POLITICS
12/18/2015 16:57 EST | Updated 01/12/2017 13:35 EST

America's Best Allies Against ISIS Are Inspired By A Bronx-Born Libertarian Socialist

Syrian Kurds have launched an unlikely radical experiment in governance without hierarchy, patriarchy or capitalism.

 
Photo Illustration by Troy Dunham. Stock from Getty / Shutterstock.
 

ISTANBUL -- Last fall, Islamic State fighters launched a coordinated, large-scale assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Fresh from victories that granted them an aura of invincibility, the extremists were about to remove the single irritant on a wide swath of the border they otherwise controlled.

The world watched in resignation. The lone superpower said it would not help. U.S. officials grimly predicted the city would fall. Yet the small band of Kurds held on for days, then weeks. The U.S.-led coalition against the self-described Islamic State began to help, first with a smattering of airstrikes then with daily assaults. And by January, in a stunning turnabout that has been called a contemporary Stalingrad, the Kurds won.

In succeeding, the Syrian Kurds defended not just a strategic outpost in the Middle East, but also a utopian idea of government they're putting into practice -- what they talk about as a space where decisions are made at the neighborhood level, where gender equity and ethnic inclusion are legally mandated, and where barter is becoming more important than currency. 

The Kurds' inspiration? Survival, sure. But also the ideas of one specific Bronx-born, Vermont-based philosopher. Their leaders developed their guiding philosophy out of a long engagement with Murray Bookchin, who fused Marxist and anarchist ideals into a vision of a world where citizens' assemblies supplant state bureaucracy and environmentalism is king. A contemporary of Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, Bookchin considered the socialist politician far too conservative.

Bookchin, who described himself as a libertarian socialist, died nearly a decade ago. His passing sparked a celebration of his life in the Kurdish regions. And now, Syrian Kurds have -- at the urging of Abdullah Ocalan, an imprisoned Kurdish icon -- built a Bookchin-inspired society that is the antithesis of the Islamic State.

The territory where the 1.5 million or so Syrian Kurds have launched this social experiment, carved out of the wreck of Bashar Assad's police state, includes Kobani and two other small "cantons," or regions. They call it all Rojava -- "Western Kurdistan" in Kurdish, the language the Syrian Kurds have only been able to use freely since Assad's control loosened a handful of years ago.

Washington sees the Syrian Kurds' success defending Kobani -- and other parts of Rojava -- as the chief example of how U.S.-led air power and partnerships with forces on the ground can effectively defeat the Islamic State.

But this is an especially odd partnership. The Syrian Kurds' ties to Ocalan and the PKK, the designated terrorist organization he leads, enrage Turkey, the most important U.S. ally in the region. And the Rojava vision is dramatically at odds with the more feudal nationalism of another group of Kurds who are used to being Washington's favorites -- those in Iraq. The Syrian Kurds' growing autonomy and unwillingness to launch an all-out offensive against Assad has also upset the Syrian Arab nationalist rebels that the U.S. has courted for years.

A quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall suggested the taming of the left, the U.S. is providing air cover for radical Marxist-inspired militants its closest allies can't stand.

Welcome to Rojava.

[This story is part of a series exploring the U.S.'s relationship with the Syrian Kurds. Go here for the other story, which chronicles how Washington's other alliances in the region make the most important relationship in the Islamic State fight also the most precarious.]

John Moore via Getty Images
Members of the female division of the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPJ, take part in the funeral of eight comrades on Nov. 8, 2015, in Derek, Rojava, Syria.

Bookchin, who died in Burlington, Vermont, in 2006, grew up speaking Russian. His parents were Russian Jews who were active in the movement against the Tsar -- "Russian revolutionaries," he called them in a 2001 interview. "I learned English in the streets" of a multi-ethnic New York, Bookchin said.

