Rojava/NES: An Experiment in Middle Eastern Democracy

Crowds inside NES territory. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) was born out of the conflagration that has come to be known as the Syrian Civil War. It would take a decently sized book to detail every phase of this 8 yearlong conflict, but the residents of the area commonly known in the West as Rojava have considered themselves a distinct group for much longer than the length of the war. Many Americans have never heard of the territory, and this overview should provide some basic knowledge about an area that American foreign policy has a few concerning intersections with.

Those Syrian Kurds have inhabited parts of Northern and Eastern Syria since the Middle Ages, but for the sake of brevity, this quick history will be confined to the period of Syrian independence. The Kurds have been repressed (sometimes violently) by the Syrian government for decades. Since the 1960’s, Syrian Kurds have been regularly stripped of their citizenship and denied passports. The Syrian state limited their education, banned or removed instances of the Kurdish language, and met protests with violence[i]. Some of the most quietly insidious policies implemented by the Ba’ath party government of 1970’s Syria were the Arabization projects, which aimed to upend the demographic makeup of the Kurdish regions by moving in large numbers of Arabs. Kurds were typically denied housing permits or resettled in Syrian cities in an attack on their autonomy and ability to organize. Attempts to uproot and destroy the culture of the Kurds became the official domestic policy of two generations of Assad government in Syria[ii]. Institutionalized discrimination and regular harassment from both the Syrian and Turkish governments has characterized the last few decades.

The onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 provided a golden opportunity to the Kurdish militias that had coalesced during the years of oppression. As protests against the repressive Bashar al-Assad government erupted into violent conflict across the country, Kurdish political parties began to negotiate, consolidate power[iii], and organize the militias[iv]. In mid-2012 a Kurdish armed force (the YPG, or People’s Protection Units) rolled across the northeastern regions of Syria, capturing a significant amount of cities and villages with little resistance. Severe resistance from the rebellion gaining traction in the rest of the country, alongside the growing power of extremist forces such as ISIL or al-Nusra affiliates, caused the government to back down in the face of the Kurdish advance and direct it’s forces elsewhere[v]. Observers have often expressed surprise at the speed with which the YPG forces and Kurdish administration secured the self-described “cantons” of northeastern Syria, but the seeds of rebellion had been gestating in the region for decades. Pre-existing parties and military organizations simply activated themselves when presented with the chance to seize significant territory from the Assad government. Amalgamation of militia forces continued throughout the next few years, resulting in the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 as the military arm of the NES[vi]. To make a complicated story much shorter than it deserves, the areas controlled by what eventually coalesced into the NES have been more or less continually occupied by SDF forces since 2012, existing in a state of de facto independence from the Syrian state.

PYD fighters underneath a banner depicting Abdullah Öcalan. (Ronahi TV, via AP)

During that time, the SDF repelled attacks by government forces, battled incursions by the Turkish military, and broke the back of ISIL after some of the most brutal fighting of that theater of the war. Several of the rebel groups making up the Free Syrian Army arrayed against Assad also displayed open contempt for the Kurds, necessitating clashes with the SDF (the appearance of extremist Sunni militias and other hate groups within the FSA likely drove this, although homegrown Syrian prejudice against the Kurds is anything but rare). Tenacity of the militias notwithstanding, the evolution of political administration in the area is the truly fascinating part of this multi-ethnic, but ultimately Kurdish experiment. After rounds of negotiations and competition between several political parties, the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) political coalition consolidated power in much of northeastern Syria[vii].

On January 29, 2014, the three self-described “cantons” of Afrin, Kobane, and Jazira declared their confederation under the “Charter of the Social Contract”, and although unrecognized internationally, now considered themselves free of Syrian control.

