Doing Justice to the Mosaic of North East Syria – The Rojava Revolution

This report was published by the Civil Diplomacy Center of North and East Syria on 24 July, 2022

How did it all begin? What stages were taken on the way and what danger does Turkey pose to the revolution? On the 10th anniversary of the Rojava Revolution, we talked about these and other questions with Berivan Khaled, co-chair of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria.

Can you tell us what historical factors made this revolution possible?

This revolution started in Rojava on 19 July 2012. Of course, it did not happen by itself. There was a foundation, there was preparatory work. For decades, the peoples of North East Syria were oppressed. They were subjected to an authoritarian regime, the Baath regime. The Kurdish population of Rojava, but not only them, was subjected to repression, persecution and massacres many times. This went so far that even Kurdish culture was banned and persecuted. The regime brutally persecuted, imprisoned and tortured the people in this region in prisons. The Kurdish population, however, never stood idly by. They have organized themselves, fought back and in many cases even rehearsed the uprising. An important example of this is certainly the 2004 uprising that started in Qamishlo. The regime responded to this uprising with extreme brutality as well. Its response was bloody violence, countless people murdered and arrested. Many people “disappeared” into regime prison facilities. Since 2004, the fate of many people who were arrested at that time has been unclear. However, even this brutality of the regime could not crush the will of the people of Rojava. People continued to organize, laying the groundwork for the 2012 revolution. Then, when the Arab Spring occurred in North Africa and the Middle East, the people of Rojava saw this as a historic opportunity for themselves and, piece by piece, drove the regime forces out of their home region. They have thereby liberated Rojava and pushed out the state institutions. Along with this, they have slowly but steadily built their own social structures. In these structures, all the peoples of Rojava, the Kurds, the Arabs, the Suryoye and all other communities, have taken their place. On 21 January 2014, they finally proclaimed their Autonomous Administration. They jointly signed a social contract and announced their self-government to the public. Self-government was first proclaimed in the canton of Cizîre. On 27 January, the declaration followed in the canton of Kobanê and then two days later in the canton of Efrîn. All of them together proclaimed autonomous self-government based on the concept of the Democratic Nation and the brotherhood of peoples, signed the social contract and then continued to build their structures.

After the liberation of the three cantons, the fight against IS set the agenda. Step by step, other areas were liberated from IS. Can you tell us how this came about?

With the proclamation of autonomous self-government in the three cantons, young women and men also set up their armed self-defense structures. The aim of these structures was, on the one hand, to protect the cantons from enemy attacks and, on the other hand, to liberate other areas under the rule of the regime and other actors. During this phase, the so-called Islamic State (IS) had also begun to attack Rojava. From 2014 and 2015, IS declared war on Kobanê Canton. In 2015, the young people of North Eeast Syria under the umbrella of the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and the People’s Defense Units (YPG) succeeded in defeating IS in Kobanê. And after this victory, the self-defense units took the responsibility to liberate other areas that were under the yoke of IS. They first liberated Minbic and established a civilian self-government structure there. Then they liberated the Tabqa region, Raqqa and finally the Deir ez-Zor region. After liberation, autonomous self-governments were also established in these areas with the local population. In this way, self-governments were eventually established in a total of seven regions, which together constitute the Autonomous Self-Government of Northern and Eastern Syria. This joint self-government was officially proclaimed on 6 September 2018.

After the liberation of the areas from IS, Turkey became militarily involved in North Syria. How did this come about? And what was the reaction of the international powers, some of which were on the side of the Kurdish forces in the fight against IS?

