|Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria
النظام الاتحادي الديمقراطي لشمال سوريا
Sîstema Federaliya Demokratîka Bakûrê Sûriyê
Under NSR administration (green), claimed (orange)
|Status||De facto autonomous federation of Syria|
|Government||Democratic socialist (Democratic Confederalism)|
• Autonomy proposed
• Autonomy declared
• Regional government established
• Interim constitution adopted
• Federation declared
|17 March 2016|
• 2014 estimate
|4.6 million (half of them internal refugees)|
|Currency||Syrian pound (SYP)|
|Time zone||EET (UTC+2)|
|Drives on the||right|
Rojava (// ROH-zhə-VAH; Kurdish: [roʒɑˈvɑ] "the West") is a de facto autonomous region originating in and consisting of three self-governing cantons in northern Syria, namely Afrin Canton, Jazira Canton and Kobanî Canton, as well as adjacent areas of northern Syria like Shahba region. The region gained its de facto autonomy as part of the ongoing Rojava conflict and the wider Syrian Civil War, establishing and gradually expanding a secular polity based on the Democratic Confederalism principles of democratic socialism, gender equality, and sustainability.
On 17 March 2016, its de facto administration self-declared the establishment of a federal system of government as the Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava (Kurdish: Federasyona Bakurê Sûriyê – Rojava, Arabic: فدرالية شمال سوريا - روجآڤا, commonly abbreviated as NSR). While entertaining some foreign relations, the NSR is not officially recognized as autonomous by the government of Syria or any international state or organization. The protagonists of the NSR consider its constitution a model for a federalized Syria as a whole. The updated December 2016 constitution of the polity uses the name Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria (Kurdish: Sîstema Federaliya Demokratîka Bakûrê Sûriyê, Arabic: النظام الاتحادي الديمقراطي لشمال سوريا).
Also known as Western Kurdistan (Kurdish: Rojavayê Kurdistanê) or Syrian Kurdistan, Rojava is regarded by Kurdish nationalists as one of the four parts of Kurdistan. However, Rojava is polyethnic and home to sizable ethnic Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen populations, with smaller communities of ethnic Armenians, Circassians and Chechens. This diversity is mirrored in its constitution, society and politics.
- 1 Geography
- 2 Historical background
- 3 Politics
- 4 Education, media, culture
- 5 Economy
- 6 Law and security
- 7 Demographics
- 8 External relations
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Rojava lies to the west of the Tigris along the Turkish border. It is composed of three cantons: Jazira, Kobanî, Afrin Canton, as well as the proposed Shahba region. Jazira Canton borders Iraqi Kurdistan to the southeast. Other borders are fluid in the Syrian Civil War. All cantons are at latitude approximately 36 and a half degrees north. They are relatively flat except for the Kurd Mountains in Afrin Canton.
Rojava is part of the Fertile Crescent, and includes archaeological sites dating to the Neolithic, such as Tell Halaf. In antiquity, the area was part of the Mitanni kingdom, its centre being the Khabur river valley in modern-day Jazira Canton. It was then part of Assyria for a long time. The last surviving Assyrian imperial records, from between 604 BC and 599 BC, were found in and around the Assyrian city of Dūr-Katlimmu in what is now Jazira Canton. Later it was ruled by the Achaemenids, Hellenes, Artaxiads, Romans, Parthians, Sasanians, Byzantines and successive Arab Islamic caliphates.
Kurdish settlement in Syria goes back to before the Crusades of the 11th century. A number of Kurdish military and feudal settlements from before this period have been found in Syria. Such settlements have been found in the Alawite and north Lebanese mountains and around Hama and its surroundings. The Crusade fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, which is known in Arabic as Hisn al-Akrad (Castle of the Kurds), was originally a Kurdish military settlement before it was enlarged by the French Crusaders. Similarly, the Kurd-Dagh (Kurdish Mount) has been inhabited by Kurds for more than a millennium.
In the 12th century, Kurdish and other Muslim regiments accompanied Saladin, who was a Kurd from Tikrit, on his conquest of the Middle East and establishment of the Ayyubid dynasty (1171–1341), which was administered from Damascus. The Kurdish regiments that accompanied Saladin established self-ruled areas in and around Damascus. These settlements evolved into the Kurdish sections of Damascus of Hayy al-Akrad (the Kurdish quarter) and the Salhiyya districts located in the north-east of Damasacus on Mount Qasioun. The Kurdish community’s role in the military continued under the Ottomans. Kurdish soldiers and policeman from city were tasked with both maintaining order and protecting the pilgrims’ route toward Mecca. Many Kurds from Syria’s rural hinterland joined the local Janissary corp in Damascus. Later, Kurdish migrants from diverse areas, such as Diyarbakir, Mosul and Kirkuk, also joined these military units which caused an expansion of the Kurdish community in the city.
During the Ottoman Empire (1516–1922), large Kurdish-speaking tribal groups both settled in and were deported to areas of northern Syria from Anatolia. The demographics of this area underwent a huge shift in the early part of the 20th century. Some Circassian, Kurdish and Chechen tribes cooperated with the Ottoman (Turkish) authorities in the massacres of Armenian and Assyrian Christians in Upper Mesopotamia, between 1914 and 1920, with further attacks on unarmed fleeing civilians conducted by local Arab militias. Many Assyrians fled to Syria during the genocide and settled mainly in the Jazira area. Starting in 1926, the region saw another immigration of Kurds following the failure of the Sheikh Said rebellion against the Turkish authorities. While many of the Kurds in Syria have been there for centuries, waves of Kurds fled their homes in Turkey and settled in Syria, where they were granted citizenship by the French mandate authorities. In the 1930s and 1940s, the region saw several failed autonomy movements.
