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What the Kurds Want


[clock] 45-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2015
Syrian Kurds are trying to build a leftist revolution in the midst of a civil war. Is it a new Middle East, or just another fracture?

 A member of Kurdish Syria’s YPJ unit, an all-female branch of the region’s military forces. (Erin Trieb)

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Growing up in the 1980s in Syria, Hediye Yusif was a good student. But it didn’t take her long to realize that she would have to drop out of school if she wanted to learn anything meaningful. The things that seemed important to her—Karl Marx, Palestinian resistance, feminism, Kurdish history—were not part of the curriculum at her Damascus boarding school. And back home in Derik, a city in Kurdish Syria, women were generally discouraged from becoming educated. It wasn’t until she discovered the illegal, underground classes organized by Damascus’s Kurdish dissidents that she began to lay the intellectual groundwork for a life that would include activism, prison, and, now, being at the helm of what she hopes will be a Kurdish revolution. “I lived in a paradox,” she said of her youth, “between thinking about my own personal life and my private desires and the life of my nation and women and the Kurdish people in general.” So, at fourteen, Yusif chose a life—“in the end,” she says, “I decided to work for my people.” Then she waited for the moment when that life would mean something.

That moment came in 2012, when Yusif was released from prison—she had served less than a year of a three-year sentence for “being a member of a secret organization trying to divide Syria”—and entered a fledgling Kurdish political scene. By then, the protests against President Bashar al-Assad had escalated into an uprising that was quickly devolving into a full-blown civil war. The collapse of the Syrian state presented an opportunity for Kurds, and, in the political vacuum, with Assad concentrating his forces in other parts of the country, they declared autonomy in Syria’s three Kurdish-dominated cantons—Jazira, Afrin, and Kobani—known collectively as Rojava. 

Yusif, a small but imposing woman with thick black hair and an unshakable gaze, had spent the early stages of the uprising enduring the hardships of Assad’s prisons, including solitary confinement, starvation, and physical abuse. At first, the misery of prison overwhelmed her. She obsessed over the injustices Kurds faced in Syria, and thought a lot, she says, about what might drive a Palestinian woman to become a suicide bomber. To a degree, she understood the urge. 

In 2011, word of the uprisings reached the prison, giving Yusif new energy and a sense of purpose. She began to organize the detainees in order to protest conditions at the prison and demand their rights as political prisoners. She led a hunger strike that included male prisoners, and as a result she and her fellow female detainees were sequestered in a separate facility. “With us, with the women, they had a policy of total isolation,” Yusif says. By the time she was released in 2012, she had become a powerhouse of conviction—a staunch anticapitalist and defender of women, well-known for her sacrifices for the Kurdish cause. This reputation, along with her connection to the community of Syrian-Kurdish activists who were then rising to prominence, led to her election as copresident of Jazira, the largest of Rojava’s three cantons.

Yusif and I met in April 2015 at her office, an orderly room trimmed with paraphernalia and tucked into a villa that had once belonged to the state-owned Syrian Petroleum Company. The villa itself was part of a large residential compound, known as Rumelan, which once housed most of the oil company’s 3,000 workers. Until 2012, Rumelan was cut off from the Kurds who lived around it by a high wall and barbed wire. Assad’s oil company exploited nearby oil fields of the same name, with profits going to members of his ruling Baath party. Now, the compound serves as the Jazira headquarters of the Movement for a Democratic Society, or TEV-DEM, Rojava’s coalition government in which Yusif’s party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has majority control. 

In her office, Yusif sat behind a large wooden desk, the front of which was decorated with a plate and flag emblazoned with Jazira’s newly designed seal—laurels of wheat encircling a rising sun and three red stars that represented Rojava’s three major ethnic groups (Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians). Between them sat a dish of multi-colored Easter eggs, a gift from some local Assyrian children. While an assistant prepared tea, Yusif flipped happily through her latest project, a extensive piece of draft legislation on women’s rights that covered such issues as honor killings, inheritance, and representation in government.

Yusif’s mood seemed a mix of determination and a heavy dose of magical thinking. I recognized it among many of the Kurds I spoke to in half-empty towns and cities of Rojava. Syria was falling apart, but its Kurds, for the first time in history, thought they were close to not only gaining the rights they had been denied for generations—to language, land, and political representation— but also to building their society, government, and economy based entirely on their own terms. 

The goals of the “Rojava revolution,” however, are more complex than the conventional dream of Kurdish independence. Unlike in Iraqi Kurdistan, where leaders make no secret of their intention to break away from the country, the Kurdish movement in Syria professes a commitment to a more radical democratic experiment—one that transforms Kurdish society through gender equality, minority rights, and an equal distribution of wealth and property. Rojava, according to its champions, will be a new grassroots democracy where law and security is entrusted to local councils; where women and minorities are guaranteed equal participation; and where wealth—once belonging to Assad’s Baathists—is distributed according to need among citizens. Supporters claim that their efforts will not only liberate Kurds, but serve as a model for better governance in a crumbling, sectarian Middle East.

One could see evidence of this model in action throughout the compound, where nearly every aspect of life was infused with solidarity. What had once been the home of the oil company’s head—with chandeliers and gold accents that smacked of Damascus mansions—was now an academy and dormitory for visiting students who, once they paid their way to Rumelan, were given food, a place to sleep, and an education. By day they studied Kurdish history (albeit a rather zealous and at times revisionist one), retiring each night to various rooms to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on floor pallets, their dozens of pairs of shoes—scuffed black loafers, canvas flats, a few high heels—piled up beside the entranceway.

