On the northern edge of Syria, the de facto autonomous region known as Rojava has set the example for the future of radical democracy and economic autonomy in the Middle East. The region is structured by a secular model of democratic confederalism put into place by its constitution in 2014, a constitution that makes law of gender equality and freedom of religion.1 The governing party of Rojava is the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wings, the Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG), and the Female Protection Units (YPJ). On March 18, Turkish forces as well as the “Free Syrian Army” captured the westernmost canton of Afrin in Rojava. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already made clear his plans to appoint a governor to the region, and eventually relocate over 300,000 Syrian Arabs to Afrin.2
The occupation of Afrin is only part of Turkey’s mission to destroy Rojava, perform an ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people, and put an end to this revolutionary alternative to neoliberalism in the Middle East. It is because Rojava does not follow the neoliberal agenda that it’s dangerous to those establishing state control in the Middle East. That’s why it’s imperative that the radical mission of Rojava — to create a society without racism or patriarchy, based on direct democracy — receive international radical solidarity and become an inspiration to revolutionary struggles everywhere.
In 1999, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and eventual inspiration of Rojava, Abdullah Öcalan, was arrested by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency. Originally sentenced to death, his life was spared when Turkey abolished the death penalty in order to gain entrance into the United Nations, changing his sentence to life in prison. Studying in prison, Öcalan was heavily influenced by U.S. anarchist Murray Bookchin, and began to realize that freedom is only possible when the institutional structures of oppression are abolished.3 Bookchin’s ideas of dual power, confederalism, and social ecology helped Öcalan create the model for radical democracy in Rojava. In 2005, Öcalan openly rejected the PKK’s method of attacking the Turkish state, and the creation of a Kurdish nation-state. He stated that the creation of the nation-state “has become a serious barrier to the development of society and democracy and freedom since the end of the 20th century.” 4 Öcalan’s evolved beliefs inspired the creation of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava. Unlike western democracy, which is only an ideological veil to keep the reality of economic oppression out of sight, Rojava was founded on the principles of grassroots organization, and was not made to support the capitalist system, or imperialist forces.
The first paragraph of Rojava’s constitution, Charter of the Social Contract, establishes “justice, freedom, and democracy, and the rights of women and children in accordance with the principles of ecological balance.” 5 It also states that “People are the source of authority and the sovereignty exercised through institutions and elected assemblies, and not to any contradiction of the social contract of the democratic self-management.” Therefore, the people of every community hold the power to engage in the political process through direct democracy, and not through distant representatives with goals adverse to the public’s will. Communities in Rojava are organized around face to face democratic assemblies which often go as deep as the neighborhood level.6 Unlike U.S. or European democracy, Rojava’s constitution makes law the power of community self-determination, on the basis of ecological balance and personal freedom. The democracy of Rojava truly begins the project of eliminating the exploitative nature of the state.
The constitution of Rojava does not follow the democratic model neoliberals have long attempted to subjugate the Middle East with, such as in Turkey, where neoliberal conservatism rules. Under President Erdoğan, Turkey has limited free speech and become one of the worlds biggest prisons for journalists, yet it continues to maintain its membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Agreement (NATO), and the United Nations (UN). Turkey’s commitment to the neoliberal project and global capital protects its membership to NATO and the UN, and also protects it from any harsh discipline for human rights violations.7 Like many countries outside the western world, Turkey’s neoliberal project began in the 1980’s with shock therapy policies that immediately liberalized trade, limited social services, and expanded privatization.8 A large amount of publicly owned land and buildings were privatized, causing the increased speed of urbanization in Turkey. The abundant opportunity for private ownership did not benefit the lower classes, but only the wealthiest.
Turkey’s urbanization project, led by TOKI (Government Mass Housing Project), now focuses on profit-oriented projects instead of improving housing conditions for low-income people.9 The neoliberal project in Turkey is one of the reasons global elites have not come to the aid of Rojava. That is because if Rojava is to succeed as a more democratic and free region than Turkey, it will discredit the necessity of neoliberal reforms and provide an example to the Middle East of what is possible beyond imposed western democracy. While the U.S. military has often supported the armed wings of Rojava, the YPG and YPJ, they have been complacent of the recent Turkish capture of Afrin.
