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The Rojava revolution

People fighting for survival experiment with their own path to democracy in the Middle East. Not just another effort to carve out an ethnic niche, but to establish a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy.

Kobane 'photo exhibition' shown in Istanbul, November 2014. Kobane 'photo exhibition' shown in Istanbul, November 2014. Demotix/Erhan Demirtas. All rights reserved.News of the fight of the Syrian Kurds has reached many homes in Europe and the US over the last year as TV channels around the world have covered the resistance of the Kurds against Daesh (self-proclaimed “Islamic State”) in Kobane. The fighting was indeed a great human endeavor, often portrayed in heroic, almost mythological terms. Behind the men and women fighters of this heroic resistance lies a large but still unknown political and cultural revolution which is in full effervescence in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan.

The three cantons of Rojava (literally western Kurdistan) declared their autonomy in January 2014.  Cizre is the largest canton of Rojava, Kobane the second largest and Afrin the smallest. These three cantons are not geographically contiguous, but are enclaves caught between Turkey, the jihadists of Daesh and other extremist Islamic organizations, and the forces of Assad’s regime. The canton of Cizre also has borders with Iraq to the east. Holding political power in all three cantons of Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a leftist political entity with very close ideological and political links to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), the party that has been fighting against Ankara since the 80s and that has become the main hub of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey.

Since the beginning of the Syrian war, people living in Syrian Kurdistan, not only the Kurdish majority but also Arabs and Christians and many other ethnicities and religious communities, have been desperately trying to survive the attacks not only of Assad’s regime forces but mainly at the hands of Daesh and other jihadists. At the same time, they have been trying to build a democratic administration and to institutionalize and further strengthen the dynamic of radical transformation in their society through the implementation of a hybrid model of socialism and direct democracy.

The Rojava model is based on two main pillars which may prove very efficient in the strengthening of democracy in the region. The first pillar is direct democracy as the basis of a communalist system in which citizens participate actively in decision-making and the management of the polis, from the neighborhood to the municipality and as far as the government. The second pillar, equally revolutionary, is the denial of the nation state structure and philosophy as such. In Rojava, many different religious and ethnic groups--Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, Turkmens, Chechens, Armenians--live together with the large Kurdish majority.  By officially and insistently denying the nation state and by trying to create administrative structures that incorporate these different elements, the Rojava model gives to minorities a participatory role unprecedented in the Middle East – a role as equals in the management of the polis

I returned from my visit to Rojava with persistent questions hammering my mind: Is this huge effort made by Kurds and all the other groups in Syrian Kurdistan a mirage? Could this attempt to effectively integrate the different ethnic groups and religions in one participative democratic system that respects people and the environment ever succeed in reality? Or was I witness to a collective naivety, the illusion of a just and polymorphic society that can only be doomed to fail?

History has shown that many such attempts either faded ingloriously or ended in carnage. One close parallel to what is happening today in Rojava could be the civil war in Spain, where the Democrats tried to set up something different. Kurdish women fighters today have much in common with the famous Spanish women fighters, the ‘Mujeres Libres’. But the Spanish revolution drowned in blood and Spain entered a dark period that lasted almost forty years. Many other examples of history would suggest that sooner or later all this goodwill and this willingness of the people in Rojava will fail. Some invoke human nature, others leftist ideology and dogmatism, others the war, others just pure fatality. Many of these arguments are indeed very sound.

Nevertheless, after the suppression of statist leftist-socialist movements in the Middle East during the 70’s and 80’s by authoritarian regimes and after the current obstacles neo-liberal political Islamism has placed between the region and democracy, the experiment in Rojava comes to show that there might be a third way. A hybrid political system based on the principles of social and democratic communalism is in stark contrast to the classic nation-state which can no longer manage democratically ethnic and religious diversity in the region. If the idea that this system could be a solution to various comparable situations in the Middle East seems too far fetched, experience having shown that models are rarely successfully “exported”, nevertheless the importance of the Rojava experiment seems undeniable.

A journey to Rojava’s Cizre Canton

"Don’t go with such a beard into Rojava in western Kurdistan in Syria, you might have problems.  I’m serious", a friend told me in Istanbul, who knows the Kurdish regions of Syria. The last time I was in Iraqi Kurdistan, last June, once the first advances of the jihadis had begun, the Peshmergas seemed to look on me with suspicious eyes and they were checking me regularly. In the front line outside Mosul I had to convince the captain in charge that I was not working for Arabic media. So I decided to cut the beard before taking the long road to Rojava. When I told my barber in Istanbul he was happy enugh, although every time he combed my beard he was muttering "Mas’Allah" with sincere admiration.

