Stray puppies play outside a bombed out elementary school in Zirgan. Images: Arthur Pye, 2022.

Walking Zirgan

Turkish war crimes on Rojava’s front line

Nothing says “war crime” like a bombed-out elementary school.

“There was a big explosion and I ran for cover,” recalled Ali, the elderly school watchman. Turkish artillery shells had blown half of the modest blue and white schoolhouse wide open, exposing a mangled twist of rebar and crumbling cement. Stray puppies played in the rubble as we approached the iron gate, now riddled with holes. I stepped into the doorway, careful not to trip on pieces of broken furniture. The once bright classroom’s colorful chairs and cartoon-adorned walls were now blanketed in a thick layer of dust and debris. 

Fortunately, besides Ali no one else was present during the attack. Unfortunately, hundreds of children from the town and surrounding villages were now without a school. “Why would Turkey do this?” I asked Ali. “They just want us to leave so they can take our land,” he said. “They don’t distinguish between military and civilians. The school was the last straw for a lot of families.” 

The classroom of an elementary school in Zirgan, after a direct hit by Turkish artillery. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

‘No Friends but the Mountains’ 

When I arrived in Rojava in 2022, it felt as if the whole of society was bracing for an existential war. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had recently announced his intention to launch a new “operation” (read: invasion) with the goal of establishing a 30km-deep “safe zone” (read: military occupation) across the length of northern Syria. The threat hung like a cloud over the border, placing some of the revolution’s last strongholds, including the iconic city of Kobanê, directly in the crosshairs.1Kobanê is a Kurdish-majority border city in northern Syria, best known as the site of an historic resistance by Kurdish forces during a months-long siege by ISIS starting in late 2014. ISIS was eventually driven from the city, marking a turning point in the war. The city has become a symbol of the Rojava Revolution. 

This would not be the first time Turkey had invaded and occupied Rojava. Both Afrin2Afrin (or Efrîn in Kurdish) is a historically Kurdish-majority region (and city) in the northwest corner of Syria. Once the Rojava revolution’s greatest stronghold and a place of relative peace and refuge during the civil war, the area was invaded by Turkey in 2018, leading the region to be largely ethnically cleansed of its Kurdish population, leaving it under a brutal occupation by Turkish-backed jihadist forces that lasts to this day. and Serekaniyê,3Serekaniyê (or Ras al-Ayn in Arabic) is a historic border city in northeast Syria home to diverse peoples. After the jihadist forces of al-Nusra Front were ousted in 2013 by the Kurdish-led YPG (People’s Protection Units), it became a stronghold of the Rojava revolution. The city was later invaded by Turkey in 2019, following Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops stationed along the border, and has been occupied by Turkish-backed jihadist forces ever since. once bastions of the revolution, were now under the control of Turkey and its jihadist proxy militias, following the devastating invasions of 2018 and 2019. After fighting a bitter years-long war to liberate their lands from ISIS control, the people of Rojava now had to face NATO’s second-largest military as it moved to crush their fledgling revolution. The offensives displaced hundreds of thousands of people, effectively cleansing entire regions of their Kurdish population.4The Kurdish population of Afrin was reduced from 85% to 20%. See Paul Iddon, “Turkey’s actions in Syria’s Afrin amount to ethnic cleansing – Kurdish analysts,” Ahval (18 March 2020). For those who stayed, military occupation brought widespread repression and systematic human rights violations which continue to this day.5Human Rights Watch, Everything is by the Power of the Weapon: Abuses and Impunity in Turkish-Occupied Northern Syria (February 2024) If the next invasion could not be thwarted, much of Rojava would soon suffer the same fate. 

“The Rojava Revolution shook Turkish society to its core.”

