Few Westerners would recognize “Rojava” as the name of Syria’s majority-Kurdish north. But most have at least a fading memory of the Syrian Kurds’ celebrated role during the last decade of Syrian civil war. From 2012 to the defeat of ISIS in 2019, countless international reporters and film crews visited Rojava to capture striking images of the ragtag, Kurdish-led army seizing control of ISIS-occupied cities, while it also fought off attacks from Syrian regime and Turkish forces. 

Western magazines featured glamorized portraits of female fighters and interviews with boyish North American anarchists who saw the Kurdish struggle in Syria as their generation’s Spanish Civil War. At the same time, images of rusty scrap-iron tanks, lightly-armed fighters in flip-flops and tarpaulins tacked over market streets to frustrate Turkey’s omnipresent drones all pointed to the scale of the challenge facing the people of this embattled, isolated, mostly desert region roughly the size of West Virginia. 

From 2019 onward, a familiar pattern was again visible. As the threat from ISIS receded, and Donald Trump ordered a catastrophic withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Western press followed the U.S. President’s lead in rapidly losing interest. Television specials and Hollywood features optioned by Jake Gyllenhaal and Hillary Clinton failed to enter production and were quickly forgotten. The West decided its regional interests lay with key NATO ally Turkey; not for the first time, they effectively abandoned their short-term Kurdish partners to the realities of power in a neighborhood dominated by their historic foe. As Western journalists and nongovernmental organization staff headed for the border — and as locals pelted the retreating U.S. convoys with stones — the first Turkish airstrikes began to hit Kurdish border towns that had been demilitarized as part of a U.S.-brokered deal that Turkey promptly ignored. 

Just this week, Turkey launched a new wave of more than 60 punitive, targeted airstrikes that took out nearly all of Rojava’s power grid, along with dams, water stations and a hospital. As winter draws in, 2 million people and dozens of health care facilities have been deliberately left without water or power. Meanwhile, Western media and politicians remain almost entirely silent about the brave allies they once showered with praise and promises. 

4 million Syrian Kurds, Arabs and other minorities persist in building the progressive society that briefly captured international attention and fired the imagination of much of the global left.

And yet, despite everything it faces — diminishing international sympathy, a trade embargo, runaway inflation, a complete lack of formal international or diplomatic recognition, constant attacks from Turkey, the Assad regime and restive tribal regions harboring ISIS insurgents — 4 million Syrian Kurds, Arabs and other minorities persist in building the progressive society that briefly captured international attention and fired the imagination of much of the global left. The Kurdish-led administration of what is officially known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has been quietly improvising a new society based on the principles of direct democracy, women’s autonomy, minority rights and social ecology. 

The Rojava project is sometimes described as an “oasis”— an isolated pocket of democracy, justice and hope, blooming unexpectedly and miraculously in a region ravaged by despotism, war and nihilistic Islamism. But this idealized image of a “rose in the desert” is too simplistic. Eleven years after the establishment of the Kurdish-led autonomous zone, severe external pressures and internal contradictions have produced unexpected, hand-to-mouth solutions and dynamic compromises. This little-understood political process is a vibrant example of what happens when utopian politics are transferred into harsh, real-world environments, offering practical lessons for the transformation of repressive societies worldwide. 

In the words of Emina Omar, female co-chair of the region’s top diplomatic body, Rojava’s “actually existing example of democracy on the ground” can provide a blueprint not only for resolving the Syrian crisis, but perhaps even unlocking a more democratic future for the wider Middle East. 

“This project has been implemented through our people’s will,” says Omar, speaking from her office in northern Syria. “Despite all of the threats and the Turkish occupation, we have advanced, year on year, for a decade. We’re now revising our ‘Social Contract,’ [Constitution] and reorganizing the political, social and economic life of our region as an example for all of Syria and the region.”

The Rojava revolution of 2012 was a response to centuries of repression. Despite repeated uprisings, the Kurdish people had never gained genuine autonomy anywhere in their homeland, a territory now divided between modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The post-WW1 map of the region — drawn up under heavy British influence at the 1923 Lausanne Conference — was designed to placate a newly-formed Turkish Republic that wished to see the Kurds left without a homeland and reduced to second-class Turkish citizens. Another overriding concern was oil: from 1927 on, Western consortiums began drilling in Kurdish regions inside the new borders of Iraq and Syria.