Rule from Damascus
Under Syrian rule, the polyethnic Rojava region suffered from persistent policies of Arab nationalism and attempts at forced Arabization, which were mostly directed against its ethnic Kurdish population. The region received little investment or development from the central government. Laws discriminated against Kurds owning property, driving cars, working in certain professions, and many were stripped of citizenship. Kurds were not allowed to form their own political parties. Property was routinely confiscated by government loansharks. Kurdish language education was forbidden, compromising Kurdish students' education. Hospitals lacked equipment for advanced treatment and instead patients had to be transferred outside Rojava. Numerous place names, which had been known in Kurdish, were Arabized in the 1960s and 1970s. In his report for the 12th session of the UN Human Rights Council titled Persecution and Discrimination against Kurdish Citizens in Syria, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights held that "Successive Syrian governments continued to adopt a policy of ethnic discrimination and national persecution against Kurds, completely depriving them of their national, democratic and human rights – an integral part of human existence. The government imposed ethnically-based programs, regulations and exclusionary measures on various aspects of Kurds’ lives – political, economic, social and cultural."
There have been many instances of the Syrian government arbitrarily depriving ethnic Kurdish citizens of their citizenship. The largest of these instances was a consequence of a census in 1962, which was conducted for exactly this purpose. 120,000 ethnic Kurdish citizens saw their citizenship arbitrarily taken away and became "stateless". While other ethnic minorities in Syria like Armenians, Circassians and Assyrians were permitted to open private schools for the education of their children, Kurds were not. This status was passed to the children of a "stateless" Kurdish father. In 2010, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated the number of such "stateless" Kurdish people in Syria at 300,000.
In 1973, the Syrian authorities confiscated 750 square kilometres (290 square miles) of fertile agricultural land in Al-Hasakah Governorate, which were owned and cultivated by tens of thousands of Kurdish citizens, and gave it to Arab families brought in from other provinces. In 2007 in another such scheme in Al-Hasakah governate, 600 square kilometres (230 square miles) around Al-Malikiyah were granted to Arab families, while tens of thousands of Kurdish inhabitants of the villages concerned were evicted. These and other expropriations of ethnic Kurdish citizens followed a deliberate masterplan, called the "Arab Belt initiative", attempting to depopulate the resource-rich Jazeera of its Kurdish inhabitants and settle Arabs there.
Gaining de facto autonomy
In 2012, in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, Syrian government forces withdrew from three Kurdish enclaves, leaving control to local militias. Existing underground Kurdish political parties, namely the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), joined to form the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC) and established the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia to defend Kurdish-inhabited areas in northern Syria. In July 2012, the YPG established control in the towns of Kobanî, Amuda and Afrin, and the Kurdish Supreme Committee established a joint leadership council to administer the towns. Soon also the cities of Al-Malikiyah, Ras al-Ayn, al-Darbasiyah, and al-Muabbada also came under the control of the People's Protection Units, as well as parts of Hasakah and Qamishli.
The Kurdish Supreme Committee became obsolete in 2013, when the PYD abandoned the coalition with the KNC and adopted the aim of creating a polyethnic and progressive society and polity in a wider Rojava region of northern Syria. The Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) coalition established by the PYD, based on a distinct progressive ideology of grassroots democracy rather than ethnicity, according to Zaher Baher of the Haringey Solidarity Group, has been "the most successful organ" in Rojava because it has the "determination and power" to change things, and because it includes many people who "believe in working voluntarily at all levels of service to make the event/experiment successful". United in the political philosophy of Democratic Confederalism, TEV-DEM established popular assemblies. In January 2014, the three cantons Afrin Canton, Jazira Canton and Kobanî Canton declared their autonomy and the Constitution of Rojava was approved. From September 2014 to spring 2015, the YPG forces in Kobanî Canton fought and finally repelled an assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during the Siege of Kobanî, and in the Tell Abyad offensive of summer of 2015, Jazira Canton and Kobanî Canton were connected.
In December 2015, the Syrian Democratic Council was created. In January/February 2016, the autonomous Shahba region was founded and administrative institutions established as a fourth canton. On 17 March 2016, at a TEV-DEM-organized conference in Rmelan, Syrian Turkmen, Arab, Christian and Kurdish officials declared the establishment the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava in the areas they controlled in Northern Syria. The declaration was quickly denounced by both the Syrian government and the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
In March 2016, Hediya Yousef and Mansur Selum were elected co-chairpersons for the executive committee to organise a constitution for the region, to replace the 2014 constitution. Yousef said the decision to set up a federal government was in large part driven by the expansion of territories captured from Islamic State: "Now, after the liberation of many areas, it requires us to go to a wider and more comprehensive system that can embrace all the developments in the area, that will also give rights to all the groups to represent themselves and to form their own administrations." In July 2016, a draft for the new constitution was presented, taking up the general progressive and democratic confereralist principles of the 2014 constitution, mentioning all ethnic groups living in Rojava, addressing their cultural, political and linguistic rights. The only political camp within Rojava fundamentally opposed were Kurdish nationalists, in particular the KNC, who want to pursue a path towards a nation-state of Kurdistan rather than establishing a polyethnic federation as part of Syria. On 28 December 2016, after a meeting of the 151-member Syrian Democratic Council in Rmelan, a new constitution was resolved; despite the objections of 12 Kurdish parties, the name "Rojava" was officially removed from the full name of the federal region and the region was renamed the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria.
