Glimpses of Green Even in War: Rojava

Part 2: Rojava

The world of the 21st century faces the ruins of past and present. War has become a normal state, poverty and hunger marginal news that no longer merit headlines. Many people have lost the meaning and significance of being human, and the word ‘society’ means only isolated individuals subsumed under a state that manages their interpersonal relationships. Given these developments, environmental issues seem to be secondary… But the ecological crisis has become the most urgent challenge of our time, because it touches and impacts all areas of society.

Make Rojava Green Again, Internationalist Commune of Rojava (2018)


When did the Cold War end? It is, as scholar Hanna Notte noted in January 2022, only “intellectual laziness” that “nowadays” the usual answer is “with the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Notte was interviewing Jack Matlock, the last US Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1987-1991), who told her “it seemed to me very clear that the rationale for the Cold War ended by December 1988”: December 8, to be exact, the day Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “in effect,” to quote Matlock, “gave up the Marxian class struggle as a basis of Soviet foreign policy,” telling the UN General Assembly it was “obvious that the use or threat of force no longer can or must be an instrument of foreign policy,” and that “all of us, and primarily the stronger of us, must exercise self-restraint and totally rule out any outward-oriented use of force.” After this, Matlock argued, “it was just a matter of cooperating to clean up many of the results of the Cold War.” The ‘clean-up job,’ though, was immense.

One of the most important consequences of Gorbachev’s new “credo”—“political problems must be solved only by political means; human problems, only in a humane way”—was the withdrawal of support from numerous ‘red’ regimes and insurgencies. Such support was not only military, financial and political, but aspirational in the sense of the ‘standard socialist model’: a centralized one-party state.

A photo of a group of men around a table.

10/11/1986 President Reagan with Mikhail Gorbachev, Jack Matlock (seated behind Reagan), Dimitry Zarechnak, George Shultz and Eduard Shevardnadze during his trip to Iceland at the Reykjavik Summit and his first meeting with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (White House Photographic Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month, we saw how the pulling of the Red Rug from under Ethiopian dictator Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam ended a 17-year experiment in ‘scientific socialism’ in agriculture, prioritizing monoculture-for-export over self-sustaining biodiversity at the cost of at least a million lives. After that darkest hour came a green dawn, particularly in the northern region of Tigray, characterized by communal control and empowerment: a set of spectacular, interlocking successes only reversed in recent years by a genocidal war launched on Tigray (and, now, other regions) by a recentralizing government in Addis Abada.

In Chiapas, Mexico, the mid-1980s to early-1990s witnessed a sea change in the insurgency waged against the state by Maoist revolutionaries who, as Armenian-Kurdish political theorist Hanifi Bariş writes, had “previously had no contact” with the local and Indigenous population. When the ‘vanguard’ finally did meet the people, the result was transformative, a ‘defeat’ (as it’s now called) paving the way for a stunning victory: the January 1994 ‘Zapatista Revolution,’ an Indigenous-led revolt—with its famous battle-cry of ¡Ya Basta!, ‘Enough!’—wresting control of traditional territory from exploitative landlords and a neoliberal, privatizing state. As Bariş notes, instead of elite revolutionaries “carrying out a top-down revolution via…mobilizing ‘the masses,’” the new movement’s ethos—and method—was to “not only ‘walk with the people,’ but also…‘follow the people’”: “The Zapatistas’ widely cited mantra mandar obedeciendo (to lead by following or to rule by obeying) reflects this transformation.”

The transformation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the post-Cold war era shares important similarities with—and acknowledges its great debt to—the course charted by the Zapatistas. At its founding in 1978, the PKK—exhibiting, to quote Professor Joost Jongerden, “a classical communist party type organizational structure”— embraced the orthodox goal of armed struggle to establish a one-party nation-state for Kurds left politically homeless in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

A photo of three girls with scarves hiding their faces.

“Zapatista encounter,” 1996. (Photo by Julian Stallabrass from London, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the main front of the PKK’s struggle was in southeastern Turkey. Through the 1980s, blind, Cold War eyes were turned by Turkey’s NATO partners to its ruthless war not just on the PKK but Kurdish communities and identity. After the 1990-91 Gulf War, the US and its allies backed the emergence of a pro-western, investor-friendly Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq—while continuing to countenance Turkey’s anti-Kurdish assault, despite the PKK’s new, more moderate emphasis on rights and autonomy.

