Rojava, Syria, Kurdistan

Introduction to the Political and Social Structures of Democratic Autonomy in Rojava

This article by Zanyar Omrani is re-posted here from Kurdish Question where it appeared on 4th October 2015. Zanyar Omrani is a filmmaker and Kurdish human rights activist. Original source: It has been edited here to improve readability.

What goes on in Syrian Kurdistan cannot be reduced to the war against ISIS, and in order to understand the events in Rojava, one should look into the newly established institutions which under the title of the Movement for a Democratic Society (KCK, called TEV-DEM in Rojava) are organizing all the events and fields in Rojava. The lack of research and study resources and the narrow literature of field studies has made it difficult to fully define and pathologically explain the democratic autonomous system of the three cantons. In this report, the aim is to give a general view of the necessity of the social and political institutions and how they really function.

The Movement for a Democratic Society

In Rojava, all roads lead to Abdullah Öcalan, so in order to understand the Rojava experience, it is better to take a look at his recent ideas.

Abdullah Öcalan; the ideological leader of the Movement for a Democratic Society (KCK), revisited the past ideas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Imrali Prison, and explained his new ideas under the title of “Democratic Confederalism” in his last recent three defenses.

Based on Wallerstein’s, Foucault’s and especially the anarchist Bookchin’s ideas, Öcalan proposes the idea of a democracy without a state as an alternative to capitalistic modernity.

Öcalan by rejecting the 30-year effort for creating “an independent Kurdish state”, attacks the idea of “state” and regards any attempt at realising the project of nation-state as “condemned to defeat and decadence in fascism.” Öcalan believes that the state is an “organised form of the governing classes” and thinks that it is the continuation of the order which leads to maximum profit and industrialism. Hence, KCK, which is based on three principles of “democratic nation, ecological industry and socialist economy”, attempts to realise a society in which everything is carried out in direct partnership. In Rojava, the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tev-Dem) is responsible for administering these principles in most cases.


In the entrance of the Rojava cities, a big board is installed, on which, besides the smiling face of Abdullah Ocalan, there is a saying attributed to him in Kurdish and Arabic, which insists on the necessity of forming a communal life. In order to discover the nature and the function of communes and other institutions in Rojava, I spent days and nights in the sessions of the communes, Mala Gels (People’s Houses), courts, Asayish and 22 ministries of the cantons. Communes are actually the smallest and the most active units of the communal society. Communes are the places where people gather to discuss and resolve the routine problems and all the aspects of life. Delsouz Deldaar, the Kurdish journalist who has been present from the early days of creating the communes, speaks about the effort of the local people at localising the word “commune” to Kurdish: “The people call communes “Kumin/Komin”, which is derived from the Kurdish verb “Kum/Kom” meaning to gather.”

In a detailed interview with A.A, the chief administrator of the Movement for a Democratic Society, he believed that the first step toward forming the democratic ecological society is to create various communes in the quarters, villages, counties and big and small cities in Rojava.

Each commune has six separate committees that each deal with the issues related to it. For instance, Mala Jin (Women’s House) deals with the education, studying and investigation on the status of women in each commune.

The social committee, the youth committee, the women committee, the peace committee, the self-defence committee and the economic committee are the six committees which currently are active in the communes.

Communes are managed in a co-leadership manner (a man and a woman) and the age of the commune members must be over 16. These communes hold weekly sessions and record and discuss their monthly reports. The monthly reports of the communes are written in Arabic, as the Kurdish language has not found its official function and position in Rojava.

The decision of which commune an individual should be in mostly depends on the geographical position of where they live. The selection of the co-leaders and the committee formations are done by means of direct elections among the commune members. So far, three elections have been held at the commune level. The time of election depends on the need and the situation, not on a written law. The commune members rent a house for two to three thousand Syrian pounds, which is called “Komungah”.

Several communes in a certain region gather in another place called “People’s House” (Mala Gel). The big decisions are made in the People’s Houses. People’s House is also responsible for supervising the communes.

