Democratic Federation of Northern Syria
|Democratic Federation of Northern Syria|
Areas under DFNS administration
|Status||De facto autonomous region of Syria|
|Demonym||Northern Syrian, Rojavan|
|Government||Libertarian socialist federated semi-direct democracy|
|Legislature||Syrian Democratic Council|
• Autonomy declared and interim constitution adopted
• Federation declared
|17 March 2016|
|50,000 km2 (19,000 sq mi)[b]|
• 2018 estimate
|Currency||Syrian pound (SYP)|
|Time zone||UTC+2 (EET)|
The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), formerly and still commonly known as Rojava, is a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria. It consists of three self-governing regions: Afrin Region, Jazira Region, and Euphrates Region. The region gained its de facto autonomy in 2012 as part of the ongoing Rojava conflict and the wider Syrian Civil War. While entertaining some foreign relations, the DFNS is not officially recognized as autonomous by the government of Syria or any international state or organization.
Northern Syria is polyethnic and home to sizeable ethnic Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian-Syriac, and Turkmen populations; with smaller communities of ethnic Armenians and Chechens. Parts of northeastern Syria are regarded by Kurdish nationalists as Western Kurdistan (Kurdish: Rojavayê Kurdistanê), one of the four parts of Greater Kurdistan. Much of Northern Syria is also considered by Syriac-Assyrians as Gozarto (meaning Upper Mesopotamia), part of the historical Syriac-Assyrian homeland.
The supporters of the region argue that it is an officially secular polity based on a libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equality, environmental sustainability and pluralistic tolerance for religious, cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, claiming it to be a model for a federalized Syria as a whole, rather than outright independence.
Some of the criticism against the region has included claims of authoritarianism, kurdification, forced recruitment, the imprisonment of dissidents and journalists, and the promotion of a radical anti-capitalist ideology rooted in anarcho-communism.
- 1 Polity names and translations
- 2 Geography
- 3 Historical background
- 4 Politics
- 5 Education, media, and culture
- 6 Economy
- 7 Law and security
- 8 Demographics
- 9 External relations
- 10 Environmentalism
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Polity names and translations
On 17 March 2016, its de facto administration self-declared the establishment of a federal system of government as the Democratic Federation of Rojava – Northern Syria (Kurdish: Federaliya Demokratîk a Rojava – Bakurê Sûriyê; Arabic: الفدرالية الديمقراطية لروج آفا – شمال سوريا, translit. al-Fidirāliyya al-Dīmuqrāṭiyya li-Rūj ʾĀvā – Šamāl Suriyā; Classical Syriac: ܦܕܪܐܠܝܘܬ݂ܐ ܕܝܡܩܪܐܛܝܬܐ ܠܓܙܪܬܐ ܒܓܪܒܝܐ ܕܣܘܪܝܐ, translit. Federaloyotho Demoqraṭoyto l'Gozarto b'Garbyo d'Suriya; sometimes abbreviated as NSR).
The updated December 2016 constitution of the polity uses the name Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (Kurdish: Federaliya Demokratîk a Bakûrê Sûriyê; Arabic: الفدرالية الديمقراطية لشمال سوريا, translit. al-Fidirāliyya al-Dīmuqrāṭiyya li-Šamāl Suriyā; Classical Syriac: ܦܕܪܐܠܝܘܬ݂ܐ ܕܝܡܩܪܐܛܝܬܐ ܕܓܪܒܝ ܣܘܪܝܐ, translit. Federaloyotho Demoqraṭoyto d'Garbay Suriya).
The DFNS lies to the west of the Tigris along the Turkish border. It is composed of three regions: Jazira, Euphrates and Afrin Region. Jazira Region borders Iraqi Kurdistan to the southeast. Other borders are fluid in the Syrian Civil War. All regions are at latitude approximately 36°30' north. They are relatively flat except for the Kurd Mountains in Afrin Region.
In terms of governorates of Syria, the DFNS is formed from most of al-Hasakah Governorate, the northern parts of Raqqa Governorate, the northwestern parts of the Deir ez-Zor Governorate and the northwestern and northeastern Aleppo Governorate.