Across the street, a two-story building that had once been a guesthouse for visiting Russian oil consultants was now an education center for women, decorated with framed photos of Kurdish women who had died fighting for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party—the guerilla army (which goes by the Kurdish acronym PKK) that first took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984—or one of its Syrian affiliates, the People’s Protection Units (the YPG and the all-female YPJ). The night before, a class of women learned basic battlefield first aid taught by a young German volunteer—how to tie a tourniquet, what to do if your companion is shot in the neck, etc.—in a classroom filled with infants and grandmothers, as well as would-be female soldiers. 

Meanwhile, outside Jazira, the fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Kurdish forces, into which some of these women and students would inevitably be drawn, grew worse. Only a few days earlier, an IED was detonated inside the Rumelan compound, killing a sixteen-year-old YPG soldier. But not even that appeared to contaminate Yusif’s idealism, which others shared with equal passion. In the thirty years since the PKK first began fighting the Turkish state, more than 30,000 people, on both sides of the conflict, have died. Now, thousands of fighters were being killed on the front lines with ISIS. A single attack was devastating, but to Yusif and other devoted revolutionaries it was in the pursuit of something much bigger. They were thinking about more than the freedom of Kurds in Syria, Yusif insisted, gesturing broadly. They were thinking about “the whole of humanity.”


The history of Kurds in countries where they represent a significant minority—Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran—is rife with oppression and injustice, imprisonment and executions, as well as the beginnings—and usually the brutal ends—of many would-be revolutions. An ethnic minority numbering about 30 million, Kurds share a language and a culture, but throughout history they have been denied their own nation. The Kurdish dream of an independent Kurdistan, a country that would join together their territories in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, has fueled Kurdish rebellions and shaped Kurdish identity for centuries. But today, when Kurds are the closest they have ever been to independence, they are divided not only by borders, but also by opposing ambitions, loyalties, and ideologies. 

In Syria, where Kurds traditionally make up about 10 percent of the population, twentieth-century policy toward them was influenced by a particularly xenophobic and power-hungry chief of police named Mohammed Talib Hilal, who, in 1963, likened them to a “malignant tumor.” The Kurds, Hilal insisted, were not Syrian; they were Turkish or Iraqi, welcomed in Syria by the French occupiers as a tool of colonialism. “The relationship between the Damascenes and the Kurds from the beginning was, ‘We can strong-arm them,’ which is what every Syrian government has done since,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told me. “They were kept at the mercy of the government, their status totally insecure. So why wouldn’t they try to get independence?”

Under Syrian President Hafez al-Assad—and later under his son Bashar—hundreds of thousands of Kurds were denied citizenship while their history was systematically erased from textbooks. Kurdish names, whether of towns or children, were banned, and so were any cultural products—music, literature, movies—made in Kurdish. Kurds were denied jobs and access to education; consequently, the Kurdish regions of Syria are mired in poverty. For a time, Hafez allowed the PKK’s leadership, including its founder, Abdullah Öcalan, to operate within Syria. But shortly before Hafez’s death in 2000, he was forced, through pressure from regional governments, to expel Öcalan. Under Hafez’s son Bashar, Kurdish political leaders and activists were arrested on charges that amounted to treason or terrorism. For good measure, Syrian secret police patrolled Kurdish cities, hoping to sniff out dissent. 

Map by Haisam Hussein

One of the more effective policies that hampered Kurdish unity—not only in northern Syria but with neighboring countries—was the creation of the so-called “Arab belt”—200 miles of Arab-dominated land wedged along the Syrian border, separating the Kurdish populations in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Rojava’s three cantons are already noncontiguous, dangling like loose teeth off the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and the Arab belt exacerbates their isolation.

Afrin, the canton furthest west, is the smallest and most isolated from foreign media covering the war in Syria, making its progress the most difficult to gauge.

Jazira, in the east, bordering both Turkey and Iraq, is the canton that is most challenging to govern. Large Arab populations live there, and, unlike other cantons, parts of Jazira are still controlled by Assad’s forces—teachers and civil servants, for example, receive salaries from Damascus; portraits of Bashar al-Assad still hang in Qamishli, Jazira’s largest city. As the center of Rojava’s media and government, Jazira is a kind of political balancing act between ISIS infiltrators, regime sympathizers, and revolutionaries. 

Between Afrin and Jazira lies Kobani, whose eponymous city became known internationally in 2014 after an ISIS siege—lasting longer than the siege of Stalingrad—was broken by a coalition led by Kurdish forces that eventually included US airstrikes. The victory galvanized the Kurdish resistance in Syria and became a symbol of the movement itself. By summer 2015, however, after months of fighting, Kobani and the villages that surrounded it were in ruins. American bombs had helped to drive out ISIS but had flattened the city in the process. As they fled the city, ISIS militants left dozens of unexploded IEDs behind—in the doorways of homes, in kitchen pots, even, I was told, in children’s book bags. Syrians were urged not to return, but many did anyway. In late June, only a few months after victory had been declared in Kobani, more than 200 people were killed and wounded in yet another ISIS attack.


A Kurdish marksman surveying the town of Kobani on January 30, 2015, just days after ISIS militants were driven out. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty images)

In 1979, when Öcalan first arrived in Damascus, he was already on the way to becoming Turkey’s most hunted terrorist. He and the PKK thrived in Syria, evolving their strategies and gaining support, particularly among Syrian Kurds who had been encouraged by Hafez al-Assad to join the guerillas rather than the Syrian Army. By the time Öcalan was forced out of Syria and arrested by Turkish authorities in Kenya, his popularity was cemented in what would become Rojava. Syrian Kurds never organized against Assad, but by 2011 they were primed for a PKK-inspired uprising.