For the rest of the century, an estimated 40 million Kurds experienced impoverishment, isolation, pogroms and the denial of full citizenship across all four occupying states, provoking little interest from the outside world. The most infamous event in this century of oppression was Saddam Hussein’s killing of up to 100,000 Iraqi Kurds in 1991, including with poison gas.

Fewer still would have anticipated that the revolutionary socialist Kurdish movement would enter into a “popular front” with the world’s leading capitalist global power — the United States — to defeat an expansionist radical Islamist force called ISIS.

But the Kurds never gave up their quest for self-determination. One key development took place in Turkey during the 1980s, when the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, led by Kurdish figurehead Abdullah Öcalan, formed an armed wing to fight for a Kurdish state. With an ideology that fused Kurdish nationalism and Marxist-Leninism, the PKK quickly developed into a formidable guerilla force. But a Turkish state crackdown, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to a weakening of the movement’s power throughout the ’90s, culminating in Öcalan’s 1999 capture by Turkish intelligence services. 

By then, the ideology of the Kurdish freedom movement had come to reflect Öcalan’s shift from traditional Marxism toward heterodox beliefs influenced by feminism, post-colonial thought and the American political theorist Murray Bookchin. In a series of books ingeniously communicated to the outside world from his jail-cell, Öcalan laid out a new vision informed by the PKK’s struggles and an analysis of the USSR’s collapse. For the Kurdish people to be free, he wrote, all social hierarchies had to be undone, particularly the nation-state. Most fundamentally, autonomy for women was a prerequisite for national liberation.

Öcalan’s new political vision, which he called “democratic confederalism,” rested on the ideological pillars of direct democracy, women’s autonomy, minority rights, cooperative economics and a reimagined relationship between humans and environment that Bookchin called “social ecology.” To this day, these principles inspire the Kurdish-led political program in Rojava.

Prior to the Syrian Civil War, few foresaw that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would create the conditions for Rojava — the smallest, poorest and least politically dynamic of the four Kurdish regions — to become the site of an Öcalan-inspired revolutionary project. Fewer still would have anticipated that the revolutionary socialist Kurdish movement would enter into a “popular front” with the world’s leading capitalist global power — the United States — to defeat an expansionist radical Islamist force called ISIS. But that’s exactly what happened.

The region still bears the scars of many years’ warfare. Photo: Rojava Information Center

Bashar Assad provided the opening for Kurdish ambitions when he withdrew his troops from the country’s Kurdish north in 2012. The move created a Kurdish buffer between regime-controlled territory on one side, and ISIS and Turkey on the other. For Kurds, it was a double-edged sword, exposing them to jihadi and Turkish attacks but also creating room for the Syrian Kurdish movement to seize control after decades of clandestine organizing. It’s a decision Assad has since had cause to regret.

The Kurdish freedom movement had deep roots in Rojava, in part because Öcalan spent the ’80s and ’90s exiled in Syria. Locals still recall the clandestine organizing of the period — the messages between guerillas hidden in baby’s cribs, or passed to incarcerated husbands by the kissing mouths of prison wives; shoes left outside neighboring homes while women organizers crept barefoot over backyard fences to avoid Assad’s secret police. Above all, it was the blood shed by generations of Kurdish militants in Turkey and Syria that cemented their status in working-class Kurdish neighborhoods and villages throughout Rojava.

The institutions built through this organizing allowed the Syrian Kurds to stand their ground during the recent war and turn the tide against ISIS. Their efforts won them global admiration and temporary understandings with both Washington and Moscow, including U.S. aerial support that proved crucial in expelling ISIS from its strongholds in Arab cities like Raqqa. But these transactional alliances proved fleeting. 

Turkey has always been existentially opposed to Kurdish-led democratic autonomy anywhere, and by 2016, Turkey launched its own anti-Kurdish bombing and ground operations in northern Syria. In 2018, Russia gave Turkey the greenlight for an invasion of Rojava’s western province, Afrin. A year later, Washington abruptly withdrew U.S. troops from the otherwise indefensible border region to the east, opening the door for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to intensify his attacks on the Rojava revolution. Even Fox News criticized the betrayal.

As embattled as the project may be, millions of Kurds and Arabs still view Rojava as a sanctuary.

During both invasions, Turkey unleashed Arab and Turkmen militias — many containing former ISIS members — that looted, pillaged, tortured, mutilated, raped and murdered Kurdish, Yazidi and Christian villages across Rojava. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in the space of weeks. Many expected Turkey’s invasion of Rojava to sound the death knell for the fledgling Kurdish-led progressive experiment. 