Northern Syria 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 Region. It was then part of Assyria, with the last surviving Assyrian imperial records, from between 604 BC and 599 BC, were found in and around the Assyrian city of Dūr-Katlimmu. 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 policemen 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, policies of Arab nationalism and attempts at forced Arabization have been widespread in Northern Syria, to a large part directed against the Kurdish population. The region received little investment or development from the central government and laws discriminated against Kurds owning property, driving cars, working in certain professions and forming 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 the region. Numerous place names 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."
In many instances, the Syrian government arbitrarily deprived ethnic Kurdish citizens of their citizenship. The largest such instance 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. Kurdish private schools were banned. 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 was owned and cultivated by tens of thousands of Kurdish citizens, and gave it to Arab families brought in from other provinces. In 2007, in the Al-Hasakah Governorate, 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 was part of the so-called "Arab Belt initiative" which aimed to change the demographic fabric of the resource-rich region.
Gaining de facto autonomy
In 2012, in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War, Syrian government forces withdrew from three mainly Kurdish areas, 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 the People's Protection Units (YPG) militia was established 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 YPG also gained control of the cities of Al-Malikiyah, Ras al-Ayn, al-Darbasiyah, and al-Muabbada and parts of Hasakah and Qamishli.
The Kurdish Supreme Committee was dissolved in 2013, when the PYD abandoned the coalition with the KNC and established the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) coalition. In January 2014, three areas under TEV-DEM rule declared their autonomy as cantons (Now Afrin Region, Jazira Region and Euphrates Region) and an interim constitution was approved. From September 2014 to spring 2015, the YPG forces in Kobanî Canton, supported by some secular Free Syrian Army militias and leftist international and Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) volunteers, fought and finally repelled an assault by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during the Siege of Kobanî, and in the YPG's Tell Abyad offensive of summer of 2015, the regions of Jazira and Kobanî were connected.
In December 2015, the Syrian Democratic Council was created. On 17 March 2016, at a TEV-DEM-organized conference in Rmelan the establishment the Democratic Federation of Rojava – Northern Syria was declared 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, based on the principles of the 2014 constitution, mentioning all ethnic groups living in Northern Syria and addressing their cultural, political and linguistic rights. The main political opposition to the constitution have been Kurdish nationalists, in particular the KNC, who have differening ideological aspirations than the TEV-DEM coalition. On 28 December 2016, after a meeting of the 151-member Syrian Democratic Council in Rmelan, a new constitution was resolved; despite objections by 12 Kurdish parties, the region was renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, removing the name "Rojava".
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politics and government of
Democratic Federation of Northern Syria
The political system of the DFNS 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 residents of the region shall enjoy fundamental rights such as gender equality and freedom of religion. It also provides for property rights.
Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader imprisoned in İmralı, Turkey, has become an iconic figure in the region whose libertarian socialist ideology has shaped the region's society and politics through the ruling TEV-DEM coalition. Öcalan has envisioned municipal assemblies 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. Hundreds of neighborhood-based communes with aspirations towards this ideological vision have been established in the region. The DFNS has a "co-governance" policy in which each position at each level of government in the DFNS includes a "female equivalent of equal authority" to a male. Similarly, there is an aspiration for equal political representation of all ethno-religious components – Arabs, Kurds and Syriac-Assyrians being the most sizeable ones. Some have compared this to the Lebanese confessionalist system, which is based on that country's major religions. The politics of the region 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."
The DFNS is divided into three administrative regions: Jazira, Euphrates, and Afrin. The governance model of the DFNS has an emphasis on local management, with democratically elected committees to make decisions. The TEV-DEM coalition, led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is the political coalition governing the DFNS. 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) as the governing body. There are also governor/president positions, with Hediye Yusuf and Humaydi Daham al-Hadi being co-governors of Jazira Region.
On 6 September 2018, a new administration, titled 'Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria' was announced, linking all of the self-administrations in the DFNS regions with the non-DFNS civil councils.
Local elections were held in March 2015. The DFNS system of community government has direct democratic aspirations. Its programme aimed to be inclusive towards all the ethnoreligious groups of the region, including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Syrian Turkmen and Yazidis. 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.
