A unique experiment in ‘stateless democracy’ and effective armed resistance against ISIS in Northern Syria is led by Kurdish women. Could their innovative model for social organization, which has brought peace, stability and progress to their region over the past three years, provide a way out for the crisis in Syria and other minorities in the Middle East? A personal account of a ‘political tourism’ visit to Rojava.
In what is nothing short of a social revolution, the peoples inhabiting the northwestern parts of Syria, which is called Rojava in Kurdish, have since 2011 managed successfully to fight off ISIS incursions while reestablishing a socio-economic order after the Syrian government’s presence disappeared. Led by the PYD, the political party representing the PKK in Syria, the population of Rojava has been mobilized to participate in self-rule and self-defense. I was their guest for a week, to find out more about the driving forces behind this exceptional resistance and democratic experiment.
Rojava is shaded in yellow; it consists of the large canton of Cizire and the smaller cantons of Kobane and Efrin. It seems the area around Tel Abyad, conquered by the YPG in the summer of 2015, will become part of Kobane canton.
Rojava is an area covering about 10% of Syrian territory that declared its autonomy in 2012. It is populated by about 1.5 million Kurds and 500,000 Arabs – many of them Christian – and smaller ethnic and religious minorities. This fertile land straddling the Turkish and Iraqi borders used to be the breadbasket of Syria, producing more than a third of its cereals and vegetables; it also contains substantial oil reserves.
The Kurdish minority in Syria used to face severe repression by the Baath regime, who denied it cultural and political rights; speaking Kurdish in public could be punished by death. The region was kept deliberately poor and backward, despite its natural wealth, and many Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship.
This did not prevent them from self-organizing. During the 1990s, Syrian Kurds came to be strongly influenced by the PKK (Turkey’s Kurdish Workers’ Party), who often took refuge in Syrian territory in their guerilla war against the Turkish State – one of the reasons for Turkey’s hostility towards the Assad regime. This continued in the first decade of the 2000s, when Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, transformed the Kurdish struggle from a military to a primarily political and social one. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed clandestinely as the Syrian branch of the PKK. It spurred into existence a wide civil society movement called ‘Tev-Dem’ (“Movement for a Democratic Society”) that mobilized not only the Kurdish, but also the other communities in Rojava: Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, Armenians, Turkmen and Chechens.
When the Syrian regime started collapsing in 2011 Tev-Dem quickly organized community elections throughout Rojava, ensuring a quota of 40% for women and the inclusion of all minorities. The elected municipal councils, in conjunction with the PYD, then appointed an executive for each area (canton) of Rojava, as well as an independent judiciary. These functioned in parallel for a while with the Syrian State, which was occupied fighting the insurgency in the rest of the country.
Many other Syrian Kurd political parties emerged, with the backing of the Kurdish Regional Government led by Barzani in Northern Iraq. Barzani endeavored to set up a friendly coalition in Rojava to avoid control by his PKK rivals. The Kurdish National Council (KNC) that was set up under auspices of Barzani in Erbil in July 2012 includes 16 political ‘parties’, but they have almost no social base, compared to Tev-Dem and the PYD. The PYD entered into a Barzani-mediated agreement to co-administer Rojava with the KNC, but in fact – as the KNC and Barzani complain – the PYD is the de facto authority in Rojava, thanks to its symbiotic relationship with Tev-Dem (see more later under the heading Stateless Democracy).
In the summer of 2012, Assad withdrew most of his troops from the region to fight in the battle of Aleppo and elsewhere. As the Syrian National Council, the main opposition to the Assad regime, does not tolerate the notion of Kurdish autonomy, the inhabitants of Rojava went it alone. Through community-based democratic structures, Tev-Dem organized the collective writing and adoption of a social contract, which functions as a constitution. Tev-Dem helped the communities set up self-defense militias, known as the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). In November 2013 the PYD formally proclaimed Rojava’s autonomy, although it has not been recognized by any external state.
The Kurds did not participate in the civil war until 2014, when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—hereafter called ISIS—rose to power in the zone immediately south of Rojava. The secular, democratic and non-Arab Kurds are the antithesis of ISIS, and in July 2014 the fundamentalist radicals launched an all-out attack on Kobane, one of Rojava’s main cities, strategically located along the Turkish border.
Having captured large stockpiles of heavy weapons in Mosul, and seemingly unstoppable, ISIS seemed poised for an easy win. But the YPG and YPJ militias resisted, with small arms and almost no support. Turkey, not tolerating a Kurdish splinter state along its southern border, hermetically closed the border with the Kobane enclave to isolate the Kurdish fighters, and apparently provided military and other support to ISIS, as many observers of the battle (including Columbia University’s David L. Phillips on CNBC) noted. The US-led coalition helped the YPG by bombing ISIS positions around Kobane, but the victory, after six months of intensive fighting, was truly and only that of the Kurds.
