The Kurdish Experiment in Radical Decentralism and Why Kobani Must Be Saved

My father's impassioned plea for military assistance from November 1956 is more relevant today than ever. As long as organized Kurdish resistance continues, we must make the demand for arms to the Kurds our insistent cry.
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The sight of the black Islamic State flag flying last week over the besieged Kurdish town of Kobani on the Syrian border with Turkey portended a tragedy of enormous proportions -- one that will result not only in the deaths of thousands of innocent Kurds, but in the obliteration of one of the grandest experiments in democracy -- if the U.S. and its allies don't do more to intervene.

For the tens of thousands of Kurds in Turkey it is a particularly anguishing spectacle. They have stood watch at the border where they can see the smoke rising from Kobani as their brothers and sisters -- and in some cases their sons and daughters -- armed only with light weapons, continue to repel the heavily armed ISIS troops attacking from three sides.

Not only do the Turkish tanks on the border sit idle, failing to intervene on behalf of the surrounded Kurds in Kobani, but hardline President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refuses to open an aid corridor so that weapons, medical aid, and reinforcements can reach Kobani, using the tanks instead to keep Turkish Kurds from joining their brethren in the fight against ISIS.

Despite Pentagon claims that only a few hundred fighters remain in Kobani, Kurdish officials of the town have stated that there are still thousands of civilians who have been unable or unwilling to leave the town and its surrounding areas. Indeed, Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy for Syria, has warned that the fall of Kobani will result in another Srebrenica: the murder not only of hundreds of Kurdish men and women fighters but also thousands of civilian Kurds who have been unable to make their way into Turkey.

Kurdish communities all over the world have taken to the streets to protest the impending slaughter by an enemy, that even by the horrific standards of war, has taken the concept of military conquest back to the dark ages -- with rape, enslavement and sale of women and children, mutilations and beheadings now standard fare, wartime atrocities so flagrant they are unthinkable in the modern era.

Yet faced with the imminent fall to ISIS of Kobani, the U.S. has claimed it can do little more than order pinprick bombing sorties that it admits can only be marginally effective in holding ISIS back. Forsaking its role as a foreign policy world leader and despite the massive war machinery at its disposal, the Obama administration has caved to Turkey's intransigence and failed to secure a passage to Kobani for additional arms and personnel.

While the U.S. has increased its air attacks on ISIS -- after weeks of stating that it would simply allow this important town to fall into the hands of ISIS -- it continues to maintain that saving the town is not a priority. The predicted outcome, a genocide by any definition of the term, should shame the world into demanding that the Obama administration undertake immediate action to insist that an arms corridor be opened to help these brave fighters and civilians.

But there is another less widely known and deeply poignant aspect to this impending tragedy. If ISIS succeeds in overrunning the Kurdish towns in the Turkish and Syrian border areas, it will snuff out one of the world's most daring and innovative experiments in direct democracy. According to a number of international news reports in recent months, the Kurdish population that dominates the southeastern part of Turkey and the three northern regions of Syria known as Rojava, which includes Kobani, have implemented a form of local assembly democracy unlike anything else seen in the region, even the world.

In the Kurdish towns in these areas, women now enjoy equal rights and are guaranteed representation in every governmental body, as are minority ethnicities; barter has successfully replaced money in some communities; and local citizens together decide how to manage their economies and environment while sending representatives to regional councils that make policy for the region.

Taking advantage of the new political space opened by the Syrian government's retreat from this Kurdish region, the Kurds there have unleashed a shining example of grassroots democracy at its best: building a free municipalist model that guarantees basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and organization and that takes the neighborhood assembly as its basic unit so that decisions made by recallable delegates at the regional level directly reflect the wishes of those in local communities. Women in these communities are free to walk unveiled in public, education centers that teach the Kurdish language are now common, feudal ties that once dominated politics are being broken and religious freedom is flourishing.

The idea behind this grand experiment grew out of the decision by Abdullah Öcalan, the Kurdish leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to embrace a non-statist solution to Kurdish independence that focuses instead on the radical decentralization of existing states through the establishment of local councils that prioritize self-managed, municipal-based economics, ecological harmony and gender equality. His inspiration came from reading the work of a Vermont leftist theoretician: my late father, Murray Bookchin.

For six decades as a radical activist and writer, during which he first introduced the concept that ecology is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism -- an idea that has since been popularized by writers like Naomi Klein -- Bookchin sought a way out of the traditional standoff between corporate capitalism and authoritarian socialism. He found inspiration in, among other things, Vermont town meeting-style democracy, a form of localized popular assembly decision-making that at its best could empower every citizen in a community and help ensure not only economic justice but the ecological survival of the planet.

