The Revolution Behind the Headlines: Autonomy in Northern Syria

Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters participate in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State (IS) militants on the front line in Makhmur

By Joris Leverink

February 22, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from TeleSUR English -- During the four months Kobane was under siege from ISIS, few media paid attention to the real struggle of the people of northern Syria in which they're fighting for real democracy, women's rights and ecological sustainability. 

On January 26, after 134 days of resistance the Kurdish defense forces announced they had successfully pushed the forces of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS) out of the Kobane. Over the course of the four and a half months the town in northern Syrian was under attack from ISIS it became a symbol of resistance against the seemingly 'unbeatable' jihadist forces and a bulwark of freedom in the midst of the chaos and destruction of the Syrian civil war.

  Since Kobane's liberation, the Kurdish defense forces of the YPG and the YPJ (People's and Women's Defense Units) have continued their advance against ISIS and in the past weeks they have managed to liberate almost two-thirds of the roughly 350 villages that together comprise the Kobane canton. The victory in Kobane is not only a sound military defeat for ISIS, but more importantly, maybe, is the symbolic meaning of this event. ISIS' image of invincibility has been dealt a lethal blow while the Kurds have shown themselves as indispensable allies in the battle against extremists in the region.

  While the battle for Kobane has received a lot of attention in the international media – not the least the 'exotic' female fighters of YPJ – few outlets have covered the true battle of the Kurds. Since the summer of 2012 when the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared the autonomy of three cantons in northern Syria, collectively known as Rojava, the local people have been involved in a bottom-up revolutionary struggle pursuing horizontal democracy, gender equality and environmental sustainability.

  The Rojava revolution – as it has since become known – is outspokenly anti-statist and anti-capitalist, and this might in fact be one of the reasons why it has received so little attention from the mainstream media. Despite its absence from the global headlines, one could argue that the Rojava revolution is in fact on of the most important political projects being pursued in the world today.

  From second-rate citizens to first-class revolutionaries

When in March 2011 the Syrian people, inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets en masse to demand the fall of the Assad regime, few could have predicted that this peaceful revolution would quickly descent into chaos, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands civilians and leaving the country in ruins. The Syrian Kurds, mainly living in the country's three northernmost regions Afrîn, Kobane and Cezîre, had as much reason as anyone – and probably more – to demand the fall of the regime.

  For many years the country's Kurdish population had been treated as second-rate citizens, with their homelands left deliberately underdeveloped by the central government that treated Rojava as an internal colony. While being rich in oil and agricultural lands no refineries and less than a handful factories could be found in the region. Moreover, due to an institutional ban on the Kurdish language schools only provided education in Arabic, and for education beyond middle school students were forced to relocate to urban centers like Aleppo and Damascus.

  In 2004, Kurds across the country rose up after a clash between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans during a match in the town of Qamishli, the regional capital of the Cezîre canton, got out of hand. The disproportionate violence used by the security forces to crack down exclusively on the Kurdish fans sparked a week-long uprising that quickly spread from the towns and villages in the north to the capital and other predominantly Arab cities. After several days of unrest at least thirty people were killed. However, more important for the future of Rojava was the realization that the Syrian Kurds couldn't count on their Arab neighbors in their opposition against the regime.

  The events of 2004 were one of the reasons why the Kurds were hesitant to join the uprising against Assad in 2011. Sure, peaceful demonstrations took place in the Kurdish regions as well as in many other places, but after the popular uprising had morphed into a vicious and violent civil war Kurdish militias and political parties hesitated to align themselves with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its political wing the Syrian National Council (SNC). Failure to obtain a guarantee from the opposition forces that the Kurds would not suffer marginalization and exclusion under a future post-Assad, SNC-controlled government led the Kurdish parties to choose a so-called 'Third Way' in which they aligned themselves neither with the regime, nor with the rebels.

  The bottom-up revolution

This Third Way-approach proved successful when on July 19, 2012 Kurdish parties took control over many government institutions in the region and Assad started to withdraw his forces, leaving a power vacuum that was quickly filled-up by the PYD. A new body, the Democratic Society Movement (known by its Kurdish acronym TEV-DEM) was set up to oversee and facilitate the implementation of the new, direct democratic governance structures. The TEV-DEM set out to organize society in different working groups, committees and people's assemblies, each focusing on specific fields such as women's issues, the economy, environment, defense, civil society and education, and more.

  The TEV-DEM can be singled out as one of the main reasons why the revolution in Rojava didn't succumb to the destructive internal conflicts that haunted so many other opposition groups that have sprung up in the context of the Arab Spring. The TEV-DEM didn't function as a catalyst of the Rojava revolution, but rather it canalized the already existing revolutionary spirit, directing the energy of the people towards the construction of a new society, rather than the destruction of the old. The four principles of the TEV-DEM go a long way in explaining its appeal to the oppressed and marginalized people of Rojava. These are: the revolution must be bottom up; it has to be a social, cultural, educational as well as a political revolution; it should be directed against the state, power and authority and finally it must be the people who have the final say in all decision making processes.