In recent months in Turkey, especially in the southeast, a record abandonment of beards seems to have taken place. The beard, political symbol of the left in Europe during the 70s and 80s and of the Islamists almost during the same period, has in recent years in Mesopotamia and the Middle East turned into a very strong Islamist political statement. So, without a beard and with two small packsacks, I got the first car from Erbil, Northern Iraq, to Duhok, the major city in the north, on the way to Turkey.

Seven in the morning and the streets are full of cars. I am in a collective taxi on the route Erbil-Duhok. I sit in the back seat, squashed between two huge and unsmiling Kurds from Syria. In the front passenger seat, a Kurd from Erbil who has businesses on the Turkish-Iraqi border. A  stubborn and treacherous nervousness in my stomach reminds me that I am going to Syria.

As Mosul is under Daesh occupation, the road to Duhok is much longer and passes through villages and small towns. Children with heavy school bags go to school trying to cross the dirty asphalt where countless trucks travel. Our car speeds dangerously between the heavy trucks. The radio is airing sad melodies and no one is talking.

After Duhok another car-taxi to Zakho, the last town before the border with Turkey and from there a third car for the Fiskabur border crossing between Iraq and Syria.

Heavily armed Peshmergas, handshakes and security checks.

A big flag of Iraqi Kurdistan, with its yellow sun in the middle of red, white and green stripes , is waving with the strong wind. In front of me the Tigris. On the other side, Syria. I can see from here the big flag of Rojava with yellow, red and green stripes.

The river is one of the borders dividing the Kurds since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, after the First World War. Divided into four countries, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, it is the first time after almost 100 years that the Kurds can again be so close to each other. The moment is historical, there is a widespread feeling, an all pervasive hope that all the Kurds are becoming a nation. But on the real ground, the borders and the different social and political histories of the four separate Kurdish communities will not be easy to bridge.

I climb on a long narrow iron boat with its motor trying to fight its way into the frail current of the river. And as soon as my feet touch Syria, a strong hand shakes mine and a voice tells me "welcome to Rojava". 

With a half-handwritten document given to me by the border guards of the autonomous administration of Rojava so that I can pass the check points of the YPG fighters, the Civil Protection Units, I take the road to Qamishli, the major city of the canton of Cizre. This small piece of paper is my pass and my identity in an administrative space that no one in the outside world recognizes. It’s the first tangible proof of the efforts of people in Rojava to build an administration that I hold in my hands.

The road to Qamishli, is full of potholes. The houses in the villages that we cross are lowlying. Mud is everywhere. Every few kilometers there are checkpoints of heavily armed fighters of the Civil Protection Units.

My driver is trying to talk to me but he knows only Kurmanci, the kurdish dialect of the Kurds in Syria and Turkey. On the other side of the Tigris behind us, in Iraqi Kurdistan, they mostly speak Sorani, another dialect. I only speak Turkish so we communicate more with sounds and signs. He smokes relentlessly and each time he takes taking a cigarette proposes one to me. And each time I smile and tell him that I don’t smoke. On the dirty dashboard two photos of young uniformed men with a big red star in the background. “Sehit,”, says my driver pointing at the photos. "Martyr". That’s how the dead fighters are referred to in this region. He explains to me that these two young men were his brothers.

After two and a half hours, we enter Qamishli. The sickly city lights are on, the night falls. In the center of the town the shops are open. Women in front of narrow shop windows, men with plastic bags full of groceries.

"Almost everything you see here comes illegally from Turkey. We have electricity three hours a day and those who can afford it live with generators. The city administration is also trying to distribute electricity from generators”,  says Masud, my friend in Qamishli.

Everywhere men with guns, some with uniforms, many in plain clothes.

The front line with the jihadis of Daesh is about 25 km from here. Less than a month ago, for three full days Daesh was throwing rockets into Qamishli and set off car bombs in the city center. Life in Qamishli is trying to seem and to be normal but everybody lives on permanent standby.

Night fell some hours ago now. And in the hospitable family house of Masud, I try to find some sleep between the heavy noise of the generator and my thoughts about Rojava and the war.

Fighting on the front line, and in the rear

Dust. A pervasive and persistent dust that enters everywhere with the blowing wind. Early morning and I am in the front line, about 30km south of Qamishli.

From one side, men and women of the Kurdish forces and their Christian and Arab allies, on the other, only dozens of meters ahead of us, the jihadists.

Abandoned villages, ruined houses, stables without animals. Even the holy tombs of the Nakshibendi mystics are desecrated by jihadists. Deserted land. “Waste land”…

One of the key things the jihadists want to “waste” is the woman. The woman as an equal partner of the man, the woman as a human being.

In the wider Middle East since the nineteenth century and before that, the female body is one of the most important symbolic battlegrounds between modernizers and reactionaries. Today, here in Syria, this fight is to death.