Today Öcalan is serving out a life sentence in an island prison off the coast of Istanbul, where he presides over Rojava as its ubiquitous but long-distance leader and hero. Seemingly everywhere—in classrooms and political offices, kitchens and bedrooms, hallways and on flags—portraits of Syrian leaders have been replaced by images of Öcalan: smiling with his chin in his hand, wearing a stiff PKK uniform, holding court somewhere in the remote mountains where the PKK has its base. The volumes of books and letters he has written—in which he digests an array of leftist philosophies—are passed among his supporters like holy documents.

In the early phases of their Kurdish movement, Öcalan and other PKK leaders condoned acts of terrorism. They celebrated female suicide bombers as feminist liberators, and systematically targeted Kurdish civilians who were thought to be colluding with the Turkish state. Former members of the organization report abuse among its ranks during those years. Many of these testimonies are collected in journalist Aliza Marcus’s book on the PKK, Blood and Belief.

Gradually, as the PKK gained support among Kurds, Öcalan and other leaders explored alternative ways of reaching their goals. In particular, Öcalan, who has long considered himself an intellectual leader as well as a military one, began to reject violence against noncombatants. Organizations formed under the PKK umbrella that were not militarized at all, but instead focused on governance, gender equality, and ecology—issues central to the Rojava revolution.

At the same time, prison transformed Öcalan. Through his self-education, he developed the concept of “democratic confederalism,” Rojava’s foundational doctrine, which challenges the value of state power by deferring to small, local councils. This approach to governance draws from a litany of sources, especially from the American anarchist philosopher Murray Bookchin. In 2004, Öcalan wrote to the philosopher asking if he would correspond with him in prison. Janet Biehl, who was Bookchin’s partner at the time, recalls that Bookchin was sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, but that “Öcalan seemed like just another third-world Marxist-Leninist. We didn’t think much of it.”

Bookchin was ill by the time Öcalan reached out to him, and, by Biehl’s description, exhausted and disappointed in the Left. (Though his ideas had matured over time, he found it difficult to escape his early associations with Marxism.) He declined Öcalan’s request. Nevertheless, through Öcalan’s persistence, Bookchin’s thinking continued to dominate the Kurdish movement. “In 2006, when Murray died, I got this incredible salutation from the PKK,” Biehl said. “They said they planned to create the first Bookchinist society on the planet. It was kind of mind-blowing.”

As his thinking progressed, Öcalan reconsidered the end goal of an independent Kurdistan. He encouraged a cease-fire with the Turkish state, anticipating that PKK guerillas would one day lay down their weapons. And he began to rethink the entire concept of borders in the Middle East, citing Benedict Anderson’s landmark book on nationalism, Imagined Communities, as inspiration. As he had with Bookchin, Öcalan interpreted Anderson in a way that would transform the PKK’s ambitions in greater Kurdistan, such that the goal of independence became that of federal autonomy.

“I understood that nations themselves were the most meaningless reality, shaped under the influence of capitalism,” Öcalan told a Turkish newspaper in early 2013. “A big transformation of my political philosophy took place.” In one of his writings outlining the concept of democratic confederalism, Öcalan states it plainly: “Had it not been nationalism and the nation-state which had created so many problems in the Middle East?” Despite his own conversion, convincing the ranks of the PKK wasn’t easy. After all, the organization was formed with the aim of fighting the Turkish State, with the goal of an independent Kurdistan. PKK leaders reportedly debated for years before agreeing with Öcalan to abandon the idea of statehood.

Internationally, the PKK is known, at best, as a guerilla army fighting for Kurdish rights. Turkey, the EU, and the US still consider it a terrorist organization, and recently renewed fighting between guerillas and Turkish forces, caused in part by the PKK stronghold in Rojava, may reinforce that characterization. But among Kurds of the last two generations, the PKK and Öcalan have been a source of intellectual debate and an evolving, nonprescriptive vision for Kurdish liberation. It’s these ideas, seemingly outlandish in the context of the wars and dictatorial central governments in neighboring countries, that make Rojava an ambitious political gamble: Could a revolution based on the ideas of an obscure American philosopher take root in the Middle East?

A portrait of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, near Mount Qandil, Iraq. (Besaran Tofiq/Metrography)

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One morning last April, a dozen tractor trailors were lined up along the narrow highway at Fishkhabour, an Iraqi border crossing in the Dohuk province, waiting to cross into Rojava. There they would be loaded with livestock, wheat, and other staples that Iraqi Kurdistan relies on Syria to supply. (As important as Iraqi-Syrian trade is to both sides, it has done little to alleviate the isolation and poverty of Kurds in Rojava.)

Turkey shares a long border with Syria, and since the beginning of the war, the Turkish government has tried to reconcile its desire to see the opposition topple Assad with its anxiety over the PKK fortifying a stronghold in the Kurdish north. As a result, its enforcement of the border has been both harsh and erratic. The Turkish government considers the YPG terrorists and likens them to ISIS. At the height of the battle for Kobani, for instance, Turkish soldiers blocked military aid and fighters from passing into Syria until international outrage forced them to relent. But by the time I arrived at the Turkish border in March, the gate was closed again.

At Fishkhabour, going to Syria means crossing the narrow Tigris River. Pedestrians cram themselves and their belongings into small motorboats while trucks and cars drive carefully across a lurching, floating bridge. My reporting partner, Omar, and I boarded the boat with half a dozen Syrians who were returning with suitcases full of things they couldn’t find, or couldn’t afford, at home—diapers, formula, household electronics. Others had spent months in refugee camps and were desperate to get back, no matter the circumstances. One elderly couple told me they were headed home to Raqqa, the declared capital of the Islamic State. ISIS militants had notified them that if they didn’t return, they would forfeit their house and everything in it. “What are we supposed to do?” the husband asked, miserably, as they leaned against their luggage.

