THE names Tigris and Euphrates resonate with ancient history, but today this “cradle of civilisation” has become the battleground for civilization’s future. Locally, people already describe what is happening here as a third world war: an acknowledgement not just of the scale of the fighting, but of the magnitude of the issues at stake.

Neoliberal capitalism has been accompanied by neo-imperial competition for power and control, while warring gangs, fired up by a bastardised religion, take advantage of the chaos. Neither militant jihadists nor the military-industrial complex offers hope for the future. But the very chaos of the civil war has opened up cracks and made space for the growth of a society with a totally different value system. I have been observing these developments from afar, but this month I had the opportunity to go and see them for myself as part of a women’s delegation to the autonomous, predominantly Kurdish, Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Despite the area’s long history, its towns and cities are relatively modern clusters of reinforced concrete; however the city of Kobanê has earned a legendary status. It was here, in a battle lasting from September 2014 to January 2015, that Daesh suffered their first significant defeat, forcing the world to ask: who are these Kurds who have defended their city against all the odds, and what gave them the strength where much better equipped armies had failed? Clearly, part of the answer lay in the lack of any alternative. Although most of the civilian population evacuated temporarily to Turkey, they knew that as Kurds they had no future there. But the Kurds were, and are, also driven by a revolutionary force for the creation of a new society.

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That force extends well beyond the fighters of the People’s Protection Units – the YPG and female YPJ. It was evident in so many of the people we met, but nowhere more so than with the two bubbly, middle-aged women Sara and Adile, who recounted to us how they had cooked the food for the fighters during the siege of Kobanê, and washed the dead bodies – including those of the Daesh attackers because that is the ethical thing to do. Despite the horrific conditions and unbearable violence, Adile told us that they were happy because their work was vital.

THE force for change took root long before the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. During the 1980s and 90s, Abdullah Öcalan and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were given refuge by the Syrian regime (who had no love for Turkey), bringing with them their radical leftist programme for secular democracy and women’s liberation. Adile explained that Öcalan provided them with an ideology and philosophy and a way to organise themselves, and he helped women to take charge of their own will. Under Syrian president Bashar al-Assad there was no room for any open opposition. Kurds could not even celebrate their spring festival of Newroz and, as another woman explained to us, photographs of political leaders had to be kept buried and only taken out at night. But, when the civil war created a power vacuum, Syrian Kurdish organisations were ready to take over control. Then, as Sara put it, it was as if a rock had been lifted, exposing green shoots underneath: the will of the people had built up, and now it could explode.

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Öcalan’s teachings gave them the strength and purpose to begin to build a new humanistic society, but the rocks that crushed them were not all placed by the regime. They also had to free themselves from the traditional patriarchal structures within their own culture and families, and the liberation of women has become increasingly central both to Öcalan’s ideology and to the Kurdish revolution. This includes ensuring women’s participation through quotas and co-chairs in all the new structures, and through separate women’s organisations.

IN the organisations that we visited we saw plenty of examples of relaxed and respectful relations between the sexes, but the shift in social consciousness that is needed is very large. As women are being supported to stand up against domestic abuse, we heard the (male) complaint that divorce rates have gone up.

The society that is being created is a bottom-up democracy that encourages as many people as possible to take an active part in moulding their community. We were taken to a local women’s organisation, or commune, that brought together women from 11 streets and was one of 65 similar communes in Kobanê. We met in their small plain hall, with concrete floor and plastic chairs. On the walls were pictures of “martyrs” who have been killed fighting for the freedom to make a better society and who, together with the martyrs in the women’s own families, act as a constant reminder of the principles they died for.

Women come here to organise and learn, and to share and resolve problems and disputes. In the economic sphere, the new society prioritises social need and the increased involvement of women. A women’s bakery co-op has recently been set up in the area. In their long floral dresses and head-scarves the commune women look unlikely revolutionaries, but there was no doubting their commitment and solidarity. They didn’t defer to a leader – our questions were answered by different people. One told us that they had come a long way and feel empowered, but still have a long way to go.

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Every city has its martyr’s cemetery where the community can gather to show respect for the fallen and support for their families. The cemetery in Kobanê is striking not just for the number of people who lost their lives defending that city, but also for the growing rows of graves of people from Kobanê who have gone on to die for the liberation of other places, such as Manbij and Raqqa. For the people of Kobanê, the Kurdish motto, “resistance is life”, is more than just a metaphor.

By the time Daesh had been pushed out of Kobanê, three quarters of the city had been destroyed. Rebuilding has been impressive, especially with the difficulties of getting building materials, however the area that bore the brunt of the attack has been left as a museum, complete with abandoned makeshift tanks. New street names recall the men and women who died there. It is a brutal and stark memorial, but overlooking all is something even more frightening. Just a few hundred metres away, across the Turkish border, a big red flag with a white crescent provides a constant reminder that the Kurds and their revolution face an existential threat. The Turkish government gave active support to Daesh and made no secret of their disappointment that Kobanê survived the siege.

This year, Turkey carried out an unprovoked invasion of Afrîn, the westernmost canton of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Up until then Afrîn had provided a haven of peace, welcoming refugees of all backgrounds from other parts of Syria; and it was here that the social revolution had been most fully developed.

Now, most of Afrîn’s Kurdish population is in refugee camps and scattered, while their homes are given to jihadi families and Arab refugees as part of a planned ethnic cleansing. Those families that remain are suffering under a rule not very different from that instigated by Daesh. And Turkish election rhetoric boasts of plans for extending the invasion to Kobanê and beyond. Yet, at the same time that we were in Syria, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was being given a state visit to the UK and welcomed by ministers desperate to make trade deals and boost British arms sales.

Without wide popular resistance, Western governments will continue to bow to Turkey’s demands.

The Kurdish-led struggle for a better world demands to be known and understood, before it is too late.

Sarah Glynn is a member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, who are contributing directly to the rebuilding of Kobanê by raising funds for a “Scottish” primary school (see The delegation she went on was organised by Peace in Kurdistan and Kongriya Star (the Kurdish women’s movement).