Solution for Syria en route: ‘Democratic Federation of North Syria’

Hediye Yûsîf, Co-Chair of the council of the new political structure, renamed ‘Democratic Federation of North Syria’, explains the thinking and the process behind the initiative.

Ercan Ayboga
8 March 2017

The key dam of Tishreen on the Euphrates River and surrounding farmlands, taken from ISIS by Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD) and Arab rebels in December, 2015. DIHA/ABACA/Press Association. All rights reserved.As 151 delegates from various northern regions of the Syrian state, including Rojava, proclaimed the "Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava" on March 17, 2016, the reactions of regional and international states were almost exclusively negative. Most of the Syrian opposition groups, too, rejected it or were reluctant to make positive statements. Nonetheless, delegates and the organizations and sections of society standing behind the new entity went ahead and approved the Social Contract which has been in preparation over a long period of time.

We spoke to Hediye Yûsîf, Co-Chair of the council of the new political structure, renamed ‘Democratic Federation of North Syria’. First, we wanted to know why this project was attempted, even though the three Democratic-Autonomous Administrations (DAA) of Kobanî, Afrîn und Cizîrê exist and have functioned since the beginning of 2014. She went into some detail, briefly depicting the development in Rojava [Kurdish for “West”=Western Kurdistan] and the whole Northern Syria. This had begun with the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) which established the People's Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK) and its substructures, consisting mainly of communes and people's councils.

The radical-democratic structure ventured on the first steps towards the self-organization of society and when Rojava was liberated in summer 2012, this set off the revolution. In order to include even larger parts of society, the DAAs were formed, incorporating most sections of society (ethnic-religious as well as political organizations). This proved to be an enormous challenge, because this world has hardly ever seen something comparable: the set-up of a political structure encompassing such diversity, which on one hand is a rejection of the nation state, and on the other hand integrates the existence of radical democratic communes and people's councils in villages, streets and districts built by TEV-DEM.

Despite the DAA slowly improving their work, as time went by they proved to be not effective enough in coordinating their activities amongst themselves. The coordination of the three cantons did not manage to react to upcoming issues quickly enough, in particular to satisfactorily solve economic and social problems. The second main problem was the representation of a democratic perspective on the permanent conflict in Syria. After two years of DAA, not enough sections of Syrian society had as yet absorbed the idea of “democratic autonomy” as framed by the DAAs.

But when the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD or SDF) further liberated a number of areas in and especially outside Rojava in 2015 and 2016, this significantly changed the situation. More and more non-Kurds, especially Arabs, live in liberated areas, and due to the positive political approach of the QSD and the political cantonal structures, they have changed their attitude to the Rojava revolution and the Kurds. This had an impact far into the areas dominated by the terrorist Islamic State (IS). For example, many thousand Arabs from Raqqa have been calling on the QSD for months to liberate their city. People in some of the liberated villages also tell the QSD when they meet them that they have waited much too long.

Hediye Yûsîf continues: “All these developments contributed to the foundation of the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) in December 2015, which was also attended by many political forces from outside Northern Syria, which is liberated to a large extent. In its founding assembly, the MSD devised a model of a decentralized, democratic, secular and multicultural Syria, which is proposed for the entire state. This was another important step in the entire process for the democratic-revolutionary forces in Rojava/Northern Syria. The DAA being excluded from international meetings for a solution to the crisis in Syria, which, however, ended in failure, accelerated all our political efforts in those months.”

After the foundation of the MSD, a number of political activists examined different models of federation, autonomy and other decentralising political structures that are being put into practice worldwide. Simultaneously, political representatives from all the regions of Northern Syria, including Rojava, were called together several times and the idea of a coherent political structure being part of a democratic Syria, was discussed in general and then in greater detail. Among the participants were delegates from Minbic (Manbij) and the Şehba region, still ruled over by IS and other forces. There, the general idea was discussed, then in a second step the principles, then further details and a roadmap. This phase – one month before the proclamation – saw announcements that the cantons would be dissolved and replaced with a totally new political decentralized system. These proved to be premature: the cantons remained as they were. This does make sense, because they are barely established themselves and yet have proven rather positive at the size at which they are currently functioning.

Eventually, a total of 151 delegates assembled on March 16, 2016 to take the historical step to proclaim the “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava” on March 17. A coordination of 31 persons and the two co-chairs Hediye Yûsîv, a known TEV-DEM politician, and Mensur Selim, an Arab from Cizîrê, were elected. The declaration of the federal structure principally follows the Social Contract of the three DAA’s. Together with the rejection of the nation state, an emphasis was put on the position of women, the diverse cultural structure, on workers as the true creators of products, on identifying oneself as a part of a democratic Syria and finally, the strong commitment to a democratic-peaceful solution to the war in Syria.

