Reflections on the Syrian revolution and the London bookfair


Every bookfair needs a punch-up.  This Saturday, it came when Leila Al-Shami and Robin Yassin Kassab’s talk on “Syria in revolution and war” was stormed and shut down by a bunch of mainly kids yelling PKK.

Perhaps most depressing about this whole thing is that no one managed to repel the PKK-cheerleaders so the talk could continue. For many people present, perhaps they just didn’t have a clear enough understanding of the background to all this, didn’t know much about the speakers, and so thought maybe the yelled accusations of “Islamist” or “fascist” could be accurate.

Seen in this light, at least something positive is now coming out of this farce, as it has prompted a flurry of conversation about the issues at stake. Here we will reprint two texts published today. First, a thoughtful article by Robin Yassin Kassab, who does not describe himself as an anarchist but makes points that are surely relevant to any of us who do. Second, a reply by Memet Aksoy, which argues (amongst other things) that Robin Yassin Kassab operates a double standard in strongly criticising authoritarian tendencies in projects linked to the PKK/PYD, and of course its deals with both Russia and the US as well as the Assad regime, whilst being much more charitable towards “pragmatic” formations and alliances in areas affiliated to the Free Syrian Army, and its deals with Turkey amongst other similarly foul regimes.

We are far from being experts on the Syrian bloodbath and all of the players involved, puppets and puppetmasters. From our point of view, early on we felt it was important to express solidarity with the fighters in Rojava, and we supported the first solidarity actions that took place in London during the siege of Kobane. We felt this because we recognise the call of solidarity with people standing up to fight vicious oppression and fascism. We believe it is both possible and necessary to heed this call without becoming apologists or dupes for the authoritarian forces that everywhere seek to manage and use resistance and rebellion, including states, armies, political parties, and nationalisms of all flags.

NB: the pictures show the inauguration ceremony for autonomous Rojava’s new elite “anti-terrorist” police unit HAT. These people’s police of a supposed non-state look eerily familiar.


by Robin Yassin Kassab / Qunfuz

I came across anarchism too late in life to start calling myself an anarchist. At earlier stages I’d enjoyed attaching labels to myself, like ‘leftist’, or ‘Arab’, or ‘Muslim’. I was never a great believer in any of them, but I tried.

When the Arab revolutions made politics real for me, I became suspicious of adopting any labels, given as they referred to me, and politics wasn’t about me any more, not about my fantasies of myself, my need to see myself as on the right side, or my ‘identity’. When the revolutions broke out, and then the counter-revolutions and wars, I understood that real politics concerns the actual struggles of real people in the real world. (I also understood that all identity politics is ultimately a distraction, and one most often used by those in power – or those who aim to achieve power – to divide and rule their subjects). I became suspicious of all grand narratives and all ideological frameworks which assumed there was a perfect solution to human problems as well as a clear path towards it.

So I’m not going to call myself an anarchist. And even if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t, because I am ultimately undecided on the question of whether people could do better without states and hierarchical authority. I’d like to believe that we could run complex modern societies on a horizontal basis more successfully than we do at present, but then I don’t know if I have that much faith in humanity. Perhaps we do need hierarchy of some sort to organise ourselves and to control our anti-social urges, and the best we can hope to do is reform and restrain the hierarchy. I don’t know. I need to read much more and think much more – and even when I do, if I decide I know for sure one way or the other, please ask me to check my arrogance. I’m not capable of knowing. None of us are.

I’ve written a book about Syria with someone who describes herself as an anarchist, and I agree with her on nearly everything. Plus I’ve found anarchists much less likely than leftists to be snagged by allegiance to some state or other. Their conversation on Syria is therefore likely to be much more interesting. At those book events we’ve done which were liberally salted by anarchists, in Seattle, for instance, or Toronto, the discussion was intelligent, nuanced, informed. Compassionate too. I admired the anarchists I met in Spain for several reasons. Most of them at least.

But then Noam Chomsky has been described as an anarchist. Here’s where I get confused, because Chomsky doesn’t usually (or ever?) adhere to what I think are anarchist principles.

