As Syria enters its eighth year of civil war, the Bashar al-Assad regime, backed by Russia and Iran, must be held to account for its role in the killing of 500,000 people. In a bloodbath that has reaped unspeakable horrors, more than 5 million Syrians have been forced to flee the country, with a further 6 million internally displaced. The barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), grew out of this chaos and at one point controlled a third of Syria. Amid this savagery, however, a beacon of hope emerged in north-eastern Syria in 2012 – the polyethnic liberated zone of Rojava (Western Kurdistan).
Assad’s rule came under direct challenge in early 2011, when a wave of protest movements, known in the West as the Arab Spring, hit Syria. After Assad cracked down on the protests with military force, some army officers defected to the opposition, starting the civil war. The result has been a multi-sided and extremely violent conflict.
In 2012, a mass uprising, evicted regime forces from some cities and towns in the three northern Syrian cantons of Cizîrê, Afrîn and Kobanî. This was possible because Rojava is a peripheral part of Syria and the regime had shifted forces from the area as it was struggling to hold on to the major cities of Aleppo and Damascus.
Originally, liberated Rojava consisted of three small, geographically separated enclaves. Kurdish-led military forces — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) — took responsibility for their defence.
Northern Syria is polyethnic: it is home to sizeable Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac-Assyrian and Turkmen populations with small communities of Armenians, Circassians and Chechens. The Rojava Revolution, as it was known in its first few years, became more internationally known for its progressive experiment and heroism in September 2014. This was when ISIS laid siege to Kobanî. Images of the YPJ reached the establishment press, with even Marie Claire running an article on their fearless defence of their region and victory over ISIS.
Kurdistan was divided between four neighbouring countries after World War I through the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France. As a result, about 30 million Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey have been forced to live as non-citizens in their land. They have suffered land theft, assimilation attempts, bombings, jailing, torture and the murder of democracy activists and socialist leaders.
In the late 1990s, Kurdish revolutionary forces led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader Abdullah Öcalan, began to develop the concept of polyethnic democratic confederalism.
Öcalan was born to poor parents in Turkey in 1949 and studied in Ankara University in the 1970s. The ’70s student radicalisation reinvigorated Kurdish self-identification in Turkey, leading to the formation of the PKK. Confronted by an extremely repressive Turkish state, the PKK took the path of guerrilla warfare.
Based for a while in Syria, Öcalan was forced to flee in 1999. He was kidnapped in Kenya in a joint operation involving Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and the Turkish secret service.
In prison, Öcalan came to emphasise a new political framework for the Kurdish liberation struggle, influenced by a wide and eclectic variety of leftist and democratic ideas, including the writings of US anarchist/communalist Murray Bookchin. When Bookchin died in 2006, the PKK issued a moving tribute to him, promising to build the first society on Earth based around his ideas.
Öcalan’s new approach emphasises organising alternatives to each part of the state, run by the people, which will ultimately replace the existing state.
The PKK’s approach emphasises three pillars: democratic confederalism, which means dropping the push for a Kurdish nation-state and instead emphasising polyethnic structures; feminism, which is grounded in their study of the original matriarchal, pre-class societies of Neolithic times; and social ecology, a key component of Bookchin’s ideas.
Dropping the push for a Kurdish nation-state also meant focussing the PKK’s activity within the borders of the Turkish state and creating new parties in Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) was formed by PKK supporters in Rojava in 2003.
Democratic Federation of Northern Syria
The interim constitution for the liberated zones was adopted on January 29, 2014. Its preamble reads: “We the people of the Democratic Autonomous Region of Afrîn, Cizîrê and Kobanî, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens freely and solemnly declare and establish this Charter. In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by the principles of equality and environmental sustainability … we the peoples of the autonomous regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation.”
During their multi-sided struggle against ISIS, various other Islamic fundamentalist opposition forces, the Assad regime and Turkish forces, the YPG, YPJ and allied groups based in the Syriac/Assyrian and Arabic communities liberated most of Rojava and some other areas of North Syria. In October 2015, the YPJ, YPG and their allies formed the Syrian Democratic Forces.
