TAL ABYAD, Syria —In a former high school classroom in this northeastern Syrian town, about 250 Arab recruits for the U.S.-backed war against the Islamic State were being prepped by Kurdish instructors to receive military training from American troops.
But first, said the instructors, the recruits must learn and embrace the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader jailed in Turkey whose group is branded a terrorist organization by both Washington and Ankara.
On a rare visit by foreign journalists to northern Syria, Kurds were eager to explain Ocalan’s political theory, a mix of Marxism and the utopian dreams of a dead American leftist from Vermont named Murray Bookchin.
It seeks to abolish states and eliminate the need for governments by putting communities in charge of their own affairs. Referred to somewhat vaguely as “democratic confederalism” or the “democratic nation,” the theory places a heavy emphasis on egalitarianism, women’s rights and being kind to animals.
Originally envisaged by Ocalan as a way of achieving a form of autonomy for Turkish Kurds, who have historically faced severe discrimination by the Turkish government, the theories are now being adapted to the circumstances in Syria, with its diverse mix of Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Turkmen and others.
Far from seeking to redraw borders to give Kurds their own entity, along the lines of the region carved out by Kurds in neighboring Iraq, the Syrian Kurds are seeking to apply Ocalan’s vision of a borderless world to all of Syria and beyond, said Nusrat Amed Xelil, who oversees the ideological training of the Arab recruits.
‘We don’t want confederalism just for Kurds, but for all Syria, and even all of the Middle East,” he said. “We don’t recognize geographical borders between this area and that.”
U.S. advisers are also present on the ground with the Turkish-backed rebels in Syria, setting up a scenario in which U.S. Special Operations forces embedded with opposing sides could confront one another.
“We have taken prisoners who were trained by the United States, and the Turks have prisoners of ours who were also trained by the United States,” said Abu Amjad, who keeps a photograph of Ocalan as the screen saver on his phone.