Meredith Tax’s A Road Unforeseen: Women Fight the Islamic State is a book of revelations about life during wartime in Rojava—the autonomous region in Syria led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is linked to (what Tax terms) the “Kurdish liberation movement network.” Readers should be inspired by PYD’s experiment in secularism, radical democracy, pluralism and feminism. Tax’s reporting certainly gave me a lift. Her take on Rojava, though, may be a little too rosy. In this review, I’ll try to touch on what’s iffy about her positivity without undercutting her effort to cultivate solidarity with Middle Eastern women who fight the Islamic State.
Those women warriors were instrumental in saving tens of thousands of Yazidi civilians besieged by ISIS in Iraq. And they may have made an even greater contribution to the party of hope during the battle of Kobane. Tax’s chapter on that battle and its aftermath are essential reading for anyone out to comprehend the state of the war against ISIS.
She quotes a war fighter from one of Rojava’s male brigades who evokes what it felt like to experience Kobane’s Kurdish ground zero:
There were dozens of Alamos in that city no one will read about…hundreds of small little battles in small ugly broken houses no one will even care about. It was like Stalingrad. At night it was haunting to see how much of it looked like the moon.
Tax’s reporting backs up that invocation of Stalingrad, though the idea the battle of Kobane amounted to a turning point in the struggle against ISIS may seem strange in the wake of this summer’s bloody Ramadan. (Not to mention last weekend’s ISIS-inspired bombing in New York City.) Yet ISIS’s “caliphate” has been shrinking. And their decline began after their defeat at Kobane deprived them of “their aura of invincibility.” Reporter Michael Weiss has interviewed a former jihadi who told him how ISIS lost five or six thousand fighters at Kobane, most of them foreigners “who had been sent to their deaths without any tactical, much less strategic forethought.” (Thousands more were seriously wounded.) The defeat was devastating for recruitment. Before Kobane, according to Weiss’s informant: “We had like 3,000 foreign fighters who arrived every day to join ISIS. I mean, every day. And now we don’t have even like 50 or 60.”
Many of the fighters who defeated ISIS’s grand army of misogynists were Kurdish women, which makes that victory even more “exquisite” (to quote Tax). Tax notes jihadis are said to worry they won’t go directly to paradise and their allotted 72 virgins if they’re killed by females (though there are journalists who deny ISIS is at the mercy of that faith-based fear). The Road Unforeseen celebrates those women who are ripping the guts out of ISIS and explains how they came to be at the center of the Kurdish struggle for freedom.
The back story here is tangled. Tax’s short course on Kurdish politics encompasses humanism and terror, clan feuds and corruption, macho poses and “women rising.” It takes in struggles in Iraq and Turkey but her Road leads to Rojava. Tax cites an expert on the region who describes what PYD has been up to since they took control of large parts of northern Syria and declared autonomy in contiguous “cantons” of Kobane, Cizire and Afrin:
They held municipal elections. They provided refuge to Arab, Turkmen, Christian, and other refugees from all over Syria. They incorporated not just Kurds, but also Arabs, Turkmen and Christians into the autonomous administrations of all three cantons. They protected all of them from both Daesh and the Assad regime. They empowered women, arming them, and placing females into leadership positions of every single municipality the PYD controls. They have committed no massacres, and they continue to insist they want only good relations with Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. They did all of this while being isolated, starved economically, and pressured militarily from all sides.
Rojava’s survival is anathema not only to ISIS, but also to Turkey’s “moderate” Islamist statists. President Erdogan and his party hate the idea of an autonomous region on Turkey’s border that will offer support and inspiration to Turkey’s large Kurdish population. During the battle for Kobane, ISIS recruits were allowed to stream through Turkey and countless wounded jihadis received medical care there. (Erdogan’s daughter was reported to have helped place them in Turkish hospitals.) Erdogan himself publicly predicted Kobane would fall to ISIS. But the city’s defenders held on, thanks to wondrous feats of resistance:
They had no construction materials or equipment to repair roads and buildings. Nevertheless, they dug eighteen wells in the West Kobane village of Geynter Oxan, laid 320 meter of pipe to bring water into the city, and bought generators for every street. They grew some fruits and vegetables, peanuts and cotton, but they badly needed more food as well as supplies.