Soon the boat thudded against the Syrian shore. The narrow bank was empty except for a small crowd of people waiting to return to Iraqi Kurdistan, sitting on suitcases and stuffed bags. People heaved their possessions and stepped awkwardly over the bow of the boat, angling for a spot in a line that led to a makeshift station where a few YPG soldiers stood smiling, in full uniform, beneath the shade of a blue tarp strung between bushes, rummaging through the bags at a white folding table. Kurdish security, called Asayish, patrolled the beach. Up the hill, a more formal border crossing, consisting of a few villas, was under construction, but by the water, things still seemed improvised. Later, when Fishkhabour closed for the day, the YPG soldiers would fold up the table and tarp, load their weapons into a van, and drive away, leaving nothing but the rocky, deserted shoreline. Any Syrians who wanted to cross then would have to risk their lives to do so illegally at night.

Omar and I were entering Jazira amid a fog of conflicting information. Outside the Syrian borders, Kurds already ideologically aligned with Öcalan and the PKK were passionately supportive of the Rojava experiment. Two Turkish-Kurds I met, a pair of lawyers on their lunch break in a border town, were, like many Turkish-Kurds, happy but wistful about what was happening in Rojava. “We always thought we would do it here first,” one of them said. “But they are the frontier.” His friend shook his tulip-shaped tea glass toward the barbed wire that separated the tea shop and the Syrian city Qamishli beyond it. “It’s a utopia, it’s a dream come true,” he said.

Other Kurds, though, saw Rojava as more of a land grab than a revolution. These dissenters craved true independence, not federalism. The Syrian state had oppressed Kurds for decades, they insisted, and they wanted out. 

International observers, meanwhile, were torn. Human-rights researchers were skeptical about the conduct of TEV-DEM toward dissenters, while activists, Kurdish and otherwise, lauded the anticapitalist and feminist movements that were blossoming within the three cantons. American and European politicians weighed their support of Turkey, a NATO member, against the benefits of a Kurdish resistance to ISIS. Average news consumers outside of Rojava were also understandably confused. Were the PKK and the YPG terrorists or freedom fighters? Were the events in Rojava a war or a revolution? Everywhere you looked there were a thousand conflicting answers.

After passing through the checkpoint, Omar and I were ushered into a black SUV. As we set out, our driver shouted into his smartphone, decorated with Öcalan’s photo. His AK-47 leaned against the passenger door, a grenade bouncing in the cup holder. Grenades, he explained, were more effective at long distances than Kalashnikovs, the old Russian rifles bought on the black market. I asked how close he had to get to ISIS militants if he wanted to shoot them with one of those guns. “It depends,” he said sardonically. “Sometimes you feel you are about to touch them with your hands.”

At midday, the roads were mostly empty. Jazira’s landscape is an extension of the mountains and wide fields of northern Iraq, but unlike its neighbor, where shopping malls and petrol stations break up the scenery on long drives, the countryside here is barely developed. Outside of towns and cities, the only sign of industry is the hundreds of bowlegged oil pumpjacks, machines referred to as “nodding donkeys” because of the way their oblong heads dip slowly toward the ground. The Kurdish region is Syria’s most oil-rich, but under Assad, Kurds were denied a share of the profit, and so they remained largely poor, farming or shepherding and living in crudely built houses above pools of untapped wealth.

Four years into the war, the poverty in Jazira is not alleviated so much as it is abandoned. Many Syrian-Kurdish farmers are now refugees, or have left to join TEV-DEM in cities. Others have joined the fight; many have died. Without people to animate the hardship, the economic isolation has left the landscape tranquil. We passed fields of untended wheat, golden yellow dotted with white and purple wildflowers and the occasional red poppy—a country like an impressionist painting. If it weren’t for our armed driver, it would be easy to forget that just past the desert, beyond the hills, ISIS militants continued their ferocious takeover of Syria, with an eye toward the north.


The next day, we arrived in Derik, a city in northeast Jazira, where shops were shuttered and the roads were quiet. Posters of martyrs lined the streets. TEV-DEM flags flapped over houses on which revolutionary-minded vandals had painted slogans in support of Öcalan. At a nearby church, Assyrians were holding a ceremony to honor Christians who were systematically killed under the Ottoman Empire. Several Asayish watched over the event. Derik is considered one of the safest cities in Rojava, but ISIS sympathizers still manage to stage occasional attacks. A public gathering, particularly one that advertised Rojava’s parallel system of governance, made for an obvious target.

Nearby, Afran Ibrahim, the forty-four-year-old deputy president of the local administration, and himself a Christian, stood and surveyed the crowd. Most of the city’s Christians had left, he told me, because they weren’t entirely convinced that TEV-DEM could protect them from ISIS. Ibrahim, on the other hand, intended to stay: In addition to his political role in TEV-DEM, he had taken a position on the local legal council, of which 20 percent of the members are Assyrian Christians. “We feel that we are partners, more than before,” he said. “We exist in all the authorities.”

The Social Contract, a working charter written by TEV-DEM that articulates the goals of the Rojava revolution, states that Rojava is founded on the principle of “equality without discrimination on the basis of race, religion, creed, doctrine or gender.” Throughout TEV-DEM’s ranks, authorities flaunt their broad-mindedness. Minorities, such as Christians and Arabs, are guaranteed representation in all TEV-DEM institutions (Hediye Yusif’s copresident, for example, is an influential Arab sheikh from a nearby village), and each minority group has its own branch of security, although they are all controlled by the same authority and have the same mission. The separate units “give every community the feeling that they do exist,” Ibrahim told me, “and that they have forces that represent and protect them.” The principle is as much pragmatic as it is aspirational, since Kurdish authorities know that building a permanent government requires the inclusion of Rojava’s minorities, particularly Arabs who might otherwise join ISIS.