The political and societal structure of the NES is based on the tenets of a strain of anarchic socialism known as democratic confederalism, and this is where the differences between the Kurds and most other separatist groups throughout the Middle East become very clear. Abdullah Öcalan is one of the founders of the Kurdish resistance movement, and the PYD political party (which associated with the YPG military forces and remains dominant in the ruling coalition of the NES) subscribes to his ideology. Imprisoned in Turkey for attempting to lead the Kurdish people against the Turkish government[1], Öcalan was influenced initially by Marxist-Leninist theory and eventually by the writings of Murray Bookchin, an American theorist of anarchism and socialism who advocated the construction of a new society through direct democracy and municipal organization. Democratic confederalism is Öcalan’s synthesis of these strains of thought. Multiculturalism (many areas of the NES contain large Arab populations) and gender equality are also woven into the system through explicit inclusion in the Charter. Although Öcalan is currently in Turkish custody[viii], the Kurds have successfully implemented this system across the canton territories. The sociopolitical impacts are striking.

The NES attempts to establish an autonomous zone defined as “democracy without a state” based on councils and partnership[ix]. This concept can be hard for those who have only ever experienced hierarchical political systems to wrap their heads around, so let’s take a closer look at how society in the NES actually functions.

Communes are the base political element of the NES, and most people engage their society politically at this level. Each commune contains several committees, such as those dealing with women’s issues and defense. Communes must be co-led, and the two leaders must be one man and one woman. Many NES institutions are structured in this boldly egalitarian form. For example, women’s courts have jurisdiction over crimes involving domestic violence, trafficking, or others of that nature. If you have any familiarity with the region or the type of news stories that filter into western news media, you’ll know why this focus on gender equality strikes many outsiders as so extraordinary. Members are elected to the committees based on direct voting from all commune members, and decisions are reached through discussion involving anyone who wishes to be heard. Lower level crimes can be resolved through the communes, and trust in these ad hoc people’s courts has grown in the past few years. These communes elect representatives that they then send to city councils, which administrate on the municipal level. Municipalist communes are the basis for local politics in the NES, allowing citizens to take an extraordinarily active role in their governance.

On a territory-wide level, the NES is administrated by a Legislative Council, Executive Council, and formal courts. Direct democracy based on universal enfranchisement provides for the Legislative Council (underneath which are regional councils). This body creates budgets, declares war, debates region-wide law, and reviews functions of the other institutions. That Council elects Canton Premiers (roughly analogous to a governor), and forms the Executive Council from its dominant political bloc. Powers of this council include administrating the region and actually implementing the rule of law. Bodies tasked with directing region wide policy on areas such as defense, justice, and education are placed under the authority of the Executive Council. The Charter also provides for a Supreme Constitutional Court and military forces[x].

Syrian Kurds provide maintenance to oil machinery in 2018 ( Photo: Hussein Malla/AP )

The economic sector of the NES includes agriculture, manufacturing, and large service industries. However, the most tantalizing aspects of the economy (for its wielders) are the Jazira Canton oil fields. While the region has had trouble finding buyers for its oil, if the experimental government becomes a permanent fixture that oil could ensure a prosperous economy. Economic ventures are run cooperatively, with every member of the cooperative receiving shares in the venture and an equal vote in its decision making process. Profit from any cooperative is divided between the members (according to need and ability), future production costs, and the share given to the commune for upkeep. Hierarchical structures are typically avoided, just as they are in the political sector.

Doesn’t sound much like your workplace, does it?

This overview of NES framework and how it emerged isn’t close to comprehensive, but should highlight why the region is so unique among governments not just in the Middle East, but the entire international community. Anyone with a desire to learn more should dive into the deep history of the region and the development of Middle Eastern socialism and democracy. The future of this experiment in direct democracy is murky as of mid-2019. Accusations of authoritarianism have followed the PYD and ruling coalition after the imposition of single-party rule. Although local and council elections have gone ahead mostly as planned, legislative elections have been postponed several times. The TEV-DEM coalition argues that the myriad of threats facing the Syrian enclave justify a more efficient “national” decision making process for the time being, and dangers do indeed surround the NES[xi]. The Syrian Civil War is currently stumbling towards an end after 8 years of bloody chaos, but there is no guarantee the Syrian government will continue to tolerate a majority Kurdish separatist region after it has consolidated control over the rest of the nation. Although unlikely, a resurgent Islamic State would no doubt seek revenge for the heavy casualties it sustained in its battles with the YPG/SDF. The United States has lent air support and logistics to the SDF throughout the conflict in order to bolster them against the Islamic State and Assad’s regime. However, the recent announcement of an American troop withdrawal from the region leaves the NES in a precarious position, especially in regards to its main adversary, Turkey.