While the United States undoubtedly provided critical support to the Kurdish-led SDF6The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is a military coalition formed in 2015 during the war against ISIS and led by the Kurdish-majority YPG (People’s Protection Units) and the all-women YPJ (Women’s Defense Units). It is the umbrella organization for the defense forces of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). in the war against ISIS, it proved itself entirely unwilling to support these same “allies” when attacked by a NATO state.7The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an intergovernmental military alliance originally formed in 1949 in opposition to the Soviet Bloc, which continued after the Cold War as a Western bloc against Russia. Turkey is a member state. As a result, Turkey has acted with impunity as it bombs civilians and annexes Syrian territory in open violation of international law.8Amnesty International, “Syria: Damning evidence of war crimes and other violations by Turkish forces and their allies” (18 October 2019) These actions are made possible by the unwavering political and military support it continues to receive from the United States and NATO, including state-of-the-art American-made air power.9The United States is currently poised to sell Turkey a new fleet of American-made F-16 fighter jets. See Paul Iddon, “Syrian Kurdish Opposition To Turkish F-16 Sale Isn’t First Time Kurds Worried About American Fighter Exports” in Forbes (30 December 2023).

Despite the knee-jerk assumptions of some Western leftists quick to dismiss Rojava’s defense forces as “American proxies,” the limited military aid the SDF has received pales in comparison to that bestowed upon the neighboring state actively attacking them.10The US has provided Turkey roughly $9 billion worth of direct arms since 1980 and $6.5 billion in grants and loans for purchasing American weapons: The unlikely US-Kurdish alliance has been a marriage of convenience from the outset. While both forces share opposition to ISIS, the US has effectively treated the SDF as “cannon fodder,” exploiting their sacrifices when it was beneficial to their own interests and abandoning them when it was politically expedient. 

Nothing illustrated the true nature of this relationship better than Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the border in 2019, making way for an imminent Turkish invasion. Though the decision is widely remembered (even in the West) as a “betrayal,” most movement leaders in Rojava will tell you privately that they never had any delusions about America’s “loyalty,” reaffirming the famous proverb that Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” For their own part, the decision to cooperate with US forces was not a question of political alignment but of physical survival.

The same principle had to be applied even to the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.11Bashar al-Assad has been the president and dictator of Syria since 2000. Protests against his repressive policies escalated into civil war in 2011. In the early days of the Civil War, facing the prospect of his own overthrow, Assad simply could no longer afford to maintain a troop presence in the Kurdish-majority north – nor could the Kurds afford to fight the regime while jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS were actively attacking them. When Turkey moved from arming the Syrian opposition12The Arab-majority armed opposition to Assad. Sometimes referred to as Free Syrian Army (FSA) the opposition is made up of numerous factions – including jihadist militias backed by Turkey. to outright invading and occupying Syria’s Kurdish-majority regions, this dynamic began to shift. Left to fend for themselves against Turkey’s assaults, Rojava’s political and military leadership was forced to make appeals to the Syrian regime to redeploy some of its forces back to the north, in a desperate attempt to thwart Turkey’s advances.13Since then, the regime has retained outposts along the front line with Turkish forces, though the SDF still remains dominant in most of those positions. When faced with annihilation, the choice between passive hostility and active hostility was hardly a choice at all. As Mazlum Abdi (General Commander of the SDF) once put it: “If we have to choose between compromise and genocide, we will choose our people.”14Mazloum Abdi, “If We Have to Choose Between Compromise and Genocide, We Will Choose Our People” in Foreign Policy (13 October 2019). 

What Does Turkey Want?

Rhetoric of “security” aside, the motivation behind Erdoğan’s war on Rojava is transparently political. For an autocratic ruler whose power is increasingly predicated on mobilizing a far-right and ultra-nationalist political base, while exercising extreme repression against all expressions of Kurdish identity or popular dissent, a revolution on the southern border could hardly be tolerated. Erdoğan’s historically center-right Islamist party15The AKP, or Justice and Development Party. remains in power only via a ruling coalition with an openly fascist one.16The MHP, or Nationalist Movement Party – closely linked to the Grey Wolves, a fascist paramilitary organization. This dynamic further reinforces the need to project the power of the Turkish state at home and abroad, and to crush the revolution in Syria lest Kurds get any ideas at home. 

