Rojava (NE Syria)

Map of Middle East with Rojava circled

Since 2012, Rojava (NE Syria) has become a beacon of hope for the democratic left both in the Middle East and around the world. But how did this happen during Syria’s brutal civil war? And how has the revolution survived both severe isolation and intense military aggression from its enemies?

***Key points***

    • The colonial division of Kurdish territories into non-Kurdish states.
    • Repression under Arab nationalist regimes in Syria.
    • Using the state’s absence during civil war to build an alternative.
    • The revolution’s pillars are: women’s freedom; a radical, multicultural, community democracy, reshaping society in an egalitarian way and in harmony with nature; and an economy emphasising the importance of co-operatives.
    • Suffering isolation and resisting attacks from extremists who’d received support from authoritarian Western allies.
    • The West has allowed NATO member Turkey’s ethnic cleansing efforts in Rojava.



Artificial colonial division, and nationalist repression

Britain and France artificially divided parts of the Middle East between themselves in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. They also made a deal to allow the formation of the Turkish state. With these actions, they left people like the Kurds essentially stateless.

As European colonialists eyed up the Middle East, Turkish nationalists in the heart of the dying Ottoman Empire organised. They rallied their local Kurdish allies behind opposition to Western occupation. And they got the colonial powers to let them create Turkey in 1923. But Kurds had no representation in this deal. So Turkish rulers soon exerted their power via repression and massacres.

The Arab states of Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, emerged later after the exit of European colonialists. These new countries also oppressed, sidelined, and tried to assimilate minority groups like the Kurds. For example, the Ba’ath regime in Syria tried to create an Arab-belt’ in the north. Its apparent aim was to dilute Kurdish community solidarity in the area by resettling 4,000 Arab families there in the early 1970s.

Kurdish resistance in Turkey

Turkey has the biggest Kurdish population, though. And as it became a key NATO ‘anti-communist’ force after the Second World War, it forged a powerful right-wing network to attack anyone with links to the left. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) began in resistance to this. Kurdish academic Dilar Dirik described in 2014 how:

The PKK started out with the aim of an independent Kurdish state in the 1970s, but long transformed its vision and now advocates regional autonomy or “democratic confederalism” through grassroots democracy, gender equality, and ecology

Decades of conflict with the Turkish state, however, left massive losses on both sides. Civilians, meanwhile, suffered immensely. Turkey classed the PKK as terrorists; and its allies in the West did the same (even though it had reportedly never killed Western targets). The PKK and its regional allies now explicitly condemn attacks on civilians. But the terror classification remains in the US, EU, and UK. European courts, however, have criticised this designation.

The PKK in Syria

Kurdish people refer to their communities in Syria as Western Kurdistan (‘Rojava’). And here, the PKK gained significant influence. explained this link in 2011:

In the 1980s and 1990s, Syria was the PKK’s largest patron and harbored the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan. However, Syria ended its support for the PKK in 1998 following Turkish threats of military intervention.

This made Öcalan more vulnerable to attempts to detain him. And as CNN  reported:

the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire for several years after Ocalan was captured in 1999.

There was reportedly CIA involvement in his capture. There were also suspicions that Israeli intelligence played a part, though Israel denied this.

Supporters have made comparisons between Öcalan and South African leader Nelson Mandela. Öcalan himself spoke in 2013 of “mutual heartfelt dedication and friendship” with Mandela.

Öcalan’s time in Syria had a big impact. And the PKK’s ideas inspired many Kurdish people living there. As a result, the democratic ideology he formulated while in prison (‘democratic confederalism‘) is at the centre of Rojava’s revolution today.

Öcalan’s inspiration in Rojava

On the nation state, Öcalan wrote:

The right of self determination of a people includes the right to a state of their own. However, the foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people. The system of the United Nations that is based on nation states has remained inefficient. Meanwhile, nation states have become serious obstacles for any social development.

And on democratic confederalism, he said:

Democratic confederalism is a non-state social paradigm. It is not controlled by a state. At the same time, democratic confederalism is the cultural organisational blueprint of a democratic nation.

Democratic confederalism is based on grassroots participation. Its decision making processes lie with the communities. Higher levels only serve the coordination and implementation of the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies.