The first communal elections in the DFNS under the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria system were held on 22 September 2017. 12,421 candidates competed for around 3,700 communal positions during the elections, which were organized by the DFNS High Electoral Commission.
Article 8 of the 2014 constitution stipulates that "all Cantons in the Autonomous Regions are founded on 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.
The three cantons were later reorganized into three regions with subordinate cantons/provinces, areas, districts and communes. Elections for the local councils of the Jazira Region, Euphrates Region and Afrin Region were held in December 2017.
|Regions of Rojava||Official name (languages)||Prime Ministers||Deputy Prime Ministers||Governing
|Last election||Next election|
|Jazira Region||Akram Hesso||Elizabeth Gawrie
Hussein Taza Al Azam
|Euphrates Region||Enver Muslim||Bêrîvan Hesen
|Afrin Region||Hêvî Îbrahîm||Remzi Şêxmus
Ebdil Hemid Mistefa
On 6 September 2018, during a meeting of the Syrian Democratic Council in Ayn Issa, a new administrative structure, titled the "Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria" was announced, linking the regions of the DFNS (Euphrates, Afrin, and Jazira) with the local civil councils in the regions of Raqqa, Manbij, Tabqa, and Deir ez-Zor. During the meeting, a 70-member "General Council for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria" was formed.
|Region||Council||Official name (languages)||Affiliated Military/Police Force|
|Raqqa||Raqqa Civil Council||Raqqa Internal Security Forces|
|Tabqa||Tabqa Civil Council||Raqqa Internal Security Forces|
|Manbij||Manbij Civil Council||Manbij Military Council/Manbij Internal Security Forces|
|Deir ez-Zor||Deir ez-Zor Civil Council||Deir ez-Zor Military Council|
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In December 2015, during a meeting of representatives of North Syria in Al-Malikiyah, the Syrian Democratic Assembly was established 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. The SDC appoints a Federal Council which deal with the economy, agriculture, natural resources, and foreign affairs. General elections were planned for 2014 and 2018, but this was postponed due to fighting. Among other stipulations outlined is a quota of 40% for women’s participation in government, and 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.
Education, media, and 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 DFNS 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.
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 in public schools in Jazira Region, which then started in the 2016/17 academic year. According to the DFNS Education Committee, in 2016/2017 "three curriculums have replaced the old one, to include teaching in three languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac." In August 2017 Galenos Yousef Issa of the Ourhi Centre announced that the Syriac curriculum would be expanded to grade 6, which earlier had been limited to grade 3, with teachers being assigned to Syriac schools in Al-Hasakah, Al-Qahtaniyah and Al-Malikiyah. At the start of the academic year 2018-2019, the curricula in Kurdish and Arabic had been expanded to grades 1-12 and Syriac to grades 1-9. "Jineology" classes had also been introduced.
The federal, regional and local administrations in the DFNS put much emphasis on promoting libraries and educational centers, to facilitate learning and social and artistic activities. Examples are the Nahawand Center for Developing Children’s Talents in Amuda (est. 2015) and the Rodî û Perwîn Library in Kobani (May 2016).
For Syriac-Assyrian private confessional schools there had at first been no changes. However, in August 2018 it was reported that the DFNS authorities was trying to implement the DFNS Syriac curriculum in private Christian schools that have been continuing to use an Arabic curriculum with limited Syriac classes approved by the Assad regime and originally developed by Syrian Education Ministry in cooperation with Christian clergy in the 1950s. The threatening of the closure of schools not complying with this resulted in protests erupting in Qamishli. A deal was later reached in September 2018 between the DFNS authorities and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric, where the two first grades in these schools would learn the DFNS Syriac curriculum and grades three to six would continue to learn the Damascus approved curriculum.
While there was no institution of tertiary education on the territory of the DFNS at the onset of the Syrian Civil War, an increasing number of such institutions have been established by the regional administrations in the DFNS since.