While these strategic considerations are undoubtedly a major factor, Erdoğan’s political motivations can hardly be reduced to mere electioneering. Underneath it all is a much deeper ideological impulse. For Erdoğan, rooting out Kurdish self-determination is part of a larger project to restore the former glory of the Ottoman Empire, asserting control over what he regards as “Greater Turkey” through expansionist policies across the region – not only in Syria and Iraq, but in Armenia, Greece, Cyprus, and elsewhere.17Kali Robinson, “Turkey’s Growing Foreign Policy Ambitions”, in Council on Foreign Relations (11 July 2023). These ambitions have roots going all the way back to the colonization of the Kurdish homeland and the founding of the Turkish ethno-state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a man Adolf Hitler considered his greatest idol.18For the influence of Atatürk on Hitler, see Stefan Ihrig, Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination (2014) and William O’Connor, “The 20th-Century Dictator Most Idolized by Hitler” in the Daily Beast (24 November 2014). For the Kemalist role in the genocide of Turkey’s Armenian and Kurdish populations, see Rouben Paul Adalian, “Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal” at the Armenian National Institute website and the Preface and Chapter 2 of Azize Aslan,  Anticapitalist Economy in Rojava: The Contradictions of Revolution in the Kurdish Struggles (2023). In Turkey, a country where uttering the word “Kurdistan” in public can get you arrested19Karwan Faidhi Dri, “Kurdish man arrested in Turkey for saying ‘Kurdistan’” in Rudaw (29 October 2021). and thousands of dissidents languish in jail, fascism is something of a national tradition. 

The Rojava Revolution shook Turkish society to its core. Images of Kurdish revolutionaries liberating territory and setting up their own autonomous government sparked panic throughout the centers of power and inspired Kurds and leftists in Turkey with a visceral sense of possibilities. Both rulers and ruled alike were possessed by the same thought: If it happened there, it could happen here

Since then, Turkey’s war on Rojava has taken many forms (from outright invasion and occupation, to assassinations of political leaders, airstrikes on critical infrastructure, crop destruction, and the withholding of water from entire regions), but the goal is always the same: control. Where Turkey is unable to assert its dominance through the direct conquest of territory, it does so by degrading the conditions of life, hoping that the compounding effects of physical and economic insecurity will displace local populations and erode support for the revolution. Wherever land remains in the hands of the movement, Erdoğan is determined to make life there unlivable. 

Thus, while it could hardly be said to pose a genuine military threat to Turkey, Rojava’s radical vision of cultural pluralism, women’s liberation, and participatory democracy presents a direct challenge to the Turkish state and the fascist ideology that undergirds it. Its very existence encourages people everywhere to fight for their autonomy. Therefore, in the eyes of men like Erdoğan, it must be crushed. 

Süleiman I, Tughra (Insignia) of Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent (ca. 1555–60). Courtesy of The Met Open Access, Public Domain.

Unsafe in the “Safe Zone”

Zirgan is a small city in North-East Syria, not far from Serekaniyê. While not well-known outside of Rojava, the town is strategically positioned between the Turkish border and the region’s major highway, the M-4. In this context, Zirgan finds itself squarely in the war path, positioned directly between what Turkey has and what it wants. As a result, it has been targeted repeatedly. 

When my colleague and I received the news in late November 2022 that the US government was evacuating all American civilian staff from the country effective immediately, we knew the situation was about to escalate. The next day Erdoğan formally announced a new “operation,” warning that Turkish troops would soon cross the border to consolidate his long-promised “safe zone.” The entire region went on a state of high alert as the SDF sent additional units to the front line and civilian leaders moved to secure locations. Over the following weeks Turkey launched a series of heavy airstrikes and artillery barrages throughout North-East Syria, targeting not only military positions,20Even this was a violation of the US-brokered 2019 ceasefire agreement. but critical infrastructure including energy facilities and even hospitals.21“Turkish airstrikes target locations across North and East Syria, civilians and military personnel martyred and injuries” in Syriac Press (21 November 2022).  During the escalation Zirgan saw a major surge in attacks, leading to the displacement of a third of the city’s remaining population according to sources with the Zirgan municipal council I interviewed. Known in military terms as “softening the target,” the scope and density of these strikes suggested the ground invasion would soon begin. 