Bookchin was a young communist, but he knew early that he would not be following any party line. He left the Young Communist League in his teens because he was worried that his fellow leftists were collaborating with the bourgeoisie and becoming less militant. Bookchin remained involved in the U.S. Communist Party through the end of the Spanish Civil War, which he later said he would have participated in personally had he been older. But he left the party again before he graduated from high school, adopting Leon Trotsky's view that the Soviets had the right idea but were implementing it wrong, and got a job as a foundryman in New Jersey.

After 10 years as a labor organizer, Bookchin ditched orthodox Marxism altogether after the World War II -- disappointed, he explained in the 2001 interview, that "the war ended without a revolution." Bookchin set out to "rethink everything," he said, as he watched fellow workers in the auto industry become too passively middle class for his taste and labor's role in post-war America shift rapidly.

Bookchin began to dream of a future in which machines could replace most human effort and free individuals could develop themselves as they saw fit. But he believed that in the interim, social problems -- the biggest among them the struggle between amoral corporate power and humanity's best interests -- would lay waste to the natural world. "The notion of progress, once regarded as faith in the evolution of greater human cooperation and care, is now identified with ever greater competition and reckless economic growth," Bookchin argued.

So he began to pioneer a brand of thinking called social ecology that advocated using human innovation to serve populations and the planet rather than capital.

"I wrote about alternative technology, arguing that technology should be as humanly scaled as possible," Bookchin recalled in the later interview.

In Bookchin's view, "utopia was no longer just an idle dream, but something that could happen," according to his biographer and longtime companion, Janet Biehl.

"Murray's contribution to that was to figure what is going to be the institution," she said.

Bookchin proposed reshaping a capitalist world by setting up micro-level systems of local popular assemblies. Such a political structure would, he believed, marry the best of both the intellectual traditions he valued. "We have to go beyond the economism of Marx and beyond the individualism that is sometimes latent, sometimes explicit in anarchism," Bookchin said in 2001.He argued that true freedom and economic equity could only exist as products of democratically run, self-governing and non-hierarchical communities. Bookchin highlighted societies that he said enabled both freedom for the individual and social cooperation without relying on hierarchy.

"He's trying to do with hierarchy what Marx did with class," Biehl said. "It's no mistake that he ended up living here in Vermont, the land of the New England town meeting."

Debbie Bookchin, his daughter, told HuffPost her father insisted "we could only heal our relationship with the natural world when all forms of hierarchy were abolished."

The political structure Bookchin foresaw -- his approach to the revolutionary dream of establishing communalism or a "commune of communes" -- had little to do with the nation-state.

Perhaps that's what made it so appealing to the Syrian Kurds -- a people who have never had their own country. 

Ludwig Rauch
Murray Bookchin, photographed in 1992 by Ludwig Rauch. Image used with permission from the Murray Bookchin Trust.

The Syrian Kurds owe their Bookchin obsession to their chief guide: Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, a Kurdish revolutionary group in Turkey that has fought the Turkish government on and off since the early 1980s.

The European Union and the U.S. consider the PKK, which has killed thousands of Turkish security personnel and civilians, a terrorist organization. They support their NATO ally Turkey in its anti-PKK actions.

Unlike Iraqi Kurds ― partners of the West since 1991 who are skeptical of the PKK and are content for now with an autonomous region inside the nation-state of Iraq ―Syrian and Turkish Kurds take their ideological cues from Ocalan. So when he argued that longstanding Kurdish aspirations for political structures and societies of their own would be best fulfilled if Kurds adopted the philosophy of a mustachioed Russian-American Jew from the Bronx in New York City, they listened.

Ocalan was once a Marxist-Leninist true believer. But by 1999, when the U.S. and Syria helped Turkey capture him, he was signaling his doubts about the continued viability of orthodox communist thought. The PKK had abandoned the goal of establishing a Kurdish nation-state by 1995, according to Reimar Heider of Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan, a Germany-based nonprofit. By the time of what Ocalan supporters call the “abduction,” the Kurdish movement was trying to identify its next steps.