- In September 2014, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamishli started classes. More such academies designed under a libertarian socialist academic philosophy and concept are 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 is Kurdish, and with 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 the Arabic-language Al-Furat University, and with mutual agreement the institution continues to be operated under the authority of the Damascus government's 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 the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. As a result, a diverse media landscape has developed in the DFNS, 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 the DFNS are Hawar News Agency 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 closure of news website Welati in May 2016. Political extremism in the context of the Syrian Civil War can put media outlets under pressure; for example in April 2016 the premises of Arta FM ("the first, and only, independent radio station staffed and broadcast by Syrians inside Syria") in Amuda was threatened and burned down by unidentified assailants. During the Turkish military operation in Afrin, the KDP-affiliated Iraqi Kurdish Rudaw Media Network was also banned from reporting in the region.
International media and journalists operate with few restrictions in the DFNS, one of the only regions in Syria where they can operate with some degree of freedom. This has led to several international media reports regarding the region, 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 the DFNS are often slow due to inadequate 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 Region.
After the establishment of the de facto autonomous region, the Center of Art and Democratic Culture, located in Jazira Region, has become a venue for aspiring artists who showcase their work. Among major cultural events in the region is the annual Festival of Theater in March/April as well as the Rojava Short Story Festival in June, both in the city of Qamishli, and the Afrin Short Film Festival in April.
Economy policy framework
The DFNS pursues a model of economy that blends co-operative and private enterprise. In 2012, the PYD launched what it called the Social Economy Plan, later renamed the People's Economy Plan (PEP). PEP's policies are based primarily on the libertarian socialist ideology of Abdullah Öcalan. Private property and entrepreneurship are protected under the principle of "ownership by use". Dr. Dara Kurdaxi, a DFNS official, has stated: "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."
There were at first no direct or indirect taxes on people or businesses in the DFNS; the administration raises money through tariffs and through selling oil and other natural resources. However in July 2017, it was reported that the administration in the Jazira Region had started to collect income tax to provide for public services in the region. In May 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported that traders in Syria experience the DFNS as "the one place where they aren't forced to pay bribes."
Communes and co-operatives have been established to provide essentials. Co-operatives account for a large proportion of agricultural production and are active in construction, factories, energy production, livestock, pistachio and roasted seeds, and public markets. Several hundred instances of collective farming have occurred across towns and villages in the region, with communes consisting of approximately 20–35 people. According to the DFNS "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.
The Jazira Region is a major wheat and cotton producer and has a considerable oil industry. The Euphrates Region suffered most destruction of the three regions and has huge challenges in reconstruction, and has recently seen some greenhouse agriculture construction. The Afrin Region have had a traditional specialization on olive oil including Aleppo soap made from it, and had drawn much industrial production from the nearby city of Aleppo due to longstanding civil war fighting in that city. Price controls are managed by democratic committees per region, which can set the price of basic goods such as food and medical goods.
General development assessments
It has been theorized that the Assad government had deliberately underdeveloped parts of Northern Syria for the purposes of pursuing a demographic shift and Arabization of the region. During the Syrian Civil War, the infrastructure of the region has on average experienced less destruction than other parts of Syria. In May 2016, Ahmed Yousef, head of the DFNS Economic Body and chairman of Afrin University, claimed that at the time, the economic output of the DFNS (including agriculture, industry and oil) accounted for about 55% of Syria's gross domestic product.
External economic relations
Oil and food production is substantial, so they are important exports. Agricultural products include sheep, grain and cotton. Important imports are consumer goods and auto parts. The border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan has been intermittently closed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but is open since June 2016. Trade with Turkey and access to humanitarian and military aid is difficult due to a blockade by Turkey. Turkey does not allow businesspeople or goods to cross its border. The blockade from adjacent territories controlled by Turkey and ISIL, and partially also the KRG, has temporarily caused heavy distortions of relative prices in Jazira Region and Euphrates Region (while separate Afrin Region since February 2016 meets Syrian government controlled territory); for example in Jazira Region and Euphrates Region, through 2016 petrol cost only half as much as bottled water.
However, since the permanent opening of the border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2016, and the establishment of a corridor between Syrian government controlled territory and Jazira Region and Euphrates Region in April 2017, economic exchange has normalized and contributes to economic activity. Further, in May 2017 in northern Iraq, the Popular Mobilization Forces fighting ISIL conquered a corridor connecting Rojava and Iraqi government-controlled territory.
