Like many leftists (and liberals) around the world, I drew great inspiration from the struggle against Daesh in Kobane, Northern Syria, by Kurdish forces of the YPG/YPJ associated with the PYD. Iconic images of women fighters defeating Islamist fundamentalists carried a strong message of the power of collective organisation by working people. Many leftists, including Australia’s Socialist Alliance (SA), laud them as a beacon of hope. However, I am still critical of the claims that the PYD/PKK etc. represent a genuine working class alternative.
Led by SA members, Australian for Kurdistan held a conference in Melbourne which attracted over 1,500 people. I was invited to chair the Friday night public meeting, which heard brief talks from PYD leader Saleh Muslim via Skype, Michelle Harding, whose Australian son died fighting with the YPG against Daesh, lawyers Rob Stary and Jessie Smith on cases where people have been charged (and dismissed) with terrorism, and a speaker for the Kurdish Democratic Coordinating Committee.
The following day, Saleh Muslim gave a longer presentation. He outlined the development from 2012 of their system of self-government, with governing councils including multiple parties. He stressed the large role of women fighters and of the alliance between Kurds, Arabs and Syrian peoples. Interestingly there was no talk of socialism, but of “defending universal values, building an organised society ... a free people can do everything”. Language clearly on the terrain of a bourgeois democratic revolution.
It was assumed throughout that the PYD maintains its position as the dominant force, especially militarily. However, there was a strong stress on democracy from the bottom up, in line with democratic confederalism, that PKK leader Ocalan took from Bookchin. They adapt models of cooperatives from Basque and other experiences. As the range of regions their system covers has expanded beyond Kurdish areas, the range of parties and politics accepting it has also expanded. democracy Overall this is essentially standard bourgeois democracy, but with a strong emphasis on bottom-up democratic development of a social economy. The “social contract” document — updated and adopted by over 20 parties as a virtual constitution in 2016 for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) — reflect both tendencies.
Answering questions, Saleh Muslim said that future investment from corporations will have to share with local cooperatives — they are building a social economy, not state controlled socialism. While the PYD do not argue for independence, if the Kurds in Iraq form an independent state after a referendum (later this year), Rojava may have a better relationship with them — as the Iraqi Kurds will have a stronger position in relation to Turkey. On the tactical alliance with the US, and what would happen if the US betrayed them, he said “Nobody created us, nobody can destroy us. After Kobane, they (the US) approached us to fight terrorists. We don’t depend on them or on Russia, but on our people.”
There was considerable discussion on the relationship with the US. Everyone seemed to recognise that the US could betray them at any time. There was also discussion around relations between the Kurdish dominated PYD and other ethnic groups in newly liberated areas. I raised the example of the battle for Raqqa, where the PYD-led Syrian Democratic forces (SDF) could easily be seen as invaders, especially given the high civilian causalities caused by indiscriminate US bombing. An encouraging sign is that the 2016 social contract excludes any “counter-dispossession” of formerly Kurdish majority regions where the Syrian state forcibly introduced Arab majorities.
Overall the conference was clearly a success for the organisers, and provided interesting detail on what is happening on the ground. It is clear that the PYD and the associated DFNS and SDF represent by far the most progressive forces in the Syrian conflict. They deserve our critical support on the basis of: the right to Kurdish self-determination, their secularism and opposition to Islamist fundamentalists, their support for the rights of ethnic minorities, their championing of women’s rights, their initiatives around ecology and their attempts to foster local self-organisation. Whilst they do not pose a consistent working-class socialist alternative, there are vastly better conditions for creating that alternative in the areas they control then in Daesh or Assad areas.