North and East Syria’s Political Experiment Continues Despite Its Challenges

This report by Nina Steinhardt was published by Novara Media on 4 May, 2020. Nina Steinhardt is a researcher at the Rojava Information Center, an independent, volunteer-staffed media organisation based in North and East Syria.

In October 2019, the invasion of north-eastern Syria by the Turkish army and proxy forces caught the attention of the world.

Humanitarian organisations, grassroots campaigns and state governments decried the invasion as a gross attack on the civilian population of the region, popularly known as Rojava. As the humanitarian impact of the invasion escalated and Turkish forces stood accused of several high-profile war crimes, global opinion stood with the underdog – the autonomous administration and its armed forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Being an underdog isn’t a new experience for the people of north-eastern Syria, having not only led the armed resistance against Isis but having at the same time built up a democratic political system based on gender equality and diversity. Over the past eight years since the ‘Rojava revolution’ first unfolded in the Kurdish-majority regions of north-east Syria, the system of political governance – called democratic confederalism – has grown in complexity and scale, expanding to include many Arab-majority regions as they were liberated from Isis control, leading the Syrian Democratic Council to adopt the region’s new name: the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Beyond the frontlines.

After an explosion of media attention following the Turkish invasion, coverage ebbed away as Turkish proxy forces advanced and settled in for an indefinite occupation. Millions of people around the world were left wondering what had become of the people and political project of north-east Syria. That’s why the Rojava Information Center published ‘Beyond the Frontlines’, the most in-depth explanation to date – with diagrams – of the political system here in North and East Syria.

The report covers the development of political and civil institutions from grassroots to state level since the emergence of autonomy in 2012, and aims to extend the spotlight beyond the more well-known military aspects of the ‘Rojava revolution’ – the People’s Defence Forces YPG and YPJ, part of the Syrian Democratic Forces – by explaining the civil institutions the military units are fighting to defend. The report describes a ‘work-in-progress’, in the words of the civil institutions’ practitioners, therefore highlighting the gaps between theory and practice.

Those who have followed the democratic project in Rojava will likely know that its basic building-block is the commune, a representative decision-making body operating at the level of a village or city street. The ‘democratic confederalist’ project in North and East Syria does not attempt to directly supplant a pre-existing nation-state – in this case the Syrian state – but instead starts building power alongside the state, working towards democratisation and federalisation, with the ultimate aim that the state becomes obsolete and ceases to function both as an institution and as a mentality.

In the report we explain what a commune actually looks like when working successfully – for example in the village of Carrudi. Here, villagers manage collective fields according to co-operative principles, with most of the villagers donating time and labour to work the land and the harvest shared between everyone. Recently, the commune decided to build a village community centre, which is now being constructed by the villagers themselves.

But we also point to the failings of this system: that although communes are widely used to access subsidised diesel and bread, among other daily essentials, and to file requests and complaints to the local municipality, they do not yet serve as a mechanism by which locals can have their voices heard on macro-political issues. Although intended to serve 100 people, in reality many communes incorporate over 1000, making it difficult for grassroots political expression to take place, while in general the local population is not always used to – and to a certain extent disinterested in – deeper political engagement.

New demographics in the AANES.

To understand these tensions and difficulties, it is necessary to understand North and East Syria as something broader than just ‘the Kurds’.

Following the expulsion of Assad’s regime from border regions in 2012, it was initially three isolated, Kurdish-majority cantons which first declared autonomy. Following a bloody fight against jihadist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra, who sought to seize Kurdish cities, and alongside clashes with the regime, the Kurdish regions came under assault by Isis.

The YPG and YPJ’s successful defeat of the Isis siege on Kobanî won the battalions a trickle and then a stream of international support. Backed by the international coalition against Isis, Kurdish, Arabic and Christian units joined together to form the SDF, going on to liberate Arab-majority regions in Manbij, Raqqa and finally Deir-ez-Zor from Isis control.

As such, the population of North and East Syria is likely no longer majority-Kurdish, and there is a world of difference between a Kurdish neighbourhood in Kobanî and an Arab village outside Raqqa. Self-defence, diplomacy and caring for millions of displaced people all require political organisation on a vast scale. To do this, there are seven levels of organisation within the autonomous system, all with their own councils and democratic processes, from commune through neighbourhood to sub-district, district, canton, region and finally the AANES itself.