Even in difficult times, Rojava’s economy is undergoing a radical transformation of economic autonomy that isn’t built around the accumulation of profit, but also does not deny the market a variety of products or productivity. “The market is a main part of social economy, but the use-value must be greater than the exchange-value, and there is no stock market,” Afrin’s Minister of Economy Dr. Ahmad Yousef stated.10 Rojava’s agricultural sector works to create a diversified model that is ecologically durable.11 In January of 2017, the Afrin Canton of Rojava had 400 textile workshops with 17,000 employees, and supplied the whole of Syria with textiles.12 Due to its economy, it is no coincidence Afrin has become the first casualty of Turkey’s attack on Rojava. To hide their true motives, Turkey has claimed their capture of Afrin was motivated by the fight against terrorism, however, it was truly an attack on the Kurdish people and the radical project of Rojava. Turkey recognizes the YPG and YPJ as terrorist organizations with connections to the PKK, but they both have a policy of using aggression only in self-defense — following the new philosophies Öcalan put forth after his political evolution in prison.
Currently, Rojava faces an uncertain future with Afrin already under Turkish control. Without Rojava, much of the hope provided to the Middle East for a region free from neoliberal democracy and capitalist exploitation will be lost. The people of Rojava have proven worthy of support from radicals around the globe.
What began with the PKK’s violent attacks against the Turkish state, has transformed into a project of radical democracy without the state. The radical project of Rojava is no longer about creating a home strictly for the Kurdish people, it is now about creating a region free from ethnic or religious absolutism. The region’s constitution has rejected the idea of a nation state, and operates as a model for a decentralized structure of political power. While imperfect, it is the most important radical project in the Middle East. All those who believe in the need to create a society free from state oppression, the dangers of hierarchy, oppression based on gender, and capitalist exploitation– must stand in international solidarity with the people of Rojava. In A Politics for the Twenty-First Century, Murray Bookchin stated that because of the enormity of global capital, it had to be eaten away at by its roots.13 The grassroots project of Rojava is doing just that, it is eating away at the roots of global capital in the Middle East, and has replaced them with the seeds of revolution. Rojava is an example for radicals everywhere that revolution can, and must grow everywhere.
- “The Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria.” Internationalist Commune of Rojava, 29 Jan. 2016, internationalistcommune.com/social-contract/
- “Erdogan Plans to Appoint a Governor to Afrin.” ANF News, 23 Mar. 2018, anfenglishmobile.com/kurdistan/erdogan-plans-to-appoint-a-governor-to-afrin-25677.
- Leverink, Joris. “Murray Bookchin and the Kurdish resistance.” Roar, 9 Aug. 2015, roarmag.org/essays/bookchin-kurdish-struggle-ocalan-rojava/.
- Öcalan, Abdullah. Democratic Confederalism. International Initiative Adition, Transmedia Publishing, 2011. Free Ocalan, www.freeocalan.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Ocalan-Democratic-Confederalism.pdf.
- “The Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Federalism of Northern Syria.”Internationalist Commune of Rojava, 29 Jan. 2016, internationalistcommune.com/social-contract/.
- Biehl, Janet. Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan: The Council Movement, Gender Liberation, and Ecology. E-book, New Compass Press.
- “ErdoÄan v free speech: how does it feel to live in Turkey right now?” The Guardian, 14 Feb. 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/14/erdogan-free-speech-turkey-journalists-referendum.
- Lelandais, Gülçin Erdi, Dr. “Urbanisation under Neoliberal Conservatism in Turkey.” Research Turkey, 19 July 2015, researchturkey.org/urbanisation-under-neoliberal-conservatism-in-turkey/.
- Devrim, Isikkaya Ali. “Housing Policies in Turkey: Evolution of TOKI (Governmental Mass Housing Administration) as an Urban Design Tool.” Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture. David Publishiing, www.davidpublisher.com/Public/uploads/Contribute/56fa3ac8234e1.pdf. Accessed Oct. 2016.
- Lebsky, Maksim. “The Economy of Rojava.” Cooperative Economy, Solidarity Economy Association Ltd, 17 Mar. 2016, cooperativeeconomy.info/
- Özgur, Yeni. “Rojava: The Economic Branches in Detail.” Cooperative Economy, 14 Jan. 2017, cooperativeeconomy.info/rojava-the-economic-branches-in-detail/.
- Bookchin, Murray. “A Politics for the Twenty-First Century.” The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, Verso Books, 2015, pp. 43-67.