In Qamishlo [Qamishli / Qamişlo] City, there are 7 People’s Houses and 97 communes. Each commune covers about 350 families. The aim is to create more communes, as dividing the society into smaller units can enhance the quality and the efficiency of their performance.

About the position of people in the communes, A.A. says: “when you gather ten people and want them to propose a solution for an issue, they all make an effort to participate in finding the right answer. I think that collective reasoning is useful in most cases and the collective discussion helps people take part in the definition and explanation of macro policies.”

A.A continues to talk about why there is no political committee in the communes and regards this notion as an effort at avoiding any tensions among the parties in the communes, as in his opinion, all parties can take part in the communes.

However, in a short talk that I had with Omar Amr, the chief of staff of Democratic Party of Syrian Kurdistan in Derbesiye‎ [Dirbêsiyê / Al-Darbasiyah] city, he talked about the systematic elimination and dissolution of the members of this party and the opposition parties in the communal structure, for the benefit of the ideas of the Democratic Union Party.

Of course in the commune of Martyr Saaleh, the members of the Leading Democratic Party (Pishgharow) and in the commune of Martyr Sarhad, the members of the Right Movement Party (TaghgaraRaasti) were presented. Nevertheless, there have been no communes n the Christian quarters, yet.

I attended the commune sessions in Serekaniye [Serê Kaniyê / Ras al-Ayn] city, and I was there in their weekly sessions where the young and the old gathered, witnessing the commune elections. The sessions started with a speech on the previous sessions of the communes and then they would ask the people’s ideas about some local issues. One of the issues discussed was the way the Kobanî [Kobanê / Ayn al-Arab] refugees were accommodated in Serekaniye and after two hours of talk and discussion, the attendants reached some agreements about the case. Determining the location for the temporary accommodation, clarifying the ways to fulfil the need for food, etc. were the issues that the attendants decided to be resolved later.

A.A, the chief administrator of the Movement for a Democratic Society, said about the position of the communes: “The value of the commune’s signature is more than the ministry’s signature, as the minister cannot do anything if the commune does not approve it. This chief official who is from the Iranian Kurds, adds: “They used to say, what clan are you from? Now everyone should ask, which commune do you belong to?”

About the necessity of communes, A.A. speaks about a more rooted issue: “We are against the top-down system. We want to have a system that acts from base to top.” I ask him if that means that no-one from the top can pressurise the base and impose his ideas, to which he answers: “The chief of the commune can apply pressure by presenting the correct education and this does not mean a negative pressure or imposition; this extent of authority is inevitable for keeping the leading role and does not lead to domination. I ask him what is it that prevents from domination, and he answers: “Ethics, not law.”

Meanwhile talking to this chief official, all the roads lead to the ambiguous and indefinite concept called “ethics”. Abdullah Öcalan, the ideological leader of the Movement for a Democratic Society in the “Fifth Defense”, regards ethics as a form of politics which has become a historical tradition. He says that while politics performs a routine creative, protective and feeding role, ethics does the same service in the society, via the institutionalised and rule-based force of tradition. One can judge ethics as the political memory of the society. The societies that have been ethically worn out or are deprived from ethics are the ones whose political memory and hence their “traditional norms and institutions” have been weakened or ruined. By giving an example, A.A. emphasises the impermeable application of force on the communes: “Suppose that I want to be a minister and I have all the required qualifications. If the commune I belong to does not verify me, then I cannot become a minister.”

He interprets the relation of an individual with the commune as the relation of a tree with the forest implying a two-way relationship. Usually, small projects such as creating a park are done by the communes themselves, but macro projects like road building, because of the current status of Rojava, are executed either by the autonomy of the cantons or with the cooperation of cantons and the communes. For instance, the currently shortage of power and electricity is an essential problem in Rojava. Each commune has bought a generator with money collected from the families to the extent that they could afford. The autonomous cantons have also helped them in repairing the power cables and in this way, the issue has been solved.

In the talks that I had with the people, I felt a sort of general misunderstanding about the communes. For instance, when I asked a rather rich shopkeeper’s idea about the case, he said “Thank God, I don’t need commune, let it be for the poor.” Since at the moment and in the current hard economic situation, one of the main tasks done by the communes has been collecting, exchanging and delivering food, people think of the communes as something like charities like the the Iranian relief foundation or Justice Shares.