Against incredible odds, however, the Kurdish-led project has endured. Although some territory was lost, the lingering and self-interested presence of U.S. and Russian troops in northern Syria prevents Turkey from seizing the entire region and installing the jihadist, U.S.-sanctioned, Turkish-backed militias that currently dominate the occupied zones. In a grim illustration of the fate hanging over Rojava’s Kurds, the Kurdish population in regions occupied by Turkey has already been reduced by about two-thirds. Tens of thousands have been forced from their homes “into the desert,” as Erdoğan once promised.

As embattled as the project may be, millions of Kurds and Arabs still view Rojava as a sanctuary. After uniting diverse populations that were recently at war with each other, it continues to offer Syria’s highest standards of the rule of law, security and humanitarian provision. 

“Everyone is hurting, but it’s still better here than elsewhere in Syria,” says Syrian Kurdish journalist Ali Ali. “Women aren’t kidnapped, children aren’t seized and salaries are better. This broad democratic project gives people hope — the Christian [minority] gives hope to Arabs, Arabs to Kurds, Kurds to Arabs. We all share together in this project.”

On paper, the AANES — which governs a majority-Arab population — is officially opposed to all forms of ethnic nationalism. As a practical matter, however, the spirit of Kurdish nationalism animates its institutions, which are possible thanks to the Rojava revolution. The AANES’ political program of secularism, democracy and women’s autonomy is commonly understood as fundamentally “Kurdish,” and the history of nationalist struggle remains vital in preparing thousands of young Kurds to sacrifice themselves in defense of these nonsectarian principles.

Arab-Kurdish unity was forged in joint battles against ISIS that liberated both Arab and Kurdish cities. As a result, the AANES’ commitment to what it calls the “brotherhood of peoples” is not just rhetorical. The region’s “social contract” guarantees proportional representation for all ethnic groups, resulting in Arabs administering majority-Arab cities. During recent Turkish attacks, key state offices relocated from the majority-Kurdish regions on the border with Turkey, to the Arab city of Raqqa, the former ISIS capital that is now Rojava’s largest city and a key trade hub.

Still, interethnic tensions endure. Kurds remain suspicious of conservative Arab regions where ISIS insurgents continue to attack military figures, teachers, female community organizers and anyone working for the AANES. These regions, meanwhile, have their own complaints about the Kurdish-dominated AANES, on issues ranging from economics to culture. 

“The AANES has brought stability, and the security situation is improving gradually, but people suffer economically,” says Abdul Karim Najm al-Salman, a representative of the powerful Arab al-Baggara tribe. “Year after year, poverty increases. Education is not as it should be due to disputes over the curriculum.” 

These disputes are perhaps not surprising, given that the AANES’ education system promotes women’s rights, secular values and a generally Öcalan-influenced account of history. During Arab tribal protests, legitimate complaints about education policies can be heard along with demands for the release of captured ISIS militants. In August, the AANES’ military wing arrested an Arab regional commander, Abu Khawla, an Arab tribal strongman accused of corruption and violent excesses. Khawla was a pragmatic but unpopular choice to head the Military Council in Deir ez-Zor, a troubled desert region in the extreme south of AANES territory and the last to be liberated from ISIS. While locals had long demanded his arrest, his deposition triggered a violent uprising from his own tribal allies and renewed calls for greater devolution to the local tribal powers of the region. 

The subsequent crisis, which left dozens dead, illustrates the tightrope the AANES must walk in negotiating competing demands. Hand power to potentially violent, corrupt, patriarchal tribal leaders, or risk their wrath by ignoring their legitimate demands for greater representation? Centralize militarized Kurdish control in these regions, or withdraw and risk the return of ISIS or the universally despised Syrian regime?

There are no easy answers, say officials, only the hard work of politics and compromise. 

“We face major political struggles, but the majority of the population doesn’t want to return to Syria as it existed before the revolution,” says Shadi al-Ibrahim, an Arab official working to adapt the AANES’ legislation in his hometown. “That’s why we stand for dialogue. We want to talk to all people interested in building a democratic Syria.”

Cooperatives like this one make up a small portion of a regional economy still largely dependent on oil revenues. Photo: Rojava Information Center

The institution designed to address these tensions is a nationwide network of village- and neighborhood-level meetings known as “communes.” This system is based on Öcalan’s vision of a society in which neighbors make grassroots-level decisions that also help shape national policy. The communes are most full of revolutionary fervor when Turkey threatens war: youths flock to the meetings to plan tunnels, and mothers organize to cook vast pots of beans for the front lines. Even the grandmothers come together to form armed patrols.

