The Revolution against the Odds: an Interview on Rojava with Anya Rebrii and Liza Shishko (Part II: Survival against the Odds)

If Part I of this interview dealt with the complexities of the revolutionary process taking place in Rojava, here, Anya Rebrii and Liza Shishko discuss the autonomous region’s geopolitical precarity.


Remember Rojava? There was a time not long ago, when not only leftist outlets but mainstream media, too, were offering extensive coverage of this most democratic and inspiring of political projects in the Middle East. The last time it flashed in the news globally was in early 2019, during Turkey’s third invasion of the region, which was green-lighted by Donald Trump—something that might have contributed to the coverage. Since then, much has happened to Rojava—or rather, to the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES), as this autonomous region calls itself. (Rojava—meaning “West” in Kurdish—was quietly dropped in recognition of the area’s ethnic make-up, comprising Kurdish, Arab, and to a lesser extent, Armenian, Assyrian, Yezidi and other populations.) As the project ceased to be ethnically Kurdish, so did its structures: the famous Kurdish self-defense units (YPG and its female counterpart YPJ), which stopped ISIS at Kobane in 2014, have morphed into a multi-ethnic, majority-Arab SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). What was originally a Kurdish, revolutionary, Ocalanist democratic confederalist model of governance—based on communes, cooperative economy, equal representation of women in decision-making—is now being exported to other ethnic communities. The process is by no means straightforward and has to contend with pre-existing social, especially tribal, patriarchal, structures and the high degree of distrust among the different ethnic groups, which pre-existed the Syrian Civil War, but were magnified by it. Moreover, DAANES exists in near-total economic blockade from all sides: from Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic, which seeks to place it back under its control; from Iraq’s Kurdish Autonomous Region, which sees DAANES’s democratic model as a competition for the authority of the Barzani family that rules it; and most dangerously, from Turkey and its Syrian proxies, which are mortally opposed to any attempt of Kurdish sovereignty. While waiting for its opportunity to annihilate DAANES, Turkey is conducting low-intensity warfare using its massive drone fleet, killing SDF soldiers, DAANES personnel, and countless civilians, as well as destroying vital infrastructure—hospitals, administrative buildings, water and electricity stations—to make life impossible, as they did on a massive scale in the last days of 2023.

DAANES is thus in an extremely precarious state and yet the processes taking place inside it over the last several years have been as fascinating as they have been invisible to most of us. This is why LeftEast is delighted to interview a couple of comrades who have lived there.

Anna Rebrii is a New York–based researcher and journalist focusing on the Kurdish issue in Syria and Turkey and indigenous movements in Mexico. Her writing has appeared in The NationJacobinTruthoutopenDemocracy, and other outlets. She is a member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava in the US.

Liza Shishko has lived and worked for more than seven years in the Middle East, including Northeast Syria, covering wars and politics in this region and in the Caucasus. She runs an Instagram blog @woman_life_freedom about Syria, Turkey, and Kurdistan.

LeftEast: It is inevitable that we ask a question about geopolitics, even though at LeftEast, we are always more interested in on-the-ground analysis of social structures and class forces than in geopolitics. But what do you make of the US role in Rojava? On the one hand, the several hundreds of troops stationed there seem to be the main reason why the Turkish army hasn’t launched a full-scale invasion to wipe Rojava out.

On the other hand, the US doesn’t seem to particularly mind when Turkish drones kill Kurdish activists or civilians and thoroughly degrade civilian infrastructure as they did on a massive scale last month, destroying power stations, water stations, oil extraction facilities on which much of the economy depends. So, in this sense, how exceptional is Rojava? Has it helped you to think of the contradictory role of US imperialism elsewhere? And maybe a couple more questions: What is the US interest in the region, and what are Rojava’s long-term relationships with other foreign powers in this region? And how do these relationships influence the strategic planning of revolutionary practice?