Turkey’s Kurdish community responded, providing tons of necessities against the will of Erdogan et al. The battle for Kobane, which lasted from the spring of 2014 to January 2015, turned into a brutal siege, which went unnoticed by most of the world until August of 2014. That’s when Kurdish fighters from Rojava rescued those Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain and, in so doing, called attention to their own existential struggle with ISIS. (Turkey was shamed into taking in thousands of Yazidi refugees, and as the border opened momentarily, 300 Kurds from Turkey slipped across to fight ISIS in Kobane.)
When PYD’s male and female brigades began to push ISIS back, American military leaders sensed they’d found long-sought “partners on the ground.” Against Turkey’s wishes, America began bombing ISIS positions in Kobane and that air campaign became increasingly deadly as U.S. coordination with Rojava’s forces improved.
Tax’s account of Turkey’s response to PYD successes in the war against ISIS may blow your mind. It made this reader feel like an innocent discovering the darkness of this world:
On November 29, Daesh sent four cars of suicide bombers into Kobane from the Turkish side of the border, where they had been using government-owned grain silos as their base. Turkey assisted them with an unannounced power cut that plunged the border area into darkness so the attack took the Kobane forces by surprise. Clashes went on through the night and many were killed on both sides.
Turkey’s down-low support of ISIS wasn’t enough to counteract American power and PYD zeal. Two months after those cross-border suicide bombings, PYD military units declared victory in Kobane and since then, they’ve been going from “strength to strength,” liberating more and more territory from ISIS. PYD attempts at reconstruction, OTOH, have been stymied. Neither the E.U. nor America have provided much humanitarian aid. And Rojava is not just at odds with ISIS, Turkey and Assad in Syria. There are longstanding tensions between PYD and the party currently in power in Iraqi Kurdistan. Outside their own neighborhood, PYD has faced (what Tax calls) a “backlash.” Turkey is paying lobbyists (such as The Gephardt Group and Squire, Patton, Boggs) to slander Rojava. And then there’s the maddening spectacle of international monitors who’ve traduced the autonomous cantons’ human rights record in rumor-mongering reports suffused with Sunni anxieties, Erdogan’s imperatives, and anti-Western bias. (One such report referred to Rojava as “The West’s Darling in Syria.”) Amnesty International has been one of the worst pretenders on this score. Tax quotes feminist human rights advocate Gita Saghal (“former head of Amnesty’s gender desk who left the organization in 2010 after a public dispute about their relationship to a U.K. pro-jihadi organization”) who torched Amnesty’s petty proclaimers:
PYD has engaged extensively with human rights organizations in the middle of an existential human rights struggle for its existence. They have, as Amnesty has acknowledged, provided free access and opportunities to talk with prisoners. Governments do sometimes do this—but how many Middle East governments do so?…They are not meeting the very highest international standards, but unlike most prisons in the Middle East they are not found to be torturing or ill-treating prisoners and Amnesty is not alleging that they are keeping black sites. In fact, for an armed group that has never had time to properly establish a state they are quite remarkable. The headline for this could very well be: “Western ally allows human rights access. No torture found, though some concerns remain.”
A Road Unforeseen is shaped by Tax’s clarity about the need to resist “the anti-Rojava narrative.” While she’s right to wish “Rojava represents a secular, democratic, feminist way forward in a region stereotyped by many as hopelessly backward,” she may be looking past one red flag that points backward to PYD’s roots in the PKK—a vanguard party founded in the 70s that aimed to lead a Kurdish liberation struggle in Turkey. PKK’s leader and chief ideologist, Abdulla Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for sixteen years, still weighs like an incubus on PYD brains. He’s venerated by many cadres. And that should bother Tax more than she lets on in The Road Unforeseen. To be fair, her reporting suggests Ocalan’s tenure as PKK’s maximum leader was marked by murderousness and cowardice. In email exchanges with me she’s allowed Ocalan is “disturbing personally,” yet affirms he’s “a political genius…—very gifted and farsighted… who has exercised a strong positive influence for new democratic practices and negotiations with Turkey.” Intent on avoiding such negotiations, Turkey is keeping Ocalan in solitary confinement. In this context, Tax is convinced the “main thing is to ensure that he is able to continue to function as a peacemaker and representative of his movement, along the lines of Mandela who was also in jail for many years…” Blessed are the peacemakers, yet I want to push back on any equation of Ocalan with Mandela.