In the last 20 years of his life, he wrote a series of essays and books that elaborated in detail how these municipally-based organizations could grow and confederate by sending representatives to regional councils to make decisions at ever higher levels while remaining accountable to the grassroots. He believed that ultimately they could subvert the coercive power of nation-states, leading to richly-articulated, non-capitalist democratic societies that would live in harmony with the natural world.

As reported recently by Channel 4 in Great Britain and numerous other media outlets, this democratic municipalist program was enacted over the last couple of years in portions of Kurdistan in Syria and Turkey after Öcalan and other Kurdish leaders began reading Bookchin's writings as part of a self-education project. Eschewing the violent confrontations with Turkey that had previously marked their struggle, and moving beyond their demands for statehood, these Kurdish activists have instead focused on democracy-building: putting power in the hands of local citizens. Bookchin called this system "communalism" or "libertarian municipalism"; the Kurds have dubbed it "democratic confederalism."

Today in dozens of towns in the Kurdish-dominated regions of Syria that include Kobani, the populations are engaging in an experiment in democratic self-rule unlike anything seen since the Spanish Civil War. They are living the ideals of human freedom and democratic decision-making that exemplify the highest aspirations of democracy-loving people, a feat all the more remarkable because they are doing it in the middle of a war.

This unique experiment and all those who believe in it will be destroyed by ISIS, whose stated goal is to impose totalitarian religious rule bent on crushing personal freedom and enlightenment values. The human toll alone should be enough to spur the West into action. That the cost will also include the obliteration of perhaps the most democratic form of social organization in the world today, makes the predicted defeat of these people all the more tragic.

My father died in 2006, so he never lived to see his ideas about libertarian municipalism put into practice by the Kurds. But almost six decades ago, he was an outraged witness to a tragedy similar to the one unfolding in Kobani today. In early November 1956, as Soviet tanks stormed the city of Budapest to crush the Hungarian national revolution, he implored the West not to turn its back on the "magnificent struggle for freedom" that was being waged in the streets by Hungarian rebels.

In a leaflet called "The Betrayal of Hungary," he chastised NATO, and especially the U.S., for broadcasting years of propaganda aimed at assuring the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc countries that "they were not alone," only to refuse to arm the rebels as Hungary teetered on the edge of a successful revolution.

Quoting an Associated Press report, he described the unanswered cries for help emanating from rebel-held radio stations: "Where is NATO? Where are the Americans? The British? The French? We listened to your radios. We believed in freedom. There is no time now for conferences and discussions. Give us arms!" Western military support never came, and it took more than three decades for Hungary and her neighbors to wrest themselves from Soviet tyranny.

Six decades later, in a shameful parallel, the U.S. once again is betraying a heroic people, the Kurds, in their battle against ISIS. While the U.S. has never supported Kurdish claims to sovereignty, it has urged the Kurds to take up arms against ISIS and it admits that it is only the valiant effort of these fearless men and women on the ground, widely considered the bravest fighters in the Mideast, that has so far prevented ISIS from overrunning the region.

But they cannot continue to do it alone. And Americans must not fall for Turkish president Erdoğan's mendacious claim that the YPG fighters so heroically defending their model of democratic autonomy and their homes in Kobani should be equated with ISIS, a propagandistic comparison made to fulfill his ugly calculus designed to allow ISIS to crush as many Kurds as possible.

The West cannot stand idly by while Turkey refuses to allow military aid to flow to the Kurds in their fight against ISIS. And the American left, indeed all Americans, regardless of their view of the Obama administration's foreign policy objectives, cannot remain silent while the Kurdish people in Kobani and other towns are massacred. In the first week since a White House petition was initiated, more than 40,000 people signed asking that arms be sent to the defenders of Kobani. But there must be more pressure to demand that an immediate aid corridor be opened and that weapons, medical aid, and personnel be allowed to flow through that corridor to these heroic Kurds.

Bookchin's words about Hungary 58 years ago have never resonated more powerfully than in this moment. Unless the U.S. finds a solution, the men and women in Kobani and other besieged Kurdish towns, like the Hungarian rebels he described in his leaflet, will "wither under the hands of their torturers and executioners" as ISIS makes "a monstrous object-lesson whose overwhelming frightfulness is intended to cower (the region) into terrified submission."

Bookchin's impassioned plea for military assistance from November 1956 is more relevant today than ever: "America can and must send arms through every open mile of border and night sky." As long as organized Kurdish resistance continues, we must make the demand for arms to the Kurds our insistent cry.

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