Liza Shishko: This is a big question. I don’t believe that the US is interested in the people, or even in the creation of states or any sort of autonomy in this region. What the US has right now with the Kurds, with the Arabs from the SDF, what they have with Autonomous Administration is just a tactical alliance. The USA just needs someone there on the ground who can provide for American intelligence. This is only one element because, in the region, there are different powers: there are Russia and Iran, and there will be China very soon because Bashar Assad didn’t go to China recently just to have  a cup of tea. After all, China is interested in the Middle East and Africa. And China is the main geopolitical enemy of the United States right now.

Yes, the relationship that the Autonomous Administration and SDF have right now with the United States is just temporary. And of course, this is why the Autonomous Administration and all of its military structures, all these military councils, have to rely also on other relationships: with Russia and others. In the North, they even have joint  military positions with the Syrian regime because of the agreement in 2019. I think that the Autonomous Administration understands that the big powers in this region can leave very easily just as they left Afghanistan. So the Autonomous Administration doesn’t rely just on the United States. They keep their distance from every big power that comes to the region because they try to develop a relationship with everyone while  realizing that they can rely just on themselves.

We need to talk about the entirety of Syria; not just the Rojava Revolution or the Autonomous Administration. In the areas they supposedly control, there are Shia militias everywhere, even in South Kurdistan. And there is Hezbollah. The relationship between the Assad regime and Iran is very strong. It has been like this since the last century, and this won’t change any time soon. So this is why the United States wants someone there, but they realize they cannot totally trust Turkey because Turkey has really strong connections with everyone, including terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaida.

As long as the Autonomous Administration and SDF can maintain this connection with the United States, they can have this little hope that at least in the war with ISIS, the United States can help. But the United States cannot do anything about Turkish invasions, or different military groups that come from Iran, they cannot do anything else. So, this is why the Autonomous Administration has to rely on themselves.

It’s a complicated region, it is not just about the United States. It’s about different big powers that want control over this region. I don’t think that there is another region where so many powers co-exist. This is why it’s interesting and difficult. Immensely complicated.

Anna Rebrii: I would add that this contradictory role of the United States in the region has presented quite a dilemma for the Left, at least in the United States that I’ve witnessed in my work with the Emergency Committee for Rojava. The United States, as Liza said, presents some guarantee that this project will survive as long as the United States continues to want to have a foothold in that region. At the same time, as you pointed out in your question, the US has to maintain its relationship with NATO member Turkey, and it has given all sorts of concessions to Turkey, the most recent being a potential sale of a new fighter jet fleet by the United States to Turkey as a sort of reward for Turkey’s lifting its objection to Sweden’s accession to NATO. So Turkey remains an important geopolitical ally for the United States in the region, while playing off different blocks –the Western bloc and the Russia-allied bloc –against each other to find a sweet spot for itself to pursue a sort of more independent, expansionist agenda in the Middle East and beyond.

So the United States’ role and support for the Autonomous Administration is not black and white, but for some sectors of the US left, the US presence on the ground constitutes an occupation ofSyrian territory. We have heard over and over demands for the United States to withdraw its troops immediately and unconditionally, to end “the occupation.” But that’s a very simplistic way to look at it that disregards the US’s complicity in Turkey’s war on the region and fails to recognize that Turkey is also an imperialist power. It’s also a very simplistic way to disregard the agency of the local people who have chosen to maintain this tactical alliance with the world hegemon to disregard them as mere US pawns.