In March 2016, they declared the Democratic Federation of Rojava — North Syria, which became the Democratic Federation of North Syria (DFNS) in December that year. The DFNS is now home to 4.3 million people, with its population doubling as a result of people leaving other war-torn parts of Syria to seek refuge there.
The DFNS is based on communes, neighbourhood councils, district peoples’ councils, and finally the People’s Council. Representatives are accountable and recallable.
The DFNS’s economic model is based on cooperatives. Northern Syria was deliberately underdeveloped by the Syrian regime: it was treated like an internal colony. Oil reserves and agricultural production in the region were developed solely to benefit the Syrian elite.
To decolonise the region’s productive capacity, the People’s Economy Plan (PEP) was launched in 2012, which seeks to replace capitalism. According to Janet Biehl, an economic development advisor in Cizîrê, there are three economies functioning in parallel in the DFNS: a war economy, which provides subsidised bread and oil; an open economy, that is, the private economy; and a social economy, made up of cooperatives and collectives that the DFNS hopes will become the dominant sector.
The main industries in the DFNS are agriculture and oil. DFNS economic co-minister Ahmed Yousef says three-quarters of traditional private property is being used as commons, while the remaining quarter is still owned and used by individuals.
Most of the region’s economic activity is organised through cooperatives that provide essential goods. Cooperatives are active in construction, factories, energy production, livestock, pistachio production and roasted seeds.
There are no direct or indirect taxes on people or businesses in the DFNS. Instead, the administration raises money through tariffs and by selling oil and other natural resources. This approach, and the relative peace inside the DFNS compared with other parts of Syria (where even supposed allies are continually clashing and, in both government and opposition-held areas, armed groups prey on the civilian population), is reaping rewards. Yousef estimates that the DFNS’ economic output accounts for about 55% of Syria’s overall GDP. This is despite the DFNS suffering an economic blockade and siege by Turkey and its allies in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Women are the driving force of the Rojava Revolution. This stems from the PKK’s ideology that unless women — the majority of society — are empowered and leaders of the process, a revolution cannot succeed.
Before the Rojava Revolution, the prevailing gender system strictly controlled women and restricted their ability to do anything except childrearing and domestic work. However, under the new constitution, the old patriarchal system is banned: “Women have the right to participate in political, social, economic, cultural spheres and in all areas of life. Women have the right to organise themselves, and eliminate all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender.”
The revolutionary government has banned “honour killings,” marriages of women under the age of eighteen, forced marriages, violence against women and polygamy. While previously women were blamed in cases of rape or other gendered violence, they now have the right to have their case heard, and the man, if found guilty, faces consequences.
The Kurdish liberation movement has developed a theory — jineology, or “the science of women” — that prioritises women’s liberation and developing women in public life. This manifests itself in various ways. For example, the numerous democratic bodies that form the democratic confederalist system must consist of at least 40% women. The government also created committees, military units, communes, cooperatives, courts and academies for women. In fact, there are parallel women’s structures for all administrative and political structures.
Northern Syria’s ethnic diversity has been incorporated into its democratic confederalist and grassroots model of governing. Rather than seeking to Balkanise Syria, the DFNS’ confederalist structures aim to incorporate ethnic differences.
Alliances with imperialism?
Ercan Ayboga, co-author of Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, argues: “What is happening in the Middle East is the Third World War with Syria at the very centre, and there are three main forces: first is international imperialism represented mainly by the US and Russia; second is the regional status quo powers with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia as the main players with imperialist characteristics; and third is the revolutionary and democratic forces led by the Rojava Revolution and the PKK.
“These three forces are fighting among one another and the result is complicated with continuously changing coalitions and armed conflicts. Each force develops relations with those who seem to be opposed to the enemy, in order to achieve their strategic interests. This is related to the deep and structural crisis of capitalism experienced violently in the Middle East. It is not enough to have an ideological and political approach as many leftist and socialist organisations do, rather an organisational and military approach is crucial.”
