Rojava, the Kurdish-majority liberated zone in northern Syria, is the location of a unique experiment in grassroots, participatory democracy.
It is undergoing a profound social revolution that emphasises social and economic equality, ecology, religious tolerance, ethnic inclusion, collectivity combined with individual freedom and, most obviously, feminism.
This helps explain Rojava’s surprising military success against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the distinctive character of its military forces — the most important of which are the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), which has male and female fighters, and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).
The Rojava revolution is distinctively Kurdish and 21st century.
The traditional Kurdish homeland — Kurdistan — is today divided between four nation-states — Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In all, the Kurdish people have faced oppression and state-sponsored violence.
In Turkey, the left-wing Abdullah Öcalan-led Kurdish Workers Party began an armed struggle for Kurdish national liberation in 1984 that sought to establish an independent, socialist Kurdistan, uniting all parts of the Kurd's divided homeland.
After Öcalan was kidnapped by Turkish forces and jailed in 1999, the PKK underwent ideological changes that recognised its strategy had reached an impasse. But it was also an adaptation to the realities of Kurdistan.
The name Rojava itself reflects the borders dividing Kurdistan. It simply means “West” (as in West Kurdistan).
Öcalan recognised that the struggles in each of the four parts of Kurdistan, while interlinked, had distinct paths. Also, all parts of Kurdistan included large numbers of people from non-Kurdish minorities.
A further negative example came with the development after 1991 of a pro-capitalist Kurdish state-let in northern Iraq under US protection, which became the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
The Kurdish left concluded that the nation-state itself was an oppressive institution. Borrowing the municipal libertarianism of US post-anarchist Murray Bookchin, a new approach to revolution was adopted based on local democratic autonomy and democratic confederalism between autonomous communities.
The aim was no longer to create a Kurdish nation-state, but to radically democratise both Kurdistan and the nation-states it was part of.
As part of this shift, the PKK divided into four separate parties in the four parts of Kurdistan, ideologically linked but organisationally separate. In Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed in 2003.
Syrian civil war
One of the many slanders directed against the PYD, YPG and YPJ by partisans of the Sunni Arab Syrian opposition is that they did not join the fight against Bashar al-Assad's regime that began after the 2011 anti-dictatorship uprising.
In reality, the YPG and YPJ have been fighting the regime since their establishment after the 2004 Qamislo uprising.
However, their military philosophy of armed self-defence, linked to the political philosophy of “democratic confederalism”, means not fighting offensive actions but defending areas under democratic autonomous self-rule.
In 2011, the PYD supported the mass, democratic (but ideologically mixed) uprising against Assad. However, it was concerned about the opposition overly militarising the conflict. This was initially the result of Assad’s military response to unarmed protests, but was fuelled by the intelligence agencies of the West and its regional allies.
This, and the growing ethnic and religious chauvinism of a largely Sunni and Arab opposition becoming defined as Sunni and Arab, caused the Kurdish movement to stay aloof from the fractious armed opposition.
By July 2012, the Assad regime’s military presence in Rojava was depleted by its need to defend Aleppo and Damascus from the Sunni Arab opposition. There was also a growing danger that Rojava would become a battleground between opposing forces hostile to Kurds and other ethnic minorities in the region, such as the Christian Assyrians.
In this context, a largely bloodless uprising declared Rojava a liberated zone, involving three autonomous cantons. This popular insurrection allowed the ideas of “democratic confederalism” to be most visibly realised in practice.
The PYD has played an ideological role in the democratic transformation in the autonomous cantons, but not an institutional one. It was key to setting up the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which organises and mobilises the population but like the PYD, has no institutional role. TEV-DEM is organisationally independent of the PYD.
Institutional power is based on a system called “Democratic Autonomy”. Ecology or Catastrophe said in January that TEV-DEM representative Çinar Salih explained how it works to a visiting academic delegation in Qamislo last December.
