by Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker Blog
This is the 2nd part of a 3-part series on Northern Syria
The success of Rojava seems to imply that Syrian Baathism needs an ideological updating.
After all, not a single nation supports Rojava, yet their ideology has been so unifying and inspirational that they have been able to fight off ISIL, the mercenaries of rich countries like the US, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia & Turkey.
There is clearly something there which electrifies the locals into action, and it is up to the entirety of Syria to democratically decide if they want to preserve it for the future.
(In the previous article of this series – Stop confusing Kurdistans! Syria’s leftists must turn home to Assad – I immediately make clear that Northern Syrians emphatically do NOT call for independence, but only autonomy.)
I aways thought that the Baathist party was misnamed, mainly for public relations reasons: the “Arab Socialist Baath Party” is all correct, but they should have put the word “nationalist” in there if they wanted to be completely accurate.
An immediate error will arise if Westerners want to view “Arab nationalism” through their own experiences with nationalism: One nationalism is the nationalism of colonizers, the other is that of the colonized. To compare the two is to compare apples and bowling balls.
Interview a range of opinions – whether he be a Syrian fighter newly on his way into Afrin to fight the Turkish invasion, or a top peace studies institute in the West, and they give the same message of unity as the latter cited in 2013: “Syrian Kurds view themselves as part of the Syrian state and so there is little support for outright independence or total autonomy.”
Clearly, nationalism in Syria has been an effective unifier. It has been tested in the crucible of war, and it is on the verge of victory. The Arab nationalist policies of the Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party are obviously not the same thing as “White nationalism” in America, Germany or France.
However, it is taking a Turkish invasion to (I hope) restore the full cooperation between Northern Syria and Damascus which was severed by foreign terrorists. Those two entities, once united in Syrian nationalism, will certainly be able to expel the Turkish army and the 2,000 US troops which forced their way into Northern Syria amid war’s chaos.
Paeans to the effectiveness of Syrian nationalism need to be tempered, however, because the existence and success of the Rojavan holdouts indicate that Baathists need to, and should, end their policies of Arab nationalism in favor of a broader, more modern and more democratic Syrian nationalism.
Don’t forget: ‘Arab nationalism’ was always something which had to be created
Very few Westerners seem to know this (and virtually none of the journalists and editors), but…Moroccans don’t like to be called “Arab”. The are certainly not alone in that, despite living in the so-called “Arab world”.
Historically, there is just as much minor resentment towards the 7th century “Arab invasion” in many African nations as there is among Iranians (who are not ethnically Arab…although that ignores plenty of intermarriage). While Islam is not resented, many areas still want to preserve parts of their own indigenous culture while remaining within Islam.
This problem also extends to language: Algerians can only barely converse with Arabic speakers from Baghdad. Do I understand Italian because I speak French and Spanish? Kind of…but not really, and Portuguese is harder. That is a good comparison for Arabic speakers. If you only speak English you might understand some Dutch, or you might be totally lost.
So we can’t forget that “Arab nationalism” always put the cart before the horse; was always a way for Europeans to classify the Muslim world from Morocco to Afghanistan; never fulfilled its promise because it was an ideal which promised a lot.
All “Arabs” know that there is no monolithic “Arab world” any more than there is a monolithic “Indian world” or “European world”. Historically, Socialist Arab Nationalism was indeed a modern, unifying, effective ideology…but it did not create a grand “unified Arab state”, and attempts at formal international union between nations like Egypt and Syria and Iraq totally failed.
Remembering this, it becomes understandable why Turkmen, Assyrians and the like in Northern Syria are not 100% supportive of Arab nationalist cultural policies – they are not 100% Arab. Of course, there has been intermarriage and there is obvious unity on a nationalist level, but the ethnic groups of Syria have pointedly made ethnic equality a major tenet of the 3-region area called Rojava.
This is understandable: ethnic equality has been a socialist virtue and mandate for a century. And after some 30 years of existence, the capitalist world’s “political correctness” has finally joined them on the bandwagon. My point is: ethnic differences as something to be appreciated is a near-universal idea, finally.
Regardless of how we got to this point of tolerance, the success of Rojava appears to mark the historical end of “Arab nationalism” – it appears to have outlived its usefulness.
What did it do? It kicked out – not the non-Arabs – but the foreign imperialists (French & English), and that is no small feat. Often forgotten is that it also kicked out the cultural domination of the Turks (also not Arabs) after four centuries of political domination.
Arab Nationalism restored local pride, and that was a very necessary thing in the 20th century.
With that necessary cultural and historical preamble out of the way, we can now examine what is Rojava and perceive what makes it a possible solution to the shortcomings of socialist Arab nationalism.
