Written by Mathew Little
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Rojava (the predominantly Kurdish region in Northern Syria) recently and I think what they are doing in terms of building democracy from the street upwards (in contrast to our barely representative systems) deserves our studied attention. It certainly appears very impressive and they aren’t massacring or torturing masses of people, unlike all other groups in Syria (obviously ISIS but Assad and the Free Syrian Army as well. There’s a book called Revolution in Rojava (https://www.plutobooks.com/9781783719884/revolution-in-rojava/) which is well worth reading. But this is the best short article I could find: https://corporatewatch.org/democratic-confederalism-in-kurdistan/ (parts of which have been reproduced below)
The commune is the base level of Rojava’s council system. In general, communes are made up of 30-400 households in a city, or a whole village in the countryside. The entire population of the commune meets every two weeks, and it elects a board. The board meets every week, and all members of the commune are able to attend board meetings if they wish. All posts must be filled by a male and female co-chair. All representatives are recallable by the membership of the commune.
We visited a Mala Gel, or people’s house, run by Şehit Hozan commune in Amude in Rojava’s Cizîrê canton, where we spoke to the commune’s male co-chair. Şehit Hozan commune represents 400 families in their neighbourhood who vote for the board of the commune. We were told that the commune has commissions dealing with services, economy, Kurdish language teaching, organising lectures, self-defence, reconciliation and justice.
The commune’s reconciliation and justice commission tries to resolve problems that arise between members of the commune. For example, we were told that the commission had recently been asked to mediate when someone was injured in a road traffic accident and when there had been a dispute about land ownership. We were told that often the commission is able to resolve these disputes.
The commune’s self defence commission organises armed self-defence of the commune. Commune self-defence units operate autonomously from the People’s Protection Units of the YPG and YPJ and the Asayîş security forces.
The commune also organises public meetings. We were invited to one of these, organised by Şehit Hozan commune. It was attended by over fifty local women and men and was on the themes of anti-capitalism and feminism. The talk was given in Kurmanji (the Kurdish language spoken in Rojava) and translated into Arabic.
The Neighbourhood/Village Community Council and the District level
The board of each commune in Rojava sends representatives to the Neighburhood/Village Council, a body made up of 7-30 communes. In turn, the Neighbourhood/Village Council, elects a board, who represent them at the third level, the District level.
The district level is made up of representatives of the board from the second level, plus places are reserved for five representatives from the political parties and civil society organisations within TEV-DEM.
We met the Democratic Youth Union in Kobanî, previously called the Revolutionary Youth, who are one of the civil society organisations who have places reserved for them within this system. They told us:
“The target of our organisation is to build equality between men and women and to protect the environment. Our organisation is not just for Kurdish youths. We also have Arabic, Armenian and Turkmen members.”
People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK)
The fourth level of the council system is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan (MGRK), made up of representatives from all district councils and representatives of the groups within TEV-DEM. The MGRK is supposed to provide the coordination between Rojava’s three cantons, but the current war situation prevents the MGRK from meeting together in one location.
Every level of the council system, from the commune upward, has a women’s council. These women’s councils are formed by the Yekîtiya Star women’s union (now called Kongira Star). We met with Yekitiya Star in Kobanî. We were told that women from Yekîtiya Star were going to all of the communes in the area and organising trainings on women’s empowerment.
The Social Contract
In January 2014 a social contract was agreed for the three cantons by 50 political parties and organisations. The agreement of the social contract was an attempt to bring wider participation to politics in Rojava. It emphasises gender equality and equal rights for all ethnicities, the right to be educated in one’s own language and guarantees that those seeking political asylum will not be deported. The social contract invites other regions of Syria to adopt the canton model and form self-governing regions that can work together in a confederation.
The social contract sets out a structure for the formation of governments, known as Democratic Autonomous Administrations (sometimes called the Democratic Self Administration), in each of the three cantons. According to the contract, a legislative council is elected by the whole population, which in turn elects an executive council. At the time of writing elections have not yet taken place and the legislative council is made up of the parties and organisations that agreed to the charter, together with representatives of different ethnic groups.
We have heard plans for the MGRK in each canton to be allocated 40% of the seats in the legislative assembly, integrating the council system with the Democratic Autonomous Administration.
Municipal councils were taken over when Assad’s officials left in 2011. Under the new social charter these municipal councils will be managed by the relevant Executive Council. The first elections for these municipal administrations were held in 2015.
The Declaration of Federation
In March 2016 representatives from Rojava’s three cantons met in Derike, in Cizîrê canton, and agreed a formal statement of federation. This means that Rojava’s three cantons are now part of the “Democratic Federation of Rojava – Northern Syria” (DFRNS). The statement proclaims that the DFRNS aims “to achieve a democratic and federal Syria, rather than a centralized administration, by taking into account the historical, geographic, cultural, demographic and economic characteristics when establishing democratic federations.”. “Self-administrative regions” within the DFRNS would organise themselves “based on councils, academies, communes and cooperatives.”
For a critical Syrian view on the declaration of federalism see here.