The AANES is responsible for the administration of the seven regions through elected bodies and ministries in fields like health, education and infrastructure. At the same time, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) represents political parties, and is geared towards unifying all of Syria into a federal, democratic, women-led and multi-cultural political entity.

Crucially, this system allows for variance between the different regions, in line with the revolution’s fundamental principle of diversity and local plurality. The 2014 Women’s Law forbids polygamy, but to accommodate Arab tribes in Deir-ez-Zor – who are opposed to attempts to forbid polygamy – the Autonomous Administration tries to balance the principles of the revolution which brought it to power with a more diplomatic approach in areas outside the Kurdish-majority north.

Social initiatives are underway to help resolve these tensions. In this example, the SDC has set up and works with a tribal council representing leaders from Arab tribes across North and East Syria, while the women’s office of the SDC engages with the wives of tribal leaders with a view to empowering women within the existing social context.

Indeed, the SDC’s seat of government itself was established in Ayn Issa, a majority-Arab town far from Kurdish-majority regions, to better ensure Arab representation and participation. The Turkish invasion forced the evacuation of Ayn Issa, leading the SDC to re-establish itself in Raqqa. That the former Isis stronghold has become a safe haven for the ‘Rojava revolution’ to continue its work gives some indication of how far things have come since the first declaration of autonomy.

A ‘work-in-progress’ continues.

Along with the slaughter of hundreds and displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, Turkish invasions in January 2018 and October 2019 totally destroyed the democratic civil society institutions in the zones now under occupation.

In their place, jihadist militias controlled, armed and funded by Turkey are imposing sharia law and engaging in extortion, kidnapping, murder, torture, rape and other forms of gender-based violence, alongside the forcible Turkification and expulsion of the Kurdish population. The zones that still remain under the protection of the SDF are braced for future attacks as Turkey seeks to expand the zone of occupation.

The number one priority for those serious about defending democracy and human rights in North and East Syria is of course reversing these catastrophic losses. Much like the war against Isis, the struggle against Turkish occupation has served to further unite Arab, Kurdish and other populations in North and East Syria. The threat of Turkish occupation serves as a reminder to civilians here that, however suspiciously they might view direct democracy and women’s empowerment, they undeniably enjoy greater equality, access to basic essentials and safety from violence under the AANES than anywhere else in the region.

North and East Syria is [not] without its flaws, and there are internal issues which need resolving as the democracy here develops. The Administration’s approach to elections has been somewhat inconsistent, with a lack of clarity over how to incorporate opposition, and  an occasionally superficial approach to elections. In many localities, the commune system has struggled to develop a solid foundation, or sometimes defaulted into a vehicle for service provision rather than a vibrant hub of direct democracy.

Activists invested in the new political system argue they are not trying to meet western standards of democracy, so much as trying to build a more profound and broad understanding of democracy. The economy – often seen as separate from more political conceptions of democracy – is seen as a core part of democratic society here. It follows that nurturing a co-operative economy is an attempt to empower society as producers and economic actors, not simply consumers. The inclusion of civil society within the political system, for example, creates a counter-balance to the accumulation of power within the AANES and SDC, and encourages a vibrant and varied range of institutions and initiatives. The aim, say activists, is that at every level of society people are empowered as political actors, supported by the wide range of educational programs which are raising the general standard of education across North and East Syria.

Promisingly, people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds are now finding ways to move past historical animosities and inequalities, and many are exercising their long-denied cultural rights. Most vitally, in a region in which women suffer systematic disenfranchisement and oppression, women in North and East Syria are centrally involved in every dimension of society, and are benefiting from a concrete transferral of power through the structures and principles of the political system. Across North and East Syria, democracy is perhaps most alive not in the communes or the Syrian Democratic Council, but in the Women’s Houses, where domestic disputes over violence, marriage and divorce are resolved without resorting to the courts or honour killings, through dialogue with the mediation of respected local women.

At a time when the dominant political and economic systems are unable to cope with the global crises we are facing – climate, economic, political and, now, health – there is a call for new systems that are based on democratic principles, rather than authoritarian or neo-fascist ones. In North and East Syria, we have one contemporary example of what this new world can look like.

Nina Steinhardt is a researcher at the Rojava Information Center, an independent, volunteer-staffed media organisation based in North and East Syria.

  • This article is part one of a two-part feature on the current situation in North and East Syria. Read part two here.