I think there’s an interesting parallel, perhaps, that we can draw with what’s happening in Ukraine right now and with the role that the United States is playing there. On one hand, as many Ukrainian leftists have insisted, the US military aid to Ukraine is crucial in putting a limit to Russia’s invasion and Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. Putting a limit on how many people it can kill and torture. They say, international support for US military aid constitutes support for the right of the Ukrainian people to defend themselves. But then, on the other hand, what the Left has to grapple with here in the US is the costs with which this military aid comes. The costs that the US’ greater involvement in that war may have in the long term. Because again, as Liza said, I don’t think anyone has any illusions about what the United States’ real intentions are, either by maintaining its presence in Northeast Syria or by providing military aid to the Ukrainian government. Clearly, for the United States, Russia’s war on Ukraine has been an opportunity to shore up its weakening global hegemony, to increase defense spending, increase weapons production, and oversee a renaissance of NATO. So we’re all clear on that. Then, the question becomes sort of a trade-off. If we support the US’ continuous military aid and continuous involvement in that war, what does it mean for the future of that war? And what does it mean if we don’t support it? I’ve heard similar conversations within the Kurdish movement. No one has any illusions about the role of the United States, and there are very honest discussions happening as to whether this alliance is the right way to go in the long run. In the short term, the United States is the only guarantee, even though it’s not a perfect guarantee, that the project is not completely wiped out by Turkey or taken over by the Assad regime. But if this relationship goes on and if the United States at some point wants to cultivate a similar project in Syria as they did in Iraqi Kurdistan – a sort of a proxy statelet– what will that mean for the revolutionary movement? I’m curious if Liza has anything to say on this, especially in regards to Ukraine and Russia, since you’ve been writing about that.

Liza Shishko: As I see it throughout history, the United States has not immediately supported states or groups  unless they showed they could fight on their own. In Ukraine, remember the beginning of the second invasion; the American officials were sure that Kyiv would fall in three days, and they were expecting that, but they saw that the Ukrainians were fighting. The people want to fight Russia, and while many want to leave, enough people don’t leave and they are brave and confident in fighting this war. You can see, going back to the beginning of the second invasion of Russia in Ukraine, how the statements of American officials have changed over time. Initially, they expected that Russia would take a much bigger part of Ukraine. But after they realized that no, Ukrainians are fighting, then they decided to help them, “Let’s give them weapons.’’ At the same time, this is also a really strange form of help: you don’t close the air space but you give Ukraine weapons–which is also good, of course.

The same happened with the Kurds during the Kobane War, which is what I was told by the people who were active in the beginning of the Rojava revolution during the beginning of the war against ISIS when ISIS started taking big cities in just one week– in five days, they took Mosul; then in five days, they took another city, and so on. This is how ISIS was. And then there was Kobane, which was an important moment for the Kurds because, at the beginning of the war in Kobane, they didn’t have air support from the United States. Support came only after Kurds started to show to the world that they were fighting and that they were not going away. More Kurds were coming from Turkey, from southern Kurdistan, and there were also Arab tribes who were joining these Kurdish structures. Nobody was talking about them, but they were joining almost like in a suicidal plan. There was no hope, but they were joining and they were fighting ISIS. Only after that did the USA come in and got involved with the Kurds.

The US first needed to see how locals fight. Can they fight? Do they want to fight? Motivation in war is the most important part. You can have weapons, tanks, and air support, but they will do nothing if your people don’t want to fight.

In Rojava, it’s not just the Kurds doing the fighting. Right now, it will be mostly Arabs and Arab tribes who will fight in case of another Turkish invasion or in case of Assad’s return. Arabs also know what will happen to them if Turkey comes. It will be the Turkification of every city in the region. We can say that because of what we see happening with Afrin, what is happening with Tel Abyad, what is happening with Ras al-Ayn [the areas Turkey occupied and from which it either cleansed or marginalized Kurds—editors’ note]: everything has Turkish names right now. Most of the cities have Turkish names. Of course, Arabs don’t want Turkey to come because they don’t want Turkification nor do they want to live under Turkish authorities. This is why they started to join the SDF and the Autonomous Administration. And, of course, the Arab population also knows what would happen if Assad came back. Even Amnesty International’s official statistics show how many people disappeared in Assad’s prisons. More than 100,000 people were tortured to death in Assad’s prisons, and it was mostly Arabs who were tortured to death. I’m sure that in the long term, the United States and all other big powers stationed in this region, if they want to maintain their presence, to have their military troops in this region, they will have to deal with the Arab population as well, not just the Kurds. Maybe you have heard about the recent escalation of fighting happening recently in Deir ez-Zor. Most Western media said that Kurds are fighting Arabs in Deir ez-Zor, but it was the SDF doing the fighting, and the SDF consists predominantly of Arabs. So there were SDF Arabs who fought against the Arabs supported by the Syrian regime, ISIS elements, as well as different counter-revolutionary groups such as Shia militias. So it’s very important to emphasize that it is not just a Kurdish project anymore. It’s wider. It’s no longer a national Kurdish project, it has brought together other ethno-religious groups of the region.