Although the movement for democratic confederalism in Rojava has its roots in the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, it is multi-ethnic. We met Arab and Aramean (Syriac) people, who were involved in both the communes and the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) in Rojava. Places in the DAA are reserved for representatives of different ethnic groups.
A Call for Critical Solidarity
When we talk about Kurdistan, and particularly about Rojava, the debate is often sidelined into whether the revolution is perfect. We often debate whether society in Rojava is utopian, even while our own social movements are far from perfect.
The argument is often polarised into complete support for all aspects of the movement in Rojava or a position which says that the imperfections within the Rojava experiment mean that we should have nothing to do with it.
We would like to strongly argue for a stance of critical solidarity, to maintain a critical, undogmatic perspective which sees the social movements in Bakur and Rojava for what they are. To criticise the problematic aspects but also to be in solidarity with the positive, liberatory movements taking place, such as the resistance against Daesh, the struggles for autonomy, the fight against Turkish state repression, the movements towards feminism, towards building co-operatives and toward anti-capitalism. These movements have the potential to transform society both in Kurdistan and in the Middle East.
But there are aspects of the situation in Rojava where we think it is important to maintain a critical perspective. For example, at the moment political parties, and their associated military and security organisations, hold a lot of power in both Rojava and Bakur. In both Bakur’s DTK and the council system in Rojava, places are allocated for representatives of political parties. This ensures that political parties always have a voice within the structures of democratic confederalism, whether or not they represent the views of the people in the grassroots assemblies. The most powerful of
these parties is the PYD, which, according to Shiar Nayo, has acted to suppress independent activists and those critical of their policies. Many people within the movement say that these political parties are only there because the movement is in its infancy, and that in the future there will be no need for them, but they are obviously one place where power could consolidate itself. Kurdish writer Ercan Ayboğa told us that he is hopeful that power will gravitate towards the grassroots:
“political parties are instruments of political and ideological approaches which have a certain role. Their role has become in the last years slowly less significant in political life. Increasingly the different self-organised structures, women, youth and so on, have become more important. It’s a slow process because over the decades Kurdish people thought only in the category of political parties and it takes time to make changes.”
Other bodies worth critically examining are Rojava’s executive and legislative councils. In the theory of democratic confederalism, these bodies should only carry out the will of the council system. But it remains to be seen whether power will remain with the grassroots, or gravitate toward the government level. As Kurdish Anarchist Zaher Baher puts it:
“I got the impression that as long as the power of the DSA [Democratic Autonomous Administration] increases, the power of TEV-DEM decreases and the opposite could be right too”.
Also, the existence of a centralised security force, Asayîş, which is largely independent of the council system, seems to run counter to the idea of power being with the grassroots communes. But in the context of the Syrian civil war and attacks by Daesh, good security is clearly necessary and we were happy about the frequent Asayîş checkpoints, which helped to keep us safe during our visit in 2015. Many in the movement, including members of Asayîş, maintain that the organisation will dissolve itself when it is no longer necessary. Practical steps are being taken toward this end, with the setting up of armed defence forces by the communes. Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM told us that TEV-DEM was engaged in providing support and training to the communes to set up their own defence forces. Because of this process, Asayîş does not have a monopoly on the use of force in Rojava.
Perhaps the most powerful forces in Rojava are the People’s Protection Forces of the YPG and YPJ. These forces have been key to the survival of democratic confederalism in Rojava. However, there is evidence that they have acted oppressively in the past, firing on demonstrators in Amudê in 2013. Also, how many people in Rojava actually have a say about the alliances formed by these military organisations? One such example is the changing nature of the alliance with the US, which may be necessary for the success of the fight against Daesh, but which we would say, has the potential to threaten the grassroots social revolution in Rojava.
In 2014, when Kobanî was under attack by Daesh, the US, reluctantly and belatedly, began bombing in coordination with the YPG and YPJ. US air support was an important factor in the liberation of Kobanî. Since then military co-operation with the US against Daesh has increased.
Many people in Rojava have a critical perspective on the alliance. When we spoke to Bedran Gia Kurd of TEV-DEM, he said:
“There is daily coordination with the US military as our enemy is the same, but there is no long-term agreement. There is no guarantee for this coordination. It is temporary. Maybe in the future there won’t be this coordination. Coordination in the future will be on the basis of how to protect our principles. So if this coordination compromises our project, we will not agree to it.”
But, as Zaher Baher points out, Saleh Muslim, PYD co-chairperson, in an interview with the Washington Kurdish Institute, has put forward a different point of view:
“America is a superpower that fosters democracy globally, and tries to develop and disseminate it throughout the world.”
Other PYD figures have called for international business investment in Rojava, seemingly without recognising that it would threaten the moves toward an anti-capitalist, cooperative economy in Rojava.
Of course, these statements by politicians may be intended as pragmatic steps toward gaining international support for their struggle for autonomy and fight against Daesh. But, at best, these politicians are playing an extremely dangerous game. At worst, they are completely at odds with the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist elements of the movement.
