As Syria's conflict intensifies, where do democratic hopes lie?

February 23, 2018
A march in solidarity with Afrin, in Jawadiyah, Syria, on January 18.

The defeat of ISIS in Syria last year raised hopes that the long-running war that has displaced more than two-thirds of the population might be coming to an end. However, the attempted Turkish invasion of the Afrin region of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), which began on January 20, has underlined that the war is in fact intensifying.

As the conflict enters its eighth year, it remains incredibly violent. Land and air bombardments by Syrian government forces in Eastern Ghouta and by Turkey in Afrin are responsible for the most recent deaths, predominantly civilians — adding hundreds more to an overall death toll that probably exceeds half a million.

The death toll from the regime’s assault on Eastern Ghouta continues to rise since it began on February 18. At least 530 people had been killed by February 25, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, with more than 2100 wounded. Despite the United Nations Security Council voting to impose a ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta on February 24, fighting continued with regime forces launching a fresh offensive on the rebel-held territory the next day, the February 26 Guardian said.


Meanwhile, the sustained Turkish attack on Afrin has brought all the destruction and violence of the Syrian war to a region that had stood out for having largely escaped the worst of the violence.

Afrin had avoided the ultraviolent rise and fall of ISIS and the equally brutal war between the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, increasingly dependent on foreign military forces, and a fractious array of mostly right-wing, Islamist militias, financially and logistically dependent on foreign sponsors.

The Turkish army and air force have bombarded the Afrin region, but the invasion’s ground troops are mainly Syrian: a combination of mercenaries and Turkish-sponsored opposition militias.

These forces have perpetrated war crimes against civilians and resistance fighters — some of which they have filmed. Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described a video of their gendered violence as “more brutal, more ugly even than ISIS”. 

On March 1, a group of lawyers told media that Afrin officials had documented 922 examples of war crimes committed by Turkey and al-Qaeda-affiliated gangs, ANF News reported that day.

However, these forces have failed to advance more than a few kilometres into Afrin in the face of intense resistance, and have suffered a high casualty rate. 

Turkey has resorted to air power. Afrin Canton Health Council co-chair Ancela Resho told Firat News Agency that 176 civilians had been killed, including 27 children. Educational, medical, industrial and agricultural infrastructure has been destroyed.

A February 19 report by the Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava-North Syria provided evidence of Turkish use of illegal chemical weapons, and called for an international investigation.

Refugee camps have been hit. Before the war, Afrin’s population was predominantly Kurdish. Now at least half the population are refugees from other parts of Syria, mostly not Kurdish. They have settled in Afrin due to its relative lack of violence and because the left-wing local administration has provided refugees with shelter and economic opportunities, despite the region being subjected to an economic blockade. Refugees also enjoy the same rights as the local population.

Democratic self-administration

The target of the Turkish invasion is the radical experiment in feminist democracy, ecosocialism, secularism and ethnic inclusivity known as “democratic self-administration” (also called democratic confederalism). The armed forces defending this experiment — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and their strongest components, the predominantly Kurdish Women’s Defence Units (YPJ) and Peoples Defence Units (YPG) — are subordinate to its grassroots political structures.

Under the system of democratic self-administration, power lies with local grassroots democratic structures that hold municipal, district, regional and higher political bodies accountable. All these structures have quotas to ensure representation of nationalities proportional to population, as well as gender equality.

Parallel women-only structures exist for all political, military, judicial, administrative and educational institutions — and in the organisations of the embryonic cooperative-based economy.

This revolution began in Rojava (the Kurdish name for Northern Syria) and is informed by the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish revolutionary jailed in solitary confinement by the Turkish state since 1999. However, one of its striking features is that it is opposed to nationalism, including Kurdish nationalism.

Rather, its emphasis is on equality and coexistence across ethnic, national and religious divides. It would be wrong to characterise it as a “Kurdish” revolution.

It is, in fact, a Syrian revolution, with a strong base among Kurds, Assyrians and other minorities, but aiming to unite all nationalities in Syria. It is also gaining increasing adherence from the Arab majority.

