Syria is a hard place to grapple with, even for people who live there. Especially for people who live, or lived, in target zones. White Helmets is trying to make a difference.
White Helmets, a volunteer corps of rescuers who go into the most dangerous places like Idlib, reports that in one day last week they documented the killing of 131 people, including 34 children, in a barrage of missile strikes from the Syrian-regime backed by the Russian air force. Over 250,000 people have been displaced. White Helmets’ British founder was assassinated mysteriously in Istanbul.
Trump says that Turkey is “helping”, apparently by negotiating with Russia.
Meanwhile in Northern Syria, in the Rojava area where the Kurds had fought ISIS side by side with American troops, jihadi gangs are looting, kidnapping, and killing with impunity, apparently functioning as a paramilitary militia force of the Turkish government headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, terrorizing the local population in order to force the Kurds to abandon their homes.
The Turkish military appears to also be dropping bombs in civilian areas and hospitals using drones. Health care workers and journalists have been targeted, so that exact numbers are hard to determine, but the best estimate is that over 300,000 people in Northern Syria are “internally displaced”, with the numbers fluctuating as people leave and attempt to return.
So where is the hope, you ask?
We talked to Debbie Bookchin, the daughter of social theorist Murray Bookchin whose works on social ecology and urban planning were put into practice by women leaders in Rojava, Syria, who during the period of relative peace prior to the most recent invasion, created an empowered feminist community in the middle of a war zone.
Reports out of Rojava of communal governance, a grassroots, bottom-up model of democracy, were so striking that even some on the progressive left have trouble believing them. Debbie Bookchin told me she visited Rojava “with a lot of questions, I felt it was important to bring a healthy skepticism to the project because people can sort of romanticize these things”
“I went with a lot of questions and I spent a lot of time gathering data and I came with an extraordinary appreciation of what they have accomplished in the middle of a war zone.
“The only true way of empowering people is working with a grassroots bottom up democratic system. The way it works is every neighborhood, even smaller than that practically on the block level, meets together and they talk about the local issues, and sometimes the bigger regional issues. They make decisions together and send a delegate up to the neighborhood level, and they send a delegate up to the city and they send one up to the region level.
“And this is a model of a kind of democracy that people around the world are really yearning for.
“You see it in the yellow vest movement, in parts of France. Neoliberalism isn’t working for us. We need more local control. How we can make the environment and the resources work for everyday people?
“In Rojava they have a social contract that outlines their commitment to human rights and includes a very strong sense of the role of women. They mandate, in their social contract, that women make up a minimum of 40% of every legislative body and that every body is co-chaired by a woman. So, for example, in every city, town or village, the mayoralty has one male and one female, and usually they are also of different ethnicities.
“It was one of the most advanced aspects of Rojava. Politically its a model that I think is being reflected increasingly in the desires of localist politics, municipalist politics around the world.
“You see reflections of it in Barcelona, in Chiapas, Mexico, and in municipalist conferences that I’ve been to that people all over are organizing in this grass roots way to re-empower people at the local level.
“I actually think that is the future of politics.
Bookchin observed that this is an expression of the desire for a liberatory politics that includes but supersedes even fundamental economic changes in society. “We have to go beyond economistic goals, life has to become egalitarian and non-hierarchical. These kinds of social relationships in which women are empowered is what is necessary to transform our relationship with the natural world.
“What I saw was a sense of mutual aid, cooperation, a kind of community life that really breaks down silos that lets everybody feel a collective sense of self-worth and the value of community.
“That’s something that has been enormously profound in terms of women’s rights. They have set up a model that requires that any decision related to a women’s body is made only by women – so, for example, men cannot enact a law that would outlaw abortion, because those laws could be vetoed by all-women’s committees.”
In terms of economic changes, a just and equitable distribution of resources is a goal; but they are not collectivizing all the land; they are encouraging people as they start new businesses to make them cooperatives.
“They are starting to build institutions. For example, they are trying hard to redefine the whole idea of justice – they use a system that we would think of as a ‘restorative justice’ model much more heavily than anyone else in the world. They also have a system that resolves domestic and other kinds of disputes based on the use of Mala Jin, the women’s houses, where anyone can go (not just women, not just Kurds) and a community of women elders will help them mediate a solution or find a way to solve problems.
“The democratic confederal model is an important way beyond Rojava, and it’s not accidental that it’s really catching on in the municipalist (Fearless Cities) movement.”
Debbie Bookchin is on Twitter at @debbiebookchin
Grappling with the problems in Syria *is* possible. But we need the violence to stop so people can do it.
If people want to help, there are some simple actions to take. For one, follow the White Helmets, @SyriaCivilDef, and the Emergency Committee for Rojava, @defendrojava, on Twitter, and raise some of the issues they post, also see http://defendrojava.org. For a stronger action, here is a local connection: ASELSAN, Turkey’s largest manufacturer of military electronics is a public stock company. A number of US cities and pension funds own stock in ASELSAN, including the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension System and the Regents of the University of California. Let them know you would like them to divest from ASELSAN, so that our local dollars are not paying for violent oppression of hope.