Law and security
Syrian civil laws are valid in the DFNS if they do not conflict with the Constitution of the DFNS. One notable example for amendment is personal status law, which in Syria is based on Sharia and applied by Sharia Courts, while the secular DFNS proclaims absolute equality of women under the law, allowing civil marriage and banning forced marriage, polygamy and underage marriage.
A new criminal justice approach was implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution. The death penalty was abolished. Prisons house mostly people charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups. A September 2015 report of Amnesty International noted that 400 people were incarcerated by DFNS authorities and criticized deficiencies in due process of the judicial system of the region.
The justice system in the DFNS is influenced by Abdullah Öcalan's libertarian socialist ideology. 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 need not 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 the DFNS as a whole. Separate from this system, the Constitutional Court renders decisions on compatibility of acts of government and legal proceedings with the constitution of the DFNS (called the Social Contract).
Policing and security
Policing in the DFNS is performed by the Asayish armed formation. Asayish was established on July 25, 2013 to fill the gap of security when the Syrian security forces withdrew. Under the Constitution of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, policing is a competence of the regions. The Asayish forces of the regions are composed of 26 official bureaus that aim to provide security and solutions to social problems. The six main units of DFNS 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 Northern Syria. Larger cities have general directorates responsible for all aspects of security including road controls. Each region has a HAT command, and each Asayish center organizes itself autonomously.
Throughout the DFNS, the municipal Civilian Defense Forces (HPC) and the regional Self-Defense Forces (HXP) also serve local-level security. In Jazira Region, 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 and Nattoreh, though not police units, also have a presence in the area, providing security in towns along the Khabur River. The Bethnahrain Women's Protection Forces also maintain a police branch. In the areas taken from ISIL during the Raqqa campaign, the Raqqa Internal Security Forces and Manbij Internal Security Forces operate as police forces.
Northern Syria Internal Security Forces is an umbrella terms for internal security forces (minus Sutoro and the police branch of Bethnahrain Women's Protection Forces)
The main military force of the DFNS is the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Syrian rebel groups formed in 2015. The SDF is led by the Kurdish majority People's Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG). The YPG was founded by the PYD after the 2004 Qamishli clashes, but was first active in the Syrian Civil War. There is also the Syriac Military Council (MFS), an Assyrian militia associated with the Syriac Union Party. There are also Free Syrian Army groups in the alliance such as Jaysh al-Thuwar and the Northern Democratic Brigade, tribal militias like the Al-Sanadid Forces, and municipal military councils in the Shahba region, like the Manbij Military Council, the Al-Bab Military Council or the Jarablus Military Council.
The Self-Defence Forces (HXP) is a territorial defense militia and the only conscript armed force in the DFNS. HXP is locally recruited to garrison their municipal area and is under the responsibility and command of the respective regions of the DFNS. Occasionally, HXP units have supported the YPG, and SDF in general, during combat operations against ISIL outside their own municipality and region.
In the course of the Syrian Civil War, militias associated with the DFNS have been accused of war crimes, 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 the DFNS. The claims from 2014 include claims of arbitrary arrests and torture, other claims include the use of child soldiers. In October 2015 the YPG demobilized 21 minors from the military service in its ranks. 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 DFNS civil government has been hailed in international media for human rights advancement in particular in the legal system, concerning women's rights, ethnic minority rights, 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 DFNS institutions illegitimate.
Some persistent issues under the DFNS 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 have been calls to expel the settlers and return the land to their previous owners, which has led the political leadership of the region to press the Syrian government for a comprehensive solution.
The demographics of the region have 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 Northern Syria. Most recently, during the Syrian Civil War, many refugees have fled to the north of the country. Some ethnic Arab citizens from Iraq have fled to Northern Syria as well.
Two ethnic groups have a significant presence throughout Northern Syria:
- 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 Region and Euphrates Region. During the Syrian civil war, many Kurds who had lived elsewhere in Syria fled back to their traditional lands in Northern Syria.
- Arabs are an ethnic group or ethnolinguistic group living throughout Northern Syria, 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 Northern Syria, in particular in the southern parts of the Jazira Region, in Tell Abyad District and in Azaz District. While in Shahba region the term Arab is mainly used to denote Arabized Kurds and Arabized Syrians, in Euphrates Region and in Jazira Region it mainly denotes ethnic Arab Bedouin populations.