I’m not an expert on either Chomsky or anarchist principles, but I’ve seen Chomsky say that what Russia is doing in Syria may be wrong, but it certainly isn’t imperialism. And it’s not imperialism because Russia was invited in by the sovereign Syrian government.

Let’s leave aside that Chomsky began his political career opposing the American imperialist intervention in Vietnam, and that America was invited in by the sovereign South Vietnamese government. The point here is Chomsky’s deference to the notion of state (rather than popular) sovereignty. Is it ‘anarchist’ to think that an unelected mafia which has killed hundreds of thousands of victims and burnt the country it stole has more sovereignty than the people inhabiting that country? That a distant foreign power is not imperialist when it seeks to keep its satrap in his seat by contributing to his crimes? (In that case the British empire wasn’t imperialist either). We know that under the international law written by statesmen, the argument can certainly be made that Russia has not ‘invaded’ Syria, because the official on the local throne asked Russia to come in. But anarchists are supposed to reject such sophistry.

Surely Chomsky is a leftist rather than an anarchist. His very useful work on Palestine-Israel also offers critiques and solutions in terms of states. So I think we can discount him as an example.

There’s also a very large section of people who describe themselves as anarchists and then cheerlead for the Syrian-Kurdish PYD, or its Turkish-Kurdish parent the PKK. This is in part because the PYD/PKK has incorporated, in theory at least, some very interesting and positive ideas and vocabulary from the American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. The PYD welcomes Western visitors, gives them a wonderful tour, keeps tabs on them very carefully. It’s done good outreach work, and you can’t fault that.

The first impulse of Western anarchists to show solidarity with the long-oppressed Kurds in their experiment in ‘democratic confederalism’, gender equality, and social justice, is of course a good one. But many, in their enthusiasm, have become blind to certain facts: that despite its undoubted achievements, the PYD remains an authoritarian single party-militia which monopolises violence in its territory, seizes control of aid money, bans other Kurdish parties, and shoots at protestors. That its occupation of Arab-majority towns outside of the Rojava cantons is not ‘democratic confederalism’ but an attempt to build a territorially-contiguous state. That it has enjoyed both Russian and American airpower in its quest for territory, and hosts the first American military base in Syria.

The PYD undoubtedly represents many Syrian Kurds, and is working in a very difficult environment, sinned against (most notably by ISIS, at Kobani) as well as sinning. Within the larger Syrian context it often acts as a counter-revolutionary force, but it has achieved nationalist and to an extent democratic aims for Kurds in the three cantons. It is understandable and good, therefore, that Western anarchists show solidarity.

When the solidarity becomes uncritical, it becomes problematic. When it coheres around the party-militia rather than around the people, it stops being anarchist. When it happily partakes in (repeats, shares, retweets) PYD propaganda, it slips rapidly into racism and Islamophobia. Some ‘intellectual’ anarchists, people who should know better, will rehearse this stuff, about the FSA being a bunch of child-killers, and how ISIS and Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA are all the same, and Turkey too, and the Gulf barbarians…

Do they not realise that this is Assadist as well as PYD propaganda? More than that, that these are the old tropes of European imperialist racism – the favoured minority under threat by the dark, barbaric races that surround, in this case the Arabs, the Muslims, those who can’t do democracy because of their hard-wired culture, who can only be controlled.

At its most extreme, this tendency is manifested in the behaviour of the weird cultish people who closed down our event at the London anarchist bookfair. If one tried to shout over them they joined in chanting ‘PYD’ (and ‘PKK’). When someone in the audience, a Lebanese of Catholic family, spoke back to them, they screamed about him being ‘a Sunni Arab’ – as if this was some awful taint. I left pretty soon. Leila chose to stay, thinking she might find a chance to speak (she didn’t). Once when she did open her mouth, one of the cult screamed at her: “Shut up! This is anarchism! Anyone can speak!” No irony.

But these people, fairly obviously I think, weren’t practising anarchism. Most of the anarchists I’ve criticised above would agree with me here. It was anarchism only in the popular misapprehension of the word, as ‘disorder’. It wasn’t the PYD either. The PYD is more sophisticated, and wouldn’t want to be represented thus. These people weren’t even Stalinists. It wasn’t politics of any kind, but something else.