Most of the time, however, this innovative and participatory political system doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm. At the local level, the communes help communities agitate for a road to be resurfaced, or oversee the equitable distribution of resources in a refugee camp. But citizens have little sense that commune-level input influences centrally planned AANES policies related to security or the economy. Many Kurds and Arabs alike have come to view their local commune as little more than a place to access AANES-subsidized bread and diesel.

More than any ideological commitment to the commune system, it is the continued unrest in Arab regions that push the AANES to stick to its founding democratic ideals. This could be seen at a public consultation in Raqqa that was called in response to 2020 tribal unrest. There I witnessed AANES’ democratic spirit in full flow, as Arabs accused AANES’ Kurdish leaders of tokenism and engaged in spirited debate over a number of topics, from AANES’ pragmatic negotiations with the Assad regime, to improved travel passes for internally displaced people. Throughout the heated discussions, moderators urged participants to speak without mincing their words — even and especially when their criticism opposed the AANES’ progressive agenda. 

As it negotiates between the demands of often-conservative tribal actors and its progressive ideals, the AANES is forced into democratic dialogue with civil society. Nowhere are these tensions more apparent than in the Rojava vision for women’s autonomy.

Throughout the AANES system, the scale of the so-called “women’s revolution” is readily apparent. The co-chair system guarantees female participation at all levels in both the military and civilian spheres. This has allowed thousands of young women to escape the confinement of patriarchal homes and work as soldiers, teachers, refugee camp administrators or judges (including those responsible for trying ISIS militants.) 

Nonetheless, traditional domestic and agricultural labor remain a daily reality for most, and  

Rojava’s women’s movement is still in the process of transitioning from a guerilla movement into a social one capable of revolutionizing the lives of ordinary housewives. A major effort in this direction is the establishment of a network of “women’s houses” where local women resolve domestic disputes and other issues through dialogue and mediation. Though not without resistance — in the Arab city of Deir ez-Zor, women’s houses have survived bombings and drive-by shootings — the houses have been successful, in no small part because they build on preexisting trust in female community elders. Women also play a prominent role in “reconciliation committees” tasked with resolving intergenerational blood feuds and other disputes through community mediation overseen by trusted elders.

“In the past, people called the Women’s House the ‘House of Divorce’ or the ‘House of Destruction’,” Bahiya Murad, a founding co-chair of the women’s house network, told me in an office full of young mothers and infants. “But now, people have come to understand that we’re endeavoring to reconcile society for both men and women.”

The goal, she says, isn’t to tear up society by the roots, but to preserve and build on the grassroots, often-unrecognized role women have played as mothers, mediators and community pillars in Kurdish and Middle Eastern society. The wider appeal of this vision was highlighted in the adoption of the  Kurdish women’s movement slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” by protesters across Iran after Mahsa Jina Amini, an Iranian Kurd, was beaten to death by the morality police for alleged hijab infractions in 2022. 

In the realm of economics, the realities of northern Syria have forced some departure from Öcalan’s original vision of small-scale, community-based cooperatives. 

According to Syrian Kurdish economist Cheleng Omar, around 75% of the AANES’ annual income is derived from oil revenues sold on the black market. This is by necessity, as Washington has repeatedly refused the AANES a waiver to trade its oil abroad, and forced it into cut-price deals with a number of shady partners — including the Assad regime. Wheat production and light industry make up the remainder of the region’s meager income. The result is a per capita state budget roughly the same as South Sudan.

Prior to the revolution, the Assad regime owned around 80% of agricultural land in Rojava. These fields were expropriated and are now administered by the AANES, with some handed over to agricultural cooperatives. Small and medium farmers are subject to modest taxes; there are no major private landowners. Domestic wheat production keeps the region from starvation, but ongoing efforts to plant a wider range of crops and achieve food autonomy have yet to overcome a reliance on basic imported goods. 

A bustling black market drives up prices, but the AANES has little choice. Its severe economic isolation dictates reliance on illicit supply lines to deliver foodstuffs, construction supplies and medicine. The sole semi-official external border crossing is regularly closed by hostile authorities in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan; technical and industrial components are almost never allowed into the region. As a market trader in the region’s de facto capital Qamishlo told me, a pair of shoddy flip-flops might travel from Turkey to Iraq to Syrian regime-held Aleppo before finally arriving in Rojava with a markup at every crossing.