A few blocks from the ceremony, a funeral was taking place for Hussein Abdullah, the sixteen-year-old YPG soldier who was killed during ISIS’s attack on the Rumelan compound. A small audience sat in rows of plastic chairs arranged in a vast concrete lot. Giant speakers blasted brief speeches about Abdullah’s bravery and idealism. His YPG portrait fluttered beside posters of Öcalan and Arîn Mîrkan, a young Kurd who blew herself up to stop an ISIS advance in Kobani. Soon after her death, Mîrkan’s smiling portrait became iconic in Rojava.

Hussein’s sister, Nasseen, wandered through the crowds of mourners, shaking hands. She had been among the delegation of YPJ fighters to visit French President François Hollande two months earlier, to discuss the role of Kurdish fighters, especially women, in Rojava. At the memorial she was treated like a celebrity. Fighting ran in the family, she told me. Her parents had encouraged her and Hussein, even though he was too young, according to the YPG’s standards, to join the fighters, and they had given her money to buy weapons. “My whole family is very patriotic,” she said.

Nasseen had been heartened by the visit to the French president. Photos of the meeting show her and other YPJ soldiers, in uniform, sitting with Hollande in a gilded room, talking closely and sometimes laughing. It had happened at the height of international fervor over the fight in Kobani, when the female fighters had captured the attention of Western media. Two months later, Nasseen was more cynical about Western involvement in Rojava. After the meeting, “we hoped that all nations would help,” she told me, but as of yet, they had not.

Later on that chilly Friday in Derik, Omar and I met a group of female Asayish recruits who ranged from teens to the middle-aged. Female Asayish handle crimes against women—domestic violence, honor killings, rape—and this includes the arrest of male perpetrators. So far this year, the officers told me, violence against women was at nearly half the rate of what it had been before the PYD took over Jazira. They had yet to hear of a single robbery case. Violent crime, meanwhile, was at an all-time low.

Asayish are paid a small monthly salary, which includes room and board. Most had given up work or had their education cut short by the war. One young woman (each asked to remain anonymous) used to dream of going to law school; another was working as a freelance photographer before the war started, making it impossible, she said, for her to find paying work. Only one woman said that she had wanted to be a police officer when she was little, a dream that made the room erupt in laughter. 

Every one of the recruits was female, although they didn’t seem to care much about that fact. Skeptics have referred to Rojava’s use of women in the YPJ and Asayish as opportunistic, as cynical pandering to the West. Öcalan has always maintained that the success of the PKK and the Kurdish movement depends on the participation of women—he is famous for saying that “a country can’t be free unless a woman is free”—and over the decades the PKK has developed a sophisticated media branch that well understands the appeal of strong Kurdish women. “It’s a great selling point,” Joshua Landis told me. “It’s massively good from an American point of view, all those women fighters on the front lines with AK-47s.”

Young YPJ and YPG recruits training at the commando center in Saemalka, Jazira, Syria. (Ali Arkady/VII Mentor Program)

In December 2014, amid growing fanfare over women in Kobani, Dilar Dirik helped organize a delegation for academics and activists who wanted to see Rojava firsthand. Around the same time, Dirik published a piece in Al-Jazeera excoriating the West’s fascination with female Kurdish fighters. She called the coverage “myopic” and “orientalist,” and, as a Kurd herself, wrestled with the kind of attention Rojava was receiving. But within her critique was optimism. Women are fighting and dying, serving in political office, and organizing themselves—things that were unheard of before 2011. “It seems like a film script,” Dirik said. “But the fact that women are fighting there shows the ideological stance of the movement. [They are fighting] people who use rape and sexual violence as tools of war and propaganda.”

Öcalan’s focus on women has not only fed the ranks of the PKK, as it has guerilla armies in Latin America and elsewhere, it has bolstered his popularity among non-Kurdish women and men around the world. It has also influenced Kurdish societies away from the front lines. In Turkey, where the PKK has had the most sustained influence, Kurdish women are among the country’s leading feminists, and the issue of women’s rights is often argued alongside the so-called “Kurdish issue.” In his writing, Öcalan draws convincing parallels between the treatment of women by men under a patriarchal system and the treatment of Kurds by Arabs, Turks, and Persians. “The situation of women throughout the world is bad, but that of Kurdish women is nothing but terrible slavery,” Öcalan writes. “Except for women’s honor, the Kurdish male, who has lost both moral and political strength, has no other area left to prove his power or powerlessness.”

Many Kurds I met were fierce in their criticism of the PKK-linked leadership in Rojava, calling the PYD “dictators” and the YPG “terrorists.” But, without exception, the dissenters I spoke to acknowledged, even if with some reluctance, the impact the new leadership was having on women. “Öcalan focuses on women and children because it’s easy to get them,” a Syrian Kurd in exile told me. “But it is making women more equal.”

Hediye Yusif’s own political success could be seen as supporting both points of view—that women are indeed making gains in Rojava while serving as propaganda to attract favor from the West. But it is clear that Yusif intends to use her power in Jazira, however long it lasts, to ensure that whatever progress in gender equality that is forged on the battlefield lasts in the streets. The Social Contract “guarantees the effective realization of equality of women,” but doesn’t say, exactly, how that realization of equality should look. Yusif’s draft law challenges the small and large injustices women in Rojava face, in enough detail to protect it from misinterpretation. She helped to lead a local council, consisting of Syrians from all ethnic backgrounds, to debate the law, and at first she had difficulty persuading both men and women to accept such striking changes, particularly when it came to issues like polygamy. “In their opinion, it is a religious right,” Yusif told me. “Some were convinced that there was no violence against women, but we explained that in our women’s centers we see women beaten almost to death, girls who were forced to marry while they were very young, cases of girls who were married too young and died the first night because of sexual violence. When we show them these facts, they stay silent.”

