SoCal's Kurds Rally To Save Their Radical Democratic Enclave in Northern Syria

Pro-Kurdish protesters gathered outside of LA's Turkish Consulate on October 13, 2019. (Courtesy of River Hagg)

It's been three weeks since President Trump ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from northeastern Syria, where they'd spent years backing Syrian Kurdish militias fighting against ISIS.

Trump's move made way for a long-planned Turkish-led offensive into the region, which so far has left scores of civilians dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

It also spells the likely end of a radical democratic experiment set up by the Syrian Kurds several years ago amid the chaos of civil war.

The geographic area known as Rojava is defended by Kurdish-majority militia groups who have been America's Kurdish allies, but the Turkish government considers terrorists.

Here in Southern California, Kurdish-Americans and local supporters of this unique Kurdish-led self-governing region are eager to preserve it.

WHO ARE THE KURDS?

The Kurds are an ethnic group in the Middle East with an estimated population of about 30 million and no sovereign state of their own. They speak Kurdish and are mostly Sunni Muslims. Their mountainous homeland, which they call Kurdistan, is divided into four zones across modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Kurds have a long history of persecution and discrimination in all four countries, from restrictions on Kurdish identity to mass killings.

"You just name it—Kurds have been subjected to genocidal policies of all kinds," said Amir Sharifi, a Kurdish human rights activist who lives in the San Fernando Valley. Not only physically, but culturally, linguistically, musically. Kurds have really different personal histories even though they do have a common story to tell: what they've run away from."

The Kurdish population's traditional homeland is split across four modern nations: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. (The Kurdish Project)

For the past century, various Kurdish groups have been organizing movements to obtain recognition, rights, autonomy or independence. They range from Kurdish political parties to armed struggles.

"The Kurdish movements are very much state-identified," said UCLA Middle East history professor James Gelvin, There's a distinct movement in Turkey, distinctive from Syria, distinctive from Iraq. The problems and goals of each community are very different."

NO FRIENDS BUT THE MOUNTAINS

An estimated 2 million Kurds live outside of their traditional homeland, including tens of thousands in Southern California.

Luqman Barwari, a Kurdish Iraqi immigrant who lives in Thousand Oaks, says the collective Kurdish sense of identity has been complicated by assimilationist policies in all four countries

"These borders crossed us," Barwari said. "These borders have created geographical and mental divisions amongst us, but at the end of the day, we are all Kurds."

Barwari opened what he says is LA County's first Kurdish restaurant in Agoura Hills. It closed 3 years ago.

"I love the area. It reminds me of Kurdistan," Barwari said. "The greenery. The mountains."

Luqman Barwari, the founder of the now-closed Kurdish restaurant Niroj in Agoura Hills serves as a Kurdish spread to family and friends at his homes in Thousand Oaks. (Aaron Schrank/LAist)

Amid the upheavals of Middle East politics, the Kurds have seen a long history of U.S. military alliance — and abandonment.

There's an old Kurdish proverb: The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.

"We have been backstabbed many times by many different people and states, and we still have not given up." says Ceko Kurd, an activist who lives in San Bernardino County.

Ceko was born in Kurdish Northern Syria but moved away as a child. He says, under Hafez al-Assad's government, his politically-active father was imprisoned, his uncle killed in jail and his mother shot by Syrian police.

This month, Ceko organized a pro-Kurdish protest outside of the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles.

Kurds take part in a demonstration in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on October 10, 2019 against the Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria. (Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images)

WHAT IS ROJAVA?

Rojava is one name for the autonomous region established by the Kurds in Northeastern Syria in 2012 — when Arab Spring demonstrations turned to civil war and Syrian government forces left Kurdish areas to fight rebels elsewhere.

Rojava's leading political party, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, created militias known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, to defend Rojava's autonomy.

They started organizing society according to militant feminist anarchist principles. In an area about the size of Connecticut, they set up thousands of communes under a decentralized system based on direct democracy and gender equality. A social contract was signed in 2014.

In 2015, the YPG, alongside their all-female counterparts, the YPJ, joined together with local Arab groups to form the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The Kurdish-majority SDF has been the U.S.'s primary fighting force in key victories against ISIS.

Rojava is a radical attempt at stateless democracy, considered by its supporters as an alternative to global capitalism and held up as an example of self-governance by left-wing intellectuals. UCLA's James Gelvin said Rojava's bottom-up power structure rooted in local councils make it the most interesting democratic experiment he's ever seen.

"It's an anarcho-syndicalist's dream," Gelvin said. "The sort of thing that people have been talking about for a long time, but have been unable to implement anywhere in the world. Particularly in the region of the middle east, it's an extraordinary event."

(Wikimedia Commons)

WHAT INSPIRED ROJAVA?

The primary inspiration for the Rojava revolution is Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999.

The PKK began in 1978 as a neo-Marxist, anti-colonial national liberation movement, demanding an independent state for Kurds in Turkey.

The resulting conflict has resulted in 40,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Both the Turkish and U.S. governments have labeled the PKK a terrorist group. The PKK disagrees.

Öcalan's ideology has evolved based on the idea of democratic confederalism developed by American anarchist writer Murray Bookchin.

"Even before his prison term, the PKK started revising its goals away from national independence towards a post-nationalist confederation in the Middle East where Kurds, Turks, Arabs and people of all ethnicities could live together on the basis of values like social justice and gender justice," said Ruken Sengul, a research fellow from UCLA from the Kurdistan region of Turkey.