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
The political system of Rojava is based on its constitution, which is called the "Charter of the Social Contract." The constitution was ratified on 9 January 2014; it provides that all Rojava residents shall enjoy a fundamental right of gender equality and freedom of religion. It also provides for property rights.
Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader imprisoned in İmralı, Turkey, is an iconic and popular figure in Rojava whose ideas shaped the region's society and politics. In prison, Öcalan corresponded with (and was influenced by the ideas of) Murray Bookchin, who favored social ecology, direct democracy, and libertarian municipalism (i.e., a confederation of local citizens' assemblies). In March 2005, Öcalan issued his "Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan" based on Bookchin's ideas, calling upon citizens "to stop attacking the government and instead create municipal assemblies, which he called 'democracy without the state.'" Öcalan envisioned these assemblies as forming a pan-Kurdistan confederation, united for purposes of self-defense and with shared values of environmentalism, gender equality, and ethnic, cultural, and religious pluralism. The ideas of Bookchin and Öcalan became established in Rojava, where hundreds of neighborhood-based communes have established across the three Rojava cantons. Rojava has a "co-governance" policy in which each position at each level of government in Rojava includes a "female equivalent of equal authority" to a male. Similarly, the "top three officers of each municipality must include one Arab, one Kurd and one Christian" providing for ethnic balance. Some have compared this to the Lebanese confessionalist system, which is based on that country's major religions. Rojava politics has been described as having "libertarian transnational aspirations" influenced by the PKK's shift toward anarchism, but also includes various "tribal, ethno-sectarian, capitalist and patriarchal structures."
Rojava divides itself for regional administrations into three cantons: Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin. The governance model of Rojava has an emphasis on local management, with democratically elected committees to make decisions. The polyethnic Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the political coalition governing Rojava. It succeeds a brief intermediate period from 2012-2013, when a Kurdish Supreme Committee was established by the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) (the latter a coalition of Kurdish nationalist parties) as the governing body.
Local elections were held in March 2015. The Rojava system of community government is focused on direct democracy. The system has been described as pursuing "a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance", contrasting the local communities taking on responsibility versus the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils. Its programme immediately aimed to be "very inclusive" and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved, including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syrian Turkmen and Yazidis (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups). It sought to "establish a variety of groups, committees and communes on the streets in neighborhoods, villages, counties and small and big towns everywhere". The purpose of these groups was to meet "every week to talk about the problems people face where they live". The representatives of the different community groups meet 'in the main group in the villages or towns called the "House of the People"'. As a September 2015 report in the New York Times observed:
For a former diplomat like me, I found it confusing: I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups. There was none of that stifling obedience to the party, or the obsequious deference to the “big man” — a form of government all too evident just across the borders, in Turkey to the north, and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq to the south. The confident assertiveness of young people was striking.
Article 8 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that "all Cantons in the Autonomous Regions are founded upon the principle of local self-government. Cantons may freely elect their representatives and representative bodies, and may pursue their rights insofar as it does not contravene the articles of the Charter."
In January 2014, the legislative assembly of Afrin Canton elected Hêvî Îbrahîm Mustefa prime minister, who appointed Remzi Şêxmus and Ebdil Hemid Mistefa her deputies, and the legislative assembly of Kobanî Canton elected Enver Müslim prime minister, who appointed Bêrîvan Hesen and Xalid Birgil his deputies. In Jazira Canton, the legislative assembly has elected ethnic Kurd Akram Hesso as prime minister and ethnic Arab Hussein Taza Al Azam and ethnic Assyrian Elizabeth Gawrie as deputy prime ministers.
|Cantons of Rojava||Official name (languages)||Prime Ministers||Deputy Prime Ministers||Governing
|Last election||Next election|
|Afrin Canton||Hêvî Îbrahîm||Remzi Şêxmus
Ebdil Hemid Mistefa
|Jazira Canton||Akram Hesso||Elizabeth Gawrie
Hussein Taza Al Azam
|Kobanî Canton||Enver Muslim||Bêrîvan Hesen
|Shahba region||Ismail Musa||Mohammed Ahmed Khaddro
In December 2015, during a meeting of representatives of North Syria in Al-Malikiyah, the participants decided to establish a Federal Assembly, the Syrian Democratic Assembly to serve as the political representative of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The co-leaders selected to lead the Assembly at its founding, were prominent human rights activist Haytham Manna and TEV-DEM Executive Board member Îlham Ehmed.
On the level of the Rojava federation, Federal Council ministries deal with the economy, agriculture, natural resources, and foreign affairs.
