In 2012 in Rojava, Northern Syria, a group of Kurds set up a secular, ethnically inclusive and bottom-up democratic system, in which all ethnic and religious groups can live together amicably and cooperatively. Women are empowered to enjoy their full human rights, grassroots democracy is the norm, the economy is cooperative and based on ecological principles. In 2019, seven years on, the area they control has grown into what is now called the General Council of the Self Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria (NES). Together with civic councils in towns liberated from Islamic State, it now governs approximately one third of Syria’s territory.

The group first came to prominence as People’s Defence Units (YPG) struggling against great odds and attempts by ISIS to erode their territory, alongside a unique 25,000-strong army of women (YPJ). Women still play prominent leading roles in this new society and a significant part of the economy is run by women-only co-operatives, which are key to feeding people. Decision-making is devolved to the most local level possible – often the village – with women and men co-chairing meetings. Academic David Graeber described Rojava as a “remarkable democratic experiment… despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours.” This practical example of a society with equality at its heart is a source of inspiration and shows that even under extremely adverse conditions, another kind of society is possible.

Wider relevance

In the chaos of the Syrian civil war, a small enclave of three multi-ethnic regions have managed to carve out a hopeful, democratic experiment, based partly on the ideas of the American ecological thinker Murray Bookchin. Through this experiment, Syrian Kurds  developed a new constitution, supported by diverse interests in the region and opposed only by the Kurdish nationalists. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, to give its contemporary name, regards itself as a model for a new devolved Syrian constitution after the war is over. The model is interesting for its commitment to a feminist, devolved and democratic – but also a secular – state, where decisions are taken weekly at general meetings in every community.

There are quotas for female participation in the various organising bodies, and ethnic balance is also ensured – for example, each municipality council must have one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three must be a woman. The constitution maintains a commitment to private property, but Syrian Kurds are seeking to develop a ‘social economy’, in which co-operatives form the basis of the economic system.

“For a former diplomat like me, I found it confusing,” an American diplomat told the New York Times. “I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups. There was none of that stifling obedience to the party, or the obsequious deference to the “big man” — a form of government all too evident just across the borders, in Turkey to the North, and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq to the South. The confident assertiveness of young people was striking.”

Another remarkable feature of the democratic experiment in Rojava is the justice system established alongside self-government. Since courts and punishment are seen to represent the coercive dominance of the state, such institutions had been replaced by a kind of community justice, where “social peace”, and not punishment, is the objective.

Context and background

The federation was declared in 2012 as the Syrian war reached a crescendo and ISIS was beginning to threaten the territory. It might be possible to see the fraught and hurried creation of Rojava as a response to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism – which their Kurdish army managed to hold at bay. The Kurds were also the only army on the ground ready and able to fight ISIS – although this may prove a problem for Rojava if their US partner troops pull out of Syria as promised. Turkey has been threatening to invade the region. Although it comprises a coalition of Kurds, Syrians and Christians, Rojava is seen by Turkey as a safe house for Kurdish nationalists, who they consider to be terrorists, and therefore would seek to dismantle the experiment in democracy.

Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the banned Kudish independence party (PKK), is seen by Kurds in Syria, as well as those in Turkey, as the leader of Kurdish liberation. This despite — or in defiance of — the fact that, for the past 16 years, he has been held in a Turkish prison on an island in the Sea of Marmara. Here, he was particularly influenced by the American writer and political thinker Murray Bookchin, who believed passionately in freedom and a return to “true” democracy at the local level. He drew on anarchism’s lack of authoritarianism and married it with environmentalism to bring people closer to nature and in equal relationships with each other. These ideas worked well for a nation without their own state and in need of cooperation.

The war has exacted a high cost on Rojava, with an estimated 11,000 fighters killed and more than 21,000 wounded from a population of an estimated 4.6 million. And it is not over. Territory is under threat from ISIS cells, from Turkey and from the Syrian government. Bombings and the burning of fields is common. On top of this, Rojava cares for some 74,000 refugees who have fled the fighting in both Syria and Iraq at the huge al-Hawl camp. Some are families of fighters from Western countries that do not want them repatriated.

Rojava and the Syrian government have been negotiating, but it would appear unlikely that the Syrian government would agree to self-government for a liberated zone and to recognise an independent armed force (the SDF) as legitimate.

Enabling factors

As described above, the coalition between Kurdish, Syrian and Armenian Christian ethnic groups was able to fill the vacuum when the Syrian government began to unravel, in the midst of the violence of the ongoing Syrian war. The main instigator has been the underground political party the Democratic Union Party PYD, which withdrew from its coalition with the Kurdish National Council in 2013 to draw up the current Rojava constitution, adopted in 2014. Since then, it has trodden a careful path between satisfying both the Syrian government and the foreign aid providers to maintain a working administration. This is an example of how a thoughtful constitution, an attitude of collaboration and strongly representative decision making can work well – even in the midst of a complex and entrenched war.

The international nature of this new Rojava society, with many fighters coming from overseas, brought in ideas, sympathy and media coverage from all over the world. This led in 2017 to the formation of the Internationalist Commune and a focus on “social ecology”. Its core argument is that modern capitalism causes environmental destruction and ecological crises that go hand in hand with the exploitation of people. To overcome this, social ecology calls for the creation of a political and moral society where humanity renews its link to nature through seeing itself as being part of nature rather than separate.

Rojava’s democratic organising principles made it easy for existing campaigners for the environment to join forces and work together. Under the banner of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement (MEM), they aim to decrease Rojava’s dependence on imports, return to traditional water-conserving cultivation techniques, call for ecological policy-making at the municipal level and promote local crops and livestock and traditional construction methods. They also organize educational activities and work against what they call “destructive and exploitative investment”. This means anything that “commercializes the waters, commodifies the land, controls nature and people, and promotes the consumption of fossil fuels”. To this end they focus on organic agriculture, ecological villages and cities, ecological industry, and alternative energy and technologies.

Schools in Rojava teach ecology as a fundamental principle. A series of school gardens have been constructed in partnership with Slow Food to provide a ‘laboratory’ for children to learn about the region’s biodiversity and how to care for it. They grow fruit trees, figs and pomegranates, instead of corn and wheat monocultures. Some have been planted on land that was once virtually destroyed by the war. Many areas lack water because wells were destroyed, so the people focus on cultivating crops that do not require much irrigation. Ancient cultivation techniques developed by the great civilizations that grew up along the Tigris and Euphrates have enabled the local population to return to communal land use. In some villages, semi-destroyed by the war, surrounded by green meadows and freely grazing cattle, families have decided to return and reinhabit land. A reconstruction process is starting from the land itself.

Scope and evidence

  • In spite of the powerful opposition of the Turkish government, it took two years from the withdrawal of the Syrian army when YPG militia began to successfully protect enclaves of Kurdish inhabitants, to the adoption of a new democratic constitution in 2014.
  • An estimated 4.6 million people live in Rojava and the economy has been successful enough for one Rojava leader to claim that they were earning about 55% of Syrian GDP.
  • The first elections of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria were held in 2017. In September 2017, 3,700 candidates were elected as representatives for the local communes, followed by elections of local councils in December 2017 and a federal parliamentary election of the People’s Democratic Council in January 2018.