The establishment of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria in 2003 sought to put Öcalan’s ideas into practice. But this came in a context of ongoing state repression of Kurdish people. In 2004, for example, state forces opened fire after disturbances broke out at a football match in Qamişlo. Seven Kurdish people were killed. Then, anti-state riots began. And authorities responded by killing 30 people. They injured, arrested and tortured hundreds more.

Forging a radically different system

Building self-governance

The north of Syria, since before the state’s creation, has had a mixture of ethnic groups. But Kurdish people have been the majority. At the start of Syria’s brutal civil war in 2011, this region had to decide where it stood.

Because of previous state oppression and the lack of a viable opposition (not to ignore some small pockets of inspiration), its inhabitants chose a third path. Organisers in Rojava created the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). They aimed to build ‘direct democracy‘. Then, Syrian state forces withdrew from Rojava. And the local organisers took the opportunity to forge a new system with green, socialist, democratic values at its heart.

A 2014 social contract made the revolution’s principles clear. At its heart has been women’s empowerment and equality, and an opposition to all religious and ethnic discrimination. The democratic confederalist concept of direct democracy is also particularly important. Communes have autonomy – even organising their own self-defence forces – but work together too. Boosting the co-operative sector of the economy is another key focus.

“A beacon of light”

In 2016, even corporate media outlets like Sky would admit respect for Rojava’s system. Presenter Ross Kemp, for example, said:

One of the basic principles of the Rojava government is that people on the ground should make the policies that affect them – so governance from the bottom up.

He added:

There seems little doubt about these people’s determination to promote equality and democracy. [Rojava’s model] wants to encompass all people… It wants women to have equal standing in society.

And he concluded by calling it “a genuine movement for democracy, equality and tolerance”, stressing:

They are a beacon of light in a sea of tyranny.

Phoenix Media Co-op‘s Ed Sykes previously spoke to reporter Rahila Gupta about her visit to Rojava in March 2016. In one of her answers, she spoke about the international context:

Resisting the offensives of Wahhabi-inspired extremists

The revolution’s principles meant that the self-defence forces of Rojava became a key opponent of religious extremists. These were rampaging throughout Syria and Iraq as the revolution unfolded. Indeed, they eventually had a leading role in the efforts to defeat Daesh (IS/Isis/Isil) and similar extremist groups.

Quasi-religious extremists like Daesh had found inspiration in the fundamentalist sect of Wahhabism. Western ally Saudi Arabia had been pushing this chauvinist ideology around the world for many decades. Indeed, former US senator Bob Graham argued that Daesh was “a product of Saudi ideals, Saudi money and Saudi organizational support”. And a senior Qatari official called the group “a Saudi project”.

Acting to support Yezîdîs in Şengal

One of the big, early tests in the fight against Daesh was the genocidal attack on Şengal (Sinjar) in August 2014. This is in north-western Iraq rather than Syria; but when the extremists descended on the minority religious community of the Yezîdîs, Rojavan forces couldn’t look away.

Daesh murdered between 3,000 and 5,000 men and took roughly 7,000 women and children captive (it would use captives as fighters or sex slaves). Over 200,000 people reportedly fled the brutal attack. Testimonies of the genocide are harrowing.

The local Iraqi authorities belonged to the Western-backed Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). These reportedly left Yezîdî citizens to their fate. But PKK militias and their Rojavan allies in the YPG/YPJ took action; and they eventually rescued roughly 35,000 refugees.

Journalists and governments alike talked about ‘Kurdish fighters’ coming to the rescue. But this confused the issue. Because the official Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga forces stood back, while Kurdish-led forces from Rojava (who had no formal duty to help) crossed the border to forge a humanitarian corridor for the refugees to escape.

The PKK and YPG/YPJ then helped to train up locals to fight back. This led to the creation of the Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) and Sinjar Women’s Units (YJŞ). They fought as part of a coalition that eventually freed the town from extremist control in 2015.

The feminist struggle against bigotry

One aspect of Rojava’s resistance that got particular Western attention was the prominence of female fighters. And Dilar Dirik slammed the way in which many reporters tended to paint over the ideology fueling these women’s struggle. She stressed in 2014 that the:

Western media’s white-washing of the Kurdish women’s resistance sanitises a radical struggle in such a way as to suit the perceptions of a western audience. Rather than challenging the awkward fact that the movement [the PKK and its YPG/YPJ allies] that the vast majority of women fighting ISIL belong to is labelled as a terrorist organisation – by Turkey, the EU, and the US – they conveniently leave it out…

And she insisted:

Appreciation for these women should not only praise their fight against ISIL, but it should also recognise their politics.