The ministers are appointed by TEV-DEM; general elections were planned to be held before the end of 2014, but this was postponed due to fighting. Among other stipulations outlined is a quota of 40% for women’s participation in government, as well as another quota for youth. In connection with a decision to introduce affirmative action for ethnic minorities, all governmental organizations and offices are based on a co-presidential system.
|Îşûh Gewriyê||Syriac Union Party (SUP)||TEV-DEM||Jazira|
|Meram Dawûd||Honor and Rights Convention||?|
|Rojîn Remo||Yekîtiya Star||TEV-DEM||N/A|
|Hikmet Hebîb||Arab National Coalition||?|
|Cemal Şêx Baqî||Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria (PDK-S)||KNC||?|
|Parêzer Elaaddin El-Xalid||Syrian National Democratic Alliance||Shahba|
|Salih El-Nebwanî||Law–Citizenship–Rights Movement (QMH)||?|
Education, media, culture
Under the rule of the Ba'ath Party, school education consisted of only Arabic language public schools, supplemented by Assyrian private confessional schools. In 2015, the Rojava administration introduced primary education in the native language (either Kurdish or Arabic) and mandatory bilingual education (Kurdish and Arabic) for public schools, with English as a mandatory third language. There are ongoing disagreements and negotiations over curriculums with the Syrian central government, which generally still pays the teachers in public schools. For Assyrian private confessional schools there have been no changes. In August 2016, the Ourhi Centre was founded by the Assyrian community in the city of Qamishli, to educate teachers in order to make Syriac-Aramaic an additional language to be taught in public schools in Jazira Canton, which then started with the 2016/17 academic year. With that academic year, states the Rojava Education Committee, "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Assyrian."
The federal, cantonal and local administrations in Rojava put much emphasis on promoting libraries and educational centers, to facilitate learning and social and artistic activities. Examples are the 2015 established Nahawand Center for Developing Children’s Talents in Amuda or the Rodî û Perwîn Library established in Kobani in May 2016.
While there was no institution of tertiary education on the territory of Rojava at the onset of the Syrian civil war, an increasing number of such institutions have been established by the cantonal administrations in Rojava since the outbreak of the conflict.
- In September 2014, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamishli started classes. More such academies designed under a libertarian socialist academic philosophy and concept were in the process of founding or planning.
- In August 2015, the traditionally-designed University of Afrin in Afrin started teaching, with initial programs in literature, engineering and economics, including institutes for medicine, topographic engineering, music and theater, business administration and the Kurdish language.
- In July 2016, Jazira Canton Board of Education started the University of Rojava in Qamishli, with faculties for Medicine, Engineering, Sciences, and Arts and Humanities. Programs taught include health, oil, computer and agricultural engineering; physics, chemistry, history, psychology, geography, mathematics and primary school teaching and Kurdish literature. Its language of instruction being Kurdish, and having an agreement with Paris 8 University in France for cooperation, the university opened registration for students in the academic year 2016-2017.
- In August 2016 Jazira Canton police forces took control of the remaining parts of Hasakah city, which included the Hasakah campus of Arabic-language Al-Furat University, and with mutual agreement the institution continues to be operated under the authority of the Damascus government Ministry of Higher Education.
Incorporating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as other internationally recognized human rights conventions, the 2014 Constitution of Rojava guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As a result, a diverse media landscape has developed in Rojava, in each of the Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac-Aramaic and Turkish languages of the land, as well as in English, and media outlets frequently use more than one language. Among the most prominent media in Rojava are ANHA and ARA News news agencies and websites as well as TV outlets Rojava Kurdistan TV, Ronahî TV, and the bimonthly magazine Nudem. A landscape of local newspapers and radio stations has developed. However, media agencies often face economic pressure, as was demonstrated by the shutting down of news website Welati in May 2016. Political extremism incited by the context of the Syrian Civil war can put media outlets under pressure, the April 2016 threatening and burning down of the premises of Arta FM ("the first, and only, independent radio station staffed and broadcast by Syrians inside Syria") in Amuda by unidentified assailants being the most prominent example.
International media and journalists operate with few restrictions in Rojava, the only region in Syria where they can operate freely. This has led to a rich trove of international media reporting on Rojava being available, including major TV documentaries like BBC documentary (2014): Rojava: Syria's Secret Revolution or Sky1 documentary (2016): Rojava - the fight against ISIS.
Internet connections in Rojava are usually very slow due to a lack of adequate infrastructure. Internet lines are operated by Syrian Telecom, which as of January 2017 is working on a major extension of the fibre optic cable network in southern Jazira Canton.
The leap in political and societal liberty which occurred with the establishment of Rojava has created a blossoming of artistic expression in the region, in particular with the theme of political and social revolution as well as with respect to Kurdish traditions. The Center of Art and Democratic Culture, located in the al-Jazeera canton, has become a venue for aspiring artists who showcase their work.
Economy policy framework
In 2012, the PYD launched what it originally called the Social Economy Plan, later renamed the People’s Economy Plan (PEP). The PEP's policies are based primarily on the work of Abdullah Öcalan and ultimately seek to move beyond capitalism in favor of Democratic Confederalism. Private property and entrepreneurship are protected under the principle of "ownership by use", although accountable to the democratic will of locally organized councils. Dr. Dara Kurdaxi, a Rojavan economist, has said that: "The method in Rojava is not so much against private property, but rather has the goal of putting private property in the service of all the peoples who live in Rojava."
Rojava's private sector is comparatively small, with the focus being on expanding social ownership of production and management of resources through communes and collectives. Several hundred instances of collective farming have occurred across towns and villages in all three cantons, with each commune consisting of approximately 20–35 people. According to the Ministry of Economics, approximately three quarters of all property has been placed under community ownership and a third of production has been transferred to direct management by workers' councils.
