Saving Democracy in Syria
A little-known experiment with radical democracy in northern Syria is underway. Known in Kurdish as Rojava, most of the region has been controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) for nearly five years, where they have enacted policies mandating gender equality, direct democracy, and environmental restoration. Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis worship freely and fight together against ISIS. Community leaders operate facilities to help women escape abusive relationships and negotiate divorce. Although far from a paradise, Rojava is already one of the most stable and tolerant regions in the Middle East.
This nascent democracy is now in extreme danger. The predominantly Kurdish inhabitants of Rojava face a possible genocide in the coming months, but not from ISIS or Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Instead, this new threat is none other than Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If President Donald Trump follows through on his pledge to withdraw the 3,000 American troops currently stationed in Syria, Turkey is certain to invade Rojava and massacre the local population. A member of NATO and one of the top military powers in the world, Turkey would make short work of the SDF. Why is Erdogan so hostile to the Kurds in Syria, and why is Trump willing to cut back military support for one of our strongest allies against ISIS?
It’s complicated. The Kurds themselves occupy a unique position in Middle Eastern politics. With a global population ranging between 30-40 million, the Kurds are the largest nation without a state of their own - most live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Ethnic minorities in every country they inhabit, Kurds have consistently suffered oppression by authoritarian regimes over the past century. Turkey’s government has tried to ban their language and define them out of existence by labeling them “mountain Turks”, which in turn inspired many Kurds living there to wage a guerrilla war against the government the during the eighties and nineties. Before the civil war, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria forbade Kurdish holidays, stripped many of them of their citizenship, and targeted their businesses with discriminatory regulations.
The most horrific episode, however, was the Anfal genocide in northern Iraq during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War. Furious that Kurdish insurgents had supported his wartime enemy, Saddam Hussein’s administration liquidated between 50,000 to 100,000 Kurdish Iraqis using a combination of targeted airstrikes, chemical weapons, and firing squads. Nationalism, in other words, has proven itself to be poisonous to Kurdish minorities on more than several occasions.
Consequentially, many Kurdish activists in the nineties became weary of establishing their own country, viewing the international paradigm of a nation-state as inherently hierarchical and oppressive. In Turkey, the imprisoned leader of the People’s Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, departed from Kurdish separatism and Marxist philosophy to embrace a radical combination of left-libertarianism, feminism, and environmentalism, which he termed Democratic Confederalism. Instead of agitating for a Kurdish nation-state, Ocalan now stresses that the most important political change occurs in local communities. Working lockstep with Ocalan, Kurdish women developed a unique brand of feminism known as Jineology. According to Jineology, the patriarchal oppression of women foreshadows all other forms of subjugation. Any revolution that aims to democratize society, therefore, must put women’s liberation at the heart of its aspirations and organizational framework. The PKK and affiliated groups attempted to enact elements of democratic confederalism in Turkey with mixed levels of success. Each time they made significant electoral gains, the Turkish government would either outlaw their organizations or ban their candidates from holding office.
The crisis in Syria in 2011 gave Ocalan’s followers in the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK offshoot, the chance to test his ideas in a region outside of Ankara’s jurisdiction. The civil war became a magnet for political radicals of every kind, who saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake the Middle East. Of course, the most notorious organization was ISIS, which captured international headlines with its videotaped executions of journalists, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and Yazidi slave markets. Two Kurdish militias, however, quickly established themselves as the Islamic State’s most capable adversaries: the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the all-female Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). Convinced that death at the hands of a female combatant would send them to Hell, many ISIS fighters ran from battle at the sight of young women brandishing assault rifles.
In 2012, Assad withdrew his troops from northern Syria to protect his home base in Damascus, creating a power vacuum in the region and an opportunity for the PYD to govern the region. They eschewed consolidating their territorial gains into a new nation-state. Consequently, the territories in Syria under Kurdish administration today are more like an alliance of small towns and cities than a single country. The residents of each neighborhood meet and vote directly on policies regarding electricity and resource distribution, and settle local disputes between neighbors. Unlike residents in the United States or Europe, for example, they seldom rely upon elected officials to legislate on their behalf.
