The artist and the Kurdish revolutionaries

It’s the middle of a war zone, and something unexpected is taking place: a Dutch artist has joined with Kurdish revolutionaries to build their parliament. They’re in the city of Derîk, part of the heavily contested region of Rojava. In principle, the area remains part of Syria, but its borders fall within the Western quarter of historic Kurdistan. Unrecognized by the Assad regime, the Kurds, created a de facto autonomous region after government troops withdrew in 2012. Today, the region continues to be threatened by the conflict between ISIL, Assad loyalists, and rebel groups. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have coordinated to defend their territory. After decades long struggle for autonomy, the Kurds in Rojava are using this newfound independence to carve out a multi-ethnic, feminist democracy. The artist building their parliament is Jonas Staal, founder of the New World Summit, a travelling platform for blacklisted and stateless organizations. On the face of it, theirs is an unlikely collaboration, the avant-garde artist and these veterans of the Syrian war. But the two share a radical vision of democracy that overturns assumptions about the state, borders, and authority. This hope for the future has lead Jonas from the Netherlands to the frontlines of the Rojava Revolution, one of the most provocative and surprising products of the Syrian war.

Jonas’ arrival in Rojava is bound up with the history of the New World Summit (NWS), “I see it as an artistic and political organisation,” he tells me. The summit began in 2012 and was initially intended as a one off. The idea to assemble blacklisted political organizations was a response to the War on Terror. “Blacklisting,” he says, “means that you inherently make people and organisations stateless. You place them outside the framework of the law. You take away their passports, you block their bank accounts…you stop them from travelling, and this makes the so-called terrorist the embodiment of the limit of democracy.” He continues, “we as an organisation oppose that idea.” The first parliament, set in Berlin, brought together groups placed on lists of designated terrorist organisations. It was successful enough that they decided to carry on, bringing together groups like the New People’s Army from the Philippines and the National Liberation Movement of Azawad from northern Mali. Jonas says the summits have allowed the sometimes violent groups, to meet on egalitarian terms. “That may not end conflicts that exist between one another, as sometimes the organizations we work with also have struggles amongst one another – armed in some cases. But at the moment of assembly, another level of exchange is reached, one that addresses the collective oppression in the War on Terror, and the collective oppression of being forced into statelessness.”

Unsurprisingly, the idea of a ‘terrorist parliament’ has attracted controversy. It’s true, Jonas concedes, “there might be legitimate reasons to prosecute some groups but not through a ‘War on Terror,’ as the concept of terrorism doesn’t differentiate…between the very different groups. The NWS opposes the idea that the democratic process can be exclusionary. “Democracy,” Jonas tells me, “must by definition be limitless.” Over time the NWS has evolved, reaching out to stateless and marginalized political organisations. “We try to expand, not just become a parliament for supposed terrorists because our critique on terrorism could easily work against itself; where every group that comes to our parliament becomes identified as a terrorist because they come to the New World Summit.” Summits now include groups ranging from Feminist Initiative to the Scottish National Party. During this process of development, the NWS established their long-standing relationship with the Kurdish Women’s Movement. Through them, the Summit first came into contact with the Rojava Kurds and their revolutionary politics.

“We were invited by the democratic self-administration of Rojava to develop a summit there,” Jonas explains. Like the NWS, Rojava is focused on detaching democracy from the nation state and centralized authority. For decades, Kurds have faced government suppression of their language and culture. Jonas explains their politics by quoting the Kurdish Women’s Movement: “If you’re oppressed by the state than the state cannot be your solution it becomes your problem.” Spread across several countries, the Kurds are far from being unanimous in their politics and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) remains on many terrorist watch lists. In Rojava, however, there has been a reappraisal of the role of government. To ensure power remains at a local level, the basis of Rojava’s political structure is the commune. The communes govern neighbourhoods and, collectively, form a municipality. “But the municipality has relatively less power than the commune,” says Jonas, “[Rojava] goes from the municipality up until the trans-cantonal council, which connects the three cantons…in that sense it is a reverse power structure: maximized at base and decentralized at maximum capacity to avoid any chance of monopolisation of power.” To encourage power-sharing, there’s also quotas to ensure the participation of women and non-Kurdish ethnic groups.

This push to be inclusive has had some notable successes and today Arabs and Assyrians form a substantial part of the Rojava revolutionary forces. But this kind of egalitarianism is challenging in a war zone. “On a formal level, the cultural diversity of the region is institutionalised to the maximum, but that doesn’t mean there’s not still internal conflicts,” says Jonas. The most difficult part,” he continues, “is that the Rojava Revolution aims at including, as much as possible, Arab and other communities. But at the same time, they know that within the Arab Sunni-Muslim communities there’s still sympathisers with IS.” The tension of trying to unite people divided by war is obvious. A 2015 report by Amnesty International accused YPG troops of displacing Arab families and demolishing their homes. “I didn’t see any evidence of that and when the reports came out,” Jonas tells me. “I was in Rojava at that moment, and it really caused a shock because the investment in including Arab population is huge and that’s something I most certainly witnessed …There was a previous Amnesty report on the treatment of Daesh prisoners for example which was highly positive in that regard. Which is kind of incredible if you imagine what these people have done to that region and the level of the massacre they caused.” It is nearly impossible, he argues, for the Kurds to conduct an internal review of the Amnesty report. The continuous disruption of the war is the main impediment for Rojava’s democracy. “There’s still people sympathizing with IS that are living within Rojava,” Jonas explains. “And many parts of it used to be under the control of the IS.”

There has been a mixed response among the Kurds to air strikes by international forces in the region. The threat posed by ISIL means that they’re happy to see their enemy damaged. “I think there’s a very strong sense of indignation that its mainly the Rojava revolutionaries, the Kurdish front, that have been fighting,” says Jonas. However, the Kurds are also wary about the consequences of intervention. “Everyone there is very aware of what the 2003 invasion of Iraq has caused in the region…They know that they’re cleaning up the shit that other people left behind.” The Rojava Kurds, he tells me, would probably prefer to be the ones leading operations in northern Syria but recognize the risks of an expanded role. Outside of historical Kurdish territory, the YPG may not be welcomed as liberators. For this reason, they have joined the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Arab and Syrian armed forces from the region. With so little international support for Rojava, however, is also a real lack of resources. “They have trouble enough protecting their own communities,” Jonas points out. Despite the enormous challenges facing Rojava, the new parliament is a testament to the determination of this ambitious democracy. The New World Summit seems a fitting partner, willing to push back against accepted wisdom whatever the odds.