There are no direct or indirect taxes on people or businesses in Rojava, the administration raises money through tariffs and through selling oil and other natural resources. In May 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that traders in Syria experience Rojava as "the one place where they aren’t forced to pay bribes.".
General development assessments
The Assad government had deliberately left the Rojava region underdeveloped, mainly in order to cause Kurds to migrate to cities outside the region where Arabization was easier to accomplish. During the Syrian Civil War, the infrastructure of Rojava has on average experienced less destruction than other parts of Syria, and masters the challenges of the circumstances comparatively well. In May 2016, Ahmed Yousef, head of the Economic Body and chairman of Afrin University, estimated that at the time, the Rojava region's economic output (including agriculture, industry and oil) accounted for about 55% of Syria's gross domestic product.
Economies of the cantons
A diverse agricultural production is the economic backbone of all Rojava cantons. Afrin Canton has a traditional specialisation on olive oil including Aleppo soap made from it, and has drawn much industrial production from the nearby city of Aleppo due to longstanding civil war fighting in that city. Jazira Canton is a major wheat and cotton producer and has a considerable oil industry. Kobanî Canton suffered most destruction of the three cantons and has huge challenges in reconstruction, and has recently seen greenhouse agriculture spreading.
Investment in public infrastructure is a priority of the canton administrations.
External economic relations
Oil and food production exceeds demand so exports include oil and agricultural products such as sheep, grain and cotton. Imports include consumer goods and auto parts. The border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan is intermittently closed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) side, it was opened again on June 10, 2016. Turkey does not allow businesspeople or goods to cross its border  although Rojava would like the border to be opened. Trade as well as access to both humanitarian and military aid is difficult as Rojava remains under a blockade by Turkey.
The economic blockade of Rojava from the adjacent territories controlled by Turkey and ISIL, and partially also the KRG, results in a distortion of relative prices (in particular in Jazira Canton and Kobanî Canton, while separate Afrin Canton also meets Syrian government controlled territory); for example in Jazira Canton and Kobanî Canton, petrol costs only half as much as bottled water.
Law and security
The legal system
The civil laws of Syria are valid in Rojava, as long as they do not conflict with the Constitution of Rojava. One notable example for amendment is personal status law, which in Syria is still based on Sharia and applied by Sharia Courts, where strictly secular Rojava proclaims absolute equality of women under the law and a ban on forced marriage as well as polygamy was introduced, while underage marriage was outlawed as well. For the first time in Syrian history, civil marriage is being allowed and promoted, a significant move towards a secular open society and intermarriage between people of different religious backgrounds.
A new criminal justice approach has been implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution. The death penalty has been abolished. Prisons are housing mostly those charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups. A September 2015 report of Amnesty International noted that 400 people were incarcerated, which based on a population of 4.6 million makes an imprisonment rate of 8.7 people per 100,000, compared to 60.0 people per 100,000 in Syria as a whole, and the second lowest rate in the world after San Marino. However, the report also noted some deficiencies in due process.
The new justice systems in Rojava reflects the revolutionary concept of Democratic Confederalism. At the local level, citizens create Peace and Consensus Committees, which make group decisions on minor criminal cases and disputes as well as in separate committees resolve issues of specific concern to women's rights like domestic violence and marriage. At the regional level, citizens (who are not required to be trained jurists) are elected by the regional People's Councils to serve on seven-member People's Courts. At the next level are four Appeals Courts, composed of trained jurists. The court of last resort is the Regional Court, which serves Rojava as a whole. Distinct and separate from this system, the Constitutional Court renders decisions on compatibility of acts of government and legal proceedings with the constitution of Rojava (called the Social Contract).
Policing and security forces
The police function in Rojava cantons is performed by the Asayish armed formation. Asayish was established on July 25, 2013 in order to fill the gap of security when the Syrian security forces withdrew and the Rojava revolution began. Under the Constitution of Rojava, policing is a competence of the cantons. Overall, the Asayish forces of the cantons are composed of 26 official bureaus that aim to provide security and solutions to social problems. The six main units of Rojava Asayish are Checkpoints Administration, Anti-Terror Forces Command (HAT), Intelligence Directorate, Organized Crime Directorate, Traffic Directorate and Treasury Directorate. 218 Asayish centers were established and 385 checkpoints with 10 Asayish members in each checkpoint were set up. 105 Asayish offices provide security against ISIL on the frontlines across Rojava. Larger cities have general directorates that are responsible for all aspects of security including road controls. Each Rojava canton has a HAT command and each Asayish center organizes itself autonomously.
Throughout Rojava, the municipal Civilian Defense Forces (HPC) and the cantonal Self-Defense Forces (HXP) also serve local-level security. In Jazeera Canton, the Asayish are further complemented by the Assyrian Sutoro police force, which is organized in every area with Assyrian population, provides security and solutions to social problems in collaboration with other Asayish units. The Khabour Guards also have a presence in the area, providing security in towns along the Khabur River.
All police force is trained in non-violent conflict resolution as well as feminist theory before being allowed access to a weapon. Directors of the Asayish police academy have said that the long-term goal is to give all citizens six weeks of police training before ultimately eliminating the police.