After finagling the necessary approvals and logistical arrangements, by late December my colleague and I were finally on our way to Zirgan to talk to the people living on the front line and see first-hand the impacts of these ongoing attacks. While Erdoğan’s promised invasion still has yet to materialize at the time of this writing, the situation I witnessed has continued unabated to this day. Not only in Zirgan but throughout Rojava, ordinary people live under constant threat of military occupation, along with the conditions resulting from Turkey’s ever-present war of attrition. 

We arrived at daybreak on a freezing December morning, as our guide waited to receive confirmation that the air was clear of drones – a constant presence in the skies above Rojava. Equipped with thermal optics and laser-guided munitions, they regularly carry out attacks on military and civilian targets alike. The constant threat of drone strikes is a part of life throughout North-East Syria. 

Once the coast was clear, we set out on foot. The streets were mostly empty, with small groups of people gathered in some of the few shops still operating. Compared to cities behind the front line, it felt like a ghost town: quiet, anxious, vacant; full of damaged buildings, boarded-up shops, and abandoned homes. Following Turkey’s recent bombings and threats of imminent invasion, most residents had already left town. 

After touring the bombed-out school, we moved deeper into the surrounding neighborhood, where family homes had been hit by artillery and heavy machine gun fire. We passed houses and apartments torn open by shelling, exposing the living quarters inside. The streets and yards were littered with debris. Tangled electrical cables hung scattered on the ground where now broken power poles once stood straight. 

A small group of curious children followed us for several blocks as we walked, some posing for pictures inside craters where mortars had exploded. Few families were left. Most felt they had no choice but to leave the city. Some stayed in nearby villages to keep an eye on their homes, but many relocated to the region’s various refugee camps for internally displaced people. 

As we neared the town’s edge, and with it the front line, we suddenly heard several bursts of incoming heavy machine gun fire coming from the nearest Turkish-controlled village (little more than 1,000 meters away). “Sometimes they fire at the city randomly just for fun, or use our buildings as target practice,” our guide noted casually. “See?” She pointed at an apartment across the street with several large holes from a 50-caliber machine gun, the same kind just fired in our direction. 

From a small lookout, we could see the positions of the Turkish army and its jihadist proxy forces dug into villages along the city’s outskirts across an open field. I was handed a pair of binoculars. “That one is the Turks, and that one over there is their mercenaries,” our guide explained, pointing out the positions. Scanning the village, I spotted a pair of men moving around in the back of a Toyota Hilux before disappearing from view again. 

Unlike the fast-paced combat most people picture from YouTube videos of the war on ISIS, most of the “contact lines” between Turkey and the SDF rarely moved these days. Besides periodic raids and retaliatory attacks, much of the front line was now characterized by prolonged periods of relative quiet, interrupted by sporadic small arms and artillery fire. In this context, Turkey’s recent escalations had everyone on high alert, bracing for something big to happen. 

We later visited a public park where a neighborhood generator had been destroyed. A huge pine tree, the centerpiece of the park (and a rare sight in this part of Syria), was broken in half as if struck by lightning. Shrapnel had torn holes in the surrounding buildings. This once vibrant square, where families used to come for picnics and public events, now sat empty and damaged. 

As we continued walking, listening carefully for the buzz of drones overhead, the tentative calm was once again interrupted by the sound of incoming fire, this time mortars. “They’re at it again,” our guide said. 

The headquarters of Zirgan’s municipal council, damaged by Turkish artillery. The council was forced to relocate after the building was targeted for a third time, nearly killing the elected co-chairs. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

A Community in the Crosshairs 

We then visited a local community center called the Mala Gel, or “People’s House,” where a Turkish artillery shell had recently blown through the wall of the main meeting room. In Zirgan, as elsewhere in Rojava, the Mala Gel had served as the beating heart of the democratic-confederalist system22Democratic confederalism is the foundational political program of the Kurdish freedom movement, on which the AANES’s political system is based. In contrast to a top-down, state government, democratic confederalism calls for bottom-up, stateless forms of governance through participatory assemblies and elected councils federated from the neighborhood level all the way to a multi-regional administration. For more on its workings, see my preface to this series as well as my forthcoming essays. – a central gathering place through which people were constantly coming and going; where the local communes held meetings, discussed community issues, and coordinated programs to meet the needs of local families. If you only had one shot to take at Rojava’s body politic, the Mala Gel was a good place to aim. 