Yusif is proud of the strides Kurdish women are making in Syria, and of the attention their fight has gotten in the media. She knows there is a direct line between the women fighting on the front lines with the YPJ and her own position as copresident. But she is a realist. “In four years you can’t convince people that a woman should be running the whole canton,” she said. “How long did it take for America to give women the right to vote?”

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In spite of the optimism among Kurdish revolutionaries and their supporters, not all Kurds, Syrian or otherwise, want to be a part of the new Kurdish Syria. Many have left, whether for refugee camps in Turkey or apartments in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and their objections to TEV-DEM are vehement, personal, and seem aimed at the heart of the uprising. Before 2011, there were a dozen Kurdish political parties in Rojava, and supporters of those parties now complain that the PYD holds a monopoly. TEV-DEM leaders, they told me, were clamping down on the media inside Rojava, in an attempt to control the narrative, and courting left-leaning supporters and journalists to a Potemkin-like revolutionary theater. Indeed, it is very difficult to work as a journalist within Rojava without TEV-DEM intervention, which they insist is for reasons of security.

Members of the political opposition told me they had felt threatened by the YPG, and many reminded me of a 2012 incident in the city of Amouda, in southern Jazira, where YPG forces fired into a crowd of protesters, killing three. (The YPG claim that protesters attacked first.) “People in my hometown hate the YPG,” an Erbil-based journalist told me, referring to the shooting as a “massacre.” “In my city, there was more support for local parties and the Syrian opposition.” Kurdish politics are deeply divided, so the opinions of an Erbil-based Syrian-Kurd could be read as simply partisan. But outside organizations have corroborated some of these complaints. In 2014, Human Rights Watch issued a report, “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves in Syria,” which cited the use of child soldiers, politically motivated detentions, and abuses in prison. 

The PYD responded to the report with a statement that seemed to offer excuses—“It is necessary to bear in mind the extraordinary circumstances under which we live”—but then invited Human Rights Watch back to Rojava to conduct more research. They claim to have made progress, particularly on the issue of child soldiers. Still, Hussein Abdullah, the YPG soldier whose funeral I attended in Derik, was just sixteen when he was killed. When I asked his sister about the fact that he was fighting at such a young age, she was unmoved. “He was little,” Nasseen said, “but patriotism was in his blood.”

“If you look at Syria today, the PYD stands out as a relatively good actor compared to the brutality of ISIS and Assad,” said Fred Abrahams, the author of the Human Rights Watch report. “My line to them has always been that we’re in big trouble if our standards are ISIS and Assad. I have no problem saying the PYD should never be compared to other atrocious actors in Syria. But that’s not the standard of international law, or what the Rojava authorities are aspiring to.”


A billboard in Qamishli, Syria, of martyrs who died while fighting ISIS. The billboard reads, “With you we live on and life continues.” (Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos)

Revolutions, no matter how popular, never speak for an entire population, and Rojava—an uprising helmed by a militant group that lay forty years in wait and was kick-started by the collapse of the central state—is no different. But in the context of the Syrian civil war, these dissenting voices come across as more than just antirevolutionary; they join a chorus of Syrians whose displacement has come to define the cost of the war and, now, the cost of the Kurdish experiment.

In a small Turkish border town, I met Mahmut Rahmy, a fifty-six-year-old Syrian Kurd, who, before 2012, had been a mayor in the canton of Kobani. Back then, he was independent from any Kurdish political party, he told me, and he had been excited about the prospect of a broad Syrian revolution. But when the PYD approached him about joining their party, he refused. “The PYD thinks they are very democratic, but they dictate everything,” he said. We sat in a small circle with his family in their borrowed home, surrounded by a huge stockpile of rice and piles of glossy synthetic blankets. Since he turned down the PYD and left Syria for Turkey, Rahmy has occupied a political no-man’s-land, alienated from both the PYD and the parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. “The PYD says you should accept their leaders, their flags, their ideologies,” he said morosely. “And if you don’t, you are a traitor.”

Rahmy directed a litany of grievances toward the PYD—intimidation, the use of propaganda, the consolidation of power—but, like other dissenters, he was most angered by TEV-DEM’s relationship with the Assad regime. In 2011, President Assad offered thousands of stateless Kurds citizenship as a way of convincing them to abandon the protests against him, and Kurds agreed. They were barely represented among the official opposition groups, and had little reason to think that future Syrian leaders would be any friendlier to Kurds than Assad or his predecessors had been. “Assad played the minority card,” Landis said, a policy he calls “extraordinarily effective.” Assad was able to portray the uprisings against him as a Sunni-Arab movement, and to maintain some authority in Rojava. There is still a statue of Hafez al-Assad in Qamishli, Rahmy reminded me.

Supporters describe the deal as an unfortunate but necessary cease-fire, while detractors regard it as collusion. “Your average person around Syria, who’s lived with neighbors different from them, are proud of their ability to get along and hate the way Syria has fallen apart,” Landis said. “But that human sentiment of generosity and brotherhood is constantly being assailed by political realities.”

“When the uprising began, everyone expected the Kurds to be in all the way,” Rami Jarrah, a Syrian journalist and activist told me. Few groups had more reason to be angry with the government, and, at first, many Kurds had protested against Assad. But after the agreement with Assad, Kurds were urged by their leaders to turn their attention to their own future. 