Two ethnic groups have a significant presence in certain regions of Northern Syria:
- Syriac-Assyrians are an ethnoreligious group. Their presence in Syria is in the Jazira Region of the DFNS, particularly in the urban areas (Qamishli, al-Hasakah, Ras al-Ayn, Al-Malikiyah, Al-Qahtaniyah), in the northeastern corner and in villages along the Khabur River in the Tell Tamer area. They traditionally speak varieties of Syriac-Aramaic, a Semitic language. There are many Assyrians among recent refugees to Northern Syria, fleeing Islamist violence elsewhere in Syria back to their traditional lands. In the secular polyethnic political climate of the DFNS, 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 the area between Afrin Region and Euphrates Region, where they form regional majorities in the countryside from Azaz and Mare' to Jarabulus, and a minor presence in Afrin Region and Euphrates Region.
Four languages from three different language families are spoken in Northern Syria:
- Kurdish (in Northern Kurdish dialect), a Northwestern Iranian language from the Indo-European language family.
- Arabic (in North Mesopotamian Arabic dialect, in writing Modern Standard Arabic), a Central Semitic language from the Semitic language family
- Syriac-Aramaic mainly in the Surayt/Turoyo and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic varieties (mainly Classical Syriac in writing), Northwest Semitic languages from the Semitic language family.
- Turkish (in Syrian Turkmen dialect), from the Turkic language family.
For these four languages, three different scripts are in use in Northern Syria:
- 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 Northern Syria adhere to Sunni Islam, while ethnic Assyrian people generally are Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic or adherents of the Assyrian Church of the East. There are also adherents to other religions, such as Yazidism. The dominant PYD party and the political administration in the DFNS are decidedly secular and laicist.
This list includes all cities and towns self-administered under the DFNS 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 DFNS administration. Cities in boldface are capitals of their respective regions. Cities highlighted in light grey are partially controlled by the Damascus government. Cities highlighted in dark grey are controlled by the SDF or by SDF-aligned forces and local civilian councils but have not been officially incorporated into the DFNS.
|English Name||Kurdish Name||Arabic Name||Syriac Name||Turkish Name||Population||Region|
|Kobani||Kobanî||عين العرب||ܟܘܒܐܢܝ||Arappınar||44,821||Euphrates Region|
|Ras al-Ayn||Serêkaniyê||رأس العين||ܪܝܫ ܥܝܢܐ||Resülayn||29,347||Jazira Region|
|Al-Malikiyah||Dêrika Hemko||المالكية||ܕܪܝܟ||Deyrik||26,311||Jazira Region|
|Abu Hamam||أبو حمام||ܐܒܘ ܚܡܐܡ||21,947||Deir Ez-Zor|
|Tell Rifaat||Arpêt||تل رفعت||ܬܠ ܪܦܥܬ||Tel Rıfat||20,514||Afrin Region|
|Al-Qahtaniyah||Tirbespî||القحطانية||ܩܒܪ̈ܐ ܚܘܪ̈ܐ||Kubur el Bid||16,946||Jazira Region|
|Al-Muabbada||Girkê Legê||المعبدة||ܡܥܒܕܗ||Muabbada||15,759||Jazira Region|
|Tell Abyad||Girê Spî||تل أبيض||ܬܠ ܐܒܝܕ||Tel Abyad||14,825||Euphrates Region|
|Al-Sabaa wa Arbain||Seba û Erbîyn||السبعة وأربعين||ܣܒܥܗ ܘܐܪܒܥܝܢ||El Seba ve Arbayn||14,177||Jazira Region|
|Al-Baghuz Fawqani||الباغوز فوقاني||ܒܐܓܘܙ ܦܘܩܐܢܝ||10,649||Deir Ez-Zor|
Relations with the Syrian Ba'athist government
Currently, the relations of the DFNS to the Damascus government are determined by the context of the Syrian civil war. The Constitution of Syria and the Constitution of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria are legally incompatible with respect to legislative and executive authority. In the military realm, combat between the DFNS 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, YPG and Syrian government forces have tacitly cooperated against Islamist forces, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and others.