So people mustn’t blame anarchism for them. And even if the whole Western anarchist tradition, from the intellectuals to the ‘lifestyle’ punksters, does nothing for you at all, still don’t blame anarchism. Because as far as I can see, where anarchism actually exists (rather than being talked about) is usually among people who wouldn’t think for a moment to call themselves anarchists. Even among people who might describe themselves as Muslims.

In terms of practical community cooperation, grassroots democratic self-organisation,  and building civil projects without the state, the councils in liberated Syria are anarchist. Some are more hierarchical than others, of course, some dominated by family or tribal leaders, some directly elected, some only indirectly, and so on. They aren’t perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, and mainly because they haven’t had a chance in their brief existence to discuss political institutions at length. Instead they’re living an emergency that’s gone on for many years, they’re being hit with missiles, artillery, barrels, chlorine, they have a food problem, a water problem, a fuel problem, an electricity problem. Their work is immediate and practical, and therefore non-ideological. That is, they are not implementing an ideological program. The men who talk of that kind of thing are more likely the Islamist fighters, who need ideology to fight with. And ISIS of course, with its statehood plan. And the followers of political parties.

When people ask ‘Who should we support in Syria?’ I should say: in Syria no political party, militia or army is worthy of our wholehearted or uncritical support. No ideology either. What we should support are the community-grown democratic and quasi-democratic institutions and the civilian communities they represent. These people deserve support which is both critical and absolute. Critical because nothing should be uncritical. Absolute because these survivors inside are under continuous and full-scale military assault, beleaguered and at risk of extinction.

It seems to me to be an anarchist principle to support the oppressed against their oppressors.

In this and several other revolutions, anarchism is what has happened when communities became free of the state, free of its services as well as its overbearing impositions. It happened by necessity, and through creative innovation. At European distance the theoretical question becomes: could the most positive, egalitarian and democratic aspects of this social experience provide lessons for societies like these ones here, not at war, relatively stable and prosperous? It’s a question worth asking. But to work up an answer you’d have to think and listen. Play-acting revolution precludes that.

The Anarchist Bookfair and Robin Yassin Kassab’s Problematic Approach to Rojava

by Memed Aksoy

An uncalled-for and upsetting incident took place at the Anarchist Bookfair in London on 30 October 2016. Several people claiming to represent the Kurdish people or the Rojava Revolution shut down an event attended by speakers Leila Al Shami, Robin Yassin Kassab and Shiar Neyo about the situation in Syria.

I’d like to emphasise that the two people, ‘Amir’ and the man described as being the ‘guy in military garb’ are not representatives of the Kurdish community and are not even part of the community or the work that the community organisations here do. I have been a member of the Kurdish community in London for a long time and had not seen ‘Amir’ in person until yesterday. The man in the military garb I’ve caught sight of at a few demonstrations because he wears the same military uniform but again he has never been involved on an organisational level.

I met ‘Amir’ at the Rojava stand at the Bookfair and at first glance he did not seem very well. Immediately you could tell he was jittery and socially awkward. I had been made aware of his attempts to get a slot at the event and his accusations against the speakers, especially Kassab. I had also been made aware that some Kurdish youths intended to attend the event to protest. My suggestion to some of these youths, who did not attend in the end (others did) was to make their feelings known but in a more constructive and creative way (by asking questions, making a point and pressuring the speakers about their controversial views). Before I gave them this advice I did some research on Robin Yassin Kassab and indeed found many issues with his approach.

I know that the organisers of the Bookfair were also aware of ‘Amir’s presence and intentions and tried to contain him by being as democratic as possible and not banning him from the event, which in hindsight may have been a more effective measure. This is why I and some other Kurdish activists at the event did not try to intervene in the matter as we thought it would be kept ‘under control’ since ‘Amir’ had been given the chance to speak. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case.

Whatever the case the actions of these two people and other Kurdish youths at the Anarchist Bookfair, which I didn’t witness, but have listened to from several sources, are completely inexcusable, indefensible and must be condemned.

