SYRIA'S KURDS HAVE managed to defeat ISIS, manage multiethnic coexistence, and possibly hold off an invasion by a NATO army, all without a state of their own--not because of starry-eyed idealism but because of the practical advantages of a consensus-based, bottom-up society.
In The Kurds of Northern Syria, Harriet Allsopp, one of the foremost experts on Kurdish political movements, and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist at the front lines of the fight, try to understand how the Kurdish revolutionary project has played out on the ground. Their book mixes interviews, sociological surveys, and reporting to draw a detailed picture of Syrian Kurdish life before and during the current civil war.
AFTER THE FIRST World War, the Kurds found themselves under the thumb of four nationalist states, each of which saw Kurdish identity as a threat to its ethnic unity. But the group's story has played out in different ways on the ground. In Syria, unlike in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, there was little hope for an armed struggle. There was no mountain wilderness from which to wage a guerrilla war, and Syrian Kurds were scattered among Arabs, Syriac Christians, and other ethnic and religious groups. So politically active Syrian Kurds focused on supporting Kurdish independence wars in neighboring countries while pushing nonviolently for minority rights at home.
The oldest Syrian Kurdish parties grew out of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria, founded in 19S7. But another faction, born in 1978, clustered around the guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan.
Ocalan spent years in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon organizing a Marxist guerrilla army to fight the Turkish state in a brutal war that killed tens of thousands of people. As part of an agreement with Turkey in 1999, the Syrian government kicked out Ocalan, who was condemned to a Turkish jail cell for the rest of his life. There he supposedly had a change of heart, renouncing Marxism in favor of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin's model of a revolution that does not take state power. His remaining followers in Syria organized under the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
After Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, dictator Bashar Assad pulled his troops out of the northeast to cope with a revolution closer to the capital. The Kurdish parties initially tried to organize together to fill the vacuum as the "Supreme Kurdish Council." Then the PYD realized it had an army of armed supporters and the other...