Turkey imprisoned Ocalan in 1999 on an island 35 miles south of Istanbul, the same T-shaped speck where soldiers who took over in a 1960 coup executed the prime minister they replaced. It built a courthouse for the express purpose of hosting Ocalan’s trial. It arrested fisherfolk who it believed got dangerously close. And then it left Ocalan alone for years in a 140-square-foot cell as the only inmate in a jail that once housed the American author of Midnight Express. A military base loomed nearby.

In prison, Ocalan dove into radical, post-communist literature, looking for a new way forward. A famously voracious reader whose book selections were regularly leaked in the Turkish and Kurdish press, he began to devour Murray Bookchin. By 2004, Heider and others advocating for Ocalan’s cause felt the time had come to connect him with the aging Vermonter. Establishing some form of dialogue was critical to them, Heider told HuffPost, because conservatives in Kurdish circles were pushing for the movement to completely abandon leftist thought.

They wrote to Biehl.

On April 11, five days after he received Ocalan’s missive, Bookchin wrote back with Biehl’s help.

Then 83, Bookchin had long been curious about the Kurds and written about their struggle in his personal journals, his daughter said. He told Ocalan he wasn’t familiar with all aspects of the PKK’s fight ― he blamed the U.S.’s “parochial press” ― and he was so old that writing was a struggle, but he was happy to be in touch.

“I am a walking history of the twentieth century in my own way and have always tried to look beyond ideas that people freeze into dogmas,” Bookchin wrote to Ocalan. “I ask you to please be patient with an old radical.”

The existence of Bookchin’s correspondence with Ocalan has been previously reported, but HuffPost obtained the full cache of preserved documents and is publishing them for the first time with permission from the Murray Bookchin Trust, Biehl and Heider.

Heider passed Bookchin’s message to Ocalan’s lawyers. The jailed Kurdish leader sent a response on May 5. In the new missive, Ocalan’s intermediaries mentioned that “he spoke of himself as a good student of yours.”

Ocalan conveyed that he disagreed with Bookchin on a few points and wanted non-Western philosophy to shape his vision as well. But he told his intermediary to tell Bookchin that “the Kurdish freedom movement was determined to successfully implement your ideas.”

Bookchin wrote back on May 9. “I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue with Mr. Ocalan,” he told the intermediary. But the Kurds were “fortunate indeed” to have Ocalan as a leader, Bookchin wrote.

Ocalan became, Biehl later wrote to the intermediary, “a beacon for [Bookchin] in his declining years.”

"I can't believe how much [Ocalan] thinks like Murray," she told HuffPost recently as she re-read their letters to one another.

From jail, Ocalan moved quickly to implement the new ideas he developed as he read Bookchin. In 2005, he shaped a PKK declaration that Kurdish liberation would not be achieved by setting up a new nation-state along ethnic lines. The nation-state itself entailed oppression, the declaration argued -- there had to be another, less centralized way for the Kurds to eventually govern themselves. It was a stunning indictment of socialism's past coming from one of the 20th century's most hardcore Marxists.

The announcement enshrined Ocalan's central idea for the Kurds and other communities living in Kurdish majority areas: "democratic confederalism," a major devolution of power intended to resemble Bookchin's communalism.

Kurdish areas in southeastern Turkey took advantage of a period of relative peace between the PKK and the state to put the Ocalan-Bookchin philosophy into practice, setting up "assembly democracy" at the neighborhood and village level. Because women had long been active fighters in the left-wing PKK and because Ocalan extended Bookchin's talk of abolishing hierarchies to smashing the patriarchy, these assemblies took the even more radical step of making women's inclusion a non-negotiable requirement.

When Bookchin died in 2006, a PKK assembly lauded him in a resolution Biehl shared with HuffPost. "We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle" the assembly vowed.

But it took the actual collapse of one of the most centralized nation-states in the region -- Assad's Syria -- for Ocalan and Bookchin's anti-state vision to fully manifest.

Inara De Leon
Murray Bookchin in 2004, the year he corresponded with Ocalan. He died two years later, before Rojava began making his vision a reality.