Turkish soldiers advance into Afrin, 2018 (Hasan Kırmızitaş/DHA-Depo Photos via AP)

  In 2018, Turkish forces crossed their border and conducted a military operation in the Afrin canton of the NES that effectively seized control of the province[xii]. Turkey’s longstanding hostility toward the Kurds could spell disaster for the NES without the diplomatic and military armor of an American alliance. The murky nature of the NES’ relationship with American interests makes it hard to pin down where that relationship actually stands.

American withdrawal would seem to spell disaster for northeast Syrian hopes. At the same time, the ruling coalition of the NES has begun barring grain shipments from being trucked into Syrian government controlled areas. Interestingly, an American think tank recently issued a proposal to “starve” the Syrian people of wheat as a method of pressuring the Assad regime.[xiii]. This seems to contradict the NES’ previously stated intent to pursue an agreement with Assad, instead pressuring the regime in a way that aligns with US interests (and is undeniably cruel). American support for the NES experiment will likely only continue so long as the enclave maintains its status as a thorn in the side of the Assad regime. Attempting to align with US interests could backfire by leaving northeast Syria exposed when the US inevitably loses its interest in Rojava as a utility. An American alliance also seems to run counter to the generally leftist/anti-imperialist political currents in the region, and a loss of legitimacy could become an issue if the NES continues to shack up with the American military. Survival of the enclave surely takes precedence in the minds of its people, but they must be careful not to become an American (or sectarian) puppet. An interesting experiment in democratic rule could become tainted by the interests of the American foreign policy machine and eventually destroyed when that machine inevitably pulls its support.

The longevity of the NES will depend on the resiliency of Öcalan’s political model and whether or not the population buys into this radical form of organization. A large amount of heavy weaponry and SDF bravery might also be useful. However, that may not have a chance to matter if Turkey or Syria bring their full military might to bear on the remaining cantons. The NES was forged in conflict, and that conflict is almost certainly incomplete.


[1] This conflict involved some admittedly sketchy attacks on civilians, and the use of Kurdish fighters as proxies by the Syrian state against Turkey. Öcalan’s ideology has shifted since then, and I wish I had time to cover the entire Turkish-Syrian-Kurdish hate triangle, but you’ll have to do your own further research.


[i] https://lib.ohchr.org/HRBodies/UPR/Documents/session12/SY/KIS-KurdsinSyria-eng.pdf

[ii] https://www.hrw.org/reports/1996/Syria.htm

[iii] https://web.archive.org/web/20120723012730/http://www.rudaw.net/english/news/syria/4964.html

[iv] https://web.archive.org/web/20120801020239/http://www.rudaw.net/english/news/syria/5010.html

[v] https://web.archive.org/web/20121129100410/http://www.rudaw.net/english/news/syria/4992.html

[vi] https://www.the-american-interest.com/2019/04/15/the-improbable-rise-and-uncertain-future-of-syrias-kurds/#_ednref3

[vii] http://harvardpolitics.com/online/radical-leftism-and-militant-islam/

[viii] https://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/20/world/us-helped-turkey-find-and-capture-kurd-rebel.html

[ix] http://www.freeocalan.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ocalan-Democratic-Confederalism.pdf

[x] https://civiroglu.net/the-constitution-of-the-rojava-cantons/

[xi] https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-12-08-governing-rojava-khalaf.pdf

[xii] https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/09/is-there-still-hope-for-rojava/

[xiii] https://thegrayzone.com/2019/06/19/wheat-weapon-us-think-tank-starving-syrian-civilians-assad-negotiate/

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