The Overlooked Besieged Alternative in the Middle East: The Rojava Cantons by Hakan Topal
In my previous article I wrote about how both soft and hard Islamists render a very dark future for the Middle East. I finished my article by stating that the Kurdish Movement may provide a salient alternative for the whole region. However, this alternative is currently under attack by Islamists and its supporters.
As I write this article, ISIS thugs surround the northern Syrian city Kobanê — also known as Ayn Al Arab. While both the Kurdish guerilla group PKK, Syrian arm PYD and some factions from the Free Syrian Army are desperately fighting to keep ISIS out of town, the situation is getting worse by the day. Turkey is reluctant to open its borders for humanitarian and military assistance, and so help ISIS to take over the town. In fact, the Turkish government sees this siege as an opportunity to eliminate autonomously controlled cantons established by PKK/PYD in 2012. While in effect ISIS seems to be running a proxy war for Turkey, the Syrian civil war and the sectarian fire is quickly spreading all over the region, igniting already tense ethnic issues.
The city of Kobanê became a flag for the Kurdish uprising and should be understood as a benchmark for regional stability. Both the PKK/PYD, and the Kurdish political party HDP stated that the ongoing peace process between the Kurdish Movement and Turkish State is directly related to what is going to happen in Kobanê. Frustrated by the government’s indirect assistance to ISIS, Kurds took to the streets last week. The Turkish police and its right-wing paramilitary groups responded violently, killing over 35 innocent protestors by firing live ammunition. President Erdogan said that there is no difference between ISIS and PKK — the Kurds did not take this statement lightly.
Why does the Turkish government jeopardize regional stability and increase the possibility of a civil war at home? In his very well rounded articles, Rafael Taylor summarizes the Kurdish Movement’s transformation from a traditional Maoist/nationalist guerilla group into a pluralistic democratic movement of the 21st century. In fact PKK’s new “democratic autonomy” promotes a “democratic, ecological, gender-liberated society.” This egalitarian model is being tested in de-facto autonomous zones is known as Rojava Cantons. When we look into details of the Rojava’s constitution, one can identify a deliberate articulation of a desire for a free, socially and ecologically responsible, multicultural, multiethnic democracy. In that regard, if PKK is successful in Syria in establishing and sustaining these cantons, this could very well be a viable model for the Turkish Kurdistan and beyond. Well, that is the problem at least for the AKP government in Turkey.
The cantons have far-reaching importance, because we can imagine a possibility of a new Middle East. Instead of unitary nationalistic state rules, diverse ethnic and cultural traditions can be represented via networks of democratic enclaves/cantons. As a secular “real democracy” experiment, the Rojava cantons rises as an oasis within the Islamist infected territories. Of course, in order to commonize and localize this model, the idea of democratic autonomy has to be discussed extensively in regard to different contexts. The success of this optimistic model depends on providing the life support that Kobane needs at the moment. The world has to support secular force success against the Islamists in Kobanê. This would be far more effective than a raging war on Islamist terrorists by the US.
I think we better understand the Kurdish model’s importance for the region if we compare it with the Palestinian movement, Hamas. Both Turkey and Israel label these movements as terrorist organizations, yet, against all odds, they both provide a legitimate — albeit controversial — platform for two of semi-stateless nations, Kurds and Palestinians. There are uncanny similarities between Israel and Turkey; they are both run by neoliberal/conservative extremists who do not have any investment in peaceful egalitarian societies. Both Erdogan and Netanyahu represent a right-wing majority that is shamefully religious and racist.
While both Hamas and PKK were born within the context of excessive state violence, I recognize the fact that comparing these two distinct contexts poses numerous analytical difficulties. Most importantly Northern Kurdistan, where the PKK emerged, is within the border of Turkey and Kurds have constitutional rights as citizens of Turkey. Whereas, in the occupied territories Israel operates an apartheid state, and it uses numerous racist tactics to eliminate equal constitutional rights, blocking efforts for one or two state solutions. It moves to expand its borders with its fundamentalist settlements. It does not recognize displaced Palestinians’ right to return to their homeland. Of course, apartheid in Palestine should not be understood simply in tactical terms of maintaining the borders and controlling the flow of bodies, but rather it is employed to suffocate any possible constructive efforts within Palestinian society itself. Apartheid is imposed to effectively delay civic, economic, educational and cultural services, which stalls Palestinian society, and creates a further gap in between a modern powerful Israeli state and poor urban ethnic clusters in Gaza and Ramallah. Even if tentative peace is reached after long negotiations, a destroyed social, civic and economic infrastructure takes decades to rebuild.
In the meantime, Hamas is a dream partner for a politician like Netanyahu. Hamas is not interested in free open, democratic society, rather, governance is used through violence, and war is used to increase social solidarity, to erase resisting forces within society and maintain power over territory. Hamas knows that their stupid rockets do not provide any tactical advantage; nonetheless they fire them anyway. War, blood, and defeat is simply a show of force for Hamas. Its rockets do not carry any warheads. They are empty statements for the Palestinians themselves. Hamas promises a future without peace, a state without content, a religion without ethics. Right-wing Netanyahu — Erdogan’s ideological brother — takes this deal without skipping a beat.
On the other side, PKK is working for a better future for its people. While negotiating with the Turkish state for a possible peace deal, they are moving forward with a new model of democracy, which guarantees local participation, equal gender representation, a new secular tradition which respects belief systems. The Kurdish nationalist movement has a “modern” program, which inherits the critique of modernity. It shows the world that new progressive models are still possible — of course this directly depends on PKK’s ability to evaluate both local and international criticisms. I believe it is our duty to recognize this possibility and support them, even if we do not agree with all their conclusions.
 “The new PKK: unleashing a social revolution in Kurdistan” by Rafael Taylor
 Of course, PKK/PYD is armed group with a highly hierarchical command and control structure, establishing rule in a brand new country brings its own problems. However, PYD is actively working with the Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian group to fix its own issues by providing an international oversight, transparency and accountability. Please see: Human Right Watch report, “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria.”
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