   While the rest of Syria descended into chaos the people of Rojava were gathering in neighborhood assemblies and local committees, organizing themselves for the benefit of society. While ISIS entered the Syrian civil war in the first half of 2013 the women of Rojava formed the backbone of the revolution, representing themselves at all different levels of organization and actively taking part in the shaping of a non-patriarchal, anti-capitalist movement. And while the eyes of the world were focused on the carnage and destruction of the Syrian civil war and its spillover into Iraq, the three cantons of Rojava quietly declared their autonomy from the central government.

  Autonomy, not independence

  An important detail which is often overlooked is that the people of Rojava did not separate themselves from Syria; they declared their autonomy and not their independence. Article 12 of the 'Charter of the Social Contract' – the constitution of Rojava, announced an implemented in January 2014 – states clearly that “The Autonomous Regions form an integral part of Syria. It is a model for a future decentralized system of federal governance in Syria.” The pursuit of autonomy rather than independence is significant. It shows that their project is not exclusively Kurdish and that, despite not being actively involved in the uprising aimed at overthrowing Assad, the people of Rojava dofeel engaged with the future of their country.

  The declaration of regional autonomy is moreover indicative of the links between the movement in Rojava and the Kurdish Freedom Movement in North Kurdistan (southeast Turkey). The close relations  between the PYD and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have never been a secret. The PYD was founded as the Syrian sister organization of the outlawed PKK in 2003, and thousands of Syrian Kurds have fought among the ranks of the PKK inside Turkey. Both organizations view Abdullah Öcalan as its spiritual leader, and his concept of Democratic Confederalism is the guiding ideology for both the Rojava revolution and the numerous local projects in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern regions of Turkey.

  Öcalan's ideological reorientation from a Marxist-Leninist perspective in which an independent, socialist state was the ultimate goal for the Kurds to a political belief that sees a federation of autonomous communities, regardless of their ethnic and/or religious backgrounds, as the ideal form of social and political organization was strongly influenced by the works of the American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. In his studies, Bookchin looked at the origins of social hierarchy and concluded that human domination over nature has its roots in human domination over human. In order to create a society that not only abolishes hierarchical relations between humans, but also is in harmony with its ecological environment, Bookchin proposed the idea of 'libertarian municipalism’.

  Bookchin's ideas regarding people's assemblies, direct democracy and a confederation of local, autonomous communities are currently being implemented across the three cantons that together make up Rojava. Popular councils, or 'Houses of the People', make up the heart of the political system. The first level of organization are the local communes, each made up of 30-150 households; on the next level are village and neighborhood councils, which consist of 7-30 communes each; this is followed by area councils and finally there is the MGRK, the People's Council of West Kurdistan. Decisions are conveyed from one level to the next by two delegates, one man and one woman, that are elected for this purpose. Moreover, all councils must adhere to a 40% gender-quota.

  Syria's Kurds need solidarity, not charity

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly the Rojava revolution has been all but ignored in the international media and political circles alike. The project of radical democracy, the creation of autonomous zones and its harsh critiques of both imperialism and capitalism hasn't left the people of Rojava with many friends. Even Masoud Barzani, leader of neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan looks at Rojava with suspicious eyes, realizing that a similar revolution in northern Iraq would automatically mean the end of his rule. More worrisome, however, has been Turkey's disposition towards the social experiments of the Syrian Kurds.

  “For us, the PYD is the same as the PKK, it's a terrorist organization,” the Turkish President Erdoğan stated publicly in response to plans to arm the PYD at the height of the battle for Kobane. Throughout the conflict Turkey has kept its borders with the Syrian town hermetically sealed, not allowing any aid, whether medical or military, to reach Kobane's defenders. The sole exception was when it allowed for a small battalion of 150 Peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan to cross the border to fight alongside the YPG/YPJ against ISIS.

  Turkey fears that a successful Rojava revolution might inspire its domestic Kurdish population to pursue a similar goal. In reality, both civil society groups such as the People's Democratic Congress (DTK) and political parties like the People's Democratic Party (HDP) have already been implementing and supporting local, autonomous governance structures for years. Autonomy for Turkey's Kurds would mean that Ankara would lose direct, everyday control over about a fifth of its territory, something which is unacceptable for the current government. 

For these, and other reasons the Turkish government has thus far refused to provide aid in any form to the people of Rojava in general, and to the town of Kobane in particular. In order for the rebuilding of Kobane to be possible and for the people of Rojava to be able to continue to resist the ever-imminent threat of the jihadist forces at their doorstep it is absolutely crucial that Turkey opens it borders with the Syrian regions under Kurdish control. If Turkey's past behavior is any indication of its future actions then there is little hope of this happening any time soon.

  However, where it would require the pressure from other governments to force Turkey to open its borders, the people from Kobane have to be careful from whom they accept aid for the rebuilding of their city. Unconditional aid without any string attached is a rare phenomenon. In order to preserve their radical independence and the core values of the revolution they have been fighting for, it is crucial that supranational organizations like the UN, the IMF and the World Bank, nor global corporations prying on the region's natural resources are allowed access by the people of Rojava. The true battle of Syria's Kurds is theirs, and theirs alone. In the coming months and years they will need all the solidarity they can get, but their impressive track-record proves that the last thing they need is appropriation disguised as charity from Western powers. 

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist with an MSc in Political Economy, and editor for ROAR Magazine.

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