A fascinating, working leftist project…so of course the West ignores it
What is the political structure and culture of the officially-titled “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”?
The common term is “democratic federalism”, but another, better term is “libertarian socialism”, yet my personal term is “local libertarian socialist”, which I will explain later.
What is not a good term, but which is sometimes used as a descriptor, is “confederalism”. A confederation, such as the US South during the US Civil War, is the opposite of socialist central planning because the central authority is made as weak as possible. Supporters say it is more democratic, but it is a recipe for economic disaster, regional tribalism and inequality in 2018. I highly doubt Damascus would accept such a loss of control, especially when Rojava has the majority of Syrian oil. Northern Syrians themselves have explicitly used the term “Federation” for a reason…and this is another positive harbinger of unity with Damascus.
How is it fundamentally different from what they had previously, under the Arab Socialist Baath Party?
It is not “Arab nationalism”. Syria is 90% Muslim but only 75% Arab…and the other 25% obviously have some legitimate grievances over their ethnicities being culturally marginalized. As much as anything, the Rojava project seeks a re-balancing on this issue, in my opinion. Again, these issues are not genetically racial – due to so much intermarriage – but ethnic/cultural.
So, for example, one has the right in Rojava to legislate in any of the 3 official languages: Arabic, Syriac and Kurdish. Arabic is the lingua franca in their 3-district-wide Legislative Council, but all members have the right to propose legislation and debate in their preferred language. Arabic is no longer elevated above others.
This official linguistic equality should allay one often misreported fear: this is no “Kurd-ization” of Arabs. Indeed, as only a bit more than half of the population in Northern Syria, that would be an undemocratic recipe for disaster. However, it is clearly a rejection of a perceived Arabisation of Kurds (and others) which existed before. Their extension of this multi-cultural equality into their revamped educational system will obviously have a dramatic cultural impact, over time.
Who supports Rojava?
Nobody – no country has recognised them (LOL, Iranians can sympathise with this, as we were in almost the same situation for much of the 1980s.) I would say that this informally shows that Rojavans are leftist enough to be viewed as revolutionary. However, their calls for Syrian nationalist unity must not be forgotten.
But aren’t they working with the US?
Rojavan leaders stress that cooperation with the US is strictly limited to the military, and extensive reports show this is the case, which is a very big difference from Iraqi Kurdistan. I described their situation – and how they work with all actors, save Turkey and ISIL – in the previous article.
What is their economic model?
Firstly, this can be a bit difficult to gauge because they are operating in wartime – abnormal conditions reign. But they do already prevent the rabid price-gouging which can occur during disasters and war, and these price controls indicate that they are not rabid capitalists. One should look at the US, where CNN defended price-gouging during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for an indication of what capitalism is and what Rojava is not. Certainly, their ties with the Marxist PKK party in Turkey (their main ideological comrade) indicate their preferred economic program even more strongly.
What about gender equality?
Like all modern, revolutions – gender equality is a founding tenet. Gender equality was one of the first laws voted by their Legislative Assembly…the same as in Soviet Russia. This is nothing unexpected.
But since we must go through this again….
If you have heard of Rojava, it is likely in news stories about attractive female Kurdish fighters. That fits into two primary Western propaganda lines: totally ignoring the gender equality advances which are always promoted in socialist-inspired countries and which dwarf those in capitalist countries, and it also pushes their absurd, ignorant belief that Islamic countries mistreat women.
It’s not that I am a fortune-teller – it’s that such propaganda is rampant, inaccurate and boring.
What the Times and other “feminist” capitalists fail to have learned is that in all modern revolutions the women have taken part in fighting; women fight in the Syrian government’s military, as well; Iranian women became commanders in the Iran-Iraq war; women fought in Cuba, Vietnam, China, etc. – women kick butt, and modern socialism harnesses their power more than capitalists ever can.
Furthermore, in any massive modern conflict women play huge and also dangerous parts in the war effort, and to denigrate that as less than that of their male counterparts is inherently anti-feminist, in my view. You go walk though a minefield to clear the dead bodies and the wounded and tell me it was a Sunday stroll in the park….
So the idea that Rojavans are somehow “bringing feminism to Syria” is merely typical Western propaganda. It’s anti-socialist, but also a result of their obsession with viewing Muslim women solely via their own Western & capitalist terms – and obsessions always fail to allow one to see reality accurately.
What is Rojava’s stance on law and order?
This is the most interesting, but it is not at all ew, having been present in China for millennia, is well-documented in Black Africa, and also in seemingly all aboriginal cultures; it is also quite common-sense, and only “new” to Western societies, who file lawsuits first, ask questions later and actually desire that their kids to grow up into lawyers.
