Rojava: a Project for Peace on the Syrian Border

Rojava: a Project for Peace on the Syrian Border


An image of renowned YPJ commander who led the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS,
Rojda Felat . Image copyright Joey L.

A revolution is unfolding in Rojava, in the north-east of Syria. In a region wracked with violence, the Kurdish-left are constructing an anti-capitalist, feminist experiment, with peace as their aim.

By Rachel Evans June, 13, 2019

 ‘Our theory is that of a rose,’ explains Cinar Sali, spokesperson for Movement for a Democratic Society, quoted in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan.  ‘A flower that defends itself. Every being has to create methods of self-defence according to its own way of living, growing and connecting with others. The aim is not to destroy an enemy but to force it to give up its intention to attack, but it works in other ways as well. It is a method of self-empowerment,’ Sali concludes (Knapp.M, Flach.A, Ayboga.E, 2016, 8.3).

Rojava stemmed from Arab Spring protests against Bashar al Assad’s regime that began in 2011. In 2012, armed Kurdish-led forces – the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took advantage of a power vacuum in their region and liberated three cantons (statelets) from Assad’s forces.

Assad’s response to the democracy movement was to wage a bloody war against his population. Over the last eight years, Assad has killed over 400,000 civilians, and forced nine million to flee from their homes.

In the early stages of the war, the barbaric Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploited the chaos and seized one third of Syria.

Amidst the savagery a beacon of hope was built in the poly-ethnic, liberated zones. Rojava ‘the land of the setting sun’ has grown into the General Council of the Self Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria (NES) and encompasses two cantons (Cizire and the Euphrates Region) and civil councils in former ISIL towns of Raqqa, Manbij, Tabqa and Deir al-Zor.

A YPJ fighter with a burnt ISIS flag. Image copyright Joey L.


The Rojava revolution became more widely recognised in September 2014 when Kobane – one of the three liberated cantons was attacked by ISIL –backed by the Turkish government.

Images of the armed women units, the YPJ, reached the establishment press. Even popular women’s magazine Marie Claire covered their defence of the region, battles to free Yazidi women and children from slavery, and their ultimate victory against ISIL.

Rojava’s revolution is led by the Kurdish Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocallan.

The PKK’s approach emphasises three pillars: democratic confederalism. This approach emphasizes building multi-ethnic structures over constructing a Kurdish nation-state. The second bedrock of the Rojava revolution is feminism. Social ecology is their third pillar – influenced by Murray Bookchin and Rachel Carson. 

The Kurds are an oppressed ethnic group living within Turkish, Arabic and Persian regions. British and French imperialists dispossessed the Kurdish people of their land in 1920, through the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Around 30 million Kurds have been forced to live as non-citizens in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. In these four nations the Kurds have been subject to land stealing, assimilation attempts, jailing, torture and murder of democracy and socialist activists. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population within it – making up an estimated 20% of Turkey’s total population.

Amidst a war-ravaged region, the NES defends and extend its political reach by constructing armed defence units and self-governing committees. 

Rojava developed a ‘Charter of Social Contract’. This constitution codifies the NES’s anti-militaristic ethos, stating ‘the Administration of the Democratic Autonomous regions is open to social consensus, democracy and pluralism whereby all ethnic, social, cultural and national formations can express themselves through their own organizations…[and] is committed to national and international peace and respectful of the borders of Syria and of human rights (Amed, 2015, para 5).  

Article 12 confirms Rojava as an integral part of Syria. In September 2018 the DFNS formed the new administration – the General Council of the Self Administration in Northern and Eastern Syria (NES).

NES is now home to around 4.3 million people – the population of the region has doubled as refugees flee the Syrian war into liberated regions.

Liberated civilians celebrating. Image copyright Joey L.

The Kurdish saying, ‘no friends but the mountains’ reflects the desperate reality facing this liberation experiment. Assad’s forces backed by Russia and Iran, is pitted against NES’s expansion. ISIL, backed by Turkey, has hounded the revolutionary forces.

Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan represents a grave threat to the NES. Turkey invaded and occupied Afrin in January-March 2018, killing 500 people, forcing 300,000 to flee. More than 800 Kurdish fighters died trying to save the area (Fredman, 2017, para 5).

Bolstering a self-governing project does not advance imperialisms interests. Hence the United States only proffer ‘tactical and temporary’ assistance for the Rojava project (Hunt, 2019, para 4). Around 2000 U.S troops have been stationed within NES locations, to assist in fighting ISIL (Iddon, 2018). But at the end of 2018, U.S President Donald Trump made the announcement that all American forces will withdraw from the region. The Turkish government announced its intention to ‘launch an assault on the remaining cantons of Rojava a few days shortly after Trumps announcement’ (Rojava Information Centre, para 7).  

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialist powers have invaded, attacked, robbed and blocked democratic change in the oil rich Middle East. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have suffered bombardment, occupations. Millions of people have been killed, countries ruined.

Against this backdrop of imperialism’s wardrive, the collapse of the Arab Spring democracy movements and a revival of brutal jihadist forces, Rojava’s revolution is a beacon of hope.

But this courageous experiment is at a critical juncture. With Afrin lost, Turkey on a war footing, and the US withdrawing their forces, more support is needed. For the future of womens rights, the environment and the movement for a world without war, the defence and expansion of Rojava’s project and vision is critical.

Can the NES survive Turkey’s assault? Will the revolution continue to expand past ISIL-held territory? Can solidarity campaigns help build one, two, three many Rojava’s and amplify this anti-war stronghold? If we organise, and utilise an optimism of the will, we can be confident to rally more friends to bolster this revolution and clear a path through its rocky mountains.

Rachel Evans is a journalist for Green Left Weekly and LINKS: online journal of socialist renewal and a solidarity activist in Australia.

A longer edition of this article first appeared here http://links.org.au/revolutionary-rojava-polyethnic-feminist-anti-capitalist-experiment

Amed.O, 2015, Unfolding revolution in Rojava: Interview with Özgür Amed, journalist and researcher, Links journalist of socialist renewal, http://links.org.au/node/4252

Fredman.N, (2017), Fake news about the Rojava revolution, LINKS Journal of Socialist renewal, March 28, 2017, http://links.org.au/fake-news-rojava-revolution

Hunt.E, 2019, There Is Still Hope for Rojava Kurds have established a democratic state in Syria. Can the United States help it survive? Foreign Policy in Focus, January 7, 2019

Iddon.P, 2018, How long will the United States stay in Rojava?, RUDAW English Analysis, http://www.rudaw.net/english/analysis/18022018

Knapp.M, Flach.A, Ayboga.E, 2016, Revolution in Rojava, Pluto Press, LondonRojava Information Centre, ‘Rojava: a timeline’, https://rojavainformationcenter.com/background/rojava-timeline/

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