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Kurdish YPJ soldiers

Early media reports lauded the “Free Syrian Army” as the secular saviors of Syria: generals committed to overthrowing Assad and instituting an American-style liberal democracy. Five years later, the Free Syrian Army is more myth than reality (if it ever was real). Taking its place as the standard-bearer in the fight against ISIS and the regime are the Rojavan Kurds, a powerful military force conducting a radical political experiment in Northern Syria. In the middle of the war-torn Middle East, these Kurds are carving out a space of gender equality, direct democracy, and political pluralism.

A Troubled History

Understanding the long history of Kurdish nationalism is crucial to exploring modern Kurdish political dynamics in the region. The Kurdish people, today numbering around 30 million, live primarily in the Middle East, where their unique culture and language have often left them ostracized. The struggle for Kurdish autonomy is hardly new—it predates the existence of most states in the region, stretching back as far as the 19th century. Most of the conflict has been concentrated in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, all states with considerable Kurdish populations. In all three, expression of Kurdish culture has been harshly repressed for fear their separate identity would undermine state unity.

After the Gulf War, in a boon to Kurdish nationalists, the United States and NATO established the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. While granting millions of Kurdish people the right to self-govern, this move also formed a rift in the movement between the internationally recognized, traditionalist Kurdish parties in Iraq, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and more radical, Marxist-Leninist groups in Turkey and Syria, such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). In Syria, despite decades of political repression, the PYD enjoyed “considerable popular political support among the Kurdish population,” said Robert Lowe, Deputy Director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, in an interview with the HPR.

Fast forward to 2011 and the Syrian revolution. As the Syrian regime focused on other, more direct threats from government rebels to the south, government forces withdrew from north Syria, leaving the region up for grabs. According to Lowe, “the PYD grasped the opportunity and took advantage of the chaos caused by the war, the vacuum of authority, and moved quickly to assert themselves.” Lowe contended that “the PYD is a more disciplined party than any of the other Kurdish parties in Syria. It has a more powerful, coherent ideology, which perhaps enabled it to be more effective.” By July 2012, the PYD had “established dominance over most Kurdish cities in northern Syria,” said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a political analyst based in Erbil, Iraq, in an interview with the HPR.

A new political order

The PYD formed a governing coalition known as TEV-DEM, and quickly moved to put their vision of an ideal society—known as Democratic Confederalism—into practice. Democratic Confederalism rose out of the radical leftism of the Kurdistan Workers Party and their leader, Abdullah Öcalan. In a book written while serving a life sentence in Turkey, Öcalan describes his ideal society as “a non-state political administration or a democracy without a state.” Inspired by a little-known Vermont-based anarchist by the name of Murray Bookchin, Öcalan crafted an ideology founded upon direct democracy, gender equality, and autonomy.

“If you read [the PYD’s] ideology taken to its fullest extent, they want to get rid of all state structures, national borders, and reconfigure government and society through a grassroots bottom up approach of local consensual governance,” said Lowe. “That is what they are trying to implement in Northern Syria.”

In what has been termed the “Rojavan Revolution,” this radical rejection of the nation-state has manifested itself in the form of three self governing “cantons” in Syria: Afrin, Jazira, and Kobanî, each further comprised of smaller, municipal councils. In these cantons, decisions are made not by far away party leaders, but by citizens who have to live with the direct consequences.

However, it is the Rojavan commitment to gender equality that has most struck a chord with the West. Enshrined in the Rojavan constitution is the principle that each committee must be co-chaired by one man and one woman. All-female fighting forces like the YPJ quickly became the talk of the world: Media outlets gushed over the “Kurdish Angelina Jolie,” a YPJ fighter killed in clashes with ISIS.

Life on the Ground

Implementation of Democratic Confederalism is really happening, says Lowe. “The structures are there, they have set up the councils, the civil society groups, a huge long list of organizations representing the women, the youth, the seamstresses, the embroiderers. Every aspect of society has been given a place or a role to play in the structure of the PYD reformation of society.”

The Rojavan Revolution has certainly had to reconcile its philosophy with the harsh reality of war. Radical ideology does not fill empty stomachs, provide ammunition desperately needed to fight the Islamic State, or ensure safety and security in the streets. Yet the PYD has proven itself to be highly pragmatic in the face of adversity, becoming one of the United States’ largest allies in the fight against ISIS, despite Rojavan misgivings about both the nation-state and capitalism.

For all its appeal, the system is not without its detractors. The ruling coalition in Rojava has been accused multiple times of failing to respect the political process and taking unilateral action without consulting more conservative opposition parties aligned with Kurdistan Democratic Party in Iraq. “Technically speaking,” the Rojavans should be governed by “a system of bottom up democracy, but in reality its often top-down ruled.” said van Wilgenburg. “Until now there have been no multi-party elections due to the political differences between the Kurdish parties.” Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and president of the Kurdish Regional Government, has accused the PYD of “autocracy,” and said it “suppressed other political parties by gunpoint and secretly sided with Bashar Assad’s regime to make itself a solo de facto military force on the ground.”

In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented the harassment, arbitrary arrest, and disappearance of political rivals of the PYD, including KNC-affiliated agitators, though noting that PYD human rights abuses are “far less egregious and widespread” than elsewhere in Syria. The PYD, for its part, denies holding political prisoners, and states that these men stand accused of bomb attacks, drug trafficking, and other non-political crimes.

A Solution for Syria?

The new Rojavan society marks a sharp departure from the authoritarianism that has been all too common in the region. But to what extend can this liberal, pluralistic, ‘confederal’ system serve as a model for the rest of Syria, and perhaps, the Middle East? “It’s certainly the hope of the Kurds,” said Lowe. “They see [Democratic Confederalism] as the solution for themselves and like to claim that [it can be rolled] out across Syria.”

There is no doubt that the confederalist model carries great potential. In a region wracked by ethnic and sectarian conflict, whether Sunni-Shia or Israeli-Palestinian, local democratic self-rule certainly sounds like an appealing solution. The Rojavan model of allowing regions with a unique cultural identity to rule themselves has already gained support in Lebanon, itself a longtime victim of sectarian conflict. And with recent territorial acquisitions against ISIS, the spread of this model may not be far off. “It’s already being expanded to areas under [PYD] control such as Manbij, and other Arab towns like Tal Abyad,” said van Wilgenburg. “Its a multi-ethnic system open to other non-Kurdish ethnic groups.”

But ethnic tension might also prove itself to be the source of the greatest challenges to broader expansion of the ideology. Simply put, the Arab majority, despite some military cooperation, is highly skeptical of Kurdish autonomy and any political ideology that might arise from it. The problem with the ideology is not necessarily what it entails, but its chief proponents: the Kurds. Even the most radical of political ideologies has to face the divisive identity politics that have dominated the Middle East for decades.

Image Source: Flickr/Kurdishstruggle

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