Syria: Amid terror, blockades, autonomous democratic federation struggles to meet refugee needs

May 13, 2017
A YPG fighter gives water to a young refugee.

An ISIS attack on May 2 near the Rajim Salibi border crossing between Iraq and Syria left 37 refugees dead and at least 20 injured. Victims were as young as three months. “The attack was repelled [by] the intervention by Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] fighters,” Firat News Agency reported.

Most of the refugees were fleeing the Iraqi city of Mosul, which for months has been the scene of heavy fighting as Western, Russian, Iranian, Iraqi government forces and allied militias try to retake the city from ISIS.

In typical fashion, ISIS unashamedly took responsibility for the atrocity. The attack also illustrates some aspects of the Middle Eastern refugee crisis and the wars creating it that are generally misunderstood and misreported in the West.

Firstly, it shows that while anti-refugee propaganda in Western countries portrays Middle Eastern refugees as potential ISIS terrorists, in reality Middle Eastern refugees better fit the profile of ISIS victims.


Perhaps more surprising is that the refugees attacked were mainly fleeing to, not from, Syria — despite Syria being renowned as a country of origin of refugees.

Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, about 12-13 million people, roughly three quarters of the population, have had to flee their homes. About half have left Syria and are officially recognised as refugees. The remainder are classified as “internally displaced people” (IDPs).

The refugees attacked by ISIS on May 2 included Syrians as well as Iraqis. Both groups were fleeing to the parts of Syria controlled militarily by the SDF.

The SDF is an alliance of armed groups subordinate to locally-based democratic political structures known as “democratic self-administration”. These are federated into the Democratic Federation of North Syria, whose peak body is the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD).

The democratic self-administration originated in three geographically separated cantons in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), which overthrew the dictatorial rule of the Assad regime in 2012. Since then it has expanded, liberating most of Rojava and expanding beyond it as the SDF has made military gains, mostly at the expense of ISIS.

The Kurdish origins of the democratic self-administration are reflected in the predominantly Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG) and Women’s Defence Units (YPJ) forming the backbone of the SDF.

Rojava was historically the most underdeveloped and peripheral region of Syria. Since 2012, the democratic self-administration has been attacked by both the Syrian government and opposition forces, al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Turkish state.

Last August, Turkey launched a full-scale invasion to occupy territory separating the Afrin canton from the rest of Rojava. 

Democratic self-administration

The areas under democratic self-administration are under a siege-like economic blockade. They are surrounded by hostile government and opposition forces, Turkey and the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq. The KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is closely allied with the Turkish regime and opposes the Rojava-North Syria revolution.

Despite this, the democratic self-administration’s attitude to refugees contrasts dramatically with that of the wealthy Western countries.

Britain, the European Union and the US are increasingly following Australia’s lead in implementing cruel policies of closed borders and deterrence. Yet the democratic self-administration in Syria has not only welcomed refugees from other parts of Syria and Iraq, but seeks to provide means of economic livelihood and  grants full political rights and inclusion into local democratic structures.

By 2014, an estimated half of Rojava’s population — about 2 million people — was made up of refugees. This decreased the Kurdish proportion of the population, giving the lie to claims by the democratic self-administration’s many enemies that the predominantly Kurdish YPG and YPJ were ethnically cleansing the region.

However, in recent months hundreds of thousands more have fled to SDF-controlled areas, with the democratic self-administration struggling to provide people’s needs. Like ISIS, Turkish military attacks often target refugees, adding to the difficulties.

Shamefully, international NGOs and United Nations agencies have mostly refused to provide assistance. On May 8, Afrin Social Works Council co-chair Arife Bekir told Firat News Agency: “We as the people of Afrin and the Democratic Autonomous Administration have spent great efforts to fulfil the needs of the refugees and that continues still.

“We went from door to door, gathering aid. Our families cut down on their children’s needs to aid the refugees … Our resources are not enough to fulfil the basic humanitarian needs of the refugees. Although we have made countless calls, the supplies aid organisations have sent can only cover 2% of the current situation for refugees in Afrin.

“There are serious health issues coming up due to factors like limited resources, lack of food, the hot and the cold. There are cancer patients, there are people with conditions like hepatitis.