Jarrah understood why Kurds would want to look out for themselves, but he saw their decision as reason to be skeptical that a predominantly Kurdish Rojava would fully include Arabs in the democratic process. After decades of animosity, Jarrah thought, a partnership between Kurds and Arabs requires more than idealistic rhetoric (many people I spoke to dismissed Yusif’s copresident, the Arab sheikh, as window dressing). On a recent trip to Kobani, Jarrah saw that Arabs “have a resentment towards the Kurds. They don’t feel like they are welcome. There is a lot of distrust.”

What is to be made of an egalitarian revolution that benefits from the existence of a brutal regime? Since 2011, over 200,000 people have died in Syria, and close to half the native population has fled the country or been displaced within its borders. ISIS controls huge swathes of the country and Assad still rules most of the rest. The Social Contract aims for a peaceful coexistence, but the slow progress toward that goal in Rojava exists in devastating relief against war. Thomas Jeffrey Miley, a sociologist from Cambridge University, and an expert on Spanish separatist movements, had been among the academic delegation to visit Rojava in December. He spoke with excitement about what he had seen—Öcalan’s intellectual growth, the criticism of the modern nation-state, the authority of small local councils, the inclusion of minorities. Still, he was cautious. “I support the revolutionary aspirations of the Kurdish people in Rojava,” he said throughout our conversation, always attached to the same, sobering qualifier: “But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the revolutionary opportunity was born of human tragedy.”


After decades of economic oppression, Kurds in Syria are faced with the possibility, however remote, of exploiting Rojava’s natural resources for themselves, in order to gain a level of economic autonomy. In Iraq, Kurds experienced a similar turning point in the early 1990s when a no-fly zone was established to protect them from Saddam Hussein. At that time, they began to build an oil economy largely based on trade with Turkey, paving the way for stunning development and a growing wealth disparity. Kurdish leaders in Rojava, however, reject the Iraqi-Kurdish model, at least on paper, choosing instead an anticapitalist system that reflects the philosophies of Öcalan and the PKK. 

The Social Contract aims to “ensure a participatory economy while promoting competition in accordance to the principle of democratic autonomy ‘Each according to his work,’ and prevent monopoly and apply social justice.” Many of the people I met who supported the idea of a Rojava revolution were strongly anticapitalist. “Capitalism looks at women as a commercial item, the way they do a car,” Yusif told me. One teacher I met in Rumelan said, “Capitalism destroys lives. If you have money, you are corrupt.” 

Öcalan writes firmly about the correlation between capitalism, the modern nation-state, and oppression in the Middle East. And Rojava’s economic philosophy is, in part, what makes the prospect of a revolution so appealing to international leftists. But after four years of embargo and war, the Rojava economy is based on necessity. Money still comes in from Damascus, and Kurds must still rely on Assad’s government for services, such as hospital care. 

War creates uneasy trade alliances. “Everyone is doing business with everyone,” Michael Stephens, a researcher with the Royal United Services Institute, told me. “It’s like Lebanon in the 1970s and ’80s. People were shooting each other during the day and letting trucks through at night because they were making money.” At the moment, Stephens said, the TEV-DEM authorities are being practical, particularly when it comes to the controversial decision to allow villagers on the periphery of Rojava to trade with ISIS. “The YPG acknowledges that if villagers don’t have money, they will join ISIS, so it’s better to have them doing something to make money than joining the bad side,” Stephens said.

On a farm outside of the Rumelan compound, I met Shukri Fatih, a forty-eight-year-old shepherd who was continuing to work through the war. He leaned against his dirt-spattered truck, friendly but uncomfortable with being interviewed. Politics weren’t important to him, he said. About the PKK, he was brief. “It’s all fine,” he said impatiently.

Aside from Fatih and his friend waiting in the car, the village seemed empty. Fatih wasn’t bothered by it—profits had actually increased since the war began because there was now less competition. I asked whether he thought about sharing with his neighbors the money he makes from selling sheep’s cheese and yogurt at the market in Derik, and he shook his head. It didn’t appeal to him. But recent changes had afforded him more rights as a farmer. He had dug a well on his own property, he told us proudly, with a permit from the TEV-DEM administration. Under Assad, such things weren’t allowed; a well implied a degree of independence that the Syrian president could not tolerate. “We can do everything now that we couldn’t do before,” Fatih said.

Meanwhile, in Al-Muabbada, a small town adjacent to Rumelan, shopkeepers struggled to make a profit. They complained to me about inflation, lack of customers, and the difficulty of importing goods. Sometimes when they opened the doors to their shops, they said, it was just to maintain a feeling of normalcy, or to sit and talk. When a truck full of YPG soldiers drove by on the two-lane road, they watched it pass. When it started to rain, they watched the rain. They sold nothing.

Jalal Mahmour Ali sat beside his looming pyramidal display of cigarettes. He loved the Kurdish uprising, he said—“The change has been dramatic”—but he preferred the free market to socialism and, for the record, he didn’t support Hediye Yusif’s PYD. We were within walking distance of her office, and in front of Asayish that she had insisted come with us as security (and, we suspected, as minders). But Ali spoke confidently nonetheless. The Asayish didn’t seem to care. They simply leaned against the doorframe of his shop, bored.

Along the street, the diversity of opinion was striking. Al-Muabbada did not seem like a town under the thumb of a war-time dictatorship. Nor was there any of the thrill one might expect from stepping into the midst of revolutionaries. Instead, the virtues espoused by the revolution seemed to manifest in subtler ways. I spoke to a plant seller who told me that, because people could no longer afford to buy vegetables at the markets, most of what he sold went to new home gardens. Ali, the cigarette seller, told me that when he did make money, he spread it among his neighbors and family. It was no big deal, he said. “In our community no one lets a neighbor die of starvation.” It reminded me of something Yusif had said during our meeting, when I asked why she thought these ideas of communal economy and equality could work among Kurds when they hadn’t in more developed countries. Her answer was that community already exists in Rojava in a way it doesn’t in Europe or the US, and that this sense of community was being heightened, not extinguished, by war. “The life of people in Europe has a lot of routine,” she told me. “The spirit to challenge it doesn’t exist anymore—it’s only about tending to the individual’s life. In our society, the relationships between people are so strong. Life has a meaning.”