As we stood in the main room, daylight flooded in through a gaping hole high on the wall, filling the space with a sense of vulnerability that accompanied the cold air. We sat outside with a group of organizers to discuss the situation over tea. They told us that attendance of community meetings had already been declining due to previous attacks. But after the building itself was hit, participation dropped off dramatically, reduced now mostly to those with formal responsibilities. “We keep meeting, because we must resolve the problems of our people,” said a young organizer named Ahmed. His tone conveyed a stubborn determination – though there was frustration in his voice, too. Like the others, he was proudly committed to his work; it would be much harder now due to the growing fear among community members. “They’re just too afraid to participate,” he concluded. 

Looking around, the block surrounding the Mala Gel was dense with community infrastructure, most of it now damaged or destroyed by Turkish bombs. Across the street stood a large telecommunications tower which had been repeatedly targeted by artillery over the preceding months. After multiple attempts at repairs, each followed by more shelling, it now stood a mangled mess, inoperable, with sections of steel left broken and dangling. 

Next to the tower were the remains of a building that had hosted the city’s administrative council. It too was bombed several times until the staff was forced to abandon it and relocate. The hospital next door had also been hit, bringing the vital services it once provided for the people of Zirgan and its surrounding villages to a halt. The pattern was beginning to feel monotonous. 

We were taken through a residential neighborhood and into an inconspicuous house with a cramped front room and a small diesel stove surrounded by chairs. This, for now, was the new headquarters of the city administration, hidden – hopefully – from Turkish attacks. There we met with the co-chairs of the city council, Abdullah and Arian, to discuss their situation. (According to the Self-Administration’s social contract,23“Self-Administration” is short for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), the official name of the polity better known as Rojava. Its constitution is called the Social Contract. For an overview of the political system in the AANES, see Rojava Information Center, Beyond the Frontlines: The Building of the Democratic System in North and East Syria (2021). all positions of leadership must be shared between two chairpeople – one woman and one man.) They described a close call they had when an explosion shattered the windows right next to them. After their offices were targeted for the third time, there was so much damage that they had no choice but to move. 

“Turkey’s attacks are intentional,” said co-chair Abdullah. “In a matter of days they attacked an internet tower, power lines, the mosque, the bakery, and even a park where children play. Days later, they attacked the children’s hospital and a community generator. Now they intend to launch a full invasion and destroy us.”

The other co-chair, a Kurdish woman named Arian, had recently moved her children to a nearby village just outside the city. She traveled back and forth every day to do her work at the council. She described her family’s objections: “They say, ‘You can’t go! It’s too dangerous!’ But I tell them, ‘I have to, it’s my duty. If I don’t do it then who will?’” Any fear she may have had seemed to be overshadowed by her belief in what she was doing. Turkey’s crimes against her people had strengthened her resolve with a sense of righteous defiance. “Almost everyone went to the refugee camps but they still return regularly to tend to their crops and animals. It’s difficult for people to leave their land. It’s their home and their sustenance.” 

She mentioned the example of an elderly couple who live on their own very close to the front line: “They decided to stay until the end, and they say they would never think of leaving. We try to look after them as best we can and bring them things they need.”

“Unable to seize more territory in the short-term, Turkey has shifted its approach from outright invasion to a grinding war of attrition, using every means at its disposal to make life in Rojava unlivable. For communities on the front line, the strategy has been devastatingly effective.”

An Arab man from the community walked in and took a seat. His name was Adnan, and he was the local generator mechanic. Someone handed him a cup of çay24Kurdish for “tea,” pronounced “chay.” as I asked him why he decided to stay in the city. “I could leave, I thought many times, but if I go, the people who stay here will go without power,” he said. “I can’t do that. I’m going to stay to the end and keep fixing the generators to help my community. There’s an old saying in Arabic: ‘What are you worth if you abandon your own land?’ I say that to myself every morning.” 