Rojava's most important defence militia is the People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG). The YPG was founded by the PYD party after the 2004 Qamishli clashes, but it was not active until the Syrian civil war. It is under the control of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). Another militia closely related to Rojava is the Syriac Military Council (MFS), an Assyrian militia associated with the Syriac Union Party. The YPG, the MFS, and all other militias in Rojava, like the Army of Revolutionaries with many subsidiary groups or the Al-Sanadid Forces, are under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The same is true for the municipal military councils which have been established in Shahba region, like the Manbij Military Council, the Al-Bab Military Council or the Jarablus Military Council.
The Self-Defence Forces (HXP) is a multi-ethnic territorial defense militia and the only conscript armed force in Rojava. HXP is locally recruited to garrison their municipal area and is under the responsibility and command of the respective cantons of Rojava. Occasionally HYP units have supported the YPG, and SDF in general, during combat operations against ISIL outside of their own municipality and canton.
Human rights issues
In the course of the Syrian Civil War, accusations of alleged war crimes have also been leveled against Rojava associated militias, in particular members of the People's Protection Units (YPG), including 2014 and 2015 reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, both of which operate freely in Rojava. Accusations have been comprehensively debated and contested by both the YPG and other human rights organizations. YPG members since September 2015 receive human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations.
The Rojava civil government has been hailed in international media for human rights advancement in particular in the legal system, concerning women's rights, concerning ethnic minority rights, with respect to freedom of Speech and Press and for hosting inbound refugees. The political agenda of "trying to break the honor-based religious and tribal rules that confine women" is controversial in conservative quarters of society. Enforcing conscription into the Self-Defence Forces (HXP) has been called a human rights violation from the perspective of those who consider the Rojava institutions illegitimate.
Some persistent issues under the Rojava administration concern ethnic minority rights. One issue of contention is the consequence of the Baathist Syrian government's settling of Arab tribal settlers, expropriated for the purpose from its previous Kurdish owners in 1973 and 2007, There are persistent calls to expel the settlers and return the land to their previous Kurdish owners among the Kurdish population of the region, which have led the political leadership of the Rojava Federation to press the Syrian government for a comprehensive solution.
The demographics of the region has historically been highly diverse. One major shift in modern times was in the early part of the 20th century due to the Assyrian and Armenian Genocides, when many Assyrians and Armenians fled to Syria from Turkey. This was followed by many Kurds fleeing Turkey in the aftermath of Sheikh Said rebellion. Another major shift in modern times was the Baath policy of settling additional Arab tribes in Rojava. Most recently, during the Syrian Civil War, Rojava’s population has more than doubled to about 4.6 million. Among the newcomers are Syrians of all ethnicities who have fled from violence taking place in other parts of Syria. Many ethnic Arab citizens from Iraq have fled to Rojava as well.
Two ethnic groups have a significant presence throughout Rojava:
- Kurds are an ethnic group living in northeastern and northwestern Syria, culturally and linguistically classified among the Iranian peoples. Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the ancient Iranian people of the Medes, using a calendar dating from 612 B.C., when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. Kurds formed 55% of the 2010 population of what now is both Jazira canton and Kobani canton. During the Syrian civil war, many Kurds who had lived elswhere in Syria fled back to their traditional lands in Rojava.
- Arabs are a panethnicity living throughout Rojava, mainly defined by Arabic as their first language. They encompass bedouin tribes who trace their ancestry to the Arabian Peninsula as well as Arabized indigenous peoples. Arabs form the majority or plurality in some parts of Rojava, in particular in the southern parts of the Jazira Canton, in Tell Abyad District and in Azaz District. While in Shahba region the term Arab is mainly used to denote Arabized Syrians, in Kobanî Canton and in Jazira Canton it mainly denotes ethnic Arab bedouin population.
Two ethnic groups have a significant presence in certain cantons of Rojava:
- Assyrians are an ethnoreligious group. Their presence in Syria is in Jazira Canton of Rojava, particularly in the urban areas (Qamishli, al-Hasakah, Ras al-Ayn), in the northeastern corner and in villages along the Khabur River in the Tell Tamer area. They traditionally speak varieties of Syriac-Aramaic. There are many Assyrians among recent refugees to Rojava, fleeing Islamist violence elsewhere in Syria back to their traditional lands. In the secular polyethnic political climate of Rojava, the Dawronoye modernization movement has a growing influence on Assyrian identity in the 21st century.
- Turkmen are an ethnic group with a major presence in Shahba region, where they form regional majorities in the countryside from Azaz and Mare' to Jarabulus, and a minor presence in Afrin Canton and Kobanî Canton.
- Yazidis are an ethnoreligious group with a presence in Kobanî Canton, Afrin Canton (Aleppo Governorate) and Jazira Canton (Al-Jazira Province).