In February 1999, the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan—currently serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island jail in the Sea of Marmarra—fanned hopes of a Turkish ‘victory.’ But far from dying, the movement Öcalan helped inspire was soon reborn as a struggle for liberation, not just from the Turkish state, but the construct and concept of the nation-state itself.

In solitary confinement, Öcalan made the acquaintance of American anarchist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), whose writings on ‘social ecology’ converted him to what would become the PKK’s ‘New Paradigm.’ “No social system,” Öcalan wrote in Beyond State, Power, and Violence, functioning out of “harmony with nature can claim rationality and morality for itself”: “ecology means friendship with nature,” the development of a “natural, organic society” breaking the fever of ‘human supremacism’ rooted in the patriarchal domination of women and world.


Such misogynistic cultures of violence both predate and pervade modern nation-state power structures, capitalist and socialist. As Anna Rebrii and Arriella Patchen wrote in The Nation on International Women’s Day (March 8) 2022, women in both the Kurdish and Zapatista liberation movements “have successfully pushed against…internal patriarchal tendencies—engaging in a double struggle for their rights as women, and for the right of their communities to be autonomous.”

A photo of a man with his chin resting in his hand.

Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the PKK, 1997. (Photo by Halil Uysal, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

But as Carolyn Merchant wrote in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution—a landmark 1980 study featured in a recent Reader on ‘Social Ecology & Democratic Confederalism’—“the removal” of “organic assumptions about the cosmos” in the European ‘Enlightenment’ “constituted the death of nature” in a radically new and dangerous way. And Bookchin’s core contention was that to make society truly social again, to rehumanize our atomized, increasingly artificial selves, we have to re-establish the kind of peaceful, ‘friendly relations’ with the natural world that pre-patriarchal societies practiced for so long.

In today’s socially and ecologically impoverished times, however, Bookchin wrote that such a green peace is “logistically…unattainable without the decentralization of cities into confederally united communities sensitively tailored to the natural areas in which they are located.” Such decentralization, he noted, has “repeatedly been proposed in cities as large as New York and Paris, only to be defeated by well-organized elites.” For “power,” he concluded:

….will always belong to elite and commanding strata if it is not institutionalized in face-to-face democracies, among people who are fully empowered as social beings to make decisions in new communal assemblies. Attempts to empower people in this manner and form constitute an abiding challenge to the nation-state—that is, a dual power in which the free municipality exists in open tension with the nation-state.

In 2005, Dr. Jongerden writes, “the PKK announced that it considered the nation-state a hindrance on the road to freedom, and that its strategic objective was not the establishment of a state but of an interlinked network of councils as the basis of self-determination and a new way of living together.”


In fact, experiments in that ‘new way’ were underway before the ‘new paradigm’ was adopted. In 1998, an island of organic self-government appeared in the nation-statelet of the KRG: Makhmour Camp, home to 12,000 refugees from the Bakur region of southeast Turkey, where, as Yasmin Duman of the Kurdish Peace Institute writes, “social innovations [were] developed” that “would influence other parts of Kurdistan.” In 2004, Bakur itself saw concerted efforts “to implement the democratic autonomy model…through local government and civil society structures,” ‘free municipalities’ quickly outlawed, but only partially dismantled, by the state.

A photo of two women in camo.

Kurdish YPG soldiers, 2017. (Photo by Kurdishstruggle, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, when government authority began to crumble in Kurdish-majority regions of north and eastern Syria in 2011-13, many long-oppressed communities were ready, willing and able to launch their biggest experiment yet in social ecology. By January 2014, despite the best efforts of Turkey, Syria and the so-called ‘Islamic State in Syria and Iraq’ (ISIS), the PKK-affiliated Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), defended by Peoples’ Defense Units (YPG) and Women’s Defense Units (YPJ), had created a new, non-state entity: ‘Rojava,’ or Western Kurdistan. Consisting of three cantons—Cizîrê in the east, Kobanî in the center, Afrin in the west—Rojava, home to roughly five million people, is known collectively as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Structurally, in Hanifi Bariş’ summary, “organs of decision-making in Rojava” are arranged:

…in four layers. The basic organs are communes (komîn), each comprising between 100 and 300 households, and neighbourhood assemblies. They send delegates to the subdistrict, district, cantonal, and regional delegatory councils. The AANES coordinates governance throughout the region, while The General Council acts as the general legislative, which is the highest political authority but does not function like parliaments, i.e. as the supreme authority of the realm, for legislation must ideally be passed with the consensus or at least the consent of the parties that are affected by it.