Both Al-Shami and Kassab have written articles about the incident. Shami’s is more focused on what happened at the Bookfair and is a condemnation of the incident, which does not need a response. However Kassab’s is a more comprehensive opinion about his position and is called ‘Anarchism,’ a response I believe to the accusation that he is not an anarchist but a ‘fascist’ at the event. Kassab’s attempt to make his position on matters clear however brings up more issues and reveals his problematic approach. This can be seen not exactly from what Kassab writes, but what he chooses to omit and in-between the lines of what he writes.

After ruminating on his political identity and some of the tenets of anarchism, half way through his piece Kassab turns his attention to the PYD and Rojava and accuses it of being authoritarian, seizing money, monopolising violence and banning other parties and writes: “That its occupation of Arab-majority towns outside of the Rojava cantons is not ‘democratic confederalism’ but an attempt to build a territorially-contiguous state.”

What Kassab doesn’t mention here is that the Rojava-Northern Syria Federation administration is not based on ethnicity. Despite the majority Kurdish presence in the movement it has a social charter that includes all ethnic components in the region. In fact it has and continues developing ties with Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians across the area. He also wrongly claims that the PYD is trying to build a state, which looking at all the PYD’s discourse and actions, can easily be seen not to be true.

Furthermore Kassab doesn’t give examples to his claim about occupation and doesn’t mention that these Arab-majority towns were taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) a majority Kurdish, but also Arab militia, from the Islamic State. Moreover he does not acknowledge that Rojava, as a federal entity, does not have pre-defined borders that are the ‘Rojava Cantons’ and have the intention of uniting the 3 cantons both for security purposes but also to strengthen the autonomous-federal system they are building as a model for the rest of Syria. If the Rojava administration and its initial organisers had given any credence to borders they would not have been able to create the Rojava system in the first place.

In this sentence Kassab also chooses to omit the fact that large parts of northern Syria-Rojava were ‘Arabised’ by the Baathists starting as far back as the 60s and 70s, in what was called the ‘Arab cordon‘. This is a problematic approach in that it does not historicise the dynamics in the region and carries the underpinnings of rejecting Kurdish self-determination, something the Kurds have a right to after decades of oppression, which Kassab thankfully acknowledges.

It is only because of the ideas and system proposed by Abdullah Ocalan, who came to the conclusion that their can be no freedom for the Kurds without freedom for everybody else and that a sovereign Kurdish nation-state is not a solution, that the movement leading the Kurds of Rojava, has taken this approach. Otherwise the Kurds would most likely have taken a more nationalist approach, similarly to the Kurds in the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s north.

Kassab goes on: “The PYD undoubtedly represents many Syrian Kurds, and is working in a very difficult environment, sinned against (most notably by ISIS, at Kobani) as well as sinning. Within the larger Syrian context it often acts as a counter-revolutionary force…”

Kassab doesn’t expand on what he means by ‘counter-revolutionary force’ here. Does he mean the ‘tacit co-operation’ that some quarters accuse the Kurds (PYD-TEVDEM) of having with the Syrian regime or the balancing act the Kurds are trying to engage in with the Russians and US? We don’t know. However again Kassab assumes that the Kurds and those in alliance with them need to submit to what those who call themselves ‘Syria’s revolutionaries’ mean by revolution for Syria.

PYD and TEV-DEM officials have always stressed that they are a part of Syria and have proposed a federal republic that recognises autonomy across the country, not just in the north, as a political system in a post-war Syria. Conversely, since the beginning of the Syrian war, Syrian opposition forces and groups have refused to recognise the Kurds’ right to self-determination. This approach has meant that most Kurdish groups have kept their distance from oppostion groups and instead chosen to develop what they have called a ‘third way‘. I’m sure Kassab can empathise if we say that Kurds have a very traumatic collective history when it comes to being ‘stabbed in the back’ during periods of war and the postponement of their rights till after the conflict.

In another part of the article Kassab criticises anarchists who are supporting Rojava ‘uncritically’ and says that this is problematic. He says that it coheres around a party-militia and so cannot be anarchist. However he excludes the people being defended by or working with that ‘party-militia’ and doesn’t acknowledge that it is integral to the setting up of communes, assemblies and other grassroots structures. Neither does Kassab mention in any detail the structures that are being created in Rojava.

