Across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, millions of people revolted against dictatorships in the great wave of hope known as the Arab Spring. That year also saw the beginning of the Rojava revolution in northern Syria, now in its tenth year. Elsewhere, the Arab Spring rapidly returned to deepest winter and left the old dictators firmly in control, or saw new ones installed.
The Assad family had ruled Syria for four decades via a brutally efficient secret police and a military well-armed with the proceeds of oil sales. People took to the streets in 2012, defying the regime’s goons and torture chambers, calling for democratic reforms and an end to the pervasive corruption and mismanagement that condemned them to deepening poverty.
The democratic upsurge foundered in large part because the Assad regime deliberately militarised the conflict and plunged the country into a disastrous civil war. The democratic impulse of the opposition was swamped by a tide of religious fundamentalism. Tragically, much of Syria now lies in ruins and the regime looks forward to victory.
Yet in one corner of the country — the northern border regions known to the Kurds as Rojava — hope for a better world lives on. Bordered on all sides by hostile reactionary forces, Rojava stands defiantly as a beacon for human solidarity, cooperation, and progress.
The Kurdish majority populations of Rojava welcomed the democratic upsurge of 2012. Although Syria is home to a bewildering array of non-Arab ethnic groups, including Kurds, the ruling Ba’ath party has long enforced Arab chauvinist policies: a fact evident in the country’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. The regime’s policies have aimed to assimilate non-Arab populations, resettle Arabs in non-Arab regions and even deny citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Kurds.
Rojava faced another deadly threat when the Islamic State (ISIS) declared itself a caliphate. The jihadis laid siege to the region, aided and abetted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime in neighbouring Turkey. As is now well-known, the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units/Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) and their allies organised in the Syrian Democratic Forces were able to defeat the jihadis and liberate their so-called capital of Raqqa.
What made these people fight so doggedly against a more heavily armed force? They were, of course, fighting for the lives of their families and communities against medievalist barbarians for whom no atrocity was too vile to commit.
But they were also fighting — and still are fighting — for a better world. In a region marked by religious obscurantism, ethnic bigotry, reactionary patriarchy, economic inequality and despotic modes of government, they have unfurled a banner inscribed with the burning words of human liberation for all, irrespective of gender, race or religion.
Ten years later, against all odds, beset by ferocious foes and abandoned by the world powers despite their sacrifice in the struggle against ISIS, the Rojava Revolution lives on. Incredibly, the Rojava Kurds have implemented a program of democratic confederalism — grassroots democracy, gender inclusivity, economic cooperation and ethnic and religious pluralism that is the antithesis of what exists around it.
It is a bold experiment and one that we as western socialists and internationalists must support. They made huge sacrifices and we must not forget them as Turkish despot Erdoğan again prepares his war machine for another invasion of Rojava, armed to the teeth by Western powers and waiting for the green light from his fellow autocrat in the Kremlin.