Photo 5: An employee at the Autonomous Administration’s first waste sorting and compost facility in Heseke, set up as part of the Administration’s efforts to pursue ecological sustainability. Photo by Anna Rebrii
Photo 5: An employee at the Autonomous Administration’s first waste sorting and compost facility in Heseke, set up as part of the Administration’s efforts to pursue ecological sustainability. Photo by Anna Rebrii

LeftEast: So, given these extremely grim conditions, do you see any hope for Rojava? And finally, is there anything, you know, anarchists and leftists globally can do to help, given our extremely limited resources and powers?

Liza Shishko: I think that Autonomous Administration should be recognized officially. This is the only way you can protect this region’s civilian population. Again, it’s not just a Kurdish project. It’s not a Kurdish state, and it’s not Western Kurdistan or anything like this. The Autonomous Administration should be officially recognized by the European Union, the United States, and all these big powers and big states –if the United States wants to have a stable and trustful ally in the region. In that case, this Autonomous Administration can get official status and be more independent from the Assad regime because right now, all the people in the region who are under its control still have Syrian passports. Everything they do, they have to do from Syrian regime-controlled areas. They go to Damascus for any serious medical treatments. If you have cancer, you go to Damascus, and you have your Syrian passport. All the sanctions that were imposed against the Syrian regime on Assad regime have affected the Autonomous Administration as well, and people in Autonomous Administration cannot do anything because officially they are not recognized.Thus, the economic situation will get much better if Autonomous Administration is recognized. Also, we have ISIS that we have to deal with, and it’s really difficult to do if  you’re not a state. They don’t have any official recognition except by Catalonia. I’m sorry, but it’s not enough. Thank you very much, Catalonia, but more states have to pay attention to what is happening. The Autonomous Administration cannot function independently of the Assad regime.

When you have a Syrian passport, you cannot travel anywhere. You cannot do anything. Let’s say, you open your business, a cooperative, a factory to produce something. But how will you do this if you depend on the Syrian regime in the official Syrian state? And look at all these international humanitarian organizations, the UN. Just one camp is recognized as a [refugee] camp by the United Nations. Many camps are not recognized by the United Nations. This is why only a few NGOs can provide help; all the humanitarian aid comes from the Syrian regime. But the regime is  corrupt, and it takes everything, and it doesn’t want to give anything.

They impose an embargo on regions like Shahba [where people of Afrin have been displaced to – editor’s note], even on the  district in the city of Aleppo where Kurds and Arabs live together who support the autonomous region: they are under embargo, and you cannot bring anything inside– no medical help, no fuel, nothing. And what can we do when even the United Nations cannot recognize different refugee camps?

So it’s very good if people will do more demonstrations, more support for Rojava, more solidarity. But we have to focus on this: official recognition of Autonomous Administration because otherwise, it will not work. After all, this is the world we live in. Unfortunately.

Anna Rebrii: I’ve been organizing with the Emergency Committee for Rojava in the United States. And this is precisely the demand that we have been asking our followers, our supporters to put forward to their so-called representatives in the US government. We have concluded that we have to organize on both levels: through electoral politics, but also connecting with the leftist and progressive organizations in the US. To borrow a Zapatista metaphor, we organize ‘both from above and below’ because, as Liza said, that’s the world we live in. It’s unlikely that we can secure survival for the Autonomous Administration just  by protesting the invasions and the attacks, without putting pressure on the governments that have control and influence over what’s happening in that region. And that’s especially applies to the United States, to the people who want to support Rojava from the United States because of the role that our government plays, there because of all the support the United States has given to Turkey, because of all the permissions to invade and attack the region, it has given to Turkey.