“The gangs of Daesh want the woman to be a slave. They don’t consider us as human beings but only as objects to serve men and to satisfy his specific needs. They ostentatiously sell women as slaves as if they were animals”. The girl I speak with is Nupelda, 20 years old and serves in a mobile company of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) on the front line. This is the army of women in the autonomous administration of Rojava, fighting side by side with men in the YPG. Both forces are under the control and command of PYD. Nupelda has been fighting for two years now.

"The greatest, the barbarian enemy is the jihadists. But we, women, are fighting on two fronts. One is here, the other is against the conservatism and the sexism of the traditional Kurdish society that does not recognize the equality of the sexes”, she says.

We sit outside, in front of a hovel, the front line some dozen members away from us. Suddenly some shots are fired. Without panic, with snappy and professional movements, the women fighters get around me.

“Daesh snipers. Let's go inside”, says Amara, the head of the company. We quickly enter the hovel, immediately unfolding a dark blanket to cover the window. "During the day we have snipers and the night, rockets, so we need the blanket”, she says. Her name is Heza, 22 years old, and head of the heavy weapons’ platoon.

Kobane 'veils', December 2014. Kobane 'veils', December 2014. Demotix/Jonathan Raa. All rights reserved.“We fight a war for freedom. The freedom not only for the Kurds but also for the Christians and Arabs and all the other communities living here in Rojava. And we also fight a war to have for all women equal rights with men in a society of equality and mutual respect”, she tells me.

"We all have our orders to keep a bullet and a grenade in a special pocket on us. We can never become captives of Daesh. We will either explode killing jihadists with us or we will shoot ourselves with our last bullet.  For us this is war to the death”, says Nupelda, showing me her bullet and her grenade.

“I always carry them with me, even when I sleep: they have become a part of my body. We are all ready to die, to be martyrs for our country and the people who live here”, says Heza.

The stories of gang rape and slave markets in the areas under the occupation of Daesh are in the mouths of everybody I met in Rojava and Northern Iraq. Yet, none of all the women with whom I spoke here on the front line showed the slightest sign of fear.

"We do not fear the jihadists. Here it is them who are afraid of us, because they say that whoever is killed by a woman does not go to heaven “, says Nupelda.

"We want a democratic society, which incorporates all differences and where Kurds, Christians, Arabs and everybody else can live together. This would give women the place they deserve. These are the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, this is our ideology. The struggle of the women here is not new, it has been going on for thirty years, ever since Ocalan started telling us about our rights. So here you see women at the forefront, but we have been fighting for years, "says Ammar.

I take my leave of the women fighters with Masud and some fighters from the YPG who are with us. Back to the emptied villages and houses. Back to this all-penetrating dust. Seeing these young women fighting and ready to die has submerged me in thought. How does a young woman become such a fierce fighter? What kind of threat can put women in the very first line of combat? And what is the power of ideology that permits to these women and men here in the front line against Daesh so relentless a fight, with such a deep commitment?

Whatever the answer, what I saw was women and men that had something very different from other fighters. They were fighting on two fronts, one against the threat of pure annihilation and another for a better society. In that sense, they are the only fighters in the region who are not fighting for the preservation and the continuation, in one way of another, of a status quo, but for a radical change and something to come. Isn’t this ideology the most effective weapon of the Syrian Kurdish fighters, women and men, against the barbaric indoctrination of Daesh?

But the most haunting thought that wouldn’t leave my mind was what would I do if one of these young fighters was my daughter? What would I do if my daughter had one day to fight for her survival and for the survival of all of us? If my daughter told me one day that she was ready to take up arms for a cause, even if I found her cause noble?

No answer to these questions either.

Since travelling in those areas in Northern Iraq and Northern Syria, I only understood that we people living in safety can never find real answers to these questions…

After my time on the front line, I decided to spend a full day in Qamishli, the capital of Cizre Canton. And I am lucky because I am accompanied by Judy, a young lady who aspires to be a journalist and who knows Qamishli and the dynamics of the society living in it very well. It’s noon and a chilly wind is blowing from the north. The main streets of the town are crowded.

Judy started studying English literature at Aleppo but because of the war against Assad she was forced to leave the university and return to Qamishli.

"We fear every day the jihadists who are not even thirty kilometers from here. But along with the fear, we have hope for our future. A different future, a future that will bring peace to all people living in Rojava”.

"It's the first time we experience democracy. We try to make it so that all the inhabitants of Rojava have a good reason to live here without being oppressed. It is the first time across the region we women know what it is to have real, legal rights and to play a real role in public life. "

Since January 2014 and the proclamation of the self administration in Rojava, the people here, under the dominating role of PYD, have started a fight for the creation of institutions and administrative mechanisms with the vision of a new society.