When it comes to politics and vision, I’m pretty sure Ocalan is a shuck artist not an exemplary moral imagination. More on his precepts anon, but there’s enough to damn him in the following passage from a French sociologist’s description of what was once expected of recruits in PKK training academies:
The Cozumlemler [Ocalan’s Analyses] need to be applied and this should result in the activists renouncing both their former life (they are obliged to cut ties with their family, spouse, children, friends, and so on) and certain attitudes and habits. They are, for instance, not allowed to cross their legs (only Ocalan is allowed to do that)…
It would’ve made more sense, on the real side, if Ocalan had insisted recruits couldn’t open their legs. Sex is high on the list of PKK’s proscribed activities. Ocalan has been obsessed with promoting celibacy. PYD leaders aren’t about to break with the puritanism and censoriousness that’s shaped the culture of Kurdish freedom-fighters. There are, as Tax points out, good strategic reasons for them to avoid melding their version of woman’s empowerment with sexual freedom. Most Kurdish families let their daughters join “People’s Protection Forces’” all-women brigades only because men are excluded and fraternization between sexes discouraged. Tax is aware PYD’s version of woman’s empowerment might seem alien to readers in the West. She maps the road Rojava’s liberated woman are on, yet I sense she’d prefer not to underscore how far they are from where it’s at for their sisters in America or Europe. And that’s ok. Tax’s stance seems truly worldly. (A far cry from, say, Amnesty International’s crackpot purists.) While I worry she’s wrong on Ocalan and may not cop to how problematic his influence on the PYD could be down the line, I honor her impulse to avoid hammering on points that might serve to diminish what’s been accomplished in Rojava.
One more case statement on that front (from a proud Kurd):
We have created in the middle of the civil war in Syria…three independent cantons that function by democratic, autonomous rule. Together with the ethnic and religious minorities of the region—Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Christians, Kurds—we have written a collective, political structure for these autonomous cantons, our social contract. We have established a people’s council including representatives from all cooperatives, communities, and assemblies running each of our cantons. And we established a model of co-presidency…and a quota of 40 percent gender representation in order to enforce gender equality throughout all forms of public life and representation. We have, In essence, developed a democracy without the state. That is a unique alternative in a region plagued by the internally conflicted free Syrian Army, the Assad regime and the self-proclaimed Islamic state.
This spokesman for Rojava puts an anarchist spin—“a democracy without a state”—on the practice of self-government there, which jibes with Ocalan’s ideological turn from Leninism to anti-statism in the early aughts. But this Kurdish paean to diversity and federalism, constitutionalism and minority rights, reminds me of nothing so much as the…American creed. And, in the Age of Trump, the PYD version of E Pluribus Rojava has extra resonance since our own flawed but powerful model of democratic pluralism is at risk. While we should identify with Rojava’s struggle to bring self-government and liberal values to the Middle East, we’ve got urgent tasks here at home where we must prove our president was right when he declared: “We don’t look to be ruled.” It’s not about America First. Just common sense. We’re the indispensable nation (as Rojava’s radical democrats might concede given the alliance between our country and their cantons). The cause of America remains the cause of the world. It must not be Trumped.
1 Ocalan started out as a standard Vanguard Partier cum Third Worldist. He famously made a turn away from Leninism toward democracy, “confederalism,” and feminism. Early in the aughts, he began talking up the anarcho-eco-localism of the (late) American leftist thinker Murray Bookchin. But it occurs to me Ocalan’s move around that time might have owed more to arguments that jumped off after Kanan Makiya published his “blueprint” for the future of Iraq a year before the American invasion in 2003. Makiya’s vision of a post-Saddam, democratic federation focused on the need to protect rights of minorities (and Iraq’s Kurds in particular). Makiya’s case for pluralism and his challenge to Arab nationalism (and, implicitly, all other narrow nationalisms in the Middle East) was disestablishmentarian dynamite. But his radical conservatism became verboten on the Left once he came out as an advocate of “Bush’s war.” A Man of the Left like Ocalan might have wanted to steer clear of Makiya’s asseverations of democracy in the Levant. (Jealously may have been a factor too. Ocalan sees himself as a master thinker and his pride might have kept him from acceding to the ideas of another Middle Eastern mind on fire.) Which, at the risk of seeming tendentious, I’d suggest may explain Murray Bookchin’s Kurdish apotheosis!
2 I was struck by Tax’s acknowledgment female genital mutilation is common among Kurdish populations in the Middle East. I’d be interested to know if PYD has taken a stand against FGM.