Surprisingly, no one in the city had been killed in the latest round of attacks, though a handful were seriously injured. According to locals this was due not just to the fact that much of the city had already fled but to the experience and preparation of the remaining population. The people of Zirgan had trained themselves in exactly what to do and where to go as soon as the bombing began. “We have all been learning with time how to protect ourselves,” one resident explained to me. “We’ve learned how to hide ourselves, how to calmly organize ourselves when we hear the first explosion. It’s not that anyone becomes accustomed to it – there’s always fear – but we’ve developed a constant vigilance that protects us.”

A young boy poses for a photo standing in the impact crater of a Turkish artillery shell, just outside his home in a residential neighborhood of Zirgan. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

A War on Democracy

To the people I met in Zirgan, it was obvious without a shred of doubt that Turkey and its mercenaries were systematically targeting civilian infrastructure, seeking to terrorize and displace the local population as a tactic of war. The evidence of war crimes was overwhelming.25The 1949 Geneva Conventions on humanitarian conduct in war prohibit and make illegal attacks on civilians and sites considered essential for civilian life.  

Erdoğan’s failure to secure an explicit “green light” from the United States (or Russia) may have postponed a ground invasion for the time being, but attacks on civilian infrastructure in North-East Syria have continued to escalate.26Rojava Information Center, “New Round of Turkish Airstrikes on North and East Syria Target Electricity, Oil, and Other Civilian Infrastructure” (15 January 2023) Unable to seize more territory in the short-term, Turkey has shifted its approach from outright invasion to a grinding war of attrition, using every means at its disposal to make life in Rojava unlivable. For communities on the front line, the strategy has been devastatingly effective. 

For the residents I spoke with, Turkey was not just attacking their land and their community, but their political system, along with the values it stood for. In this sense, Zirgan was a microcosm of the larger war on democracy this conflict represented for Rojava as a whole. By destroying homes and community spaces, these attacks not only damaged the city in a physical sense – they also robbed its people of their chance to participate in the political process. 

Zirgan’s communications tower and municipal administration building, both damaged beyond repair by Turkish artillery. Image: Arthur Pye, 2022.

How can a community govern itself if most people are, in the words of young Ahmed, “too afraid to participate”? In a place where so many neighbors were scared to walk outside or gather in large numbers, demoralized and uncertain of whether their homes may soon be taken or destroyed, only the most committed community members could be expected to attend assemblies. You can’t have “participatory democracy” without participation. In this sense, democratic confederalism’s strength is also a vulnerability, since under conditions of war, mass participation is often infeasible. 

Despite its ideal of face-to-face, direct democracy, in practice Rojava’s political system is closer to a hybrid model, combining both participatory and representative forms of governance. Here the revolution’s continued survival relies on applying the same level of pragmatism in its political structures as it does on the battlefield, choosing compromise over annihilation every step of the way. Some onlookers, even initially sympathetic ones, have been quick to assess these compromises as proof of the revolution’s failure, or even of the movement’s own hypocrisy. They would be wise, however, to consider the self-defeating nature of this all-or-nothing understanding of revolution. 

The Kurdish freedom movement sees revolution in a different way – not as a single dramatic event after which society will be free, but rather as the painstaking process of holding the door open to new possibilities; of defending the physical and political space through which communities can pursue their own freedom to its fullest potential. If the goal is to democratize society as much as possible, then the task of the Self-Administration is to govern as democratically as possible without compromising survival – to cultivate as much participation at the base as a given context will allow, while empowering elected representatives (like Arian and her co-chair, or the organizers at the Mala Gel) to carry out the decisions necessary to keep society functioning. While far from perfect, the revolution’s very existence after over a decade of ceaseless war is testament to the enduring strength of this dynamic approach. 

One of the defining characteristics of a revolutionary war is a dynamic tension between the priorities of political transformation and physical survival. These priorities are both competing and complementary in important ways. However resilient Rojava’s political structures may be, the hard truth remains that war and democracy often make difficult bedfellows. On the one hand, Rojava’s democratic revolution was made possible by the space that the civil war opened up in the first place. Furthermore, the military success of the SDF has no doubt been due in large part to the revolutionary fervor which democratic empowerment has inspired in their fighters, especially women. At the same time, the conditions of widespread violence, displacement, and material insecurity over the last decade have disincentivized political participation for much of the population, reinforcing many people’s desire for a “strong government” that prioritizes efficiency and security above all else. While plenty of wars have been lost due to excessive bureaucracy and unaccountable leadership, there are nonetheless real limits to the degree to which a society can prioritize (and achieve) greater democracy during an emergency. The fact that this argument has been used throughout history to justify the unjustifiable doesn’t negate its basic truth. You can’t hold an assembly in the middle of a firefight. 