 One of the main cornerstones of this huge effort for a new society is the position of women. And in Rojava, it is the first time in the Middle East that such an effort has been made in such a systematic way from bottom to top and not the opposite, as were the changes in women’s status imposed by authoritarian reformers such as Ataturk, Shah Reza or the Baathists.

The efforts of the government of Rojava to give a new position to women in the society and in politics and to change the attitudes and traditions are indeed revolutionary for the region.

Accompanied by Judy, we enter a gallery full of shops with cosmetics and beauty products, in the center of Qamishli.  Everything here is smuggled from Turkey. Women try creams, makeup, talk loudly, laugh. Some weari headscarves some don’t.

“All of us we like to be beautiful and take care of ourselves. Even those women fighters fighting on the front line, I'm sure that if they were here they would like to put on a little makeup”, Judy says smiling.

"We are clearly more free here in Qamishli and the large Rojava cities in comparison to the countryside and the rest of Mesopotamia, but it's still very difficult for women even here. There is still violence, there is still a lot of sexism. We are not free like women in Europe: we have a long way to go to change attitudes. To break the centuries-old traditions takes years, need education. But we have entered for the first time on a forward path. ”

 I'm now in the People's Court of Qamishli, part of the new justice system of the government of Rojava. We drink tea and talk with judge Ibrahim, his assistant and three lawyers. They explain how justice works much better than during the Assad regime. “It’s the first time I feel like a real lawyer and not like the decorative accessory of a fake justice ceremony”, one of the three lawyers, the eldest one, with white hair and a passionate gaze, tells me.

Above all, they all explain to me the revolutionary steps taken in favor of women.

A few days ago, the administration adopted a law that expressly forbids men to marry more than one woman. This is completely revolutionary for the traditional societies in the region. Another recently adopted law makes women legally equal to men before the courts, breaking the previous Islamic tradition incorporated into Syrian law, according to which the testimony of a man in front of a court was equal to the testimony of two women.

In addition to the legal changes concerning women, the administration of Rojava has imposed in every institution and organization a 40% quota of representation of women, with the remaining 40% being for males and the remaining 20% being for whichever receives the higher number of votes. From the smallest local organization to the parliament and government, this 40% quota is imposed and in many cases there is an obligation to have women as co-presidents or vice-presidents.

Along with the legal and institutional changes, the widespread organization “Sara Against Violence" has launched a huge fight to change attitudes in society and to stop physical and psychological violence and social pressures against women.

Dying for peace

My Kurdish friends drive me to a martyrs cemetery in the outskirts of Qamishli.

A long mournful cry fills the air. Women and children with restless eyes are hunched over a grave. A baby in his mother's arms is crying.

"He was 21 years. It was my son. He was killed at the border with Iraq. So that there is no more terrorism, no more people who bring women into slavery. He died for democracy. So that all the different peoples of the Syrian Kurdistan can live united”.

The father of the killed fighter has fine features and speaks good English. His eyes are dry but his gaze is drawn in bottomless sadness. He is an oil engineer. The dead fighter was his eldest son.

"We pay dearly, pay with blood the price of freedom and democracy. This war fell upon us like a whirlwind. But we will do it for freedom”.

Around almost every grave a family is gathered. Mothers, fathers who try to seem proud, children, cousins, friends.

"We fight the war in your place. Because if we were not fighting this war, the terrorism of Daesh would come to Europe. We fight the war for our survival but also because we don’t want terrorism to spread. We don’t want the rest of the humanity to be infected by the barbarism of the jihadis”. The man I speak with is the uncle of a dead fighter. He was a 23 years old journalist who left his job to join in the People's Protection Units. His father is beside us, but silent.

The sun has not yet disappeared from the horizon but a chill falls on the cemetery. Toddlers are running between the newly dug graves.

The words of the Kurdish poet Bulland al Haydari come suddenly to my mind: «In Kurdistan nothing but death and the shadow of death. Not a narcissus dream of blooming in a flower bed. The villains didn’t leave. Only the dead, the ashes of the dead and the blackness of smoke “.

Another tomb, a whole family around it. The 19 years old had fallen in the front line a few days before .

"He gave his soul as a gift to the Kurdish people and to humanity," says his cousin, a young girl with very good English. "Sometimes I feel proud that someone I knew as a child gave his life for Kurdistan. But most of the time the sorrow for his loss has no words to describe it”.

"He died for something bigger, for an idea that you people in Europe have forgotten. He died for everyone who lives here in Kurdistan Syria, for freedom and brotherhood. Not only for the Kurds but also the Christians and Arabs who live with us. "

"He fought with his Kurdish brothers. He died near Tal Marouf, close to Qamishli. We are all victims of the same barbarity”, says another man, mourning his dead Arab nephew.