There are, however, some common policies that apply to each administrative region. Perhaps the most famous is the gender quota: at least 40% of all members in each decision-making body must be women (except for all-female organizations), and every public organization has a male and female co-chair. Foreign volunteers in Rojava have also embarked on an ambitious campaign to restore the forests that were destroyed under Assad’s Ba’athist regime and the civil war, which they wryly dubbed “Make Rojava Green Again”. Indeed, numerous passages of Rojava’s new constitution explicitly call for the liberation of women, environmental justice, and rights for all political, ethnic, and religious minorities.
The most dramatic episode of the war against ISIS began on September 13th, 2014, when Jihadist militants bombarded the city of Kobane using confiscated Iraqi artillery and military equipment, including tanks, heat-seeking missiles, and night-vision goggles. Capturing the city was a necessary step towards ISIS establishing a continuous supply chain between two other towns it controlled in Syria. Despite suffering heavy losses and armed with little more than Kalashnikov rifles, grenades, and homemade tanks, the YPJ-YPG forces in Kobane managed to stand their ground against the invading army for months before receiving American air support. By January 27th, 2015, most of Kobane had been liberated. The failed siege was a fatal blow to ISIS’ international prestige. The number of foreign recruits thereafter fell rapidly, and the organization started losing territory to the emboldened YPJ-YPG fighters. In 2015, the Kurds aligned themselves with other militias to form the SDF, which liberated Raqqa from ISIS in 2017. As of this writing, ISIS holds less than 1.5 square miles of land, although the organization still commands thousands of fighters.
Erdogan views Rojava’s success as a direct challenge to his own religiously conservative and authoritarian political aspirations. Turkey’s official justification for its intense hostility towards Rojava is the PYD’s ideological kinship with the PKK. The Turkish government considers the PKK to be a terrorist organization, even though the PKK has upheld the Geneva Convention since 1995. Considering the fact that Turkey’s government has actively supported ISIS and other jihadist groups, this is a patently hypocritical statement for its political leadership to make.
In early 2018, the Turkish military and its Islamist allies invaded Afrin, Rojava’s westernmost district. The invasion displaced over 160,000 people, while Amnesty International documented credible reports of torture and looting in Afrin at the hands of Turkish-backed militias. Members of the SDF were flabbergasted when their erstwhile allies in America and Europe remained silent as Turkish artillery fired on their neighborhoods. “We are asking the Western powers to act on their principles,” wrote YPJ commander Nujin Derik last year in the New York Times. “Why are you not condemning a flagrant and unprovoked assault on the very men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder with you against the darkness of the Islamic State?”
During the invasion of Afrin, Erdogan was clear that he intended to return the region to its “original” Arab and Turkman owners, despite the fact that Kurds have historically made up the majority of the district’s population. In Turkey itself, most Kurdish media have been banned. Most disturbingly, Genocide Watch believes that Turkey is at risk of committing another large-scale massacre. Apparently, this information was lost on President Trump last December when he announced after a phone call with Erdogan that America would withdraw all its troops within four months. Without the military presence of another NATO member in Syria, Turkey would have no trouble expanding its influence in the region. The United Nations has also been hesitant to offer support.
Trump incorrectly proclaimed that ISIS had been defeated – a statement that both his Republican allies in the Senate and his own intelligence officials have contested. The Pentagon recently warned that a hasty withdrawal from Syria would enable ISIS to begin recapturing territory within six months. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of State recently hailed the SDF for its restraint with enemy combatants, reporting that
[f]acing the extraordinary challenge of fighting a brutal enemy in a disciplined manner, the SDF has demonstrated a clear commitment to detain these individuals securely and humanely. The United States calls upon other nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens detained by the SDF and commends the continued efforts of the SDF to return these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin. Despite the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains a significant terrorist threat and collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge.
In addition to creating a new security risk, abandoning Rojava would constitute a grave injustice. The YPG and the YPJ have been instrumental in defeating ISIS and protecting the rest of the world from terrorism. For nearly a decade, they courageously battled adversaries equipped with superior weapons while creating a haven for refugees. And they have established a new model for democracy that can work in a diverse, multicultural environment. We owe them not only our gratitude, but protection from an existential threat across the border as well.
If you would like to find out more about how to help the residents of northern Syria, please visit the Emergency Committee for Rojava’s website and consider attending a meeting. You can also follow the Rojava Information Center on Twitter (@RojavaIC) for information from local activists and journalists. I am indebted to Meredith Tax, author of the book A Road Unforeseen, and Summer Koo. Both helped revise and correct the original drafts of this article.