Delsouz who lives in Tell Tamer [Tel Temir / Til Tamer / Tel Temir], 100 kilometres south of Qamishli, remembers the early days of administering communes and the persistent effect of the former official thoughts and their transference into the communes and says:

“In Tel Tamer, 110 communes were founded. At first, people were not familiar with communes. I remember that there were bribes in the communes.”

A.A does not deny these facts, and while approving the effect of previous presuppositions, talks about the necessity of constant reformations: “It was just some weeks ago that we changed the commune chiefs of 9 communes as they lacked the necessary capacities. The clan chiefs do not tolerate lacking authority so they can hardly bare to be in communes equal to other people.”

This administrator of the Movement for a Democratic Society, regards the “long-lasting presuppositions of the former regimes” as the main obstacle in the process of institutionalising the communes in Rojava, and thinks that the social revolution is more intellectual, rather than material; hence, he believes that the process of revolution is a constantly rising one, which takes time.

The individual and collective discussion are the intellectual basis of the nature of the communes. A.A. points out the negative consequences of individualism: “That form of individualism that capitalism is developing is the main cause of the many spiritual and psychological diseases of a society and we want to put an end to this by creating communes!

I ask him, “If anyone, for any reason, does not intend to participate in the communes, what is your reaction?”

He replies: “That person will continue his normal life. However, the communes will not help him anymore, as he is not a part of the commune.” Then this chief administrator adds with certainty that such cases are rare.

Afterwards, he points out what Öcalan says about getting out of prison: “Our leader says that if I am released from jail, I would return to my village; I would build a garden and make it a Komungah (The house in which the commune resides) and I would not let anyone living outside that commune.”

Here, A.A’s tone becomes coarse and serious: “We are openly against the individualist concept. Individualism is like a mischievous rat who chews on the society. If I am full and needless, then it is a must that my neighbour should be full and not hungry. If I am hungry, then my neighbour should care for me.”

He gives the primitive communes as an example to confirm what he is saying, and believes that human kind lived in the villages like that. A.A says that they want to apply and institutionalise that primitive society model in the modern form. In the simple example that he gives, equal and just distribution is emphasised:

“The lands belong to the Democratic Autonomous System. We want to give the land to the villagers, and anyone who wants to can register. The service and toil will be the villagers’ and the autonomous system will provide the tools and needs of the farms. Finally, a small percentage of the income will go the autonomous system, but most will belong to those who worked for it.“

In his belief, creating cooperatives would prevent one person getting most of the workers’ wages.

In this regard, A.A thinks that despite the fact that creating cities had positive results, this made profit and capital the most important issue, and by assuming individualism as the basis, the spiritual and psychological health of humankind was disturbed.

Abdullah Öcalan, in his Fifth Defence, which is a sort of manifesto of Democratic Confederalism, in the section “The Democratic Commune and The Free Individual-Citizen Lifestyle in Democratic Nation”, says: “The individual-citizen of the democratic nation, besides being free, must inevitably be communal as well. The counterfeit and fake “free individual” of the capitalist individualism which is infused against the society, essentially suffers from a sort of bondage. However, in the picture or image that liberal ideology presents, it seems as if the individual has infinite freedom. On the contrary, reality proves to be the opposite; the one who is the wage slave intent on gaining the maximum profit and turns it into a hegemonic system (in a way that is has never happened in any historical era) is the representative of the most developed form of slavery and bondage.” Öcalan adds that such an individual is formed in the pragmatics of life and ruthless education of inclination toward reaching a “nation-state”. Because such a person’s life has become dependent on money from the government and he has succumbed to a wage system which holds, controls and leads him, as a dog by its collar.