But at the same time –and maybe here, I can connect this to sources of hope– we have been trying to build bridges with the broader left, with the groups and organizations who organize along similar lines or have similar visions to that of people in Northeast Syria. Partially so that these movements can learn from each other. And it’s not just us in the United States who can learn from Rojava –it’s also people in Northeast Syria who are working in different spheres of the revolution, who want to learn from us. That’s what I heard from the people on the ground. For example, we have organized private and public meetings between trade unions in Northeast Syria and in the United States, between coops in Northeast Syria and the United States.For the movement in Northeast Syria, a lot of these initiatives are very new, so they want to have some exchange with the outside world in addition to any sort of tangible, material support. And the source of hope is that despite all the odds, the movement there has continued to develop its revolutionary project.

You can see successes, even if limited, on many fronts: certain initiatives have truly taken off. For example, like both Liza and I have emphasized, the fact that all these different ethno-religious groups can work together despite the long-standing mistrust and hostilities. We have to remember that it’s the Middle East, these groups have been pitted against each other over and over again by different powers, starting with the Ottoman Empire, then with the Western imperial powers, and then by the successor nation-states. In the case of Syria, in the sixties and seventies, the Ba’ath regime implemented the so-called Arab Belt project when they moved the Arab population to the Kurdish majority region, resettled them there, and displaced the Kurds who were living in that region – to break up the homogeneity of the northern part of Syria because they were fearing a Kurdish rebellion there. That’s just one example of how these different groups were set against each other by whatever powers controlled the area, and yet they are working together now.

And I think this is something very inspiring, especially for the Middle East. We’re talking at а moment when Israel is carrying out a genocide in Gaza. Abdullah Ocalan, the ideological leader of the Kurdish movement, came up with the philosophy of democratic confederalism, about building an alternative model of governance to that of the nation-state, with Palestine and Israel in mind. So this could be a model that could be potentially implemented across all of the Middle East and beyond. In the post-Soviet space too, we have witnessed the rise of nationalism and conflicts along ethnic and religious lines.

This model presents a sort of, you know, a practical solution. What do you do after decades of inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts? How do you still find a way to live together peacefully?

There are other examples of successes in Northeast Syria, like the alternative justice system that the movement has built, that is based on the principle of reconciliation and that attempts not to involve courts and prisons as much as possible. That’s also something that we, in the United States in particular, can learn from, and can support, given all the violence that our criminal justice system has inflicted on people of color in particular.

Liza Shishko: I would also add Turkey to this list of sources of hope because any changes in Turkey, I mean political changes inside Turkey, will be good for Rojava and will be good for Northeastern Syria. In general, Turkey is a very dangerous state, even for its own people. It’s getting worse and worse, and any changes in Turkey would be good.

It will be such a relief for all the groups that live in Turkey and Syria, as well as in the Caucasus region. Turkey affects many different countries, and Turkish troops are stationed in many countries of this region. We have such an aggressive state that spends a lot of money on this extreme militarization, being the second army of NATO, creating new and new weapons to bomb civilians. It’s something that we have to always keep in mind: something has to happen in Turkey as well, to make the Middle Eastern region function somehow, you know, better.

Photo 3: An Arab man at a celebration of the revolution in Qamishli, 2023. Photo by Anna Rebrii
Photo 3: An Arab man at a celebration of the revolution in Qamishli, 2023. Photo by Anna Rebrii

Source >> LeftEast

Art (47) Book Review (101) Books (106) Capitalism (64) China (73) Climate Emergency (97) Conservative Government (90) Conservative Party (43) COVID-19 (43) Economics (36) EcoSocialism (47) Elections (72) Europe (43) Fascism (52) Film (47) Film Review (60) France (64) Gaza (51) Imperialism (95) Israel (102) Italy (42) Keir Starmer (47) Labour Party (106) Long Read (38) Marxism (45) Palestine (132) pandemic (78) Protest (134) Russia (322) Solidarity (123) Statement (44) Trade Unionism (132) Ukraine (323) United States of America (117) War (348)

Join the discussion