Given these harsh realities, it is perhaps not surprising that Rojavan aspiration to reimagine humankind’s exploitative relationship to nature has been frustrated by circumstance.

Cheleng Omar, the economist, reels off a list of other issues hampering regional economic development: war damage to oil infrastructure and irrigation systems; brain drain; Syria-wide economic sanctions that prevent almost all foreign investment in AANES regions; and runaway inflation (the Syrian pound has lost its value hundreds of times in the decade since the start of the revolution). Turkish shelling and airstrikes, meanwhile, continue to drive away investors from fertile regions, such as Omar’s hometown of Afrin. Following Turkey’s 2018 invasion and occupation, the economist fled as Afrin’s agricultural cooperatives were plundered by Turkish-backed militiamen who cut down ancient olive groves for firewood.

These circumstances have forced the AANES to centralize the economy as a survival measure. Profits are returned to the people, primarily through the 40% of AANES’ annual budget used to subsidize bread and diesel for transport and heating homes. What’s left goes to national defense, salaries for the AANES’ estimated 250,000 civilian and military employees, state-funded education, some medical care and post-war reconstruction efforts. 

These subsidies — boosted by AANES anti-corruption measures, price controls on essential products and the levying of fines for price gouging — serve as a lifeline to millions, but have limited impact on the ground. Markets are frequently empty. Only those families receiving cash from relatives abroad are able to make ends meet. In some communities, cooperatives provide much-needed employment, particularly in the agricultural sector. But these valiant projects aren’t enough to keep the economy afloat. 

“People only think about how to get through the day,” says Ali, the journalist. “Everyone in every household has to work in order to survive. But it’s still not enough.”

Economist Omar identifies further challenges. “The AANES has failed to achieve economic self-reliance or establish a cooperative mentality. Our society needs to be educated, so people don’t just aim to achieve profits [and] monopolies. Civil society should advance its own cooperative projects.”

As proposals for state-funded iron and concrete plants go unrealized due to lack of money, local women pick wheat, men join the armed services and youths of both sexes look longingly at Facebook posts from cousins waiting tables or studying medicine in Germany.

Given these harsh realities, it is perhaps not surprising that Rojavan aspiration to reimagine humankind’s exploitative relationship to nature has been frustrated by circumstance. Locals who scrabble to draw brackish water in 120 degree heat would certainly benefit from the “social ecology” proposed by Öcalan, but the most pressing crisis is Turkey’s universally condemned 2019 seizure of a key water station and its damming of the Euphrates, which left millions without drinking water and brought cholera back to the region. This month’s airstrikes, hitting a dam, water infrastructure, hospitals, the region’s only cooking-gas facility, as well as scores of power stations, have raised the specter of a grim winter ahead. 

The Ecology Committees of Rojava might recognize the deep issues at the core of the planetary crisis, but have to focus on collecting trash and pursuing international mediation over Turkey’s illegal water war. Villages that rely on Rojava’s dirty and brittle power grid badly need green energy solutions, but not quite as badly as they need the region’s oil revenues to keep them from starvation.

In small and large ways, many women’s lives have been touched and transformed by the Rojava revolution. Photo: Rojava Information Center

Rojava has ambitious plans to achieve international recognition as a devolved region of Syria while also spreading “democratic confederalism” throughout Kurdistan’s four divided regions and the wider Middle East. For now, however, the focus is on survival.

“Thousands of young people are leaving even though they might be killed crossing the [Syrian-Turkish] border,” says Ali, the journalist.

And yet Ali himself remains in Rojava. Alongside millions more, he embodies the region’s spirit of dogged, hand-to-mouth perseverance.

Walking through Qamishlo, a city still divided into Syrian and AANES sectors like a latter-day Berlin or Jerusalem, one is confronted with Rojava’s jury-rigged diplomatic, economic and political solutions at every turn. Regime guards and internationalist volunteers studiously avoid one another’s gaze. Russian and U.S. patrols face off on rural roads, while Kurdish fighters attempt to mediate. Queues for subsidized bread curl past stalls piled with black-market sugar. As the Turkish drones that have killed hundreds in recent years hum constantly overhead, life goes on as best it can.

From the uneasy accommodation with the Syrian regime and foreign powers, to the hybrid forms of economy and democracy being trialed, northern Syria has repeatedly found compromise solutions that embody its dogged democratic spirit. 

“The fact we have different parties who can disagree and argue already marks an advance on the [Syrian] regime,” says Shadi al-Ibrahim, the Arab official. “Contradictions can be positive for progress.”

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