The Assad regime had banned Kurds from speaking their language, arbitrarily stripped thousands of them of Syrian citizenship and changed Kurdish names to their Arabic equivalents. Syria was (and it remains) an Arab Republic.

But in the summer of 2012, Assad pulled his forces from three Kurdish-majority areas near the border of Turkey to focus on fighting Arab rebels elsewhere. The Syrian Kurds' chief political party, an Ocalan-inspired organization called the PYD that is a Syrian affiliate of the PKK, filled the power vacuum.

Today, four years into Syria's civil war, the Islamic State uses eastern Syria as the core of its caliphate. Western-backed nationalist rebels maintain holdouts in the northwest and southwest of the country. Assad controls Damascus and the western Mediterranean coast.

But in northern Syria, in the three Kurdish enclaves that make up Rojava, the PYD holds sway.

There, Syrian Kurds have achieved Ocalan's goals with unexpected speed.

"The nation-state proved that it is bankrupt," Senem Mohammed, a Syrian Kurdish leader in Rojava, told HuffPost earlier this year. "We witnessed that ... there will always be problems, conflict between people in the nation-state."

Rojava supports the effort to free Syria from Assad, Mohammed said, but it wants to be sure that any replacement for the dictator does not simply end up resembling him. "The point is to change the system, not just to change the person," she added. "This is what we want."

"The Kurds already have made major strides in their quest for greater rights by being masters of their own areas for the first time in the history of modern Syria," the nonprofit International Crisis Group wrote in a report on Rojava published one year after the territory's establishment.

Rojava is now Ocalan's chief focus, according to Bejan Matur, a Kurdish poet and author in Turkey who has written about the PKK for years.

"He finds Rojava as his dream land," Matur told HuffPost in January. "All his dreams are coming true."

Rojava is among the most diverse regions of the Middle East. Mohammed, the PYD leader who serves as the Rojava emissary in Europe, served on a Kurdish commission that reached out to Arabs, Christian Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens and other residents of the areas newly free of Assad to work out a new form of government.

Non-Kurds were willing to work with the dominant Kurds and embrace their ideas, Mohammed argued. It didn't hurt, she noted, that all of them faced the existential threat of extremist militants tied to the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.

"Everybody threatened in the area asked, 'Who will protect us?'" Mohammed said. "When they realize that only [Kurdish] forces would protect them and defend the area, they joined our administration."

Mohammed and other politicians in Rojava, among them non-PYD activists and non-Kurds, declared their democratic self-administration in January 2014. Its central principles are outlined in a document that is described not as a constitution -- given that concept's connection to the institution of the state -- but as the "Social Contract." It prioritizes "ecological balance," Bookchin-style, and equality, and explicitly rejects state, religious or military nationalism.

Today, Rojava has evolved its own understanding of Bookchin's face-to-face democracy. Each of its neighborhood communes selects delegates to send to higher assemblies -- three layers of smaller and smaller councils that each cover wider regions. Those neighborhoods can recall their assembly representatives at any time. Each assembly must include Arabs, Kurds and members of other minority groups, like the Christian Syriac community, Mohammed told HuffPost. At the highest level of governance, each of the three cantons is led by two co-presidents, a man and a woman. Elected by these popular assemblies, the co-presidents are meant to be accountable through them to each Rojava resident in the neighborhood communes.

"They are living the ideals of human freedom and democratic decision-making that exemplify the highest aspirations of democracy-loving people, a feat all the more remarkable because they are doing it in the middle of a war," Debbie Bookchin wrote of the Syrian Kurds last year in The Huffington Post. She told HuffPost recently that Rojava's determination to establish a society like this was especially striking to her because her father thought of such change being implemented gradually during peacetime.