During the Russian Revolution, Lenin offered a simple solution to this problem, insisting that “revolution demands…that the people unquestioningly obey the single will of the leaders.”27See V.I. Lenin, “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government” in Pravda no. 83 (28 April 1918). For libertarian-socialist critiques of this ultra-centralizing Leninist conception of one-party rule and one-man management as the only possible defense of the revolution, see Murray Bookchin’s Listen, Marxist! (1969) and Mason Herson-Hord, “Wither the State” in Harbinger no. 1 (Winter 2019). The Kurdish freedom movement has rejected this path as both mistaken and dangerous, insisting instead that for the revolution to succeed, power and initiative must flow from the bottom upwards to the greatest extent possible. For them, the revolution must be defended not through totalitarianism but through compromise, if there is to be any revolution left to defend.28See Russia. But even so the dilemma can’t be eliminated, only mitigated. To deny it, or surrender to it, is to close the door to democratization. 

In Rojava today, this challenge is hardly limited to frontline communities like Zirgan. Throughout much of North-East Syria, participation in local communes is in decline. The longer the region remains trapped in a constant state of war, the more the Self-Administration could increasingly come to resemble something closer to a representative state government or social democracy than a “commune of communes.” In this context, the combination of both participatory and representative forms of governance has provided a necessary, if imperfect, solution, by ensuring continued survival while leaving the door open to further democratization if wartime conditions give way, someday, to relative stability. While the Self-Administration is not without its problems,29See my preface to this series, “Hope and Contradictions: My Year in Rojava” (14 March 2024), as well as forthcoming essays. it is difficult to imagine drastically better outcomes under the conditions I witnessed. Recent revisions to the social contract, including the announcement of regional elections, are an encouraging sign that the revolutionary process is continuing to develop in new and important ways. 

This story is far from over. As I write these words Erdoğan is poised to visit the White House in early May, where he will likely make his pitch to Biden that the US approve a ground invasion into North-East Syria as payment for Turkey’s recent vote allowing Sweden to enter NATO. His government has already announced its intentions to carry out a new “operation” this summer. A critical question for determining whether any such operation against the SDF will be viable is whether the US (or Russia) will allow Turkish jets to operate in Syrian airspace.30Without air supremacy, it is unlikely Turkish ground troops (or their proxies) could beat the SDF in an open fight, making it unlikely a ground invasion would be launched without such assurances. If Biden agrees to step aside, my own contacts tell me an invasion could begin as early as mid-May. No one can predict the future – and this certainly would not be the first time a threatened invasion failed to materialize – but people in Rojava are taking it seriously. 

As the months pass since my return to the United States, I can’t help but think of the people I met in Zirgan, continuing the hard work of holding their community together while Biden and Erdoğan negotiate over their lives behind closed doors. I haven’t spoken to any of them since January 2023, but I imagine most of them are still there. They are not powerless victims. They are real people who have made the brave choice to stick with their community, come what may. Like people throughout Rojava, they have been forced to live in a state of constant uncertainty for the crime of daring to govern themselves. 

The precious human lives and diverse communities in places like Zirgan should be reason enough to stop this war. But Rojava’s survival also represents something even larger that’s at stake. As the late Meredith Tax once put it: “We cannot learn from this experiment unless we help it survive. Defending Rojava is part of defending our own ability to imagine something new.”31Meredith Tax was a feminist writer and activist, as well as a co-founder of the Emergency Committee for Rojava. See “ECR’s Tribute to Meredith Tax” on the Committee to Defend Rojava website. In the end, as a symbol of hope for a truly free life, Rojava’s fate may be our own. ~


  • Arthur Pye

    Arthur Pye is a writer and organizer based in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava.

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