Four languages from three different language families are spoken in Rojava:
- Kurdish (in Northern Kurdish dialect), a Northwestern Iranian language from the family of Indo-European languages
- Arabic (in North Mesopotamian Arabic dialect, in writing Modern Standard Arabic), a Central Semitic language from the family of Semitic languages
- Syriac-Aramaic in the Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Chaldean Neo-Aramaic and Turoyo variety, Northwest Semitic languages from the family of Semitic languages
- Turkish (in Syrian Turkmen dialect), from the family of Turkic languages
For these four languages, three different scripts are in use in Rojava:
- The Latin alphabet for Kurdish and Turkish
- The Arabic alphabet (abjad) for Arabic
- The Syriac alphabet for Syriac-Aramaic
Most ethnic Kurdish and Arab people in Rojava adhere to Sunni Islam, while ethnic Assyrian people generally are Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic or Syriac Catholic Christians. There are also adherents to other faiths, such as Zoroastrianism and Yazidism. Many people in Rojava support secularism and laicism. The dominant PYD party and the political administration in Rojava are decidedly secular and laicist and contrary to most of the Middle East, religion is no marker of socio-political identity.
This list includes all cities and towns administered under the Rojava framework with more than 10,000 inhabitants. The population figures are given according to the 2004 Syrian census. Cities highlighted in white are fully under the control of Rojava. Cities highlighted in light grey are partially controlled by Rojava and partially controlled by the Syrian government. Cities in boldface are capitals of their respective cantons.
|English Name||Kurdish Name||Arabic Name||Syriac Name||Turkish Name||Population||Canton|
|Kobani||Kobanî||عين العرب||Arappınar||44,821||Kobani Canton|
|Ras al-Ayn||Serêkaniyê||رأس العين||ܪܝܫ ܥܝܢܐ||Resülayn||29,347||Jazira Canton|
|Al-Malikiyah||Dêrika Hemko||المالكية||ܕܪܝܟ||Deyrik||26,311||Jazira Canton|
|Tell Rifaat||Arpêt||تل رفعت||Tel Rıfat||20,514||Shahba region|
|Al-Qahtaniyah||Tirbespî||القحطانية||ܩܒܪ̈ܐ ܚܘܪ̈ܐ||Kubur el Bid||16,946||Jazira Canton|
|Al-Muabbada||Girkê Legê||المعبدة||Muabbada||15,759||Jazira Canton|
|Tell Abyad||Girê Spî||تل أبيض||Tel Abyad||14,825||Kobani Canton|
|Al-Sabaa wa Arbain||السبعة وأربعين||El Seba ve Arbayn||14,177||Jazira Canton|
Relations with the Syrian government
For the time being, the relations of Rojava to the state of Syria are determined by the context of the Syrian civil war. As for the time being, the Constitution of Syria and the Constitution of Rojava are legally incompatible with respect to legislative and executive authority. Practical interaction is pragmatic ad hoc. In the military realm, combat between the Rojava People's Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian government forces has been rare, in the most notable instances some of the territory still controlled by the Syrian government in Qamishli and al-Hasakah has been lost to the YPG. In some military campaigns, in particular in northern Aleppo governate and in al-Hasakah, there has been a tacit cooperation between the YPG and Syrian government forces against Islamist forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and others.
The Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava is not drafted as an ethnic Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future polyethnic, decentralised and democratic Syria. Rojava is the birthplace and main sponsor of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian Democratic Council, a military and a political umbrella organisation, with the agenda of implementing a secular, democratic and federalist system for all of Syria. In July 2016, Constituent Assembly co-chair Hediya Yousef formulated Rojava's approach towards Syria as follows:
We believe that a federal system is ideal form of governance for Syria. We see that in many parts of the world, a federal framework enables people to live peacefully and freely within territorial borders. The people of Syria can also live freely in Syria. We will not allow for Syria to be divided; all we want is the democratization of Syria; its citizens must live in peace, and enjoy and cherish the ethnic diversity of the national groups inhabiting the country.
In March 2015, the Syrian Information Minister announced that his government considered recognizing the Kurdish autonomy "within the law and constitution." While the Rojava administration is not invited to the Geneva III peace talks on Syria, or any of the earlier talks, in particular Russia, which calls for their inclusion, does to some degree carry their positions into the talks, as documented in Russia's May 2016 draft for a new constitution for Syria. In October 2016, a Russian initiative for federalization with a focus on northern Syria was reported, which at its core called to turn the existing institutions of the Federation of Northern Syria - Rojava into legitimate institutions of Syria; also reported was its rejection for the time being by the Syrian government. The Damascus ruling elite is split over the question whether the new model in Rojava can work in parallel and converge with the Syrian government, for the benefit of both, or if the agenda should be to centralize again all power at the end of the civil war, necessitating preparation for ultimate confrontation with the Rojava institutions.
Rojava as a transnational topic
The socio-political transformations of the "Rojava revolution" have inspired much attention in international media, both in mainstream media and in dedicated progressive leftist media. The narrative was first established with an October 2014 piece by David Graeber in The Guardian:
The autonomous region of Rojava, as it exists today, is one of few bright spots – albeit a very bright one – to emerge from the tragedy of the Syrian revolution. Having driven out agents of the Assad regime in 2011, and despite the hostility of almost all of its neighbours, Rojava has not only maintained its independence, but is a remarkable democratic experiment. Popular assemblies have been created as the ultimate decision-making bodies, councils selected with careful ethnic balance (in each municipality, for instance, the top three officers have to include one Kurd, one Arab and one Assyrian or Armenian Christian, and at least one of the three has to be a woman), there are women's and youth councils, and, in a remarkable echo of the armed Mujeres Libres (Free Women) of Spain, a feminist army, the "YJA Star" militia (the "Union of Free Women", the star here referring to the ancient Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar), that has carried out a large proportion of the combat operations against the forces of Islamic State.