The task facing the PYD's decision-makers -- women and men, Kurds and Arabs -- is a staggering one. Rojava has lost thousands of residents as refugees and victims of war, and it is effectively cut off from the rest of the world. Only limited supplies enter through the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. And trade with the rest of the country is nearly impossible because of Western embargoes on Syria and the Islamic State's grip on the areas surrounding the cantons. So devising a radical new economy isn't only ideologically necessary -- it's the only way the region can survive.

Rojava's economy relies on agricultural cooperatives, industrialists who fled from the besieged Syrian industrial capital of Aleppo, and the portion of Syria's oil reserves that the Kurds now control -- which they cannot sell abroad but can use for necessities like diesel generators. The local councils direct farms in their areas to be sustainable and socially conscious, providing what the Rojava residents around them need rather than focusing on cash crops. It's a Syrian Kurdish version of what high-end restaurants in the U.S. call "farm-to-table."

"We will develop an economy based on agriculture, that is to say production. We will base this mode of production on a foundation by which all the peoples of the region will be included and benefit from it," one Rojava official from the Afrin canton, Dr. Ahmet Yusuf, told the PKK-linked Kurdish outlet ANF News last December. "We will encourage everyone to work their own lands based on the needs of the community."

Rojava's economy should be based on small cooperatives that mirror Ocalan's descriptions of ideal societies of the past, Yusuf said. Wealthy investors are welcome to contribute by putting capital into various citizens' efforts to live off the land, he added, since private enterprise is still part of the economy. But he wants them to know that "we will not allow them the opportunity to exploit the community and people or monopolize."

"We will succeed in this," Yusuf said. "Because there is no other model left to try on Earth. Because this model is the model by which the history of humanity will be brought back to life."

Much day-to-day business is done using a barter system. It's a necessity, given the fact that Syria's currency is now largely worthless.

Janet Biehl
A Rojava sewing cooperative in Derik, Rojava, Syria, in December 2014. Workers are sowing uniforms for the Syrian Kurds' militia, the YPG.

Shaky as Rojava's economy and political system are, they have a key advantage. Unlike most social structures around the world, they take full advantage of their entire population rather than largely excluding half of it. Gender equity is central to how Rojava works, in large part because Ocalan's ideology has convinced the PYD of its importance.

To the PKK offshoot, "Kurds are oppressed, but Kurdish women are oppressed twice. And without empowering women ... society will not be free," said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst who closely monitors the PYD and YPG, the PYD's armed counterpart

Rojava mandates that women comprise at least 40 percent of all governing bodies, multiple observers of the region said. The senior leader in the Afrin canton is a woman, and 35 percent of the Syrian Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State on Rojava's behalf are women, Civiroglu told HuffPost earlier this year.

The radical experiment has a built-in safety valve to ensure that centuries-old misogyny won't prevent the spread of the new ideas: It has set up parallel women's bodies at every level of political organization. These structures are composed entirely of women and have the final say on issues regarding women, Biehl reported after talking to Rojava politicians. The final say on any of those issues -- among them still-prevalent problems like domestic violence -- is that of the women's council.

Janet Biehl
Rojava residents at a people's assembly meeting in Qamishli, Rojava, Syria, in December 2014.
Barcroft Media via Getty Images
A fighter with the YPJ, the women's branch of the Syrian Kurdish militia, on March 3, 2015, in Tal Hamis, Rojava, Syria.

Utopian or no, revolutions are often not pretty up close. Rojava is no exception. Asked about the Syrian Kurds last year, just as the U.S. began to support Kobani, an Obama administration official hesitated before gingerly mentioning their militia's use of child soldiers. 

"Hopefully all that stuff's in the past," he said.

It doesn't look like it, Human Rights Watch warned this summer. The organization said the YPG demobilized 149 fighters younger than 18 in July 2014 after promising to do so, but then accepted child recruits over the next year -- including some who apparently died in combat in June 2015. "The Kurdish forces are fighting groups like the Islamic State that flout the laws of war, but that’s no excuse to tolerate abuses by its own forces," said Human Rights Watch's Fred Abrahams. The YPG's response: It would work on the problem.