The Peace Committee

During my visit to the commune, I saw that the Peace Committee was the most active among all others. Ali Sha’ban, a middle-aged man from the Martyr Khebat Commune in Qamishli, expressed his first experiences in the commune as follows:

“My son left for Europe; a fixer had prepared the papers and when he took my son to Turkey, my son was arrested in the airport. He was in jail for three months. After three months when no news came from my son, I discussed my problem in the commune. I wrote a letter and a complaint against the fixer guy. The commune dealt with the issue, in less than three days and via the commune, the related officials were soon informed. The canton officials in Turkey investigated the issue and after several days, my son came back home, sound and healthy.” One of the main characteristics of the Peace Committee is to cut the long official processes of settling small problems short. In the Peace Committee, it is mostly familial and local disputes, house renting and buying problems and social issues that are dealt with.

Jamil Haju, the official in the assembly of the Halilia region says: “There have been many cases where two tribes had disputes on a piece of land whose legal process would have taken about 15 years, while it was resolved in less than one month in the communes.”

The interesting point here is the existence of state courts of the Baath Regime in some cities of Rojava, which are being closed down due to inefficiency and because most people trust the newly established communes more.

The process in the Peace Committee is based on justification and having direct talks with both parties. Because, as Jamil believes, law is hard and it cannot always be fair, so one should resort to ethics sometimes.

However, relying on common sense and collective norms can also heighten the danger of conservatism and traditionalism. A.A says, “Our bases are the social norms which are not against freedom, such as robbery, immoral actions, etc.

In the Peace Committee, the principle is that when a problem is settled, its file must be closed forever.

Serious cases, such as assassination or selling heavy weapons, cannot be discussed in communes and are referred to public courts.

Zozaan Ali, a member of the assembly of inspection and supervision of courts, says, “One of the commonest problems which makes people go to courts, are the cases of women being tortured by their husbands or brothers, and he thinks in this matter, that more women resort to courts is a good thing.” Zozaan believes that by having institutions such as the House of Women’s Welfare in the Jazira Canton [Kantona Cizîrê‎ / Cezîre], women feel safer and the guarantee of force has given them the power to protest. Zozaan, on the process of investigating such cases, says: “Firstly, the issue is investigated in the Peace Committee of the Women’s House, and then both parties are talked to. In this phase, the best attempt is done to put an end to the dispute in the best way possible. If torture or safety issues are a concern, then the Women’s Welfare would summon the man responsible.

In the next step, the issue is referred to the court. Since the Women’s Law was approved last year, the court would support the women based on the legal articles. He adds that, in this very short while, so many men have been called on by courts and have felt remorseful for their actions, and they have even apologised to their wives in the court. He says that the new law is not based on the Islamic Sharia, and hence the Kurdish men are frightened and fear the punishments.

For instance, formerly, polygamy was very common, but at the moment any men doing such a crime would be sentenced to one year of prison and pay 100,000 Syrian pounds. Zozaan chuckles and then continues, “Some months ago, a woman complained of such a crime and we summoned the man. He said that Islam gives me the permission to marry 4 women. We told him, “Forget about it! We have changed the law!” Zozaan says, “Just in this short time after changing this law, many men have accepted it and are acting accordingly. Of course, there have been some people who have left Rojava just for the sake of such a law. But we have to go on!”

QahramanIssa, a member of the judicial public association of Jazira Canton, besides giving a general description of the hierarchy of the judicial law approved by the canton, says: “It is possible that the decision made by the court could be different from the one made by the commune. Of course, the communes mostly recommend and suggest, rather than making decisions. Since in some cases, such as assassination, criminal and judicial decisions require expertise, we should investigate the cases with special care and accuracy based on the civil procedures.

He says that the aim is to settle the problems in the communes, and in the next few years, by making the communes more expert, all the cases would be assigned to them.

QahramanIssa resorts to statistics and points out that in 2014, in 9 courts of the Jazira Canton, 6,061 cases were referred to the courts, of which 4,500 cases were settled. Meanwhile, and in the same time period, communes could resolve and settle more than 20,000 cases. Also, there is a Justice Bureau in each city, and the cases that are settled in courts will be resolved by the consultancy of this bureau. In the urban assembly, the assembly representatives of all People’s Houses would gather and would select their representatives in the bigger assembly. The People’s Houses select the co-leaders of cities and each city would have a 22-people assembly.