Front line in Kobane, December 2014. Front line in Kobane, December 2014. Demotix/Jonathan Raa. All rights reserved.We spend the night with Masud and his family discussing the future of Rojava. They are all eager to know how people in Europe see Rojava and its revolution. And they don’t understand why Europe doesn’t help them.

Being a Christian in Rojava 

A long psalm emerges from women with bowed heads, covered with small lace handkerchiefs. Men with tired faces. Children smiling. I am in the Sunday service in the church of Mar Kiriakis, in a Syriac neighborhood in Qamishli.

"Over two years ago, when the jihadists arrived in Sarakaniyie, about 100 km from Qamishli, they proposed to the fighters of YPG to leave them 24 hours in the Christian neighborhoods of Qamishli and then they would withdraw without touching the Muslims. The YPG refused and continued the war. Without the YPG we would have been slaughtered or long gone".

Gabriel is one of the cantors of the church. A mild man with a voice like a whisper. His wife and two daughters are beside him.

"We feel safe here in Syrian Kurdistan. As Christians our brothers feel confident in Iraqi Kurdistan too where they are protected by the Peshmergas. The Kurds have saved us from destruction", his wife says.

In another Christian neighborhood in Qamishli, in front of his church, Peter speaks calmly, but his eyes are full of emotion. His son fights in the YPG units: his daughter is in a committee of the Syriacs.

"The government system of Rojava is the best for us Christians. Not just for Christians, for all peoples of Rojava, Kurds, Arabs, Chechens. It is a model for all of Syria. We want to stay in Syria, all of us here. We do not want independence, we belong to Syria. But a democratic Syria that respects human rights and differences. The Rojava model could be a model for the entire Middle East, which is emptying itself today of its last Christians ».

The previous evening, I'm in the dark streets of Qamishli with two friends when we turn the corner and bump into three men with guns. Two with Kalashnikovs and the third man with an impressive shotgun. This is eleven thirty at night at Biseriye neighborhood, close to the center of Qamishli. The neighborhood is mixed, Kurds, Christians, Arabs.

One of the people accompanying me is the co-chairman of the House of the People of the district, the organization of local citizens who coordinate the actions of various community groups. He is responsible, inter alia, for groups protecting neighborhoods. The hard faces soften, smiles, warm handshakes in the night. The sickly light of some lanterns cannot challenge the darkness. Electricity is a luxury.

"We patrol from seven in the evening until seven in the morning. The whole neighborhood. Two shifts. Ours is the first, now at midnight we will change with the second shift». The man I speak with has a wide smile now. His name is Maurice. He is a Christian and the man with the impressive shotgun.

"I was born here in the neighborhood that you see, and will never go away. And I protect it with my brothers the Kurds and the Arabs. So that people he can sleep quietly. So that my children and my wife sleep tight during the nights".

"Here in Rojava all live together as brothers, no one will separate us. We all fight and resist against the barbarism of the jihadists. We want democracy, we want to be together. As here in the neighborhood Biseriye, everyone helps everyone, there are no dividing lines between Kurds and Christians and Arabs. "

Next to Maurice another Christian, Gabriel smiles to show he agrees. Now other men with guns flit through the night like ghosts. Barakat, an Arab, Mehsud and Adnan, Kurds.

"The groups of citizens to protect neighborhoods are composed of volunteers who patrol all night. They control cars and anyone who enters the neighborhood if they don’t know him. They will not prevent anyone if he is OK but the jihadis can reach everywhere if we are not careful», says Mehsud, who has his face capped with a scarf.

"I sleep peacefully at night because I know that my neighbors do patrols." From the window of Maria’s living room I see the church in the neighborhood. Her brother is a cantor. Her house is in the heart of the neighborhood.

"We are all like brothers here. And the brand new administration gives us Christians a status that we have never had. We have always lived on very good terms with the Kurds and Arabs here but never had such equality in administration and politics".

"The Kurds protect us. If it were not for the Protection Units of the People (YPG) and the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), the jihadists would reach here and we would all be slaughtered. And we have our own Christians fighting side by side with the Kurds. "

When I was on the front line, I had visited a mobile unit of fighters from the Syriac Military Council (MFS), the army of the Christian Syriacs in Rojava, fighting alongside the Kurds.

The head of the company was Johan. His smile was childlike, yet he was 32 years old and a veteran specialist sergeant of the Swiss army. He had been fighting for two and a half years in the frontline against jihadists.

"We are all together in this war. Side by side, one covering the other. In this war we are not just allies, we are brothers. There are no two different military forces working together, we are the same body that fights against barbarism”, he told me.

