Mother Jones

Revolutionary Dreams

“The US is the single biggest source country” for Western fighters in the YPG.

AT THE HEADQUARTERS of the SDF in Hasaka, three white men in camouflage pull up in a pickup truck. The commander, a thirty something Frenchman with a closely shaved head, is driving. A somber, mustachioed Irishman is in the passenger seat. In the back, a skinny American who looks to be in his late 20s is sitting with an M16 nestled between his legs. He invites me to get in. “Where are you from?” I ask.

“Nowhere in particular,” he says in a sulky voice. “I might be vague about some personal stuff.” He asks that I call him Berxwedan, the Kurdish word for “resistance,” but to keep it simple, I’ll just call him Barry. Barry wears a black and red anarcho-syndicalist patch on the arm of his uniform. He and his comrades ask me not to take pictures, and they decline my request to visit their base in a nearby town that was retaken from ISIS. Instead, we drive to a quiet kebab shop to talk.

Barry has been a volunteer fighter with the Kurdish YPG forces for more than the six months he’d signed up for. It is, he thinks, “the best thing someone who considers themselves a militant leftist can do right now with their life.” This is his first time in the Middle East. Back in the United States, Barry was part of the antifa movement. He would brawl with fascists, sometimes carrying a concealed gun to protests “just in case.” It was in these circles that Barry first heard about Rojava, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria that has become a cause célèbre in anarchist circles. Its name means “the west,” referring to the western part of the stateless Kurdish homeland that straddles Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Those governments have repressed the Kurds’ long-standing desire for independence, with measures ranging from a ban on the Kurdish language to Saddam Hussein’s extermination of as many as 182,000 Kurds in the 1980s.

The ideological inspiration for the Rojava project is Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). When Barry first encountered Öcalan’s writings back home, certain ideas spoke to him. For Öcalan, capitalism was an “inherent component” of the nation-state. What was needed, he argued, was “democracy without the state.” “I saw it as an anarchist revolution,” Barry tells me.

Today, it is nearly impossible to drive down a street in the Kurdish parts of Syria without seeing Öcalan’s face smiling through a bushy mustache. He is stenciled on walls, plastered on

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