Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Rojava Kurds - a Model for the Contemporary Middle East?

The Democratic Federation of North Syria - Afrin, Kobane and al-Jazira cantons
What does the social and political experiment of the Rojava Kurds tell us about the possibilities for change in the Middle East?  Is their experiment sustainable? Can it be transferred to other areas of the MENA region?  Who will provide long-term support for the Rojava Kurds’ efforts to build a society based on social justice, tolerance, political participation, government accountability and gender equality?  What in turn will be the response of authoritarian regimes to this experiment should it become successful?

The Rojava Kurds suffered for many years under Syrian Bacthist rule.  They were denied citizenship and property rights.  They were often arrested for no cause and subjugated to Syria’s Arab population.  Various Arab nationalist regimes engaged in forced Arabization of the areas in which they live.  As in neighboring Turkey, Kurds were forbidden to use their language in public.  While other minorities in Syria, such as Assyrians, Armenians and Circassians , were permitted to open their own schools. Kurds were forbidden to do so.  

A Syrian government census was conducted in 1962 with the express purpose of depriving Kurds of their citizenship and land.  At least 120,000 were made “stateless” as a result.  In 1973, 2007 and during other periods, Kurdish lands were seized and given to Arabs in the agriculturally rich al-Jazira region in northeastern Syria.  

 In many ways, the policies of Syrian regimes paralleled Saddam’s efforts at ethnic cleansing during the notorious “Anfal” campaign in Iraq during the 1980s.  Human Rights Watch estimated that 300,000 Kurds in Syria lacked citizenship as of 2010.

Kurdish majority city of al-Qamishli
The Syrian Bacthist regime refused to provide investment funds for infrastructure, schools, hospitals or municipal services in the northeastern area of the country where the majority of the Rojava Kurds resided.  These policies mirrored the failure of the Turkish and Iranian regimes, and Iraqi regime under Saddam Husayn, to provide development funds for their own local Kurdish communities.

The refusal to invest in Kurdish populated areas or give the Kurds of Syria citizenship reflected the Syrian regimes's demographic and economic goals.  By not creating economic opportunity, many Kurdish youth were forced to migrate out of traditionally Kurdish populated areas and, without passports, to perform the most menial work in the “black economies” of Syrian cities such as Aleppo and Homs. 

The Rojava Autonomous Region
It was to be expected that the Rojava Kurds would use the 2010 uprising in Syria to break away from the Bashar al-Asad’s repressive regime in Damascus. What was no expected was the type of society they would create once regime forces withdrew from north central and northeastern Syria.

What the Rojava Kurds created is the antithesis of the authoritarian regimes which dominate the MENA region's political landscape.  Decentralized, committed to meaningful gender equality, and building an economy grounded in sustainable development, the Rojava Kurds have established a community which differs in all respects from those elsewhere in the region.

Although strongly influenced by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, the Rojava experiment is very different.  Rather than pursuing a Marxist model of social and political development, their model would be best described as communitarian or cooperativist - socially and economically - and confederalist politically. 

Even before the Arab uprisings, the Rojava Kurds had formed a network of street committees and communal councils on which were built district councils.  While the Bacthist regime constantly sought to repress the district councils, it was only partially successful.

What is particularly attractive about the Rojava model is a democratic and participatory political system, tolerance for cultural difference, an emphasis on gender equality and the pursuit of sustainable economic development where reliance on external is avoided as much as possible.

Rojava - political organization
Drawing upon the writings of political theorist Murray Bookchin, and the Swiss federal model, the Rojava Kurds have established 3 cantons in northern Syria – Afrin canton in the West, Kobane in the central north and al-Jazira in the northeast.  Each canton has its own political institutional structure based on a set of local communes.  This “bottom up” system insures that canton members have ongoing participation in the decisions which affect their lives.