Kurdish YPG forces on frontline, December 2014. Kurdish YPG forces on frontline, December 2014. Demotix/Jonathan Rea.All rights reserved."We believe in a better society. A society that we can build and where all the different nationalities of Rojava will live together. It can be done, it has already started with the building of the administration. I was born and raised in Switzerland. But something urgently called me in Mesopotamia, here, in the land of my ancestors. And I fight so that people don’t have to leave anymore from here, so that they are no more afraid to live here. "

Apart from the military wing, the Syrian Military Council, the Syriacs have organized their own police force, the Soturo, which works closely with the Kurdish police, the Asayis.

It is not the first time that I have witnessed Christians relying on and believing in Kurds protecting them. In N. Iraq I had visited many Christian places and monasteries where people had found shelter from Daesh’s barbarism. And they were all grateful for the protection of the Kurds.

A different version of democracy

"Here in Rojava we believe that we can change mentalities and traditions, that we can make a difference in society. That's why we fight. Our struggle against the jihadists is only one aspect of Rojava, the other aspect is all this effort to build something new. A third way between Islam and secular authoritarianism” says Abdulselam, who has studied engineering in Damascus and now deals with translations.

"The revolution made in Rojava is historic. Because it is a radical break with the past. Of course, we all know that these things take time, they don’t change from one day to another. It requires generations to change attitudes and societies. But we put down the first stones because we believe in change and democratic society. What we want above all is democracy and not independence, we want to stay as part of Syria, a democratic Syria that respects the rights of all the different nationalities as here in Rojava we respect all the ethnic groups in the region”, he says.

The autonomy and the administration of Rojava are based on the principle of direct democracy, "a democracy from the bottom up," as Cinak Sagli, member of the umbrella organization "Movement of Democratic Society» (Tev-Dem) describes it. This umbrella-organization was set up around the main political party of Rojava, the party of the Democratic Union (PYD) but brings people from many other political groups and works to put into practice the principles of democratic government and radical/participatory democracy in Rojava.

The PYD could be characterized as a sister party of PKK, the outlawed party of the Kurds in Turkey. Initially a Marxist-Leninist party, the PKK is believed to have made a historical shift towards more moderate socialist ideas since the capture of its leader Abdulah Ocalan in 1999. Another crucial shift in the thought of Ocalan and the other ideologists of the PKK and the Kurdish movement in Turkey is the distance they take from nationalism on the one hand and the various ideas they develop of (con)federalism on the other. Kurds in Turkey and in Syria don’t want independence but autonomy within democratic Turkish and Syrian states.

Abdulah Ocalan is in prison in the island of Imrali, in the sea of Marmara, Turkey, but since 2012 he has become a key player in the negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurds in order to find a permanent settlement on the Kurdish issue in Turkey.

PYD is actually putting in practice older but also the more recent ideas of Abdulah Ocalan concerning women, self-administration, direct democracy and the rejection of the nation state.

"This radical democracy is a system that enables citizens, all citizens who wish to get organized and to be actively implicated in the government at the local level. We start from the smallest entity, the Commune, at neighborhood level. Then we have the local assembly composed of representatives of the Commune and then we have municipal councils composed by representatives of local assemblies", says Cinak Sagli.

This system enables people to have a direct say in the government and to participate actively in the various public services needed for the well being of community life, from the collection of garbage to the security of neighborhoods and from the distribution of heating petrol and electricity to women’ s rights and education.

This structure and the wider philosophy of this model of self-government going from the bottom to the top is based on the revolutionary approaches of the American libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin[1] who gave shape to ideas of communalism and radical democracy with a very strong participatory dynamic. Abdullah Ocalan was inspired by Bookchin’s ideas and adapted them to the circumstances of the region.

The communalist structure of the Movement of Democratic Society for the local administration is running parallel to and fully integrated into the government(s) and the parliament(s) of the three Cantons.

But what is and what could be the place of the individual in this administration model? The PYD is completely dominant in this transition, which is also dedicated to total war against society’s barbaric enemies. Should one party or ideology have such a dominant position in any society? A totalitarian deviation of PYD’s ideas could arguably undermine this communalist leftist system, critics say.

However, such a deviation would be rather difficult if all the checks and balances that the political philosophy of the Rojava model is trying to introduce in the various administrative structures and institutions are successfully implemented.

During the days I spent in Rojava I was living among people who were actively organised in the different organizations and levels of the Tev-Dem and people who were not. Judy, the young woman with whom I spent almost a whole day in Qamishli is not a part of any organisation, Abdulselam neither. Other people I spent time with were actively engaged in the commune (neighborhood) level or in the municipality level.