After the liberation of Kobanê by the units of the YPJ and YPG, the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab. Quwwāt Sūriyā ad-dīmuqrāṭīya, or QSD for short) were founded. A wide variety of ethnic groups have organized themselves militarily under the umbrella of the QSD. The YPJ and YPG also took their place in the ranks of the QSD. And the liberation of the previously mentioned areas, i.e. Minbic, Tabqa, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor took place precisely through this alliance of the QSD, which wanted to put an end to the brutality of the IS. However, after the military success against IS, we suddenly faced the aggression of the Turkish state. Turkey could not stand the fact that a democratic political system was created just south of its state border, based on the Democratic Nation and the brotherhood of peoples. This was not in the spirit of the AKP regime. For this reason, Turkey has been attacking Rojava with various means since the beginning of the revolution. In 2018, it then unfortunately came to pass that Turkey itself militarily invaded Efrîn and occupied the region. The international community let Turkey have its way and closed its eyes to the atrocities and crimes of the Turkish state in Efrîn. Turkey, but also its international partners wanted to eradicate the self-government model there. Despite Turkey’s military superiority and incessant airstrikes, the young people of Efrîn put up unprecedented resistance for 58 days. However, partly because international actors let Turkey do so, Efrîn was eventually occupied. After the occupation of Efrîn, the Turkish state did not stop its attacks against the people of Rojava. Thus, in 2019, Turkey launched another military offensive in the Girê Spî and Serêkaniyê areas. These areas are also under the occupation of Turkey and its Islamist partners to this day. Every day there are further human rights violations, abductions and expulsions in these occupied areas. But the international public still turns a blind eye to this. And the threats and attacks of the Turkish state against the self-government system of northern and eastern Syria have not come to an end. The attacks continue today.

Why did the international actors tolerate Turkey’s attacks? What is their intention? And how are the people of North East Syria dealing with this?

You must understand that the autonomous self-government of North East Syria is subject to a wide variety of attacks. While on the one hand IS was in direct war with the forces of the self-government in Kobanê, Turkey tried to support the opponents of our system with various means. So we had to oppose IS and Turkey at the same time. And even though Turkey is the most aggressive against the self-administration, other regional powers as well as international actors have an interest in the failure of the system that we have built here piece by piece during the revolution. But all these attempts, all the wars and attacks could not bring the self-government to its knees. The reason is that the people of North East Syria stand behind this model of society. People are defending their achievements of the revolution. More than 12,000 people have now lost their lives in the struggle to defend these achievements. More than 24,000 people have been injured in military clashes since 2012. It is thanks to them that we can still stand here today despite all the attacks. The cohesion of the people in North East Syria is strong and growing stronger. All ethnic and religious communities are convinced of this model and are therefore prepared to defend it against the attacks.

You have already mentioned the Islamist groups that fought against the revolution. What is the intention of these groups? Why do they want to fight the system of self-government?

The various Islamist groups, be it IS, al-Nusra Front or whoever, they are all pursuing the goal of smashing the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria. But their attempts have all failed so far. This is because the population here has organized itself along the lines of the Democratic Nation and has a strong political consciousness. The Islamist forces, on the other hand, first and foremost IS, have brought a lot of cruelty to this region. The people living here have experienced a lot of suffering. They have virtually put a black veil over the areas that were under their control. But today, thanks to the struggle and sacrifices of the QSD, a democratic and equal system prevails in these areas as well.

The struggle for Kobanê was certainly a turning point in the revolution. What changed for you after the liberation of Kobanê?

The liberation of Kobanê was of course a turning point. For the first time, IS was defeated militarily. That gave a lot of people who lived in IS’s areas of rule great hope. These people may not have agreed with IS’s tyranny before, but they did not dare to revolt against it. After the victory in Kobanê, however, many of them came together under the umbrella of the QSD and liberated their home areas. This also laid the foundation for the solidarity and common struggle of the people of North East Syria. This cohesion started in Kobanê.

In the meantime, the revolution has spread from Rojava to large areas in North East Syria. A wide variety of ethnic and religious communities live in these areas. How does coexistence work today?

This revolution is undoubtedly not a purely Kurdish revolution. Of course, the Kurds have played a pioneering role in the revolution, and Kurdish women have been in the vanguard. But today it is all the people and all the religious communities of this region that continue to expand the system of Autonomous Self-Government and defend it from hostile attacks. It is well known that the whole of Syria, but especially North Syria, is a mosaic of ethnic and religious communities. What we now want to realize here is a model of society in which this mosaic can do justice to itself in the best possible way. An equal and peaceful life is to be built, in which the people in their diversity at the same time represent a common force. The social contract of North East Syria was created on this basis and signed by the representatives of all groups. And today, all these communities live together peacefully and democratically on the basis of the Democratic Nation and the brotherhood of peoples.