Fighting for Rojava

A Jewish American anarchist who fought alongside the Kurds against ISIS reflects on his experiences and the current state of the region.

Michael McCanne
October 29, 2019
A rocket-propelled grenade outside a dwelling in Kobani, June 2015. Photo: quetions123 via Shutterstock

On October 6th, following a phone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump announced the immediate withdrawal of US Special Forces from Kurdish-run northern Syria. The thousand or so US troops stationed there had been supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led multiethnic militia fighting ISIS, and to deter any Turkish incursions into the region. Turkey, with its own large and restive Kurdish minority, has long viewed any Kurdish political or military force on its southern border as a threat. In the days following the US withdrawal, the Turkish army invaded, moving to capture cities that the Kurds and their allies had liberated from ISIS only a few years earlier. The invasion upended the relative stability the region had experienced under Kurdish control, emboldening remnants of ISIS and threatening the autonomy that Kurds had won for themselves. 

A Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units—or YPG/YPJ, as the male and female forces are known, respectively—is the driving force behind the SDF. Established to defend Kurdish areas during the growing disorder of the Syrian Civil War, this left-wing militia drove ISIS out of several key Kurdish cantons, and established a socialist autonomous region across northeastern Syria known colloquially as Rojava. The Kurds administer the region on the basis of Communalism, ecological sustainability, and gender equality. Local assemblies and worker’s cooperatives have rebuilt some of the social and economic infrastructure destroyed by ISIS using the theories of American anarchist Murray Bookchin and the Kurdish theorist Abdullah Öcalan, who advocate for democratic confederations and communal ownership of property. Hundreds of volunteers have come from around the world to help the Kurds in Rojava in their revolutionary political project.

In 2015, a Jewish American anarchist traveled to northern Syria to join the YPG in their fight against ISIS. He made his way to southern Turkey and crossed the border at night into Kobani, which had withstood a brutal ISIS siege in 2014. I spoke to him in the week after the Turkish invasion about his time in Rojava with the YPG, and his reflections on the struggle today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, as well as to protect the interviewee’s identity. 

Michael McCanne: How does it feel to watch Turkish troops pour into Rojava after Trump pulled out the US Special Forces?

The Volunteer: It breaks my heart. If I didn’t have a kid, I would be on a plane over there right now. Whether or not Americans recognize this, Turkey is a fascist state now. 

MM: I feel like a lot of people have radical politics but wouldn’t travel across the world to join this kind of struggle. Why do you think you took that extra step?

TV: The year before I went people were just starting to talk about Rojava. When I heard about it, immediately the parallels to the Spanish Civil War came to mind, as well as the Holocaust—the stories of people who actually did resist. Since I was a kid and first heard about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [Americans who volunteered to fight the fascists during the Spanish Civil War], I knew that if I had been there, I would’ve joined the fight against fascism.

Some of the circles I’ve run in have very militant rhetoric. You can go years talking that talk, and giving one form of support or another to revolutionary movements. And then something comes up where it’s like, you can absolutely go and do the right thing. Having spent so long immersed in radical politics, it was such a clear decision for me. I didn’t ever stop to think, “What’s it going to be like? Is this a good idea?”

MM: Do you think it made sense to the Kurdish people that you were there? 

TV: Oh hell yes. There were a lot of people that were native to Kobani and it was a matter of: “This is where we live, and we don’t have a choice but to fight.” But thousands and thousands of Kurds came from areas that weren’t Syria—from Turkey, Iran, Iraq. They came because they believed in their people, and that they had a responsibility to help liberate them from these fucking fascists who were torturing and killing them. And even to liberate people who weren’t in Rojava, like the Yazidis, who were trapped on Mount Sinjar and were being tortured and enslaved by ISIS. What did the Kurds get out of fighting to rescue them other than a bunch of dead soldiers? There’s no economic gain for them. There’s no explanation for it other than they believe that people should be free. The vast majority of Kurds who I fought next to were ideologically driven. They’ve read Marx. They’ve read all the anarchist theories. They get that it’s not really about borders or nationalities. It’s about this greater project that we’re all trying to work toward.