“But there is not enough medicine in Afrin itself. The people of Afrin are also suffering from this, as well as the refugees.”

She added that the situation had been worsened by a May 1 Turkish artillery attack, about which the international community were silent.

Hawar News Agency reported on May 9 that the Manbij Refugee Camp was being overwhelmed by refugees from the frontline between SDF and ISIS forces around al-Raqqa and al-Tabqa, and facing a similar lack of response from international organisations.


The humanitarian approach to refugees reflects the politics of the democratic self-administration in Rojava and Northern Syria. The ideological basis for this model is the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, who founded the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the 1970s and led it in its armed struggle against the Turkish state until his capture, with CIA assistance, in 1999.

The PKK initially fought for an independent Kurdistan. However, by the time of Ocalan’s capture, the armed struggle had reached a bloody impasse. Guided by Ocalan’s writings from prison helped, the movement underwent a radical transformation.

This was partly based on recognition that because Kurdistan was partitioned and occupied by four different nation-states, the struggle for Kurdish self-determination was taking place on four different terrains. The PKK was broken up into four parties.

But, eclectically mixing ideas from Marxism, anarchism and other left-wing ideologies, the transformation went considerably further.

The strategy of people’s war was abandoned for a strategy of armed self-defence. The struggle for women’s liberation was also recognised as central to the struggle for human emancipation.

Thirdly, nationalism was abandoned. This was partly in response to the negative example of the KDP-ruled statelet in Northern Iraq, which has been marked by wealth inequality, authoritarian rule and persecution of non-Kurdish minorities.

Instead of creating a new nation-state, Ocalan called for the creation of participatory democracy based on a federation of autonomous local communities.

These ideas have been most fully realised in Syria, starting in Rojava.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian successor to the PKK, gained a strong following in Rojava.

When the Syria-wide uprising against the Assad regime broke out in 2011, it was led by civilian activists. However, Assad’s brutal military response and military aid from the West and its regional allies meant it evolved into a full-scale armed conflict, with Islamist groups becoming dominant.

In the three cantons of Rojava, by contrast, the PYD helped establish the broad mass-based Democratic Society Movement (Tev-Dem), which helped create participatory democratic structures.

Women’s liberation

Perhaps the most notable feature of the model is its feminism. All structures have a quota so that women must have at least 40% representation and all bodies have two co-chairs, one of whom must be female. In addition, there are parallel women-only structures at all levels.

This is combined with secularism, laws against traditional and modern forms of sexism and sexist violence and challenges to patriarchal family and tribal structures.

One of the main misconceptions about the democratic self-administration is that it is Kurdish separatist. But from the outset, it was based on the principal of full rights and political representation of all ethnic and national groups. The revolution in Rojava saw a flowering of the Assyrian language as well as Kurdish.

As the revolution has moved beyond Rojava, its Kurdish character has become less marked, reflected in the establishment of the SDF and MSD in 2015. Through the SDF, some of the progressive armed opposition groups have made common cause with the social revolution in Rojava.

The MSD also explicitly rejects partition and presents its structures as a potential model for a democratic, secular, multi-ethnic Syria.

The economy of the areas under democratic self-administration is marked by the effects of the blockade and war. But there has been a proliferation of cooperatives, and an emphasis on women’s cooperatives to enable women to be economically independent.

The West’s deep ambivalence towards this revolution reflects disquiet at its social, political and economic goals as much as a desire to placate its increasingly erratic ally, Turkey.

The US has formed a tactical alliance on the battlefield with the SDF, which it recognises as the only capable military opponent of ISIS. Yet it refuses to recognise the MSD or other political structures of the democratic self-administration, excluding them from official talks, while also supporting the blockade.

The ambivalence is also found in the refusal of international humanitarian organisations to provide aid to refugees in the areas under democratic self-administration.

On May 9, the US announced that it would supply some heavy weaponry to the YPG for the final stage of the assault on Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Previously it had refused SDF access to heavy weapons, leaving it dependent on US air strikes.

However, the May 9 New York Times reported that the US would maintain close monitoring of these weapons and attempt to retrieve them after Raqqa falls.

YPG spokesperson Redur Xelil welcomed the decision in a May 10 statement, but described it as “a bit late”.

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