Nor does direct democracy necessarily mean that competing political parties, with competing ideologies, are welcome. The Syrian Kurdish area is "the best place you as a journalist can be today in Syria," according to Sirwan Berko, the head of a U.S.-supported independent radio station called ARTA FM. But that's relative, he noted -- this is a country where 86 journalists have been killed since the revolution began in 2011, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Berko's outlet broadcasts in Kurdish and in the languages of the main minority communities that live in Rojava: Assyrians and Arabs. "We are not a Kurdish radio station," he told HuffPost. "We are the radio station of the components of society in Rojava. That means everybody: supporters of the [Assad] regime, Muslims, Christians, Yazidis ... we don't believe in a Kurdish region or an Arab region, and we don't think it's useful to say 'majority' or 'minority.'"

Rojava's rulers underestimate the value of an independent media, Berko argued. The YPG raided one of his stations in March 2014. In August of this year, the PYD suspended the licenses of Rudaw, a leading Kurdish network that broadcasts around the region, and Orient TV, a station associated with the anti-Assad Arab media.

Meanwhile, political opponents of the PYD have disappeared or been killed as the party has solidified its control, Human Rights Watch reported in the summer of 2014. The group cast doubt on the investigations into those cases and also highlighted arbitrary detentions and a 2013 instance in which YPG forces shot at and beat anti-PYD protesters. (Rojava officials saidthe responsible fighters had been disciplined for their excesses.)

Many activists and journalists have left Rojava out of fear since the PYD takeover, Berko said. And even international allies of the Kurdish party's radical ideology have turned skeptical: In December 2014, the U.K.-based Anarchist Federation criticized the PYD's dominance in its representative assemblies and the power of the personality cult around Abdullah Ocalan, the PYD's icon.

"The dilemma is that Syrian Kurds don't have an alternative to the PYD," Berko argued. The Islamic State's rise has ensured the PYD's dominance, he said -- other parties in the region lost the faith of locals once the PYD and the YPG took the lead in defending Rojava against extremists.

Daryus al-Darwish, an independent activist and journalist from Rojava's capital of Qamishli, said one-party rule undercuts the PYD's rhetoric about building the most radically open society in the Middle East through what they call direct democracy.

"Their control over the administrative authorities, over the parliaments and the executive authorities and the judicial authorities, that's not any kind of democracy -- not direct or indirect democracy," Darwish told HuffPost this fall from Paris, where he lives now, writing about Kurdish issues for U.S. and Arab outlets.

These accusations, largely ignored in the West, could mean trouble for Washington because of how closely it's now linked with the PYD.

An October Amnesty International report on the brutal treatment some Arabs faced after the Kurdish militia retook their areas from the Islamic State was released under the headline "U.S. Ally's Razing Of Villages Amounts To War Crimes." Among Amnesty's findings was the discovery that some Kurdish fighters had told Arab civilians that if they did not move when they were commanded to, they would be hit by U.S. airstrikes.

Lama Fakih, a researcher involved with the report, told HuffPost her group had raised its allegations with the State Department. She indicated that the U.S. would be the primary point of contact -- other than PYD officials themselves -- about the potential war crimes because of its role in supporting the Kurds.

"I'd be lying if I said I'm not worried about the U.S. empowering the PYD," Darwish said. "I cannot stand against my people's interest in the American support. What I think, with the Americans and any other international actor who wants to support the PYD and the YPG, is that after saying thank you to them, I want them to know that this support must be accompanied with pressure to achieve democracy -- otherwise their support will be meaningless."

JACQUES DEMARTHON via Getty Images
PYD co-presidents Saleh Muslim Mohammed (L) and Asya Abdullah with Syrian Kurdish fighter Nasrin Abdullah (R) at a press conference in Paris, France, on Feb. 9, 2015.

When Mohammed, the Rojava leader, came to Washington in March, she won her party its first high-level meetings at the State Department and with key analysts here who help shape strategic thinking.