Furthermore, its emphasis on social justice, participatory democracy and women’s liberation have made it an attractive alternative for Syrians caught between the regime and right-wing Islamist opposition — both of whom are violently misogynist, dictatorial and corrupt.

Syria’s civil war began with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) by defectors from the army to oppose the Assad regime's crackdown on mass unarmed protests for democratic rights in 2011. However, the violence of the war, in particular indiscriminate use of artillery and air power by the regime, and the degeneration of much of the FSA into right-wing Islamist militias or ideologically neutral, criminally motivated gangs, destroyed much of the democratic promise of the uprising.

The Democratic Self-Administration aims to restore this democratic hope.


Turkish hostility to the democratic self-administration in Syria’s north is directly tied to the fact Ocalan is also the inspiration of much of the democratic opposition in Turkey and Bakur (Turkish Kurdistan) – in the streets, at the ballot box and on the battlefield.

The US and its NATO partner Turkey were initially both involved in arming sectarian FSA groups to destabilise the Russian and Iranian-allied Assad regime. But the emergence of the Democratic Self-Administration in Rojava in 2012 meant that crushing this threat became a more important priority for Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan than undermining Assad.

Erdogan provided logistical and material support to ISIS in the hope that it would defeat the Rojava Revolution. However, the sudden rise of ISIS, including its invasion of swathes of Iraq, caused the US to view defeating this new threat as a higher priority than overthrowing Assad.

The YPJ and YPG, and the SDF after its formation in 2015, have been the main ally on the ground to the US-led Western military coalition conducting airstrikes against ISIS. It was the SDF that liberated the de facto ISIS capital, Raqqa, in September. 

Most of Rojava, along with other areas of north Syria liberated by the SDF in its Western-supported war against ISIS, constitute the Democratic Federation of North Syria (DFNS). 

Most of the DFNS forms a geographically contiguous area. However, Afrin is separated from the rest of the DFNS as a result of Turkey, with Western and Russian complicity, invading a strip of territory around the towns of Jarabulus and al-Bab in 2016. This left Afrin vulnerable to attack.

The West has effectively given the green light to Turkey’s Afrin invasion. The alliance between the SDF and the US-led Western forces was purely military and tactical — a temporary alliance against a common enemy. The West has given no political recognition to the DFNS, excluding its representatives from peace talks.

Turkey is a NATO member. Its army, NATO’s second largest, is Western-armed. The military hardware it is using in Afrin is mostly German. Since the attack on Afrin began, the British, German and French governments have all made new arms deals with Turkey.

However, the US alliance with the SDF alienated Erdogan enough to make Russia see an opportunity to pull the NATO member away from the US orbit. This helps explain the clear collusion of Russia — which is supposed to control the air space Turkey is using to bomb civilians — with Turkey’s invasion.

Meanwhile, many of the Islamist and right-wing FSA groups have been drawn into backing or participating in the Turkish invasion force in Afrin. Turkish support for those continuing to resist Assad has declined.

Regime’s manoeuvres

Relations between the SDF and the regime are worsening, leading to clashes between the two in Deir ez-Zor province. However, Russia’s approval of the Turkish invasion of Afrin has disquieted it enough to lead to negotiations between the regime and the SDF over joint military action to defend the region.

The regime is seeking to take advantage of the situation to re-exert control over the region. However, spokespeople for the DFNS and SDF have said government troops should only be stationed on the border with Turkey.

An agreement seemed like it had been reached to this end, but Russia pressured Assad not to send regular army troops to defend Afrin. Instead, pro-government militias were sent to the Turkish border.

“Groups aligned to the Syrian army came to Afrin, but not in the quantity or capacity to stop the Turkish occupation,” YPG spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud told Reuters on February 22.

However such contradictory forces and temporary alliances in the constantly shifting ground of the Syrian conflict ultimately play out, the fundamental principles of democracy and equality on display in Syria’s north offer a light amid the darkness.

Powerful forces, from multiple sides, appear as determined to extinguish it as the resistance forces are to keep it shining.

* This article was updated with new figures on March 1.

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