Two PKK soldiers take refuge from ISIS gunfire in an abandoned building in Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan. April 2015. (Erin Trieb)

Agri wasn’t actually dead when Rojava military commanders added her name to a list of martyrs, but she had come close. Early one January afternoon, she and fifteen other fighters with the YPJ had their eyes on a group of ISIS militants, just on the western edge of Kobani. It was a chilly day, and Agrı pulled her jacket tightly around her, worrying about the noise she was making—the snap of concrete under her feet, the steady thump of her AK-47 bouncing slightly as she ran. Other than that, she thought only about finding the militants.

They were outnumbered and outgunned, and soon they came face to face with the ISIS fighters, blocking the road to the next village. Agrı had been close to ISIS before, close enough to kill one with her old and awkward AK-47 and then snatch the first-aid kit off his body. But that had been while defending the city. Now, with American planes overhead, the YPJ was on the hunt. Agrı was both frightened and, to her surprise, exhilarated. They opened fire on the militants from the cover of a nearby apartment building. Moments later, an American bomb hit the building, and it collapsed on top of her.

When she woke up in a hospital across the border in Turkey and was told she had nearly died, Agrı felt shaken but proud. She had a broken back and arm, and one leg was covered with burns, but to her the injuries were just annoyances preventing her from rejoining the YPJ. “I can fight with one hand,” she told me, when I met her in a Turkish refugee camp in March. (She asked that I use “Agrı” as a pseudonym.) “When I was first injured, I couldn’t stand up, and I was still fighting. I was vomiting blood, and I was still fighting.”

Agrı had never heard of Karl Marx. She had never even been to school. Did it matter? Fighting, she was a different person. She felt useful. One day, she might be a martyr and a flag bearing her face would be hung from a lamppost in the center of town, her name mentioned in accounts of Kurdish history, her children grateful to her for helping to free their children. She had grown up an orphan and was married off to a man eight years her senior when she was eleven. After she woke up in the hospital, her name had been removed from the list of martyrs, and Agrı took no pleasure in the miracle of her survival. In her midtwenties, she felt old enough to die.

From across the border, Kobani glowed with a new mythology. Kids in refugee camps named after YPG and YPJ martyrs put on plays about the fight for the city. In one scene, a girl dragged her brother’s wounded body off the battlefield. In another, two joined the YPJ, and, when their unit was defeated, they shot each other with the single bullets YPJ soldiers are said to carry—along with cyanide pills—in order to kill themselves before being kidnapped by ISIS.

One of the young actors, a girl named Shirin, told me she could never imagine joining the actual fight; she was scared of guns. But gradually she was coming to understand who the fighters were and why Kobani needed them. “Before, we just heard about the Kurdish people in Qandil,” Shirin said, referring to the PKK’s military base in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. “But when Kobani happened we understood better who they are and what they do. They defend our freedom. They support our people.” Before the war, she had dreamed of being an interior designer. “More than anything I wanted to finish my education,” she said. “Now, I want to serve my state.” 

Kurds from Norway to Turkey have dreamed about what Kobani might become as the heart of the Rojava revolution. In Diyarbakır, the Turkish city considered the de facto capital of a would-be Kurdistan, I met Herdem Dogrul, a member of the local branch of the Chamber of Architects. He and his colleagues had been busy drawing up plans to rebuild Kobani. It would be centered on the other side of the hill—a safer location—and they would leave a manageable patch of destruction at the old city’s heart, an open-air museum so that people could see what had happened there. Visitors to the city could stay at a small hotel, but it wouldn’t be anything lavish, more like a guesthouse. Homes would be built no higher than two stories in a whitewashed adobe style—like those found on the Greek island of Santorini, Dogrul said—and outfitted with solar panels. Agricultural land would be safe from development, and it would belong to the people, not the government. “Occupation doesn’t just happen with an army,” Dogrul added.

A woman peeked between the heavy white flaps of Agrı’s tent and delivered hard loaves of white bread, which Agrı packed into one of the tent’s corners while her two-year-old son, Ibrahim, cried and clung to her—prior to her injury, she hadn’t seen her children for nearly six months. She placated Ibrahim with sweets, and draped her good arm across his tiny shoulders. “He thinks I will leave again,” she said and nodded when I asked if she planned to. “Bad things happen to Kurdish women all the time,” she said, shrugging and then wincing at the motion. 

“We want simple things,” she said. ID cards for all Kurds. Schools for children. For men to think twice before beating their wives. In the process of fighting for these things, her husband had been killed, soon after he had joined the YPG. Later, her uncle died defending Kobani from ISIS. Her brother was in a Turkish hospital, still recovering, she said, from bullet wounds to his leg and arm. 

Agrı reached into a bag and brought out the first-aid kit she’d taken from the ISIS militant she’d killed the month before—a soft, black multi-pocket purse meant to be worn across the body. At first she had kept it for the supplies, Band-Aids, and aspirin, but now she pulled it out every once in a while just to hold it in her hands, evidence of all that she had done. Sometimes she found it hard to believe. 

3 Comments

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Alex's picture
Alex · 1 year ago

A beautiful and informative story...

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Inez Deborah Emlia Altar's picture
Inez Deborah Em... · 1 year ago

The YPJ wants nurses

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Maria Gambale's picture
Maria Gambale · 1 year ago

Fantastic article with real, courageous in-depth reporting.

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