The women’s revolution in Rojava, however, is much more than the YPJ female militia’s fight against Daesh. Because the concept of women’s freedom and self-determination is at the very core of Rojava’s democratic model. The co-chair system, for example, is a key element. This means that each position of responsibility must be filled by two people; and at least one of these must be a woman. This principle runs through all of the structures of the revolution, from positions in Rojava’s Autonomous Administration to representatives of street-level communes.

Rahila Gupta spoke previously about the efforts to foster gender equality at the heart of Rojava’s revolution:

Achievements of the women’s revolution

Women have also developed completely autonomous political structures in Rojava. The Kongreya Star women’s confederation has been a key driving force behind this.

Women Defend Rojava lists some of the achievements of the women’s revolution in Rojava as:

  • Autonomous women’s branches to almost all structures.
  • Centres for women’s law and justice, for example the “women’s houses” to deal with domestic violence, forced marriage and related problems.
  • Women’s councils.
  • Women’s co-operatives.
  • The defence forces of the YPJ, and the neighbourhood defence forces of the HPJ, local groups of mothers who take responsibility for community self defence.
  • The development of jineoloji, a science based on forms of knowledge oppressed by patriarchy.
  • Women’s education and knowledge sharing at all levels of society.

The struggle against state and non-state terrorism

The other Kurdish-led government…

The Şengal genocide wasn’t the first time there was a stark difference between Rojava’s progressive politics and the KRG in northern Iraq. Because the corrupt nationalists running the KRG frequently shut the border with Rojava rather than showing consistent solidarity with its people. WikiLeaks, meanwhile, had previously exposed KRG talks with Turkey about how to defeat its big ideological challenger in the Kurdish community – the PKK.

There are allegations of numerous Turkish bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. There have also been many cross-border Turkish attacks on the PKK, its allies, or civilians in the region in recent years. And the KRG usually has little to say about this, as it cracks down on the PKK itself. As the New Internationalist wrote in 2020, the KRG political elites often “go after activists, journalists and protesters with complete impunity”.

The KRG, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a firm ally of Western governments and of Western friends in the region (like Israel).

Daesh attacks Rojava with Turkish complicity

When Daesh turned its focus onto Rojava, the YPG/YPJ defence forces essentially stood alone. Worse was that the extremists had many more resources, partly thanks to apparent Turkish support. But Rojava resisted. And soon, international journalists couldn’t keep ignoring this resistance. Daesh was close to taking control of the city of Kobanî, and the Turkish army just watched from the border while preventing grassroots support from crossing over.

Academic Bill Park described at Open Democracy in 2014 how Turkey shared “responsibility for [extremists’] emergence as the most formidable opponents to the Assad regime” in Syria; and how it was an “open secret… that Turkish territory [had] been used by some of the more extreme opposition groups for recruitment, training, fundraising and medical care”. He added that “supplies, recruits, oil from fields captured by [Daesh] fighters, and even arms [had] been smuggled across the [Turkish] border [into Syria] with little hindrance”. And he mentioned accounts of “Turkish intelligence units transporting arms to Syria”. He also pointed out how Turkey had taken steps to shut its borders with Rojava but had “not taken similar steps in those border areas criss-crossed by jihadist groups”.

Journalist Amberin Zaman was another to write about allegations of Turkey helping Daesh. And there were numerous other reports accusing Turkish authorities of links to and collaboration with the extremist group.

Kobanî as a key turning point

Turkey’s stance was largely a PR disaster (though not among Daesh sympathisers in the country). Mass protests broke out. And curfews and military patrols began in several Turkish provinces in response. Many Kurdish-majority cities in southeastern Turkey, meanwhile, declared autonomy from the state. People armed themselves and took to the barricades. The Turkish state’s response was brutal and murderous.

With the world’s eyes on Kobanî, meanwhile, some strategic support finally came from the US and the KRG (partly looking to avoid their own PR disasters). Neither of them backed the process in Rojava politically, but they knew a committed local ground force – which would eventually lose more than 11,000 fighters during the fight against Daesh – was a major asset in the battle to defeat the extremist group that had attacked the West on numerous occasions. They also knew it would be a PR disaster to let Daesh take Kobanî with the complicity of a key NATO ally.

