NOTE: this article is by no means exhaustive, there are a whole series of complex regional and ethnic based issues that have not been discussed. The relationship between the various Kurdish parties in the area is one of them and particularly important, as is the extensive history of the Kurdish relationship with both Arabs and Turks. Links below can help anyone interested grasp the situation further.
Whenever we think of a democracy we tend to think of our very own fair state as a good example. Whether or not this is in fact true is debatable, however, I feel it is important to look directly at what the term actually means, and what a democracy would entail if properly implemented.
Definition of Democracy: A form of government in which supreme power is vested in the people alone. Originating from the Greek: dēmos ‘the people’ + -kratia ‘power, rule’.
Now, let’s take a long, observant look at our own (western) governments. We elect representatives that make choices for us on the basis of their pledges to represent us, once every few years we’re graced with the occasional referendum, but that’s about it for us. Now let’s take a look at Western Kurdistan, the area of Northern Syria ravaged by the scourge of Daesh (Islamic State), the Assadist forces, and the Turkish military. Known to its citizens as ‘Rojava’ (meaning ‘west’ in Kurmanji), and officially known as ‘Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava’ it is an autonomous region consisting of four main cantons: Kobanî, Afrin, Jazira and Shahba. A form of ‘democratic confederalism’, defined mostly by the concept of direct democracy, elected councils and cooperatives, is the predominant system of government.
Citizens of a former Syria appear to transcend age-old sectarian divisions often considered to be an ingrained part of the Middle Eastern world – there are no divisions between Muslims and Christians, or Arabs and Kurds. Just recently, the DFNSR (the acronym for Rojava) has established its new constitution (https://civiroglu.net/the-constitution-of-the-rojava-cantons/) which enshrines and protects these radical rights (in their context) which Rojava has become so famous for.
The citizens of Rojava live, work and fight side by side, irrespective of different beliefs. Men and women each have their own fighting units (YPG and YPJ), gender is no barrier for those willing to fight for a free society. It must also be understood: this revolution is a distinctly anti-capitalist and anti-fascist one; despite all the Western romanticisation of the Rojava revolution, its ideological routes must be acknowledged.
Inspired predominantly by the American social ecologist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, who in turn inspired jailed PKK leader and Kurdish leader in absentia Abdullah Öcalan, Rojava is starkly different to its regional counterparts. See the list below for extended reading on the background for this project.
Each and every citizen of the ‘Rojavan’ territories has the right to stand to be a ‘co-representative’ of every town in each Canton. All decisions are made via popular assemblies. These assemblies need to be balanced both religiously and ethnically. Each set of the top three officers has to at least contain either one Kurd, Turk, Armenian Christian, Assyrian or Arab member. In addition, at least one of these representatives has to be a woman. Women are not restricted by any discriminatory laws or traditions. Every minority and ethnic group speaks their own language, but are also taught Kurdish, Syriac and Arabic (Levantine). Despite these legal rights being enshrined, the region is nonetheless steeped in patriarchy, and sectarian divisions are still prominent – the revolution still has some way to go in creating this idealised society for which they are fighting for. It is essential to avoid the trap of romanticisation, conflict and revolution can be ugly, and Rojava is no different.
Contrary to those whom they fight, the three cantons see women’s rights and feminism as a central pillar of the revolution. All around them, many women are prevented from having an education, are subjected to incredibly harsh treatment, and are effectively second class citizens. The most astounding example of this is the use of Yazidi sex slaves by Da’esh – the PKK were among those first to free the Yazidis from Mount Sinjar in 2014.
The driving force in Rojava is the Syrian branch of the PKK (Kurdish worker’s party who have led armed struggle against the Turkish government from 1984 to the present day), the PYD. However, the PYD is now essentially independent from the PKK. The PYD state their objective for Rojava as ’Libertarian Municipalism’. The streets, essentially the battlefields, are guarded by the YPG (people’s protection Unit) and the YPJ (Women’s protection Unit). Most recently, the YPG has become the leading member of a wider anti-Da’esh coalition known as the SDF, and are backed by US airstrikes.
Sceptics will be sceptics, but it is in the case of Rojava that the saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ rings most true. This inspiring revolution, although young, could prove to be a viable alternative to the traditional forms of government in such destabilised regions.
May we also remember all those who have fought and died, including international volunteers (many of them British), for this dream of a new society, and against the barbarism of Da’esh.
Recommended reading and watching for those interested: