonomous administration, and that prevents some people from supporting it. I’ve heard from Arabs that the main grievance in the Arab communities, especially in the Deir ez-Zor, is not the fact that the Kurds are leading the project, as some accounts portray the situation there, but the fact that there is not enough development in those communities, that economically and materially, the situation has not improved over the years. So, there is a grievance that the autonomous administration, not the Kurdish people, is not providing enough for the people. And this is due to  external pressures, due to the counterrevolutionary forces that prevent this project from flourishing.

(Part II of this interview, on the geopolitical precarity of Rojava will be continued next week)