MM: What was it like when you first arrived in Rojava?

TV: At that point Kobani was still completely bombed out. It looked like Dresden after the war. All these buildings were collapsed in on themselves. There were burnt-out tanks just sitting in the street. I found out where the YPG barracks were and I went over there with a Kurdish journalist who spoke English and had him translate for me. I sat down with this commander and said, “I want to join the YPG. I’m ready to go.” A couple days later, they brought me to this weird workshop that made uniforms operating underneath the City Hall. They fitted me up with a camouflage uniform and I got into a pickup truck with this guy and he drove me to a training camp. As we were heading out of Kobani, the guy said, “I have something you’re going to like,” and he put on the song “Gasolina” by Daddy Yankee. So for a half hour we listened to the song on repeat while we drove toward the training camp and the front line.

MM: Was there a moment when the reality of what you decided to do came into focus?

TV: No. The whole time I was there it never really sank in. It was only when I got back to the US. It’s probably a really American thing, to be so fucked up by pop culture that you feel completely disassociated from what’s going on. While you’re in the middle of it—even as you’re being shot at—you’re thinking, “This is exactly like that scene in that movie.” 

One day they brought in a Kurd who spoke English and she said, “Come do your videotape.” I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about so I asked, “What do you want me to say?” And she said, “You know just talk to the people, your family, stuff like that.” And it dawned on me: “Oh, this is the video you’ll show when I die.” They called it şehid namirin, which means “martyrs never die.” Because I wasn’t prepared, I said something completely idiotic like: “Hey mom and dad, things are pretty cool here.” Thank god I didn’t die, because I wouldn’t want those to have been my last words.

MM: You said the town that Turkey’s taking right now is the town that you helped liberate.

TV: From what I’ve read, Tel Abyad is one of the main towns that Turkey’s currently trying to move toward. I got to the front exactly as this huge, mile-long operation to take Tel Abyad was beginning. There were all these YPG/YPJ people, Arab and SDF soldiers, tons of vehicles, all that shit. After a few minor engagements, they assigned me to a proper squad with a squad leader, a machine gunner, and a couple of other people with AK-47s. I was just following them, trying to understand what they’re saying to me, and then I started to hear pew, pew, pew. And I thought, “What the fuck is that?” And then the sound got closer, and I felt the wind of bullets flying by my face. We didn’t have flak jackets or helmets. I looked up at the hill that we were going toward, and it had a gigantic ISIS flag flapping at the top of it. I could see the muzzle flashes from the guns of ISIS fighters firing at us, and the guys in front of me yelled out, “Fucking run!” 

Shots were coming from all over. We finally got to this point with a direct line of sight onto the ISIS position on top of this one hill. The whole squad was on the ground, firing back at the people on the other side of the ridge. The machine gunner I was with was young, probably 19 or 20, and he was standing up, yelling in Kurdish the equivalent of “Allahu Akbar motherfucker” and making fun of them and dancing around while they were shooting at us. 

So we were laying there, and all of a sudden I saw a little mushroom cloud right where the ISIS flag had been, and five seconds later we heard a loud boom. All the Kurdish guys turned to me, pointed at the column of smoke, and said: “Obama. Obama.”

MM: So the YPG called in an American air strike?

TV: Yeah. Later on I saw what they were calling the air strikes with. It was a rusted-out cargo van where they had jury-rigged an internet connection with an ancient computer and a direct TV satellite dish. They were literally instant messaging with the American Air Force and telling them where to send the bombs.

MM: What happened after that?

TV: We were assigned to keep that ridge, and the young machine gunner, who had been yelling during the firefight, said, “I’m going to go help take that big hill where the ISIS flag was.” I didn’t see him after that, and then I found out that he got shot right in the face when he went over the ridge. He died like an hour after I talked to him.

After that, it was mostly just doing guard duty on the front line, which was surreal. There was no electricity in northern Syria at that point. You’re with your platoon but they’re all asleep, so you’re alone with a pair of thermal binoculars and a radio in the darkness. I could see the bombs dropping and the tracer bullets going back and forth less than a mile away. 

