Syria can seem an endless black hole of misery, but in the northern, largely Kurdish region of Rojava, it is also the scene of a profoundly democratic and humanist revolution, which places the rights of ethnic minorities and women’s liberation at its centre.
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Ironically, given the horror that surrounds it, Rojava is the site of the most profound experiments on grassroots, participatory democracy outside of the revolutionary projects in Latin America. Like in Venezuela, the ideal of “the commune” is at the heart of Rojava’s burgeoning democracy.
The Rojavan revolution came to the world’s attention largely through the heroic resistance by the fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in defeating an Islamic State group siege on the Rojavan town of Kobane in January. But many have noted the profoundly revolutionary ideology that drives Rojavan freedom fighters – which they are seeking to put into practice amid great odds.
Rojava is a “liberated zone” in northern Syria that forms part of the traditional homeland of Kurdistan. The major political party is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is ideologically aligned with the left-wing Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), based in Turkey.
In 2011, the PYD supported the uprising that broke out against Assad. However, it was concerned about the opposition overly militarising the conflict. At first, this was in response to Assad’s repression of unarmed protests, but was fuelled by the intelligence agencies of the West and its regional allies.
As well as the growing ethnic and religious chauvinism of a largely Sunni and Arab opposition becoming defined as Sunni and Arab, this caused the Kurdish movement to stay aloof from the fractious armed opposition.
By July 2012, the Assad government’s military presence in Rojava was depleted by pressures elsewhere in the midst of a worsening civil war. There was a growing danger Rojava would become a battleground between opposing forces hostile to Kurds and other ethnic minorities.
In response, a largely bloodless uprising was launched, declaring Rojava a liberated zone. This popular insurrection allowed the PKK and PYD’s ideas of “democratic confederalism,” based on participatory democracy and local autonomy, to begin to be realised.
The PYD plays an ideological role in Rojava’s democratic transformation, but not an institutional one. It helped establish the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which organises and mobilises the population but is organisationally independent of the PYD.
Institutional power is based on a system called “Democratic Autonomy”. Ecology or Catastrophe blog said in January that TEV-DEM representative Çinar Salih told a visiting academic delegation, “Our system rests on the communes, made up of neighbourhoods of 300 people. The communes have co-presidents, and there are co-presidents at all levels, from commune to canton administration.”
“In each commune there are five or six different committees. Communes work in two ways. First, they resolve problems quickly and early — for example, a technical problem or a social one. Some jobs can be done in five minutes, but if you send it to the state, it gets caught in a bureaucracy. So we can solve issues quickly. The second way is political,” Salih said.
“If we speak about true democracy, decisions can’t be made from the top and go to the bottom, they have to be made at the bottom and then go up in degrees.The co-presidents are one male and one female … Female representation is guaranteed on all the peoples councils. No gender is allowed more than 60 percent representation. In addition, there are parallel women-only structures,” he explained.
“Women’s councils exist in parallel at all levels, the commune, the district, the city, and the canton. The women’s councils don’t decide on general issues — that’s what the people’s councils are for. They discuss issues that are specifically about women … They have veto power on issues concerning women.”
The emphasis on women’s liberation is reflected in the high visibility of female fighters in Rojava’s revolutionary armed groups.
Salih argued that the Rojava revolution is a “revolution of women,” explaining that they are involved in all areas of life. “We believe that a revolution that does not open the way for women’s liberation is not a revolution. There have been revolutions in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia … but the same status for women has persisted.”
Because of the war, devastation and isolation that Rojava is subjected to, its economy is largely geared toward survival. However, its socialist-oriented emphasis is on providing universal housing, nutrition, healthcare, childcare and education — none of which were provided by the Syrian government during peacetime.
The revolution in Rojava is explicitly a multi-ethnic revolution. In its preamble, the constitution of the Rojava autonomous cantons describes Rojava’s cantons as “a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens”.
It continues: “In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognises Syria’s territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.”
The emphasis in Rojava is on building structures that are multi-ethnic, as opposed to simply Kurdish. Everything from street signs, to media, to education are provided in the relevant language of the community involved.
Like gender, ethnic participation on the communal and other councils is enabled by quotas. There are also parallel bodies for ethnic minorities.
Due to such policies, the revolution quickly won support from non-Kurdish minorities. This is reflected in non-Kurdish participation in the revolution’s structures and organisations, as well as alliances made with non-Kurdish political and armed groups.
The Rojavan revolution faces constant threats from many sides – and has to navigate complex, competing forces seeking to push their interests in the region. But for all it has achieved against the odds, the Rojavan revolution deserves our solidarity – the world needs Rojava.