This supple, sophisticated arrangement resembles the Zapatistas’ threefold system of self-governance—community assemblies, municipal committees and a Council of Good Government—known as caracoles, ‘snails’: circles (protective shells) of cellular, deliberative democracy. In April 2011, after an uprising led by women, the Mexican town of Cherán declared itself a ‘free municipality,’ likewise establishing three levels of assembly (streets; neighborhoods; town). In “all three cases,” Bariş writes, “the overall form of administration…organized around the logic of community autonomy”—safeguarded by rotational membership of unpaid delegates, equal gender representation, and full participation of youth—stands “in direct opposition to the logic of national or monarchic sovereignty.”

The defining slogan of the Rojava rebellion is ‘jin, iyan, azadi’: ‘women, life, freedom.’ Readers may recognize the chant from the ongoing women-led uprising in Iran, a rebellion sparked by the ‘morality police’ beating and murder of a young Kurdish woman, Jina Amini. Though, to quote Rojin Mukriyan of the Kurdish Peace Institute, most western coverage seems blissfully ignorant of its “radically democratic” import, the “rallying cry” is rapidly erasing “ethnic, racial, and class lines” in the region, seeking to “replace the existing social, political institutions of the nation-state with more egalitarian forms of social and political order.”


‘Women, life, freedom’: the shorthand-manifesto maps onto the “threefold aspiration,” in the words of Stephen F. Hunt, “for direct democracy, gender equality and ecological sustainability” at the heart of the Rojava project. And because, as Jongerden says, the point of the project is “the disassociation of democracy from nationalism, of demos from ethnos,” the Autonomous Administration is providing safe haven for a remarkable cross-section of war-torn, state-persecuted humanity. As the December 2016 ‘Social Contract of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’ opens by declaring:

We, the peoples of Rojava-northern Syria, including Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, Chechens, Circassians, Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and the different doctrines and sects, recognize that the nation-state has made Kurdistan, Mesopotamia, and Syria a hub for the chaos happening in the Middle East and has brought problems, serious crises, and agonies for our people.

Writing in 2017, Hunt lamented that of the three fronts of freedom opened in Rojava, “the ecological dimension” had “received the least critical attention to date,” not least because of the world’s riveted gaze on the campaign of the YPG, YPJ, and others—assisted by the US and other western powers—to drive ISIS from Kobanî: a brutal, sapping victory alas, allowing Turkish forces to launch, in January 2018, the perversely-titled Operation Olive Branch, taking vice-grip control of much of Afrin.

Children planting a garden.

Children in Derik, a city in the Jazira Region of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, plant a school garden. (Source: Make Rojava Green Again)

In 2018 the Internationalist Commune of Rojava published a book focusing on this neglected ‘ecological dimension.’ Titled Make Rojava Green Againa deliberate riff on Donald Trump’s inanely nationalist ‘Make America Great Again’—the collection is described by Debbie Bookchin, daughter of Murray Bookchin, as a “vision and a manual,” bridging “the utopian and the concrete, the poetic and the everyday,” for “what a free, ecological society can look like.”

In terms of what it actually looks like—after decades of state-imposed monoculture (wheat, olive, cotton)—the answer is, Bookchin writes, often stunning: “sweeping steppes” with, yes, wheat and olives, but grown now with “lentils, chickpeas and beans,” plus previously outlawed (!) fruit orchards (“apricot, pomegranate, fig, cherry, and so many others”). Away from the farmlands, communal reforestation and rewilding programs are restoring the breathing space of many human-hounded species: “wolves, foxes, wild pigs, and all sorts of birds.”

“In such a world,” Debbie Bookchin concludes, “where people together decide how to use natural resources, we can rethink relationships between urban and rural life, production and consumption, the periphery and the core, and chart a rational use of land and water, of renewable energy resources, and even of waste.” Urban areas are also dramatically greener (as well as freer) than before, transformed by planting on former industrial and commercial sites and an efflorescence of rooftop gardens and urban forests.


Two deep shadows, though, lie across the land: the scarcity of water, and the persistence of war. As the Internationalist Commune documents, in its “vindictive” retreat from Kobanî, ISIS sabotaged (blocked off) hundreds of springs and wells, while Turkey has drastically reduced water supply to the Euphrates, and other Syrian rivers, through mega-dam projects and chronic overuse. Climate change is compounding the crisis, while industrial and other waste continues to be dumped into waterways. Efforts to systematically utilize ‘grey water’ (from sinks, showers, etc.) and ‘black water’ (from toilets) are under way, and helping, but can only do so much.