In March 2016, delegates from around Rojava proclaimed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava. Later in the year, there was much more territory in the federation outside the largely Kurdish areas; and with this in mind, representatives agreed to drop ‘Rojava’ from the name. The official name helped to reflect the region and revolution’s multi-ethnic character better.

Tensions build in Turkey as Rojava provides hope

Current Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gained power by mixing Islamism and nationalism in a way that has attracted mass support. His government backed Islamists and nationalists in neighbouring Syria to try and further Turkish influence. But they never really stood a chance against Damascus.

As the fight against Daesh took international and Turkish attention, it was the multicultural project in Rojava that proposed a real remedy. Turkey’s regime responded by blockading the region, though. It also faced accusations of helping Daesh (directly or indirectly), with roughly 100 Daesh fighters reportedly crossing over the border every week at one point. Significant evidence would arise showing Turkish collaboration with both groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh and other extremists on the far right.

Because Kurds in Turkey had already fought for several decades for self-determination, the emergence of Rojava as an inspirational force seriously spooked the Turkish regime. So it torpedoed peace talks in 2015 and resumed hostilities both at home and abroad. A ruling from the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal in 2018 found the Turkish state responsible for a number of war crimes during this period.

An anti-progressive crackdown, and voices of resistance

The increasingly draconian Turkish regime, meanwhile, sought to silence its opponents with the ‘terrorist’ or ‘terrorist sympathiser’ label. Although Daesh was the major terrorist threat, Erdoğan’s target was mostly the progressive Kurdish freedom movement. And the state pursued a tactic of killing and arresting anyone it could accuse of supporting the PKK (or the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) – an umbrella organisation dedicated to establishing democratic confederalism in all four parts of Kurdistan).

Some international actors weren’t buying Turkey’s sudden exit from peace talks and resumption of terror smears, though. European courts, for example, slammed the smearing of opponents as ‘terrorists’; and they stressed that the PKK was a “party to an armed conflict” rather than a terror group. Since the attack on Kobanî, there has been an increase in organising by Kurdistan solidarity groups, campaigns to boycott Turkey, and efforts to push Western governments to take the PKK off their terror lists.

Turkey invades Rojava, as the West turns a blind eye

Turkey has been a longstanding ally of the West. Its military regimes served for decades as an anti-communist outpost in the region during the Cold War. This has given Turkey many ‘get out of jail free’ cards. Regular provocative attacks on Rojava, for example, met little Western resistance. In fact, Turkish pressure partly helped to ensure Rojava had no representation in Syria’s peace talks.

Western complicity and inaction only encouraged Erdoğan’s regime to go even further. Because in 2018, Turkish-led forces invaded the north-western part of Rojava – Afrin. This act of aggression undid the relative peace and progress that locals had experienced in previous years. It also threatened tens of thousands of refugees that the region had been hosting with almost no international support.

The Islamist/nationalist invaders faced accusations of ethnic cleansing. And after two years of occupation, the Kurdish population of Afrin had reportedly fallen by over 60%. The UN estimated the displacement of around 150,000 Kurdish people. The occupiers also resettled people from Arab areas in the region, according to a local human rights group. Rudaw, meanwhile, explained how:

Observers accused the [Turkish-affiliated] militias of ethnic cleansing after homes were commandeered by fighters, residents intimidated or kidnapped for ransom, and displaced families blocked from returning.

Turkish-led forces reportedly included both Wahhabi and far-right extremists. And these invaders faced accusations of “widespread human rights violations”, looting, and war crimes.

Rojava changed its official name to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in 2018.

Amid Western inaction, Turkey strikes again

Turkey continued its ethnic cleansing efforts with an invasion of the whole of northeast Syria in 2019. This essentially got the green light from the US government. And it reportedly killed dozens of civilians and displaced 200,000 more people. The Turkish-led occupation of border areas allegedly saw “forcible demographic change”, with “Arab and Turkmen militias” pushing Kurdish and minority groups out. There were also allegations of invading forces committing war crimes. Meanwhile, the invasion undermined the fight against Daesh by giving hundreds of the group’s supporters the opportunity to escape jail.