It's no wonder that the Syrian government and regional and international states did not immediately react positively, Hediye Yûsîf, an impressively confident and enthusiastic speaker, says: “For us it was more important that the people in Syria deemed our proposition for Syria positive. Because for us this is of strategic importance. Looking back only less than a year ago, a vast majority of Arabs judged the proclamation of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava a step towards the division of Syria or were otherwise very reluctant about it. But today we are in a very different situation, which is also due to the process of preparing the Social Contract.”

Three fundamental resolutions were issued at the founding assembly in March 2016. The project was to be presented to and discussed with the society of Northern Syria and entire Syria. Support for it was to be sought on an international level as well. And finally, the Social Contract was to be prepared with the biggest support possible within six months.

To fulfil these aims four different committees were set up. Diplomacy was key as both within and outside Syria the work of convincing had to be done. All the activists involved worked day and night in order to finalise a draft, and a time of one month was announced for proposals or drafts to be submitted literally to the Commission on Preparation of the Social Contract. Hediye Yûsîf emphasizes the importance of the process as a whole.

All parts of the society, even the ones not directly involved in the federation process, joined in the preparation of the Social Contract; except for the Kurdish National Council (ENKS) – a block of 7 political parties with a tendency to the political right – which had already rejected the Democratic-Autonomous Administration. Even people from Rojava/Syria living abroad handed in suggestions. “From April until the end of July we, the commission in charge, worked almost ceaselessly in Dêrik (Al-Malikiya), putting together all the suggestions. TEV-DEM's draft proved to be the most far-sighted ”, says  Hediye Yûsif.

This is no wonder, since TEV-DEM initiated the idea of the DAA and has been very active in designing the concept behind and first steps of a democratic federation.

The coordination of the initiative for a federation had a final discussion on the draft and they then presented it to the public at the end of July, 2016. Every organization was asked to discuss the draft with their own members and return with suggestions for improvement. “We, as TEV-DEM, fulfilled this with hundreds of gatherings in the various districts and villages of the three cantons. These gatherings were not a mere technicality, because a lot of people surprised TEV-DEM with further suggestions, thought through in detail, which were then taken up. Furthermore, until September 2016, individual intellectuals, academics, artists and so forth were also invited to submit their suggestions in writing, so that these too could be taken into consideration.”

Next the second draft was prepared, based on the discussions led with the population and public. This draft came as a surprise to many Arabs. Many of them – especially those under the influence of reactionary organisations – had assumed even in 2015, and still partly in 2016, that the Kurds would want to take revenge for the oppression and expropriation of agrarian land by the Baath regime several decades ago, and would attempt to assimilate them or found a Kurdish state. "The challenge before us was very burdensome right from the beginning. But I am convinced that we have achieved quite something", stresses Hediye Yûsîf.

The second draft finished, the second assembly of the council of the federation initiative could take place from November 27-29, 2016. Due to the long discussions and the extensive participation of society no damaging confrontation occurred. The deletion of the term "Rojava" and addition of the term "democratic" now led to the new name, ‘Democratic Federation of North Syria’ (DFNS). Few Kurdish parties opposed the deletion of Rojava from the name of the new political structure, a proposal which had led to many discussions. Finally, TEV-DEM and the Non-Kurds convincingly argued that the (DFNS) territory encompassed more than Rojava and that many cultures lived there – Kurds not being the majority – and that, after all, this should serve as a model for the whole of Syria. The Aramaens/Assyrians identify the canton Cizîre as Gozarto or Beth-Narin. Furthermore, the concept of the "Democratic Nation" (which constitutes the ideological frame together with democratic confederalism) implies that territorial denominations should preferably not contain any ethnic-religious implications, particularly for areas or regions with a mixed cultural structure. In fact one can be critical on the same basis of the denomination "North Syria", (since it refers to the name of a state), but it at least is a common denominator.

Then, in a historic step, the second draft of the Social Contract was approved by all 165 delegates. The 14 additional delegates came mainly from Minbic/Manbij, which after a long struggle had been liberated from the QSD in August 2016. Apart from delegates of liberated areas like Minbic or Tel Abyad (Gire Spî), in total 22 political parties took part in this important meeting, among them one Suryani (Suryoye), one Assyrian and two Arab parties.

