ISIS, ideology and the Rojava Revolution - why the YPG/J fight

17th May and ISIS capture Ramadi and with it another huge stock of modern US weaponry. Something like 6000 US trained Iraqi soldiers have fled the city without putting up much of a fight. From all accounts the ISIS force was considerable smaller and reliant on a waves of suicide car bombs for its final attack. It’s not hard to see why ISIS had been successful in establishing the idea that it was indeed an unstoppable force carrying out gods will.

But on the same day to the north west ISIS suffer yet another major defeat at the hands of the YPG and YPJ in Rojava. The YPG/J unlike the Iraqi army is a force almost starved of heavy modern weaponry. Photos have circulated online of self constructed armoured vehicles, often tractors with steel boxes bolted on, that for all intents and purposes are identical to the home made anarchist armour of the 1930s Spanish revolution. And no match at all for the captured US armour ISIS have.

 A week earlier I’d been across the border in Turkey, on a holiday that was also an opportunity to meet up and chat with anarchists and get their perspective on the most controversial aspect of the Rojava revolution, the apparent transformation of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) from an authoritarian centralised militaristic party to a force for popular grassroots democracy. I’d head stories of this transformation since the mid 2000s from anarchists in Turkey and other anarchists visiting Turkey but I’d initially not taken them seriously.

It was the emergence of ISIS and its sudden expansion after it captured so much US heavy weaponry and armour that changed this. ISIS were suddenly overrunning some place called Kobane and the photographs, interviews and video coming from Kobane showed that many of the defenders were women. Not just women but women who spoke of an alternative society in terms of grassroots democracy, gender liberation and environmentalism. And not just women in a token role for the camera but entire companies of women that clearly knew how to not only properly use their weapons but fight as a unit.

It became clear that the claims of what was happening in some place called Rojava were quite remarkable. I’d simply hoped for an opposition to ISIS that was not another US proxy army, something with a least genuine democratic politics. It soon became apparent that what was being talked about and perhaps implemented in Rojava was a blend of grassroots democracy, gender liberation and environmentalism well in advance of what any force on the western left was capable of. How was this possible? Where had it come from?

What we are seeing in Syria and Iraq today are three ideologies clashing. On the US side is neoliberalism, an ideology built around assumptions of ‘economic man’ who is motivated by self interest alone. What motivates those that fight for ISIS is complex but here I’m going to grossly simplify it down to the common religious ideology that provides the cement. The conviction that they are doing gods work on earth makes their lives almost incidental in comparison to the promise of heaven. And as with most religious fanatics this also makes the most brutal butchery of those who don’t toe the line not only justified but desirable.

At Mosul & now Ramadi we have seen that ‘economic man’ makes a poor soldier. Give him the best of weapons, advanced command and control and untouchable air support and he still decides he is not being paid enough to risk becoming a bit part in the next ISIS murder video. ISIS on the other hand seems to have had no problem in convincing over a dozen people to drive vehicles laden with explosives at enemy positions where they detonated the bombs and themselves.

In the aftermath of their similar capture of Mosul & Tikrmt on 10 and 11 June last year ISIS seemed unstoppable. Then the ISIS fanatics met the ‘new women’ of Kobane. Yes most of the defence forces are men rather than women but for this discussion it is the women who are central to the differences in ideology. They are quite literally fighting for liberation at the same time as they are fighting reaction. That is they are not simply fighting not to be enslaved or raped and beheaded by ISIS thugs, they are also fighting to transform the society they grew up in. That is what has motivated dozens, perhaps hundreds as they went to a near certain death and worse in the front line against ISIS back in the autumn, carrying only AK 47s and facing modern US armour.

In the Autumn ISIS rolled up the YPG/J positions in the countryside in a couple of weeks using that captured armour in which they were almost invunerable. Videos reveal ISIS tanks driving carelessly up and down in front of the YPG/J fighters who could only crouch in the ruins of houses and hope for a lucky shot.

When ISIS reached the city of Kobane having rapidly conquered the entire canton it seemed that the fighting could not last long. The city is comparatively small and overlooked by Mistanour hill which ISIS rapidly took despite a heroic defence by the YPJ. But then the advance was halted and Kurds began to talk of Stalingrad. And after 130 days of fighting they threw ISIS out and began to chase them out of Kobane canton.

One military explanation would be that there was a change of US policy and at the point Kobane looked doomed the US started airdropping some weapons and carrying out air strikes against ISIS positions and most importantly armour and heavy weapons. Without dismissing the importance of that support lets remember that the well armed Iraqi army had access to this and much much more at Mosul, Tikrit & Ramadi. It cannot explain why ISIS are being driven out of Rojava even as they advance elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.

The explanation is on the terrain of ideology. Those fighting ISIS in Rojava are fighting for something that is worth dying for and not for a monthly pay packet. This is also why many other fighters have come across the border to fight with them, during the siege of Kobane they were crossing to what looked like an almost certain death, and many were killed. And its why anarchists and others in Turkey are seeking to aid Kobane, despite the fact this puts them at considerable additional risk of government repression. As I write this four have just been arrested in Istanbul during a Construction Workers Union protest calling for safe passage to Kobane.

Space doesn’t allow for a detailed discussion of what is happening in Rojava but the key thing to understand is that it is not simply part of global capitalism but a region where tribal-feudal structures of domination are very much still in place. Class conflict is often as much anti-feudal in character as anti-capitalist. This understanding is central to the prominent role gender liberation takes in the revolt. The power of tribal-feudalism in Kurdistan as elsewhere revolves around the ability of powerful men to dominate women and other men through arranged marriages and so called honour killings.

An example of what they are fighting for and against helps define both the gender liberation aspect of the revolution and the tribal-feudal aspects of the society. The women’s organisation “Yekîtiya Star is autonomously organized in all walks of life, from defense to economy to education to health. Autonomous women’s councils exist parallel to the people’s councils and can veto the latter’s decisions. Men committing violence against women are not supposed to be part of the administration. Gender-based discrimination, forced marriages, domestic violence, honor killings, polygamy, child marriage, and bride price are criminalized” ( )

It appears the publication of the EZLN’s Women’s Revolutionary Law in 1994 had quite an impact among women revolutionaries in Kurdistan facing many of the same specific oppressions. This was part of the story of why women militants of the PKK started to push for their own organisations and if they were in the military their own command structure. The gender liberation are not aspects added on to impress western leftists but fundamental to transformation of their society. Something worth fighting for and a fight worth being in solidarity with.

The above is the version I submitted to Fifth Estate for publication, you can read the version published at  as The Rojava Revolution - Worth fighting for; a fight worth being in solidarity with

WORDS: Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )


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