As the civil war in Syria rages, a region in the country’s north, Rojava, has been the site of a revolutionary social experiment in participatory democracy, communal egalitarianism, self-determination, ecological politics and feminist ethos. An emerging geopolitical scheme between the United States, Russia and Turkey, however, is attempting to crush this extraordinary experiment in the Middle East.
On 9 October 2019, the Turkish military launched an offensive called Peace Spring Operation in northeast Syria to remove Kurdish resistance forces from the area and create a 30km “safe zone” in which Turkey could resettle millions of Syrian refugees. The Turkish belligerence came after US President Donald Trump abruptly abandoned his Kurdish allies, who had been at the forefront of the struggle against the Islamic State (Isis) militant group since 2012 and were instrumental in liberating vast swathes of Syrian areas from the jihadists.
Turkey launched the invasion of areas controlled by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organisation. Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from the region cleared the way for the Turkish army to attack.
The decision by the Trump administration has shocked both the Kurds and the entire international community. The Turkish offensive could be disastrous for the Syrian Kurds, who now face an existential threat from both Turkey and Syria, echoing the old popular adage: the Kurds “have no friends but the mountains”. The US withdrawal prompted a storm of criticism, with many countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and France, condemning the Turkish operation. Several others, such as the United Kingdom and Iraq, expressed “serious concern”. Trump has insisted his policy does not constitute a desertion of America’s Syrian Kurd allies and has threatened sanctions against Turkey.
Until a few years ago, more than three million Syrian Kurds lived under severe repression in the ragged, forgotten parts of northern Syria. They were denied the legal status they needed to gain access to education and jobs, and the Bashar-al Assad regime rejected their identity.
Social and political revolution
When the Arab Spring came to Syria, the Kurdish inhabitants of Rojava reorganised their movement to carve out a democratic, quasi-autonomous state. Following the liberation of Kobane in July 2012, the Kurds began a social and political revolution that attempts to implement “libertarian municipalism”, the revolutionary political system devised by American anarchist, historian and philosopher Murray Bookchin, based on his philosophy of “social ecology”. In municipalism, freedom is given institutional form in localised public assemblies that become decision-making bodies.
Rojava means “the west” in Kurmanji, the language of many Kurdish-speaking people, and forms the western part of the “traditional” regions of Kurdistan, a vast area where the ancestors of the Kurdish people lived for thousands of years. It is made up of four parts: Rojava lies in the north of Syria bordering the Kurdish regions of Turkey, while other Kurdish zones lie within the present boundaries of Iraq and Iran. The Kurds have fought for their liberation over the past hundred years in each of the four countries, but have been brutally suppressed. In Iraq, however, the Kurds have a legally autonomous Kurdish region.
Although the case for a Kurdish independent state is rarely made, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own and have suffered an attempted genocide. They are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East, constituting about 10% of the region’s population. The Kurds in Rojava do not assert a separatist agenda but rather seek a federalised Syria with greater autonomy.
Since the early 1980s, Kurds have experimented with the social theories underpinning direct grassroots democracy, based primarily on the Bookchin-influenced writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is an insurgent organisation that has fought the Turkish army for more than three decades. It is listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United Nations and Öcalan is serving a prison sentence for alleged treason and sedition in Turkey.
In Rojava, however, the YPG, YPJ (the male and female forces of Women’s Protection Units, respectively) and the PYD (their political wing), emphasise that they are entirely different organisations and have no crossover with the PKK. These groups assert that they are defensive forces only and do not engage in offensive action.
However, the Turkish state perceives the YPG/J-controlled zone along its borders as an “existential threat” to its sovereignty owing to alleged links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. Announcing the launch of the Peace Spring Operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his aim was “to destroy the terror corridor, which is trying to be established on our southern border”.
Rojava has established an extensive system of participatory democracy and a justice system that deliberately fights against all forms of domination. It especially works to put an end to millennia of patriarchy, seeking the creation of a society based on anti-patriarchal principles such as communality, grassroots democracy and ecology.
The Rojava revolution attained international recognition because of the women’s units in Kobane. It came to surprise the global community that women were militant commanders leading the fight against regressive Isis groups, who often treated women as lesser beings and sex slaves. Kurdish women played a leading role in the revolution and rose to iconic status.
Women’s cooperatives were constructed across Rojava and they started to organise, constructing their own councils and military units. It is quite common for women to study and discuss gender theorists and feminist revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg, Maria Mies and Judith Butler.
The political arrangement in Rojava is made up of confederal regions with different sets of operating principles. It does not claim to be a typical state, but rather a confederation in which the cantons have voluntarily chosen to unite. Rojavans follow largely anarchist principles, specifically a hybrid form of anarchism sometimes termed “communalism”.
Rojava’s legal system mirrors its political structure, which seeks to ensure justice and resolution of issues from street level up. The system functions on consensual restorative law and mediation. The emphasis is firmly on rehabilitation rather than retribution, and it lacks the adversarial basis of legal practice in the common law world. This is quite extraordinary in a Middle Eastern context that is generally characterised by a deeply patriarchal outlook, and where customary law often prevails.
There is a gender quota of at least 40% women in the system, with rules and principles constantly evolving. In matters concerning women, there is a parallel system designed to create a less intimidating environment. There are peace committees that deal with forced marriage, polygamy and child marriage cases. There is no death penalty.
The Asayish, who see their function as protecting the people rather than any official institution, carries out policing. They have powers of arrest, but cannot detain anyone for longer than 24 hours without a court order. The legal academy in Qamishli supports judges in their work and assists with the reconciliation of Syrian law with the social contract. Where there is a conflict, the social contract takes precedence.
Deserving of success
Rojava became a sanctum of gender equality and participatory democracy, but the new geopolitical realignment and US betrayal could greatly hamper this unique sociopolitical feminist project. Despite the recent setback, the fate of the Rojava experiment in direct democracy, gender equality and secularism remains to be seen, but deserves to succeed. It is critical to emphasise that Syrian Kurds have aimed to create a society that truly empowers people, especially women at the local level, and has set a precedent for other communities to emulate this experiment to pave the way for a more egalitarian Middle East.
“Unfortunately, Turkey’s military aggression risks not just destroying the democratic governing model for Syria that Kurds established, but also reversing all the gains made against Isis,” writes Yerevan Saeed, a research associate at the Middle East Research Institute.
“It will be a tragedy if Rojava is crushed, the latest in a long history of betrayal of Kurds,” writes The Observer newspaper columnist Kenan Malik. “Rojava was not, however, the first spark of freedom in the region, and it will not be the last. As mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon reveal, it’s a spark that refuses to be extinguished.”
The geopolitical games of regional and global powers have often created hurdles for stateless people and suppressed communities like the Kurds in achieving their liberation. The Rojava revolution, whatever its final outcome, has already achieved an iconic position in its struggle for democracy and gender equality. It will always be regarded as a prime example of a historic moment of freedom, rights and egalitarianism. It is, therefore, incumbent on the international community to recognise and preserve, or even emulate, this revolution.