We were posted in a tiny abandoned village for a while, and they found some generators somewhere, and they also found a satellite dish and managed to jury-rig satellite TV. One guy had footage from his wedding on a thumb drive, so we watched it. That was fun.

MM: That jibes with what I’ve read about war, that it’s periods of intensity and periods of utter boredom.

TV: Yeah, that’s it exactly. What was wild was that while we were there maintaining these fronts, villagers were fleeing the ISIS-held territory by making their way into Kurdish-held territory, with all of their belongings. They were so grateful and thrilled that we were there. They kept giving us chickens and stuff like that. And all these women who ISIS forced to wear burqas were able to take those off. That was pretty inspiring.

MM: Could you feel a social revolution taking place in Rojava?

TV: Yes, just by virtue of living in war. Everyone was getting the same rations. The housing was apportioned equally. It’s not like anyone was paying rent in Kobani. I think they were having debates at the time as to how they were going to proceed, because the city was starting to be reconstructed again. But they were very big on having assemblies for each neighborhood to make decisions and run things. In both the training school and in the field, every day you would have a criticism/self-criticism session. I forget what the Kurdish term for it was, but it was a moment when you could call out your commander. Everything was basically equal. Also, all the higher echelons of leadership are completely gender balanced. And in the military, no man, no matter what rank, can give a woman of any rank an order, but the opposite isn’t true, which was fucking wild. The Kurds were also very proud of how many trans people were fighting with them. I fought side-by-side with a few trans Kurds.

MM: I’ve heard that the Kurds feel positively about Zionism or identify with it in a way. Did you ever get a sense of that?

TV: That never came up, but I know that there’s sort of a mutual affinity between Israelis and Kurds. In some ways the Kurds’ situation is similar but in other ways it’s not. The Kurds have been a distinct ethnic group for thousands of years. They’re a stateless people trying to form a state. The difference is that Kurds are very committed to being multiethnic, multiracial. They’re not a purely separatist movement. They recognize that you can’t rise up by yourself, you have to bring everyone with you otherwise you’ll always be at war. They want to see the whole region live in an egalitarian way. 

MM: You mentioned the Holocaust. It’s hard not to think of ISIS in terms of the Nazis, since they’re like a death cult. I wonder if a sense of Jewish identity also played a role in your decision to go fight? 

TV: I remember reading in high school about the Warsaw Ghetto, and about Sobibor, a concentration camp where there was an uprising. There is definitely something in the back of my mind about wanting to see Jews take up arms against evil. When I first got involved in political circles, occasionally, I would think to myself, “Why is everyone else here Jewish?” In the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, it was the same thing; Jews were way overrepresented in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Even among the Americans going to Rojava today, a lot of them are Jewish. It’s not a coincidence. 

I also think it’s about having empathy for what the Kurds are going through in the first place. Saddam Hussein tried to get rid of them in the ’80s and ’90s. Turkey has persecuted them for decades. Iran has done the same. Before the Syrian revolution, Assad wouldn’t even let the Kurds be educated. There are so many similarities to Jews who were restricted to the ghettos or to the Pale. You’d have to be blind not to see them.

MM: Why should this struggle be important to non-Kurds?

TV: If you consider yourself a leftist, or even progressive, this is the most clear-cut example of a group of people fighting for our ideals and actually putting them into practice against the most insane odds. How many examples do we have of real multiethnic, bottom-up democracy, not only in the Middle East, but really anywhere in the world? And it’s just shocking how well they’ve done up to this point with very limited resources. On top of that, it’s an example—maybe for the first time that I can remember—where the US military is a force for good. The Special Forces there were keeping Turkey away. They were fighting ISIS. For some reason, because of the scrambled geopolitics of the region, the US military was supporting these radical leftists forming a revolutionary state in the north of Syria. To support the Kurds you don’t have to go pick up a gun. But when you have the opportunity to put pressure on your government to do something that can make or break this incredible liberatory experiment, fucking do it. That chance only comes once in a lifetime.

Michael McCanne’s work has been published by Art in America, The New Inquiry, Boston Review, Jacobin, and Dissent.