Another issue is that of the reverence for the figure of Abdullah Öcalan. In almost every interview we carried out about democratic confederalism people would say that their ideas come from their leader. This habit of deferring to Öcalan runs counter to the ideas that the grassroots have the power to shape society themselves. As Zaher Baher puts it:
“For some time, Abdullah Öcalan, in recent books and text messages, has denounced and rejected the state and authority. But until now I have not heard that he has rejected his own authority and denounce those people calling him a great leader and who work hard to give him a sacred position. Öcalan’s attitude cannot be correct unless he also rejects his own authority and leadership.”
We have heard that some of Öcalan’s work, which is thus far only available in German, does discuss critically his role as leader. We have not seen a translation of these writings. But the issue isn’t only about whether Öcalan rejects a leadership role. It is that he is treated as a leader by many within the movements for democratic confederalism. This is particularly striking in the women’s movements where, on the one hand women say that they are for women’s self organisation, and on the other say that their ideas come from Öcalan.
We believe that the most useful solidarity with the developing movements toward democratic confederalism is not to either reject all of the positive steps being taken because of the movement’s imperfections, or to only talk positively about them. Rather, we should remain a supportive and honest friend to the movement, a friend who does not shy away from taking action in solidarity with those fighting for a better society, but who is also not afraid to speak honestly, openly and critically.
Grassroots Movements with the Capacity to Change Society
The movements for democratic confederalism in Rojava and Bakur are a place where anti-capitalist, feminist, anti-authoritarian and anti-state ideas are flourishing. They have the capability to transform the reality of society for millions of people. These changes are being made by people at a grassroots level, who are inspired by the ideas of the revolution, not by politicians or government institutions.
The establishment of communes and assemblies in Bakur and Rojava has empowered people to make decisions over many areas of their lives which were previously controlled by the state. For example, since the establishment of communes in Rojava there have been creative attempts to construct new methods of dealing with problem behaviour. As described above, each commune has a truth and reconciliation commission to deal with problems that arise in the community. For more serious incidents, such as murder, there is a ‘people’s court’ at the district level, with judges elected by the commune, that hears the case. These judges still have the power to send people to prison, but, Ercan Ayboğa, a Kurdish activist from Bakur who has visited Rojava, told us in 2016:
“There are still prisons in Rojava but the number of prisoners is very low. For example, in [the town of] Serekaniye the number of prisoners is 20 compared to 200 in Assad’s time. The courts try to avoid sending people to prison. They try to use other measures like sending people to work in another area, asking people to leave an area for a certain period of time, or arranging education or training for the accused person.”
However, according to Ercan, this system has been criticised by people within Rojava and people have been experimenting with an alternative, the ‘justice platform’. In this new system the justice and reconciliation commissions can ask for support with serious problems by forming a justice platform. The justice platform is made up of 200-300 people from “women, youth, other political movements and other organisations from the neighbourhood. They discuss the case and try to reach consensus.”
The fact that no one force has a monopoly on the use of violence and that, in Rojava, the communes are developing armed defence forces may be a key factor in keeping power at the grassroots level. The fact that the grassroots are armed makes it more difficult for power to consolidate itself with, for example, the Democratic Autonomous Administration or the military.
Women’s movements in Bakur and Rojava are perhaps the most inspiring element of the current situation in Kurdistan. When we were in Bakur and Rojava we met women who were determined to struggle against patriarchy, and it felt like there truly was an opportunity for changes to occur. We met with a women’s academy in Amed (Diyarbakır in Turkish) who were involved in organising against male violence. They told us that they worked with women affected by violence from their husbands and organised collective action against it. They also organised trainings on women’s empowerment within their communities. Women in both Rojava and Bakur told us that men did not simply accept these ideas, but that making change was an ongoing struggle.
The movements for democratic confederalism have also opened space for anti-capitalist ideas. The talks organised by the communes in Rojava, for example, are a powerful way to spread anti-capitalist ideas. The setting up of co-operatives is an important way that people can be involved in creating grassroots alternatives. According to German economist Michel Knapp:
“While in North Kurdistan the established communes and co-operatives operate under mass repression, in the liberated territory of Rojava there are efforts to create a new form of economy independent of both capitalist and feudal relations of exploitation. This is being undertaken against the background of the drama of the Syrian war: thousands have been murdered and half of the population is homeless.”
Knapp goes on to quote Dr Dara Kurdaxi, an economist and member of the committee for economic revival and development in Afrîn canon, Rojava:
“We need new models for organisations and institutions. Those which are called collective, communal economic models, sometimes referred to as social economies. This is the method we are using as a foundation, so that the economy in Rojava can pick up and develop.”
The fact that there is a broad consensus that the economy should be organised along co-operative lines means that there is space and momentum for the setting up of co-operatives by the grassroots in Rojava. This is being done in a bottom up way by a diverse range of communes and related organisations. For example, the Foundation of Free Women in Rojava is currently setting up a number of women’s co-operatives in Cizîrê canton.
We have a lot to learn from these movements, and the first step towards solidarity is to educate ourselves. Many of the groups we visited in Rojava asked for people from outside to come and learn about their movements. By making stronger connections with activists working at the base level of democratic confederalism; for example the communes, co-operatives and women’s organisations, we can broaden our understanding and begin to forge genuine solidarity and also generate ideas and inspiration for our own movements.