The "Rojava revolution" in its diverse aspects is a hotly debated topic in libertarian socialist and communalist as well as generally anti-capitalist circles worldwide.[note 1]
Rojava's dominant political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is a member organisation of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) organisation. As KCK member organisations in the neighbouring states with autochthonous Kurdish minorities are either outlawed (Turkey, Iran) or politically marginal with respect to other Kurdish parties (Iraq), PYD-governed Rojava has acquired the role of a model for the KCK political agenda and blueprint in general.
There is much sympathy for Rojava in particular among Kurds in Turkey. During the Siege of Kobanî, a large number of ethnic Kurdish citizens of Turkey crossed the border and volunteered in the defence of the town. Some of these upon their return to Turkey took up arms in the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, where skills acquired by them during combat in Kobanî brought a new quality of urban warfare to the conflict in Turkey.
The relationship of Rojava with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is complicated. One context being that the governing party there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), views itself and its affiliated Kurdish parties in other countries as a more conservative and nationalist alternative and competitor to the KCK political agenda and blueprint in general. The "Sultanistic system" of Iraqi Kurdistan stands in stark contrast to the Democratic Confederalist system of Rojava.
Like the KCK umbrella in general, and even more so, the PYD attempts to denounce the ideology of nationalism, including Kurdish nationalism. They stand in stark contrast to Kurdish nationalist visions of the Iraqi Kurdish KDP sponsored Kurdish National Council in Syria.
Rojava's most notable role in the international arena is comprehensive military cooperation of its militias under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) umbrella with the United States and the international (US-led) coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. In a public statement in March 2016, the day after the declaration of the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter praised the Rojava People's Protection Units (YPG) militia as having "proven to be excellent partners of ours on the ground in fighting ISIL. We are grateful for that, and we intend to continue to do that, recognizing the complexities of their regional role." Late October 2016, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of the international Anti-ISIL-coalition, said that the SDF would lead the impending assault on ARaqqa, ISIL's stronghold and capital, and that SDF commanders would plan the operation with advice from American and coalition troops. However, on 7 November 2016, when asked about the federalization of Syria, Mark C. Toner, the Deputy Spokesperson for the Department of State, said "We don’t want to see any kind of ad hoc federalism or federalist system arise. We don’t want to see semi-autonomous zones. The reality is, though, as territory is liberated from Daesh, you got to get some kind of governance back into these areas, but by no means are we condoning or – any kind of, as I said, ad hoc semi-autonomous areas in northern Syria".
In the diplomatic field, Rojava lacks any formal recognition. While there is comprehensive activity of reception of Rojava representatives and appreciation with a broad range of countries, only Russia has on occasion openly and boldly supported Rojava's political ambition of Federalization of Syria in the international arena. After peace talks between Syrian civil war parties in Astana in January 2017, Russia offered a draft for a future constitution of Syria, which would inter alia turn the "Syrian Arab Republic" into the "Republic of Syria", introduce decentralized authorities as well as elements of federalism like "association areas", strengthen the parliament at the cost of the presidency, and realize secularism by abolishing Islamic jurisprudence as a source of legislation. However, the Federation of Northern Syria – Rojava over the course of 2016 opened official representation offices in Moscow, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, and The Hague. The YPG militia has an official representation in Prague. A broad range of public voices in the U.S. and Europe have called for more formal recognition of Rojava. Notable international cooperation has been in the field of educational and cultural institutions, like the cooperation agreement of Paris 8 University with the newly founded University of Rojava in Qamishli, or planning for a French cultural centre in Amuda.
Neighbouring Turkey is persistently hostile, because it feels threatened by Rojava's emergence encouraging activism for autonomy among Kurds in Turkey and the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, and in this context in particular Rojava's leading Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the YPG militia being members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) network of organisations, which also includes both political and militant assertively Kurdish organizations in Turkey itself, including the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey's policy towards Rojava is based on an economic blockade, persistent attempts of international isolation, opposition to the cooperation between the American-led anti-ISIL coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces, and support of Islamist opposition fighters hostile towards Rojava, including ISIL. Turkey has on several occasions attacked Rojava territory and defence forces using military means. The latter has resulted in some of the most clearcut instances of international solidarity with Rojava.
- Syrian Democratic Council
- Executive Council (Rojava)
- Syrian Democratic Forces
- Human rights in Rojava
- Foreign relations of Rojava
- Iranian Kurdistan
- Iraqi Kurdistan
- Turkish Kurdistan
- Diverse aspects of the Rojava revolution have led some anti-capitalists to criticise the revolution for not going far enough e.g., 'Anarchist Federation statement on the Rojava revolution'; Gilles Dauve, 'Rojava: reality and rhetoric'; Alex de Jong, 'Stalinist caterpillar into libertarian butterfly? - the evolving ideology of the PKK'; Anti-war, '‘I have seen the future and it works.’ – Critical questions for supporters of the Rojava revolution', 'The grim reality of the Rojava Revolution - from an anarchist eyewitness' and Devrim Valerian, 'The bloodbath in Syria: class war or ethnic war?'. Other anti-capitalists have been significantly less critical e.g. David Graeber, 'No. This is a Genuine Revolution'; Janet Biehl, 'Poor in means but rich in spirit', 'From Germany to Bakur' and the Kurdistan Anarchist Forum.
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