Another major success of the YPG defense forces was the evacuation of 35,000 to 50,000 Yezidis trapped on Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq, encircled by genocidal troops from ISIS in August 2014. The Iraqi Kurdish forces (Peshmerga), despite extensive support from US and British Special Forces and air strikes, were outperformed in their own territory by the YPG, who with the assistance of PKK guerillas from Turkey created a corridor to evacuate the trapped Yezidis to Rojava.
In the summer of 2015, the YPG launched a major offensive against ISIS positions on the borders of Rojava and, to everyone’s surprise, succeeded in considerably rolling back ISIS to the south, thus liberating many densely populated areas and joining the Kobane enclave to Cizire.
The military prowess of the Kurds, despite their serious lack of military equipment, now has caused them to be courted by the Russians and the US, who hope they will function as ‘boots on the ground’ to further roll back ISIS, despite fierce Turkish opposition. But the YPG see themselves as self-defense units, not an offensive force. Moreover, their societal aims are not tied to territorial expansion, but to effective self-rule to end their historic oppression.
The Kurdish fighters I spoke to during my visit attributed their victories to their high morale, saying “We are not serving the community, we are the community”. Kurdish families tend to be large, and parents often encourage about half of their sons and some daughters to join the armed resistance.
Although the armed forces are, like the rest of Rojava, staunchly secular, they highly value martyrdom. “When the blood of my children flows into the land” said one father bereft of two sons, “we become one with that land, and will defend it with even more conviction”. Pictures of Rojava’s martyrs are everywhere, in giant collages along public roads, stuck on windshields, pinned to uniforms and dangling from plastic trees in houses and offices. I was deeply moved by a slain policeman’s burial, as it was accompanied by true grief and mourning of the entire community.
Also contributing to high morale, the People’s Protection Units are strictly egalitarian. There is no hierarchy other than the ranks of fighter and commander, and the commanders live exactly as their soldiers. The YPJ, the women’s units, mix with men on the front lines, but not in the barracks to avoid shocking a still quite conservative society. The YPJ not only help emancipate Kurdish and other local women; they also demonstrate in action that women are truly equal members of the community, ready to bear their part of the war effort.
The Gender Revolution
My guide during the first days of my trip was the Minister of Women’s Affairs of Cizire, Amina Omar. Many of the leading personalities of the revolution we met over the coming days were Kurdish women. Amina Omar had studied law in Aleppo, and frequently chose to speak Arabic in public, as a gesture towards the non-Kurdish speaking Arab minority. Her translator was an Arab girl tightly wrapped in a hijab, a rather uncommon feature in Rojava’s streets, who hoped to pursue higher studies at the University of Damascus.
That the strongly secular, emancipated Minister would choose to work with such a translator is telling about the social revolution orchestrated by the PYD and its affiliates: there is a serious effort to ensure the bulk of the population comes along. I couldn’t imagine the young Arab translator truly identified with these changes, so I questioned her several times. It was clear that she was unhappy with the predominance of Kurdish over Arab language and culture, and unsure about the benefits of secularism; but she turned out to be a staunch supporter of the new political system and the overall project to transform society.
Some of our delegation members could not understand why social resistance against same-sex relations was not condemned; there was even more suspicion when the Amina Omar told us Rojava’s authorities are strongly against extra-marital sexual relations. That defies what are seen as progressive social policies in the West. It makes sense, however, when one knows how deeply socially conservative most Syrians are.
‘Control over my body’ is not (yet) an issue for Kurdish revolutionary women, but ‘control over society’ is. To start with, the narrative. The Kurds don’t agree with the ‘materialistic’ narrative of history, whereby progress of mankind was marked by increasing domination of the material world – almost entirely the work of men. Pointing to recent discoveries in the region which may undermine this theory (such as Gobekli Tepe) they argue that rapid human progress in the Neolithic period (roughly 10,000 to 5,000 BC) was actually stunted by growing gender imbalance. Male dominance was enshrined in institutions such as The State and Religion, and resulted in permanent war and conflict; it has now led the world to the brink of social and environmental collapse.
Öcalan has written extensively about the fundamental necessity to liberate women. As an example one can cite some phrases from his book “Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution” (2013, online here) which is regarded as one of the fundamental texts of the Rojava revolution:
“The 5000-year-old history of civilisation is essentially the history of the enslavement of woman. Consequently, woman’s freedom will only be achieved by waging a struggle against the foundations of this ruling system”.
“I have often written about “total divorce”, i.e. the ability to divorce from the five thousand years old culture of male domination. The female and male gender identities that we know today are constructs that were formed much later than the biological female and male. Woman has been exploited for thousands of years according to this constructed identity”. (Öcalan has apparently read Judith Butler’s texts on performative gender roles and the construction of gendered identities).
“Liberating life is impossible without a radical women’s revolution which would change man’s mentality and life. If we are unable to make peace between man and life and life and woman, happiness is but a vain hope.”
The Kurds see themselves as the direct descendants of the Neolithic cultures revealed by archaeological excavations in the Near East, pointing out that they have always inhabited the mountains and plateaus of upper Mesopotamia. This is the reason they give for the relative emancipation of Kurdish women and the relatively secular nature of Kurdish society, compared to the Arabs: as inhabitants of the mountains, they were less subjected to patriarchal society.