Hediye Yûsîf describes the developments since. In the beginning of January, 2017, the coordination convened gave a final polishing to the Social Contract and elected two co-chairs, a Kurd (Foze Al Yusîv) and a Suryoye (Senherip Bersim). This step meant that the predominantly Christian Suryoye were represented better in the whole project. Also they resolved on a political document containing proposals for the solution of the conflict in Syria. This document aims at providing the influence of a democratic perspective to the discussions currently going on in Syria and internationally.

Reactionary forces are not really discussing a democratization of Syria when they meet in Geneva or Astana. Rather their interest is to redistribute power in Syria. They conceal the democratic project, despise it, directly fight it or try to make use of it for their own purposes. In this respect, the political document is a far-sighted intervention.

So our conversation with Hediye Yûsîf turns to the latest diplomatic efforts. In the first eleven months of the DFNS existing, and after the initial, mainly negative reactions, the situation had undergone a change to the positive, says Yûsîf. This must be attributed to the successful development of the whole process so far, as well as to the population's increasing support. Enemies or sceptics of the revolution and the democratic project it has generated are scrutinising minutely the sources of political, social and military power but not paying heed to who is in the right. But a project supported by the majority of the population acts with a self-confidence, which can be seen as personified in Hediye Yûsîf.

Many international forces, western states in particular, have expressed the opinion that the proposed democratic-federal structure was a possible solution but approached too hastily. Having no proposal for a solution to offer out of their colonial past, which could pacify and democratize the country, they nevertheless consider themselves the true agents of "democracy and modernity". But the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to concede that the federation project is one of several options for the solution of the Syrian conflict. Furthermore many parliamentarians of the European Parliament and European national parliaments have welcomed the project. The Arab Union's reaction is also very interesting: they have agreed that the federation for Syria is worthy of debate.

All this sounds positive. However, the path to true recognition remains very long and full of hazards. The IS has not been defeated yet and most notably the Turkish government is acting with excessive hostility towards Rojava and Northern Syria. It came as something of a surprise when, in such a moment, the Russian government published a proposal for a new Syrian constitution in the middle of January, 2017 – that is, before the Astana talks on Syria – but this shows that Russia wants to take the initiative for a solution to the Syrian conflict.

We wanted to know what the DFNS, especially TEV-DEM, thought about this. Hediye Yûsif views this as a positive but insufficient step. Positive, because the term ‘Arabic’ is to be deleted from the name of the state: moreover on regional levels, it is proposed that other languages besides Arabic are to be officially recognized. Strengthening communal administrations and Kurds receiving cultural rights certainly would have a positive ring to it under normal circumstances. But there is a reality in North Syria with much more far-reaching implications to which the draft did not do justice. This concerns the decentralization and democratization of the state altogether and autonomy for a certain region where several cultures live together. Yûsîf adds that setting aside these shortcomings, at least a discussion had begun.

Finally, in this interview we turn to the new political structure in North Syria. First we have to note that the cantons are to be kept. Whether Manbij becomes the fourth canton has not been finally concluded. The most important aspect of the Democratic Federation of North Syria is that the radical democratic structures established by TEV-DEM since 2011 will now be officially integrated. Exactly this was not fully achieved by the DAA and it took considerable discussion to agree on how this could best be accomplished. According to this proposal, the communes (komîn), the number of which is increasing in Northern Syria on an almost daily basis make up the lowest rung. Then follow the democratic people's councils (meclisa gel a demokratîk) on the next three levels, the highest of which is the regional level (called herêmî, the denomination “canton” will not be used any more). Finally we have the Democratic People's Congress of North Syria. On all these levels the committees will have the important feature (demokrasî hevkirî) of 60% of its members being seated through election and 40% through organizations of a different kind for the broadest representation. The organizations are, among others, social movements (women, youth, students etc), education-health structure, cooperatives, professional organizations, human rights organizations or religious groups.

This provision was important especially for smaller ethnic and religious groups such as the Christians. Without fail, there is a gender equal co-chair regulation for all higher positions and a 40% gender quota. Activists organize themselves for these five levels within more than ten social sectors (desta) separately; these, for example, are the sectors – women, youth, economy. Ecology will also constitute one specific sector which is a positive, since this component fell out of the DAA structure one year ago.

When I ask when all this will be put into effect I receive the answer that laws and regulations applying to this are being worked on right now and that a defined point of time could not be named. From others we have heard a rumour of half a year maximum. We do hope that this will be soon, because a successful implementation could spread the revolution which initiated in Rojava to neighbouring areas and probably the whole of Syria and other regions of the Middle East, and will eventually enrich humankind with this very unique experience.

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