Indeed, the SDF has formed a military alliance with the US-led coalition of Western powers conducting air warfare campaigns in Syria, but it has not tied itself to the US’ political agenda. This has involved compromises. The US blocked access to heavy weapons, meaning the YPJ-YPG has had to rely on coalition airstrikes. This has had a negative impact on their efforts to minimise civilian casualties.
Furthermore, the Western powers make unreliable allies. The US backed Turkey’s invasion of Jarabulus in 2016 and Afrîn in 2018. The fight against ISIS formed the basis of this alliance. The two sides have other common enemies and the alliance might continue as long as common interests remain.
However, US imperialism’s long-term interests are incompatible with the DFNS vision of the whole of Syria being organised on democratic confederalist principles.
On the military front, the SDF not only booted ISIS out of Kobanî, it also took ISIS’ capital, Raqqa, in September 2017. At this stage, the SDF has helped liberate more than a quarter of Syria. The SDF has been the most successful military force in the fight against ISIS.
However, the battle for the future of Syria is far from over. DFNS forces recently had to wage a herculean eight-week battle against Turkey’s assault on Afrin in March, in which Turkey utilised a 10,000-strong Islamist militia, German-supplied tanks, US-supplied warplanes and benefitted from Russia removing its no-fly-zone cover.
Unable to withstand the military onslaught, Afrin’s lightly-armed forces gave way to fight another day. Turkey’s occupation led to the death of hundreds of people and displacement of 350,000 others.
Yet almost all of the world’s governments turned a blind eye to this attack. While the Australian government rightly condemned Russia and the Assad regime in the United Nations for their atrocities in East Ghouta, it remained silent on Afrîn’s invasion.
This silence can be explained by the fact that the DFNS represents a revolutionary alternative to Assad’s murderous assault on the ethnically diverse Syrian population. None of the other sides in the Syrian Civil War want it to succeed. But internationally, the Rojava Revolution has become a beacon of hope for feminists, ecologists and peace activists. Solidarity with revolutionary Rojava is more crucial than ever.
Key groups and acronyms
Democratic Youth Union Youth organisation.
DFNS Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, de facto autonomous region.
ENKS Kurdish National Council, coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties aligned with the KDP/KRG in Iraq. Affiliated to the Syrian National Coalition in Istanbul, Turkey. Has been a vocal opponent of many of the developments in Rojava.
HDP Peoples’ Democratic Party, left-wing Kurdish-led party in Turkey.
KDP Kurdistan Democratic Party. Conservative Kurdish nationalist party, led by Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. Allied to Turkish regime.
Kongreya Star Feminist organisation.
KRG Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan, models itself on oil states like Dubai.
PKK Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
PYD Democratic Union Party, the main party within the TEV-DEM alliance.
SDF Syrian Democratic Forces, armed military alliance fighting for a democratic, secular and federal Syria made up of the YPJ, YPG and allies. Official defence force of DFNS.
TEV-DEM Movement for a Democratic Society, the alliance of political parties that govern in the DFNS. There are political parties outside TEV-DEM represented on most elected bodies.
YPJ Women’s Protection Units, women-only militia.
YPG People’s Protection Units, predominately Kurdish militia.
1999 Israel, the CIA and Turkey’s secret service kidnap PKK leader Abdullah Ocallan.
2004 Qamishli uprising, YPG forms.
Early 2011 First protests against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
August 2011 TEV-DEM forms as an alliance of various confederalist parties.
July 2012 Military conflict in Syria deepens. Popular uprisings evict Assad regime from cities and towns in Rojava, which emerges as a distinct force in Syrian politics. Three cantons declare themselves to be against Assad and argued he should be removed by elections, not force.
January 2014 Afrîn, Kobanî and Cizîrê declared their autonomy and the Constitution of the DFSN.
September 2014 YPG and YPJ forces in Kobanê, supported by some secular forces in the FSA and United States bombing, fight off ISIS forces.
August 2016 Turkey invades Jarabulus, supported by the US.
September 2017 SDF liberates Raqqa.
March 2018 Turkish forces invades Afrin.