Protestors holding a banner.

Rojava solidarity demonstration, Berlin, 2019. (Photo by Leonhard Lenz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The worst pollution comes from oil production, concentrated in Cizîrê and deemed necessary to fuel and fund the war machine. And that is just one way the curse of conflict is at work. In a 2022 article, ‘Lessons from Rojava for the Paradigm of Social Ecology,’ Cihad Hammy and Thomas Jeffrey Miley bluntly conclude that “the war must be stopped so that we can really see how things will go,” and that they will not go well if “the peril” posed by “the military leviathan” continues to sap the democratic vitality, as well as environmental sustainability, of the venture.

The “proliferation of cooperative ventures, accountable to the communes,” Hammy and Miley write, “seems to have been somewhat dwarfed by the revolutionary authorities’ reliance upon oil revenues, as well as by the hardships and ‘opportunities’ presented by border closures and a war economy, which in turn has led to a certain prevalence of smuggling, trade, and informal finance,” feeding parasitically on the “generalized scarcity that goes along with war”—and, potentially, blocking up ‘the wells and springs’ of autonomy.


The scourge of war has blighted many attempts to break free of state domination. In Anarchy’s Brief Summer, his study of Catalan anarchist Buenaventura Durrati, Hans Magnus Enzenberger quotes the philosopher Simone Weil, writing while fighting in Durrati’s army: “The necessities of the civil war and its atmosphere are gaining the

A photo of a man eating.

Buenaventura Durruti

upper hand over the desires to realize which the civil war was started.” Durrati himself was more direct: “War’s a bastard. It doesn’t destroy just houses but the highest principles.”

The same tragedy befell the anarchist revolution in Ukraine in 1917-21. Wedged between the Bolshevik ‘Reds’ and the Tsarist ‘Whites,’ the ‘Greens’ soon found themselves struggling, as historian Sean Patterson writes, “to adhere to the principles of freedom, equality, and solidarity amidst the dehumanizing effects of warfare.” As one ‘Green’ leader, Vsevolod Volin, despaired: “Any army, of whatever kind, is an evil, and even a free and popular army…by its very nature” poses “a danger” to its own “noble cause.”

While—as the Zapatista have proven—such an inner corruption is not the inevitable outcome of all armed resistance, the fate of the Rojava revolution may depend in part on the spread of experiments in social ecology to places where civil war would not result: where the state, however affronted at the challenge to its authority, would neither be able nor willing to massacre ‘its’ citizens seeking a new (and/or old) way to live. If such a network of existentially unthreatened, participatory democracies could be established, it may open a peaceful path to a world of human solidarities (including with non-human beings) in societies decisively renouncing that absolutely illegitimate activity, war.

Where might such experiments emerge? Potentially, anywhere there is a socio-economic and ecological emergency so deep and broad it amounts to a war on dignified living: the kind of unendurable, ¡Ya Basta! situation currently endured by countless millions around the world. Including (as I hope to explore further next month) this part of the world.



Outside of occupied Afrin, the AANES region was largely spared the ravages of the 6 February 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria which—in a catastrophe compounded by war and corruption—claimed over 50,000 lives, leaving millions homeless. Monstrously, efforts to send help and provisions from Rojava to stricken communities were blocked by Turkish and Syrian forces and factions “because,” as Syrian-Kurdish journalist Hosheng Hesen reported, “they consider the Autonomous Area an enemy.” Another Syrian-Kurdish journalist, Massoud Akko, reported that when Kurds in Afrin “called for an excavator to dig graves for the Kurds that had died, they were told to dig with their hands.” The Kurdish Peace Institute reported that many people “feared being arrested by Turkish-backed police if they were to publicly express their desire for humanitarian aid from northeast Syria.”

A photo of crumpled buildings following an earthquake.

Scene from the city of Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in February 2023. (Photo by Əziz Kərimov, VOA, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

On February 13, Akko begged:

As a journalist, a Kurd, and a Syrian, I hope that everyone can assist and that everyone can receive assistance Turks, Arabs, and Kurds. Because this is a huge disaster.

Autonomy as enemy? There is, indeed, something rotten in the state.

Featured image: Sunflower harvest, August 2022. (Source: Make Rojava Green Again)

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.