Members of the female division (YPJ), the People's Protection Units (YPG) take part in the funeral of eight comrades on November 8, 2015 in Derek, Rojava, Syria. (John Moore/Getty Images)

'BOTH A REALITY AND A DREAM'

Rojava's constitution is written to guarantee religious freedom, gender equality and political representation for all groups in the region — which includes Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens.

Religious personalities aren't allowed to hold public office. Women make up an estimated 30 percent of fighting forces. Every public organization must be comprised of at least 40 percent women and led by male and female co-chairs. Rojava outlawed polygamy, disbanded Sharia courts, and promised equal pay and abortion rights.

Rooted in Murray Bookchin's brand of social ecology, Rojava's eco-friendly aspirations have inspired environmental activists worldwide.

But Rojava hasn't always lived up to its progressive utopian ideals.

"The thing is, of course, that Rojava is both a reality and a dream," said UCLA Middle East history professor James Gelvin.

For example, Gelvin said there's still female genital mutilation in rural areas, and that women don't have equal representation in the judicial part of government.

"Some urban areas are more on board with the program than others," he said.

Human Rights Watch released a 2014 report detailing various abuses by Rojava's leading PYD party including soldiers firing on protesters. Amnesty International detailed more instances of authoritarian tactics and war crimes against civilians in Rojava.

A Syrian Kurd waves a flag with the portrait of jailed Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan during a demonstration against Turkish threats in the town of Ras al-Ain in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 6, 2019 (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

LOCAL REACTIONS

The Syrian Kurdish fighting forces captured global media attention after the Siege of Kobani in 2015, due in part to images of female fighters taking down ISIS. But the Rojava movement has drawn local supporters even outside of LA's Kurdish community.

Recent anti-Turkish protests in Los Angeles were organized by Kurdish American activists and attended by Armenian American groups, Greek American groups, Jewish groups and a hodgepodge of leftist demonstrators.

"Rojava is the beacon of light and hope in the Middle East," said activist Ceko Kurd. "If Trump really stands for democracy, they need to help us."

Several locals have even gone as far as to actually join the YPG and fight for Rojava, alongside dozens of U.S. volunteers.

John Cole got involved in 2015, at age 28, after reading about others joining the cause in Rojava.

"As soon as I found out what their project was about—secularism, democracy, equality, I decided to get involved," said Cole, who lives in Long Beach. "I had no previous military experience. But I'd been involved since a young age in anarchist-type movement and interested in a lot of political theory."

River O'Mahoney Hagg, an American from Woodland Hills, volunteered with the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in 2016. (Aaron Schrank/LAist )

River O'Mahoney Hagg, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Woodland Hills, went to Syria to make a documentary about the war but ended up joining the YPG as a combat medic in 2016. He held both a camera and a rifle as his unit treated soldiers and civilians in key battles against ISIS.

"I'm really grateful that I got to take part in Rojava, because for the first time in my life, I was part of a social revolution that was by the people, for the people," Hagg said.

"What we did was worth it. And what's happening now is that much more disgusting and tragic."

However, some local Turkish-Americans support President Erdogan's military move into Rojava, because they see the YPG and its ties to the PKK as a security threat to their home country.

"We feel compassion for about civilians whose lives are getting disturbed in Northern Syria," said Metin Mangir, a board member of the American Turkish Association of Southern California. "The problem is not with the Kurds in Syria, but it's the terrorist elements within YPG that Turkey feels very uncomfortable with."

WHAT NOW?

A ceasefire deal brokered by Russia and Turkey and Russia expired earlier this week. It requires the Kurdish militias to leave the Syrian-Turkish border, gives Turkey control of areas it's taken since October 9 and lets Russian and Syrian troops control the rest of the border.

Most Rojava-watchers say they didn't expect the radical democratic experiment to last. Both Turkey and Syria saw any Kurdish autonomy or independence as a threat to national security.

"Those of us who've been watching Rojava were just waiting for when it would be snuffed out," said UCLA's James Gelvin. "It was not something the Turks or Syrians were going to allow, because the most significant oilfields in Syria are located in Rojava."

A water distribution truck makes its rounds at Badarash IDPs camp in Dohuk, Iraq on October 24, 2019. The camp has continued to swell for Syrian Kurdish refugees fleeing the recent Turkish incursion in Rojava. (Byron Smith/Getty Images)

U.S. troops have mostly left the region. Last week, President Trump said he didn't think it would be necessary to leave any U.S. troops in Syria, aside from those needed to "secure the oil."

Trump also dismissed criticisms that his decision amounted to an abandonment of Kurdish allies:

"They were a good help, but we were a great help to them, too," Trump told reporters, during a cabinet meeting on October 21. "They were fighting ISIS. You know, they hated ISIS. So they were fighting ISIS. But where's the agreement that said we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds?

Southern California's Kurdish activists and Rojava supporters are fighting back against the Turkish government's equivocating them with groups like ISIS.

"We go by democratic confederalism, social ecology and radical feminism," says activist Ceko Kurd in San Bernardino County. "If those things are terrorism, then I guess Kurds are terrorists."

No matter what happens next in Northern Syria, Ceko says Kurdish resistance will continue.

"The Kurds are very thick-headed," Ceko said. "For thousands of years we have been fighting. We have a motto: resistance is life."

Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.