The Turkish-led occupation of parts of northern Syria is ongoing. The US, meanwhile, is reportedly seeking to water down the nature of the Rojava revolution; and some believe Turkey is planning more military aggression against the region. At the same time, one reaction from Rojava to the 2019 invasion was to make a deal with Damascus to allow state troops into the region.

While some governments in Europe responded to Turkish actions by pledging to stop arms sales to Turkey, the UK didn’t. Britain has licensed arms worth over £1bn to Ankara since 2014.


Attack lines against Rojava, and room for improvement

Rojava’s critics have different perspectives. Some have tried to link it to the repressive Syrian government, denouncing its refusal to join the international fight against it.

Others, meanwhile, have criticised it for not working with Damascus, arguing that it has served US interests in Syria as a result. And indeed, Rojava has taken differing decisions depending on what has been most necessary to protect itself. But the repression of Kurdish people for decades at the hands of the Syrian state was always going to mean their support for Damascus in the war was unlikely. At the same time, the political forces behind the revolution in Rojava were never going to get anything other than superficial backing from the US; and they were aware of this even as they received strategic Western support in their battle against Daesh. The US clearly has different hopes for the region, and many understand this.

Rojava tries to be ecologically responsible. But thanks largely to economic isolation and difficulties, it has to sell oil. Control of water could help it diversify; but as academic Cemal Özkahraman pointed out in 2016, hostile state and non-state forces have significant control over available water, making it “twice as expensive as oil”. The water from the Euphrates, meanwhile, comes almost entirely from Turkey; so the state has weaponised this against Rojava. As Özkahraman stressed, water is likely to be a major point of conflict going forwards.

Human rights, and context

The Kurdish-led YPG/YPJ have faced some accusations of displacing Arab citizens from their villages on occasions during the fight against Daesh. Other issues include the repression of opposition demonstrations in Amuda in 2013, and the presence of underage fighters. The PYD responded to some of these allegations from Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2013, saying:

We share the ideals of the HRW, as made clear by our legal document and social contract, and we strive to realize all our aims. However it is necessary to bear in mind the extraordinary circumstances under which we live; the constant threat of war, the devastating blockade, the flux of refugees, the shortages of basic services related to communication, electricity, water, and many other challenges

It also invited independent observers to the region to investigate.

There are indeed many legitimate criticisms of Rojava’s system. And it’s important to always bear these in mind. But it’s also important to remember the context of isolation and overwhelming outside hostility, creating a very real survival risk. Because regardless of its weaknesses, Rojava has provided a powerful beacon of hope and inspiration in a region where such beacons rarely exist.

Solidarity with others struggling against occupation

One attack line from some on the left is that Rojava is somehow an ally of the world’s most notorious apartheid state – Israel. But that’s a weak argument, because progressive Kurds and their allies have long expressed solidarity with Palestinians fighting against Israeli occupation. Rojavan politician Salih Muslim, for example, said in 2014 that:

If Israel is talking about democracy, they should implement it even in their land, and I mean respecting Palestinian rights. If they are talking about the support to independence of the Kurdish nation, they should accept a similar right for the Palestinians.

Öcalan also criticised the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and he has been a longstanding ally of the Palestinian resistance. Writing from prison, meanwhile, he has called for a democratic-confederalist solution in Israel and Palestine [pdf, p207]. 

In 2019, meanwhile, the Internationalist Commune of Rojava said:

the struggle in Palestine against the occupation of the Israeli state is one branch of the struggle we have here in Kurdistan

It also called for people to “overcome the mentality of oppression and division of people along cultural, linguistic and religious lines that is built by the state”. And it added that:

similarities exist between Turkish state fascism and the fascism of the Israeli state when we consider the way that settlements have been managed in both Palestine and Kurdistan.

Indeed, there are Palestinians who believe Rojava’s system could provide a path forward in Palestine and Israel.

More information

  • See Rojava Information Center‘s summary of Rojava’s history. Also see its background articles on the revolution and its challenges.
  • See a list of solidarity initiatives here.
  • See the whole interview with Rahila Gupta below:

Rojavan music

Check out our Rojava playlist:

Note: The opinions expressed in the lyrics of the songs above do not necessarily represent the principles of Phoenix Media Co-operative.

Lead contributor Ed Sykes. Supporting contributor Tom Anderson.

Main article image via Ktrinko