A main drawback for the legitimacy of the democratic movement in Rojava is its association with the PKK. In many parts of the world – including the USA and Europe, but especially in Turkey – it is still on the list of banned terrorist organizations. Indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s the PKK organized bloody reprisals against Turkish State repression; but it has come a long way since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Imprisoned since 1999, but still recognized as the leader of the international Kurdish struggle, the PKK’s leader Öcalan has abandoned the idea of forming a unified Kurdish State – despite the fact that the 35 to 40 million Kurds, living on the cusp of the Arab, Turkish and Iranian civilizations, are seen as the world’s largest ‘nation without a state’.
Öcalan argues that the State is the root of oppression of women and minorities alike, therefore being incompatible with the principles of democracy, equality and freedom. Inspired by the ideas of the US libertarian philosopher Murray Bookchin, he has become, in his prison writings, a fervent advocate of ‘stateless democracy’ and ‘social ecology’.
According to him, the concept of ‘stateless democracy’, or ‘democratic confederalism’, is based on the premise that only the practice of direct democracy at the communal level can avoid the capture of power by elites, who then serve their own interests instead of those they supposedly represent.
In Rojava, a commune consists of 300 people, co-chaired by an elected man and a woman. The co-chairs of 18 such communes form a district council, which decides on collective affairs. The communes and councils strive for consensus in their decisions. The district councils are bound together in a loosely-defined ‘confederal’ structure. Local executive bodies are suggested by the Kurdish National Council and appointed by the district councils. For matters of higher collective importance – management of natural resources, or self-defense – councils appoint delegates to commissions.
Remarkably, the executive power is at any moment truly answerable to the base (the population of the commune), which can withdraw its mandate at any moment. This is fundamentally different from Western representative democracies, where the people delegate their political participation to a political party or a member of parliament through elections once every few years, and where those representatives then deal with the institutions of power, often on unequal terms. Think, for example, of wars and the bailing out of banks despite parliamentary opposition. By virtue of the direct democratic system, this would be impossible in Rojava.
To bridge the knowledge gap between the common people and those formulating and carrying out policies, a specific effort is made to inform and educate the population about current issues. Despite the war and economic hardship, I found that, besides literacy programs, several new social science academies have been set up in Rojava where the ideas of Foucault, Agamben and Judith Butler are discussed using participative educational techniques. The effort to involve Arabs and other non-Kurdish groups in this social transformation is genuine. I met Arabs, Aramaeans, Yezidis and other minorities in positions of power and as participants in such debates.
The Rojava Kurds may be able to handle the firebrand radicals of the Islamic State; but they face a much more daunting threat to the north. The Turkish State has made it clear several times over the past years that they will not tolerate an autonomous Kurdish zone run by PKK allies in Syria. Turkey has hermetically sealed its border with Rojava (whereas its border with ISIS-held territory is open) thus strangling the Kurdish region economically. Turkish premier Davutoglu has slammed the USA and Russia for approaching the YPG with support, saying there is no difference between ISIS and the YPG-PYD, all being terrorists.
In July 2015, when Turkey finally gave in to international pressure to start bombing ISIS positions, almost all their sorties were in fact directed towards PKK positions in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq, thereby breaking a 2-year truce and negotiation process. Recently, the Turkish army has shelled YPG positions in Syria with the declared intent of stopping their further advance into ISIS-held territory.
Turkey is particularly nervous about Kurdish autonomy because the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds has flared up, after many years of calm. In the June 2015 elections, the People’s Democratic Party, the mostly Kurdish HDP, won a surprisingly high portion of the popular vote. The HDP is openly sympathetic towards the PKK and, interestingly, has adopted the principle of male/female co-chairs for its top positions.
The ruling AKP’s failure (or unwillingness?) to form a coalition government led President Erdogan to call new elections on November 1. The AKP gained an absolute majority by presenting itself as the sole guarantor for stability in the country. Its hardline stance on the Kurds allowed the AKP to capture part of the ultra-nationalist vote, while cowing moderate Kurdish voters who fear more conflict into abstention.
But Kurds throughout Turkey, inspired in part by Rojava, are already self-organizing in communities, ready to declare their autonomy if and when Turkish State control weakens. To quell this upsurge, it is quite possible that the Turkish government will attempt to crush the Rojava revolution – depending on the evolution of its internal politics.
Will the world stand by if this happens? The EU might, in order to secure the cooperation of Turkey as a buffer state in its refugee crisis, but the United States seem to have more leeway. For too long now it has been standing at the crossroads in its policies towards Syria, and the Middle East in general. The Rojava democratic experiment is fully in line with all the US stands for. It is a model that could work in the rest of Syria, and in other crisis areas of the world Might it work in the West? At any rate, it has proven to be the best defense against the Islamic State.
In any case, my own belief in democracy was incredibly energized by my visit to Rojava. Thanks are due to the Dutch artist Jonas Staal—who is building a parliament in Rojava—for inviting me.