To resolve disputes there is a communal system of conflict resolution. Neighbourhoods elect a small local “commune” (Kobani had 2,000 alone), and they address all the complaints…and only IF these communes can’t find a solution, THEN does it pass into the judicial system. In Kobani only 500 complaints advanced out of 10,000 issues – and only the lawyers wept.
The cultural implications should be obvious: collective good over personal outrage; cooperation over individualism; blockchain-like transparency and public diffusion over privacy (indeed, the correlations between blockchain and socialism merit another article); diplomacy over conflict; bureaucratic clarity instead of inefficiency.
But, as I wrote, communal resolution before taking it to the appointed “elders” is as old as human history…. (Indeed, one can also view such a system as the pragmatic result of wartime creating a shortage of the civil servants needed to staff a legal system.)
Who devised Rojava?
The whole darn Southwest Asian area contributed, of course! It’s a popular movement, and is being created daily by men, women and children of multiple ethnicities and religions. However….
The Western media likes to present Rojava as being the brainchild of a Westerner – Murray Bookchin – who, so the story goes, gloriously bequeathed some of its key ideologies to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, as the two corresponded from Ocalan’s Turkish prison.
Of course, the West cannot portray the members of any “Worker’s Party” as having devised a useful ideology….
And, importantly: a non-White person can never be allowed to take credit for a modern ideological advance – there must be SOME White Westerner who was his mental and moral shepherd! Only White Westerners know what “democracy” is… even though they’ve never really had it, and even though – as I wrote – this same communal system has been in place culturally for millennia elsewhere.
And, of course, the enlightenment provided by Bookchin caused Ocalan to totally disregard his own experiences, and those he shared with other non-White Middle Easterners, because the West has a capitalist “individual hero worship” instead of a “People’s history” view. Yawn….more attempted cultural appropriation.
Anyway, Bookchin’s libertarian confederalism is fine for the local level, but Rojavans clearly reject it on the Syrian national level, as they should. I never saw it, but didn’t confederalism even fail in the Star Wars movies, LOL? Leftist humankind came up with Rojava – case closed.
Anyway, this hyper-localised governance allows for the effective enforcement of laws against economic monopoly, price gouging and price fixing. Thus they are anti-capitalist, and not libertarian in the economic sense at all. This is why I prefer “local libertarian socialist” to describe their structure: their libertarianism is local but not endlessly individualistic (like in, say, Arizona), and on the larger level they are socialist economically/politically in ideology, structure and practice.
The Rojava area has the majority of Syria’s oil – will the means of oil production become the complete property of the state?
From what I have understood: the oil is already publicly owned and being watched carefully…but neither is this a primary, screaming demand. They have other demands: their oil production has been gutted by the war – there are shortages. Therefore, the main thing is to increase production (growth) so that people don’t freeze. I hate to use terms which socialists hate, but this is a real socialist project in action, and not an ivory tower. For now, their oil is certainly being shared for the war effort and among a needy populace.
However, it does not take 100% state ownership of everything in order to be socialist (that’s communism); it certainly takes just 1% of state-ownership to violate the 2018 definition of “capitalist”.
Given their background, I’m sure the oil will become at least partially state-owned…as it is in every Middle Eastern country. Of course, this revenue cannot stay only in Rojava but must flow to all Syrians, as I discussed in the previous article. This is a rather pressing issue already.
Anyway, socialism is a conception which must include both economics and governance, though very few see it that way, especially capitalists….
What is their view on religion?
They are secular. But…what does that even mean in 2018?
Secular like France? Why don’t you call Charlie Hebdo for clarification on the French model on Christmas Day, when they are getting a paid day off? Secular like the Soviets? Before or after they razed nearly all their churches and priests? Secular like modern, non-Western leftists such as Cuba, Vietnam & China, which is really not “secularism” at all?
Clearly, there is plenty of ignorance in the West regarding their own beliefs on “secularism”. There is also plenty of ignorance regarding the millennia-long religious brotherhood among the Abrahamic religions of Syria which may make it possible for Westerners to understand the full range of possibilities regarding the interaction of religion and government in Syria.
So, I will save discussion of religion in Syria for the third and final part of this series.
Part 3 will also discuss how the Syrian conflict may prove to be a continuation of the ongoing historical of trend of Islamic Socialism, and not Arab Nationalist Socialism, being able to provide the most successful and unifying force for a modern, free, victorious and predominantly-Muslim country such as Syria.
Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for PressTV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. His work has appeared in various journals, magazines and websites, as well as on radio and television. He can be reached on Facebook.