Salih said: “Our system rests on the communes, made up of neighbourhoods of 300 people. The communes have co-presidents, and there are co-presidents at all levels, from commune to canton administration.
“In each commune there are five or six different committees. Communes work in two ways. First, they resolve problems quickly and early — for example, a technical problem or a social one.
“Some jobs can be done in five minutes, but if you send it to the state, it gets caught in a bureaucracy. So we can solve issues quickly. The second way is political.
“If we speak about true democracy, decisions can’t be made from the top and go to the bottom, they have to be made at the bottom and then go up in degrees.
“The co-presidents are one male and one female.
“Qamislo has 6 different districts. Each district has 18 communes, and each commune is made up of 300 people … The 2 elected co-presidents from each commune come together to make up the people’s council of that district. Then each of these 6 district people’s councils elects 2 co-presidents.
“So from Qamislo’s 6 districts, 12 people make up the citywide people’s council of Qamislo. But 12 people alone can’t make up the council — it’s supposed to have 200. So in addition to these 12 people, the others are directly elected. Even if you’re not on a committee or weren’t elected in the commune, you can put their name out and potentially be elected.
“Cizîre canton consists of 12 cities. Delegates to the canton-level people’s council are allocated according to population. Qamislo is the biggest city, so it gets more delegates than others — it gets 20 … The co-presidents are already part of this big council; then Qamislo gets 18 more.
“Each city people’s council elects who’s going to go to the cantonwide people’s council. At the end you have a canton-wide people’s council. It’s like a parliament, but the ties between the commune and the councils are not severed.
“Female representation is guaranteed on all the peoples councils. No gender is allowed more than 60% representation. In addition, there are parallel women-only structures.
“Women’s councils exist in parallel at all levels, the commune, the district, the city, and the canton. The women’s councils don’t decide on general issues — that’s what the people’s councils are for. They discuss issues that are specifically about women …
“A committee tries to resolve issues between people. The women’s council also has a committee like this. So if they see in this committee an issue that concerns women, like a domestic violence dispute, and they disagree with the people’s council, and they say 'no', the no of the women’s council will be accepted. They have veto power on issues concerning women.”
The emphasis on women’s liberation that runs through the movement is reflected in the high visibility of female fighters.
Part of the ideological rethinking that the PKK and its associated groups went through involved emphasising the centrality of male supremacy — not only to capitalism but to all class societies since they first evolved more than three millennia ago.
The PKK supported women’s liberation from its beginning and female fighters always featured in the ranks of its armed affiliates. But the ideological shift to “democratic confederalism” moved women’s liberation to the centre of the Kurdish struggle.
Öcalan wrote: “Democratic confederalism … is flexible, multicultural, against monopolies and oriented towards consensus. Ecology and feminism are its central pillars.”
Salih said: “Our Rojava revolution is a revolution of women. In Rojava there is no area of life in which women don’t take an active part …
“We believe that a revolution that does not open the way for women’s liberation is not a revolution. There have been revolutions in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia … but the same status for women has persisted.”
Because of blockade and war, exacerbated by an influx of refugees from other parts of Syria, the economy of the cantons is still largely geared toward survival.
However, the emphasis on providing universal housing, nutrition, healthcare, childcare and education — none of which were provided by the Assad regime during peacetime — reflects the socialist orientation of the revolution.
The longer term goals were explained by Dara Kurdaxi, a member of the committee for economic revival and development in Afrin, in a November 2013 interview.
Kurdaxi said: “Naturally we’re only at the beginning. But nonetheless, even if only in small ways, we’re seeing some positive developments.
“We must be clear that we don’t need an economic revival and development which has no clear goal for the community … It shouldn’t be a capitalist system, one without respect for the environment; nor should it be a system which continues class contradictions and in the end only serves capital.”
The revolution in Rojava is a Syrian as well as a Kurdish revolution. In its preamble, the constitution of the Rojava autonomous cantons, the “Charter of the Autonomous Regions of Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanê”, describes the cantons as “a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens”.