The region does not claim to pursue full independence but rather autonomy within a federal and democratic Syria. In July 2016, Constituent Assembly co-chair Hediya Yousef formulated the DFNS'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 DFNS administration is not invited to the Geneva III peace talks on Syria, or any of the earlier talks, in particular Russia, which calls for the DFNS's inclusion, does to some degree carry the DFNS's positions into the talks, as documented in Russia's May 2016 draft for a new constitution for Syria. In October 2016, there were reports of a Russian initiative for federalization with a focus on northern Syria, which at its core called to turn the existing institutions of the region 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 the DFNS 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 DFNS institutions.
A June 2017 analysis described the DFNS's "relationship with the regime fraught but functional" and a "semi-cooperative dynamic".
In late September 2017, Syria's Foreign Minister said that Damascus would consider granting Kurds more autonomy in the DFNS once ISIL is defeated.
As a transnational topic
The socio-political transformation of the region have inspired much attention in international media, both in mainstream media and in progressive-leaning media[excessive citations] as well as libertarian socialist, communalist and generally anti-capitalist circles worldwide.[note 1] 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 DFNS'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 Kurdish minorities are either outlawed (Turkey, Iran) or politically marginal with respect to other Kurdish parties (Iraq). Expressions of sympathy for Syrian Kurds have been numerous among Kurds in Turkey. During the Siege of Kobanî, some ethnic Kurdish citizens of Turkey crossed the border and volunteered in the defense of the town.
The DFNS's relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq is complicated. One context is 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 political system of Iraqi Kurdistan stands in stark contrast to the DFNS system. Like the KCK umbrella organization, the PYD has some anti-nationalist ideological leanings while having Kurdish nationalist factions as well. They have traditionally been opposed by the Iraqi-Kurdish KDP-sponsored Kurdish National Council in Syria with more clear Kurdish nationalist leanings.
The DFNS'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 regions autonomy, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter praised the DFNS's 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 Raqqa, ISIL's stronghold and capital, and that SDF commanders would plan the operation with advice from American and coalition troops. At various times, the U.S. deployed U.S. troops embedded with the SDF to the border between the DFNS and Turkey, in order to deter Turkish aggressions against the SDF. In February 2018, the United States Department of Defense released a budget blueprint for 2019 which with respect to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria included $300 million for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and $250 million for border security. In April 2018, the President of France, Emmanuel Macron dispatched troops to Manbij and Rmelan in a bid to assist Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militias and in order to defuse tensions with Turkey.
In the diplomatic field, the DFNS lacks any formal recognition. While there is comprehensive activity of reception of the DFNS representatives and appreciation with a broad range of countries, only Russia has on occasion openly and boldly supported the DFNS's political ambition of federalization of Syria in the international arena, while the U.S. does not. 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, among other things, change 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. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria during 2016 opened official representation offices in Moscow, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, and The Hague. A broad range of public voices in the U.S. and Europe have called for more formal recognition of the DFNS. 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 consistently hostile, because it feels threatened by the DFNS's emergence, which encourages activism for autonomy among Kurds in Turkey in the Kurdish–Turkish conflict. In this context, in particular the DFNS'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 military Kurdish organizations in Turkey itself, including the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey's policy towards the DFNS 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 to the DFNS, with some claims even including ISIL among these. Turkey has on several occasions militarily attacked DFNS territory and defence forces. This has resulted in some expressions of international solidarity with the DFNS.[excessive citations]
The DFNS has made efforts in implementing reforms to protect the ecosystems of Northern Syria and achieve a degree of self-sufficiency. Before the Syrian Civil War, the region had been ecologically damaged by monoculture, oil extraction, damming of rivers, deforestation, drought, topsoil loss and general pollution. The DFNS launched a campaign titled 'Make Rojava Green Again' which is attempting to provide renewable energy to communities (especially solar energy), reforestation, protecting water sources, planting gardens, promoting urban agriculture, creating wildlife reserves, water recycling, beekeeping, expanding public transportation and promoting environmental awareness within their communities.
- 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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