Arriving in Baghdad, it is clear who has won the Iraq War. The Shia are in charge. Tower-sized, luminous green posters of Husseyn and Ali define the landscape, draped from Brezhnevite tower blocks, augmented by portraits of martyred fighters in identical uniforms, with a prominent place for Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, the Shia cleric executed by the Saudis. These are reproduced in miniature on every soldier’s hut at checkpoints throughout the city. Tall concrete barricades confine the defeated Sunni minority to their sealed areas. The Iranian-backed Hashti Shabi brigades made light work of the Kurdish Peshmerga in the disputed areas of Kirkuk, Sinjar, and Nineveh, after the Kurdish referendum on independence, and now control the motorway between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. In Iraq, the Shia won the national war, the Iranians the regional battle, and Russia the global contest. America, France, and Britain ended up making lightning strikes that left no trace.
I had not traveled to visit Iraq, however, but Syria, at the invitation of the Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava.
A very small Kurdish enclave of not more than 2 million people had fought back against ISIS at their worst. The small city of Kobani on the Turkish border was the first place that resisted the supposedly irresistible spread of the caliphate in 2014. And what emerged was extraordinary, an ideology of women’s leadership and equality combined with democratic confederalism based on strong local democratic self-government. The YPJ, the women’s force, and the YPG, which are mixed brigades, turned themselves, with American and British support, into the Syrian Democratic Force that defeated ISIS all the way to Raqqa, establishing their parish commune system in their wake.
In January, I wrote about how Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned in solitary confinement on an island in the Marmara Sea, was haunting Turkish President Erdogan in his attempt to build an Islamist nationalist state. Erdogan had arrested the leaders of the mainly Kurdish HDP when they did better than expected in elections a couple of years ago, with the imprisoned HDP leaders receiving more than 200-year sentences between them. The Turkish state has broken all public records on the imprisonment of journalists and the political sacking of state workers. It turned out that neither the Gulenists nor the Islamists were the primary focus of Erdogan’s intense attention; instead the Kurds emerged once more as the object of Turkish spite.
It was unacceptable to the Turkish state that a military and political grouping, avowedly inspired by the teaching and leadership of Ocalan, would be permitted to function on its border. Erdogan’s initial flirtation with Ottoman Sunni leadership did not go well as the PYD—as the Syrian Democratic Forces were initially known—not only defeated ISIS in Kobani but began their alliance with Turkey’s NATO allies, America and Britain, and defeated the forces of the caliphate in battle. Erdogan actively courted Iran and Russia in order to gain permission to intervene against the Kurds. He got it.
On January 20, the Turkish Air Force began a 56-day bombing campaign in Afrin—one of the three provinces of the Federation of Northern Syria—and neither the Russian/Syrian air force nor the coalition allies impeded its air campaign against a people with no protection. They bombed the locals from their homes and paid the Al Qaeda, Al Nusra, and ISIS forces on the ground to resume their interrupted reign of rape, dispossession, and expulsion. After 4,000 years of continuous habitation, there is no Kurdish presence left in Afrin. In their place are the Islamist forces backed by Turkey and the Sunni Arab refugees whom Erdogan held as a bargaining chip with the EU. It is ethnic cleansing.
As I rode the pontoon bridge from Iraq into Syria, I thought about Thucydides and the Melian Dialogue in his History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The Athenians had arrived at the island of Melos with 38 ships, carrying more than 3,000 soldiers—including the ancient equivalent of an air force, mounted archers. The Athenian offer was simple: You accept our authority and imperial rule, and in return we will let you live; if not, we will depopulate your island and take it for ourselves. The Melians responded that their natural ally the Lakedaimonians (Spartans) would protect them and that all they wanted was friendship and neutrality, to be left alone to develop their own democracy and way of life. The Athenians responded by saying that justice and rights were enjoyed by equals and that the Melians should recognize that there was a mutual interest in surrendering and preserving their lives and land rather than fighting and losing it all. The Melians did not accept the offer and after they fought and lost were all either murdered or expelled. I’d first come across the dialogue during a community-organizing training with the Industrial Areas Foundation almost 20 years ago.
An identical choice confronted the Kurds of Syria when faced with the reality of their circumstance. The disintegration of the Syrian state offered up the possibility of autonomy or extermination. ISIS, however, had many enemies, and the Kurds went into alliance with the coalition and fought and extended their autonomy. I witnessed what they had achieved, and it is extraordinary.
It is true that the face of Ocalan appears everywhere, as Barzani does in the Kurdish area of Iraq, as Erdogan does in Turkey, as Husseyn does in Baghdad, and it is the latter vein, of a silent imam in occultation, that prevails. We were there on Ocalan’s birthday and there was, according to his wishes, a mass planting of trees. The leadership of women in the council system is a reality within a kind of parish commune, in which government takes place at the most local level conceivable. In Qamishli, the capital of the Jazeera canton, I met with the male and female co-chairs of a local commune that comprised 12 streets. Although both leaders were illiterate, they were voted in and ran the area, accountable to a local assembly that meets every other Sunday. They decide issues pertaining to housing, receiving refugees from Afrin, education, and self-defense, among others. I met Assyrian Christians and Sunni Arabs who were offended by the idea that this was a Kurdish project, insisting that they helped found it and that no ethnicity dominated.
On meeting the parliamentarians for the Federation of Northern Syria, they handed me a translation of the “social contract” that all of the communities of the area had agreed to. It is a complex system to ensure minority representation and women’s equality. In Kobani, which had been almost entirely wiped out by ISIS in battle, the local people had rebuilt their homes with very little state aid. I thought of how amazed Murray Bookchin would have been to see democratic confederalism as such an effective system of democratic self-government in a diverse population.
When I met with the women soldiers of the YPJ they included Yazidi and Sunni Arab fighters as well as Kurds, and the same was true of the wounded male fighters we met. There weren’t many shops, and the plumbing didn’t always work, but the system of democracy seemed robust and the energy around it felt genuine. There seemed to be food and shelter for all, and the refugees from Afrin were received by families and not in camps.
The Melian dilemma, however, hung over it all. Our delegation met with the leaders of the army and with the political leadership in the region, and they all asked the same question: Why have Britain and America abandoned us to the Turkish state? The answer was that Turkey is a member of NATO and that is a larger and more strategic alliance with a larger and more powerful country than the Federation of Northern Syria. They asked if the UN would intervene, or the EU? It emerged in these conversations that Assad and Russia have offered the Kurds a deal. They would be protected from the Turkish invasion—in return for their surrender to the Syrian state. Their army and democracy would be subordinate to Damascus, and the central state system, rather than democratic confederalism, would prevail. In return they would be allowed to live in the place where they had lived for 4,000 years. Turkey, on the other hand, would either kill them or expel them from their homes.
The PYD, the umbrella organization of the Federation, also known as Tav-Dem, took the Melian position. They chose to fight without an air force and now they are utterly defeated. Turkey is threatening to extend its invasion to the rest of Kurdish Syria. It is important to acknowledge that a NATO partner is a far worse choice than Assad and that America and Britain have abandoned the only example of indigenous democracy in the region to collective execution. Thucydides’ remark in the Melian Dialogue that the powerful do what they can and the weak suffer as they must still holds true.