But despite Rojava's importance to the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, the visit didn't make headlines. In fact, even as she met with top U.S. officials, Mohammed did so knowing that her party's top leader's visa application had been rejected just weeks earlier. To the U.S. government, many of Rojava's leading lights could be considered terrorists because of their ties to the PKK.

Those ties partly explain why Washington has been loathe to fully embrace the Syrian Kurds. That move risks alienating Turkey, which has only just agreed to ramp up efforts against the Islamic State group -- with an apparent green light to hit the Kurds as well. Support for the group is also unpopular among Arabs fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraqi Kurds, who are not eager to share their favored status as U.S. partners with their pinko cousins to their West. (Iraqi Kurds are represented by three political parties, of which two -- those that are not in charge -- strongly support Rojava).

But the Kurds say they won't surrender their ideology just to please Washington."They call us terrorists. It's because the United States knows we won't follow their orders," one PKK fighter calling herself Tamara told HuffPost contributor Khazar Fatemi. "If they say something, we won't simply obey."  

The State Department's terror designation and regional politics have not stopped some Americans from making up their minds about the Syrian Kurds and traveling to fight alongside them -- even if they are sometimes doing so without fully understanding what Rojava stands for. One American volunteer said he left after he realized the Syrian Kurds are "damn reds," Middle East Eye reported this spring. He got it wrong, according to Dean Parker, another American who journeyed to the region and trained with PYD-linked militants. Parker told HuffPost this summer that he didn't want the U.S. public to fear supporting the Syrian Kurds because of worries about Rojava's ideology. "They're not a bunch of communists, they're not a bunch of socialists," Parker said. "It's a different type of democracy, a new concept."

Some Europeans, like the leftist intellectuals associated with the New World Summit who inaugurated a Rojava parliament this October and the fighters who've followed the same path as some Americans, share a respect for the Kurds' thinking. Recently returned Swedish volunteer Jesper Söder and a Dutchman who asked to remain anonymous because of worries that his family in the Netherlands might be targeted by Islamic State cells told HuffPost in November they would like NATO to delist the PKK and be tougher on Turkey. "Get Turkey out of NATO," the Dutchman said. 

Ultimately, persistent doubt over how much the U.S. is willing to support a group its other allies hate cannot diminish what the Kurds have already accomplished. Henri Barkey, a Woodrow Wilson International Center scholar and former State Department official who has written extensively on the Kurds, told HuffPost that while it was difficult to expect a fully democratic, liberal administration to be established in the midst of a civil war, the Syrian Kurds appear to have "put their money where their mouth is."

Rojava's defense of Kobani against the Islamic State was "a larger-than-life moment," Barkey added. The radical experiment has secured its place in Middle Eastern history -- and shown the viability of a different way for Kurds and others in the region to live.

"The hard way, the old-fashioned way, they have won," Barkey told HuffPost.

Janet Biehl
A cemetery in Qamishli, Rojava, Syria, in December 2014.

Last December, Biehl saw Rojava for herself for the first time. She flew to Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. Unimpressed with the oil-rich city’s “apparent aspirations to emulate Dubai,” she and the group of academics and activists she was traveling with soon journeyed to the Tigris River, at the western edge of Iraqi Kurdistan, to cross into Rojava. One day, the delegation visited an academy for security officers to get a grasp of the education the democratic self-administration was providing. Minutes into what she described as an initially awkward encounter, she asked her translator to tell the students and their teacher that she had a friend called Murray back in the U.S. who would have been very pleased to hear about the ideas they were putting into practice. Biehl knew about his influence on Ocalan and other top activists, but had no idea that it had gone much further.

“I just threw it out there,” Biehl said. “And it turned out they had been reading Bookchin that morning.”

UPDATED 1/12/17: This story has been updated to include the original message from Reimar Heidar of Freedom for Abdullah Ocalan to Murray Bookchin.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Murray Bookchin was from Brooklyn. He was from the Bronx. It also misspelled Sirwan Berko’s last name.