Kobane, December 2014. Kobane, December 2014. Demotix/Jonathan Raa. All rights reserved.“We all help in one way or another, one is fighting in the front, another is translating texts. But we are free to get organized in the Tev-Dem or not, there is no obligation and there is no social pressure to be part of it”, Judy told me while we were eating sweetmeats in a tiny pastry shop.

The next morning, I am in a car running almost parallel to the Syrian-Turkish border, towards the small town of Amuda, about half an hour west of Qamishli. Qamishli is the capital of the canton of Cizre but for security reasons the central administration is located in Amuda.

I am together with Abdulselam and his face lights up while he is talking. "A few years ago it was even forbidden to dream that we could one day try to live democratically. Today we can not only dream about it but we build our democracy stone by stone. You will see this for yourself when we reach Amuda”. 

We enter the small town and head directly to the government building, a cultural center transformed into offices, meeting rooms and parliament. The place is surrounded by checkpoints and roadblocks with heavily armed men of the Asayis police force. The first floor of the building houses the Parliament, the ground floor houses the Executive Council, the government.

"Rojava is not a Kurdish state nor a Kurdish administration. It’s the administration of Syrian Kurdistan made up of all different ethnicities and religions that have an immediate and weighty role in the operation of democracy and government. We want to remain in Syria, in a democratic Syria and our model here may be the model for the rest of Syria”, the co-chairman of the Parliament, Chakram Halo tells me.

All institutions have co-presidents or/and vice presidents, who are obligatory women and representatives of different ethnicities or religions. In that sense, the administrative system of Rojava makes it very difficult for one ethnicity or religious group to overshadow the rest and guarantees the role of women. 

In the rooms and the corridors of the Parliament and the government I see a medley of Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Yezidis, even Chechens.

I am now following proceeding at the 31st assembly of the Parliament, after the proclamation of the self-government in Rojava. Three secretaries are keeping the records of all the proceedings made by the members of the parliament, in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac. 

For the time being, mainly because of the practical difficulties caused by the war, the three Cantons of Rojava have different governments. But the idea, according to the majority of the people involved in the government I spoke with, is at some point to have a (con)federate government for the three cantons.

The principles of democracy and autonomous self-governing in Rojava are based on a "Social Contract", the equivalent of a constitution, that governs the operation and the organization of the political system.

The fundamental basis of this “Social Contract” is the equality and rights of all ethnic, racial and religious groups in Syrian Kurdistan, direct democracy and the rejection of the concept of the nation-state.

The first paragraph of the introduction of the "Social Contract", stipulates:

"We, the peoples of the democratic, self-governing region, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians (Assyrian, Chaldean, Aramaic), Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens, with complete free will communicate that will we ensure justice, freedom, democracy and rights of women and children ... ".

The “Social Contract” continues: "The autonomous regions of democratic administration do not recognize the concept of the nation state and the state based on military force, religion and centralism.”

This official renunciation of the nation state is one of the most important and deeply revolutionary dimensions of the Rojava experiment.

First, because it shows the radical realism of the inspiration of the Rojava experiment and of those who try to make it work.

The denial of a nation state by the people in Rojava is a sign that the Kurds in Syria--and in that regard they fall in line with the thinking of the Kurds of Turkey--don’t want a separate state but an effective autonomy within a democratic Syria. Undoubtedly, behind this wise decision there is also a strategic vision of regional realities. If Kurds in Turkey and Syria insisted on a Kurdish  independent state they would immediately spark hostile reactions from Ankara but also from Tehran who has its own Kurdish minority to deal with. In addition to that, such a demand would trigger reactions also from the international community. The difficulties encountered by the Kurds in Iraq in persuading regional powers but also the US and the international community of their cause of independence highlights the realistic limits of such efforts today in the region.

In addition to this, despite the undeniable fact that over recent years, triggered by the civil war in Syria and the emergence of Daesh, a pan-Kurdish nationalism is on the rise, things are not as simple as they seem for the creation of a wider pan-Kurdish state.

The differences between the Kurds of Iraq, the Kurds of Syria and the Kurds of Turkey are deep. Not to mention the Kurds in Iran. These four Kurdish entities have lived under very different regimes and Kurdish societies in the four countries have had separate histories and trajectories. For example, the dominant socialist/radical ideology inspiring Kurdish politics in Turkey and Syria is very different to the dominant neo-liberal/traditional ideology of the Kurds in Iraq. Getting organized in line with autonomy and not independence, is a form of realism and of acceptance of complicated pan-Kurdish dimensions and the regional and international challenges.

It is also realistic because in regions where the Kurds are in the majority but where they are not alone (Cizre Canton being the less homogenous of the three cantons of Rojava), a “classical” Kurdish nationalism that would try to create a nation state could easily lead to acts of ethnic cleansing. That would damage from the very beginning any efforts of the Syrian Kurds to legitimize their cause and to show that what they are trying to do is really different.