More critically however, Kassab does not hold “the councils in liberated Syria” which he terms as being “anarchist” to the same standards as those in Rojava. He says that support for them should be “critical but absolute.” He doesn’t say this for Rojava. Although he doesn’t mention it by name, we can assume from his description that the structures he is referring to are probably in East Aleppo. Are there no militias defending the structures he talks of in this area?

From what Kassab writes we can see that either he does not know of the embargo on Rojava; the shelling, aerial bombardment by the Turkish army, attacks by IS and Assad’s forces, the internal division provoked by the KDP and much more, or he cannot empathise with it. Reading the sentence below shows where Kassab’s allegiance lies and there is no problem with this as long as he reminds himself from time to time that the Kurds, like all Arabs, Persians and Turks, especially since all of these groups have ruled states/empires in the past several hundred years also deserve the benefit of the doubt and that he might also be approaching the matter from a place of privilege.

Kassab writes: “In terms of practical community cooperation, grassroots democratic self-organisation, and building civil projects without the state, the councils in liberated Syria are anarchist. Some are more hierarchical than others, of course, some dominated by family or tribal leaders, some directly elected, some only indirectly, and so on. They aren’t perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, and mainly because they haven’t had a chance in their brief existence to discuss political institutions at length. Instead they’re living an emergency that’s gone on for many years, they’re being hit with missiles, artillery, barrels, chlorine, they have a food problem, a water problem, a fuel problem, an electricity problem. Their work is immediate and practical, and therefore non-ideological. That is, they are not implementing an ideological program.”

Like his other claims, which he does not back-up with any examples or context, Kassab also accuses some anarchists of partaking in PYD propaganda that is racist and Islamophobic. Kassab seems to have forgotten that most of the Kurds in Rojava and indeed across the Kurdistan region are Muslims. Of course this doesn’t mean that the PYD cannot be critical of Islam or indeed Islamophobic, but it does mean that Kassab needs to show concrete evidence of a statement or something that the PYD has done to merit such accusations.

Yes, the PYD promotes secularism in a region that is rife with sectarianism and religionism, but not once in the years that I have been following developments in Syria have I seen the PYD say anything bordering on Islamophobia or racism. Doing this would only alienate the Kurds and Arabs in the region and work against the PYD’s project. Furthermore, this accusation does not sit well with the fact that the SDF includes tens of former FSA batallions or smaller groups that are Arab and are not in any way ideologically similar to the PYD. The PYD’s political stance has been to continue developing ties with groups allied to the FSA, both as a prerequisite for a democratic, plural Syria and Rojava but also for pragmatic reasons, such as defeating IS and other groups attacking SDF-YPG.

However what progressive Kurds will not accept and shy away from is criticising the political axis and ideology of states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is founded on Sunni dominance in the region and supports groups like the Islamic State. This dominance is also leveraged by European states and the US when needed as a counter-balance against Iran, Russia and Syria. This does not mean that Shia/Alawite dominance is preferred, as this is no solution to the region’s troubles. However it does mean that the Turkish state, a NATO member and the biggest obstacle preventing Kurdish freedom and Rojava’s recognition, needs to be resisted. Struggling against the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari states does not make someone racist or Islamophobic, just like criticising or struggling against the Israeli state doesn’t make someone anti-Semitic. Kassab’s accusation is unfounded, a smear and needs to be condemned.

In short I think the discussion/dialogue between Kurdish, Arab and other regional activists in the UK and Europe needs to be developed in order for incidents like this to be avoided. There is a great polarisation now not just in Syria but across the world and those claiming to be looking beyond nationalist, religionist/sectarian and capitalist confines need to be more open for critical discussion. I appreciate Robin Yassin Kassab’s article on this matter and thank him for the nuance he has shown in certain regards, (like recognising that those who shut down the event could not be PYD), but am also critical of him in others. Kassab rightly says that we are all humans and not perfect, similarly the Kurds, PYD officials, SDF/YPG fighters and those who dream of freedom and a progressive system in Rojava are also human. I hope that he can overcome some of the prejudices he seems to have against what is happening in Rojava and in relation to the Kurds and look forward to learning more about each others’ struggles.

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