The public law would be discussed in the Legislative Parliament in Amuda [Amûdê / Amouda], and cases that are against ecology or gender freedom will be regarded as a crime.

At the moment there are 9 courts and 9 judges in the Jazira Canton. In each court, three attorneys, three commissions, and three panels of appeal are active.

The presence of women must not be below 40 percent, which means that if the Justice Bureau consists of 7 people, at least 3 of them must be women. In the judicial laws, execution is abolished and everyone has the right to defend themselves in the court in their own languages. The court is responsible for hiring an interpreter and an attorney for them.


Cantons are a model of social and political governing which, besides decentralism, insists on the empowerment of public decision-making and expanding direct democracy.

In cantons, there are the Legislative assembly and public council. There are twelve cities in the Jazira Canton and the city representatives are elected based on the proportions of the population. Each commune holds elections for choosing its representatives for higher levels and the city councils are to decide which ones can get into the Canton Public Council.

Cantons have their own constitution, government, parliament, municipality, and courts whose tasks and duties are defined in the Social Contract. In the Jazira Canton, there are an Executive Council with 22 related ministries which are not concentrated in one city. The Internal, Foreign Affairs, Financial, Defence, Healthcare, and Natural Environment are some of those ministries. There is also an assembly for coordinating the three cantons of Jazira, Kobani and Afrin. Most of the cantons’ incomes are from selling the petroleum, customs, and large farms products, and huge projects of Rojava are executed by them. Of course at the moment, because of the war situation, about 70 percent of the entire budgets of the cantons are spent on the military effort and other public services.

One of the biggest challenges that the Rojava Cantons administrators and chiefs face is the economic blockade of Rojava and also this issue that the three cantons are not recognised at the regional and international level.

The difference of the Rojava Cantons with the Swiss and German cantons, is that the Rojava Cantons do not have a federal structure, in contrast to Swiss and German ones, and are mostly council-based and revolutionary states.

The Social Contract of Rojava Cantons consists of nine sections which are general principles, basic principles, Executive Council, the Higher Commission of Elections, the Supreme Constitutional Court, etc. In the preamble of this social contract, it says:

We, the people of the Democratic Autonomous Regions of Afrin, Jazira and Kobane, a confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Syrics, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians and Chechens, freely and solemnly declare and establish this Charter.

In pursuit of freedom, justice, dignity and democracy and led by principles of equality and environmental sustainability, the Charter proclaims a new social contract, based upon mutual and peaceful coexistence and understanding between all strands of society. It protects fundamental human rights and liberties and reaffirms the peoples’ right to self-determination.

Öcalan, by proposing the idea of Democratic Confederalism and formalising it, speaks about the communal society and cantons structures in detail. For instance, on economic autonomy, while insisting on “preserving land, forestation, ecology and commune”, he declares that:

“Depriving the Kurdish society of their relief and welfare is caused by confiscating the economic tools of the Kurdish society and controlling its economic life, rather than by the pressure and wrongs imposed by the nation-state against them. A society cannot continue to survive after it has lost its grip on the production tools and its market. Kurds have not only lost their control on the production tools and relations in vast measures, but they have also been deprived of controlling production, consumption and trading.

In economic autonomy, there is not room for urban/rural industry, technology, development and construction, ownership and residence against the natural environment that is in contrast with the democratic society. Economy cannot be left on its own like other fields, so that the profit and capital accumulation are realized in it. The autonomous economy is a model where the profit and accumulated capital are reduced to the minimum level.”

At the end of our long interview, A.A. insists that democratic autonomy is not an idea that can be practised in one day; rather, it is a process which goes on with reason and education; it is a lifelong revolution which will continue.

The approved laws in the cantons are filtered in the communes. Which means that the lowest levels are taking part in the macro level of making decisions, and the decision-making design is a bottom-up one. This is a developed effort in order to eliminate the governance and the role of the state, which requires the institutionalisation of democracy not only among the masses, but also in the movement itself, which guards the idea of communes. What would be the reaction of the Movement for a Democratic Society─whose duty is to coordinate and incite people to participate in the communes─toward public requests which are in contrast with the needs of the movement?