The war effort and the threat of annihilation by Daesh is undoubtedly a very strong element of cohesion before the common and existential enemy amongst the different ethnic and religious groups in Rojava and specifically in Cizre Canton. But it is not the only explanation. The ideology of communalism and the deep conviction that people can live together seems to have created a new democratic aspiration in Rojava.

The second dimension of the revolutionary character of the Rojava experiment is that it wants to establish from the beginning what John Gray calls a “modus vivendi”[2]: a sort of post-liberalism where the main point is peaceful coexistence of different ways of life under common institutions which take their legitimacy from their ability to peacefully manage and negotiate conflicts amongst those different ways of life.

In that sense, as Gray puts it, “it is better to detach democracy from ideas of national self-determination and think of it as a means whereby disparate communities can reach common decisions. In a growing number of contexts, democracy and the nation-state are no longer coterminous”.

By renouncing the creation of a nation state and by pushing for democratic confederalism, what Ocalan has called “democracy without a state”, the Rojava experiment is acknowledging that the nation state is not the prerequisite for democracy any more, and by doing so it may be making a historical step in the region.

This step forward is the biggest challenge of the people of Rojava. The fight for survival is waged in the front lines but the ultimate fight for democracy is behind the front lines. Starting from square one and without any substantial help from outside, people in Rojava are making a ground- breaking effort to work their way through and towards democracy.

"We want a democratic Syria and good relations with all our neighbors, Turkey and Iraq. We work to build a democracy here in Rojava. We are still in the beginning, we make mistakes but we are trying to build a democracy from scratch. And we believe that we can succeed”, tells me the president of the Executive Council, Akranes Kamal Chakoun.

Unlike what happened after the breakup of Yugoslavia and especially in Kosovo where Europeans systematically supported and continue to support democratization and the building of a democratic political system, the Rojava experiment is on its own. No one is helping the Kurds in Syria in their first steps towards democracy. No one is actually interested in acknowledging that in the middle of a barbaric war something new is trying to thrive. Not just another effort to carve out an ethnic niche somewhere in the middle of this mess but an effort to accommodate different needs and aspirations and to establish a multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy.

On our way back from Amuda, our car passes in front of the “security square", a large city block in downtown Qamishli still under the control of Assad’s forces. Over 500 regime soldiers and policemen control the airport of Qamishli, the only official way leaving Rojava. The regime forces sometimes come out of the "security square" and conduct controls but they seem largely to accept that Qamishli is under the control of the autonomous administration of Rojava.

The strange cohabitation between the Kurds and the regime stems from the fact that, as I was told, the salaries of the civil servants, like teachers, are still paid regularly with cash flows coming from Damascus, and a national Syrian lottery that people can easily buy into on the streets of Qamishli. This sui generis accommodation with the Damascus regime doesn’t exclude outbursts of heavy clashes with regime forces south of Qamishli.

For some, this strange cohabitation is a proof of some secret deal between the Kurds and Assad. For others, the fact that the regime still pays the civil servants is interpreted as a “logical” sign that Assad doesn’t want to recognize the complete loss of the Kurdish areas and wants to keep acting as if the Syrian state is present on the territory.

Everything in Rojava seems to be still in a grey area, somewhere between the old Syria and something new that has not yet taken shape. Between tradition and modernity, between gradual change and revolutionary overthrow, between war and peace. Spending time here is like spending time in a living laboratory where everything is on its way to being created.

Up to now, no general elections have been held in Rojava, proving its democratic credentials. The first elections, municipal elections in Cizre Canton, were held on March 13, 2015. That was a first test. Meanwhile, the other dark shadow over Rojava’s democratic aspirations is the very problematic relation between the PYD and the main opposition parties, mainly those under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS). PYD and ENKS, under the leadership and the active sponsorship of KRG President Massoud Barzani, signed the Duhok agreement, in October 2014. The agreement is a framework for democratic  relations between the PYD and the opposition, providing concrete arrangements for the inclusion of the opposition in the administration and the democratic process. But so far, thanks to various kinds of political prevarication, this agreement is not yet implemented. Many problems still exist, but the desire to find a consensus still seems to be on track. 


[1] An excellent introduction to Bookchin’s thought: Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution, 2015, Verso, UK/USA

[2] John Gray, Two Faces of Liberalism, 2000, Polity Press, UK

About the author

Evangelos Aretaios works in Brussels as a foreign desk correspondent for the Cyprus-based Politis DailyPreviously, he was based in Istanbul between 1999 and 2007 covering Turkey and the Middle East.


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