It continues: “In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognises Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.
“In establishing this Charter, we declare a political system and civil administration founded upon a social contract that reconciles the rich mosaic of Syria through a transitional phase from dictatorship, civil war and destruction, to a new democratic society where civic life and social justice are preserved.”
The emphasis on the structures of the democratic autonomous administration being multi-ethnic, as opposed to Kurdish, is not mere rhetoric. Everything from street signs, to media, to education are in the languages of any particular community.
As with gender, ethnic participation on the communal and other councils is enabled by quotas, ensuring that all communities are represented in general structures, and by parallel bodies for ethnic minorities.
The revolution quickly won support from non-Kurdish minorities. This is reflected in non-Kurdish participation in the revolution’s structures and organisations, as well as alliances made with non-Kurdish political and armed groups.
The greatest difficulties for the revolution have been with the Arab community. The Arab-majority areas of Rojava were created by the ethnic cleansing and transmigration policies of the Assad dynasty and its predecessors over the past 50 years.
The revolution’s enemies have exploited fears that the Rojava Kurds will reverse this demographic change by expelling Arabs. This has not been helped by the example of the KRG in northern Iraq, which did just that.
Rojava's revolutionary forces, however, have shown that the principals of democratic autonomy apply as much to Arab communities as any other.
ISIS, Turkey and the US
The Turkish state is not threatened by the possibility of sharing a border with an independent Kurdish state. Its close relationship with the KRG in Iraq proves this.
The possibility of sharing a border with a Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic, religiously tolerant, socialist, feminist revolution — one with close ties with the Kurdish freedom movement and broader left inside its borders — is another question, however.
Initially, Turkey encouraged the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other Jihadi opposition groups to attack Rojava. However, the YPJ and YPG easily repelled these attacks.
Turkey transferred its support to ISIS, as was clearly seen during ISIS's siege of Kobanê, which lies on the border.
Less visible was the fact that despite having just initiated its “War on ISIS” — mainly an air war in Syria and Iraq — the US was less than eager to align with the YPG and YPJ.
During the siege, and since, the YPG and YPJ has requested two things from the West. One was for an end to NATO member Turkey's support for ISIS and the second was for heavy artillery weapons and night vision equipment, so they could match ISIS in firepower. Neither request was met.
However, the US began coordinating its air strikes with the YPG and YPJ. Rather than allow reinforcements from the YPG and YPJ access to Kobanê, the West sent a detachment of KRG fighters and a detachment from the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
But the FSA troops sent at the West’s behest played no role in the fighting. Other FSA units, who had gone to Kobanê at their own behest, became the core of the Burkan al-Firat (“Euphrates Volcano”) alliance, which encompasses the key Arab allies of the YPJ and YPG.
To Turkey's alarm, the YPG, YPJ and their allies not only lifted the siege of Kobanê but made significant advances.
The turning point came in June with liberation of Tel Abyad by YPJ, YPG and Burkan al-Firat forces. This linked two of three Rojava cantons and cut a key ISIS supply line across the border.
Coming at the same time as dramatic electoral success by the Kurdish-led left-wing People's Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey's elections, the Turkish government decided it had to act — launching a new war against the PKK in Turkey.
Although clearly aimed at the same Kurdish liberation forces that have proven the most successful at resisting ISIS, the US and its allies welcomed Turkey's moves as it joined the “war on ISIS”.
The US and its NATO ally, Turkey, are close to finalising an arrangement that will allow the establishment of a “safe zone” on the Syrian-Turkish border occupied by Turkish troops or proxies and backed by US air power. Although cloaked in the language of fighting ISIS, such a move would be aimed at undermining the Rojava Revolution.
Rojava needs the world’s solidarity — and deserves it because the world needs Rojava.
[Based on a chapter in a new pamphlet The Kurdish Freedom Struggle Today published by Resistance Books. Tony Iltis is a Green Left Weekly journalist and Sydney-based member of the Socialist Alliance.]