The ideas which provide the foundation for the Rojava autonomous region – known officially as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria – were articulated by the jailed leader of the Turkish Kurdish Workers’ Party, Abdallah Ocalan.  Ocalan called for the creation of municipal communes throughout Kurdish ethnic areas leading to what he called “stateless democracy.”
Democratic Federation of Northern Syria - Afrin canton PM Hêvî Îbrahîm Mustefa
The “bottom up” political model of the Rojava autonomous region stands in sharp contrast to the highly centralized system of the other Kurdish autonomous area, Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).  Until the Gorran Movement challenged the complete control of the KRG regional parliament by the two main parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), they had the ability to pass any legislation they pleased and faced no budgetary accountability. 

To be fair, minorities are treated well in the KRG.  However, the constitution promulgated by the YPD requires that all local councils include representation by a Kurd, an Arab and a member of the Assyrian or Armenian or Chechen minorities.  Indeed, the Rojava autonomous region has acquired such a reputation of tolerance to the extent that Shica Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis fleeing the Dacish have taken up residence there.

YPJ fighters 
One of the sharpest contrast between the Rojava political system and those elsewhere in the MENA region is the institutionalization of gender equality.  All political organizations require  that they be co-chaired by a man and a woman, thus insuring women's political, participation in the Rojava autonomous region.  In the Afrin Canton, the prime minister is a woman, Hêvî Îbrahîm Mustefa.  

Rojava women also have their own political party - the Star Union.  In every town, there is a Women's House where women can go for medical and social services. counseling and protection from spousal or family abuse.  Underage marriages and dowries and other oppressive measures against women have been  and a vigorous effort has been to eliminate so-called "honor crimes."

YPJ soldier
Women are active in fighting the Da 'ish through their own  armed forces, the Women's Protection Unites (YPJ).  These units have participated in the battle against the Dacish and have been very effective on the battlefield, taking many casualties in the process

Rojava and Inter-Kurdish relations
The Rojava experiment highlights the problems of inter-Kurdish relations and the efforts to establish an independent Kurdish state.  While the Rojava and their main political party, the Democratic Political Union (YPD), enjoy widespread support among Turkish Kurds as well as the Kurds of Syria, they are both viewed with hostility by the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), controlled by the Barzani family and its affiliated tribal clans and, to a lesser extent by the second most powerful Iraqi Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The KDP, whose area of control borders Turkey and Syria, unlike the PUK which borders Iran, resents the decentralized and democratic alternative provided by the Rojava region.  It has been unwilling to offer the Rojava YPG and YPJ militias military or economic support. 
Scene from the siege of Kobane, September. 2014-January 29015
This was clear during the lengthy and brutal siege of Kobane in which Rojava units mounted a heroic defense of the town with US air support.  While Turkish forces looked on the battle from across the border, it was only once the situation became dire that KDP Pesh Merga forces entered the fray. 
Funerals of YPG and YPJ fighters killed in siege of Kobane
It is highly unlikely that either the Turkish or Iranian governments will allow their own Kurdish minorities to move towards establishing an autonomous region, much less an independent state.  Only the KRG and Rojava autonomous region have the opportunity to establish states independent of the Iraqi and Syrian governments respectively.

However, for either of these outcomes to occur, one of two conditions must be realized.  Either the KRG abandons its authoritarian and top-down political system and addresses the pervasive corruption which characterizes its rule, or the Rojava agrees to abandon its democratic and confederalist political system. 

Neither of these changes is likely.  Although there are two Kurdish autonomous region in which many Kurds would like to see as independent states, the social structures, economic models and political systems are so different that, at present, they would be impossible to reconcile.

In light of the Erdoğan regime’s hostility towards the Rojava autonomous region, and the efforts of the KDP to help Turkey suppress the PPK which engages in military attacks from northern Iraqi territory, Rojava cannot count on KRG support in the future. 
Further, once the Dacish is defeated militarily in Syria, will the United States maintain its current alliance with the Rojava Kurds in light of Turkish hostility towards them?  Will Erdoğan
push the envelope and make the continued access to the Incirlik Airbase in southeastern Turkey contingent on withdrawal of support for the Rojava Kurds?  
Certainly, the Rojava Kurds will not be able to depend on Saudi Arabia or the Arab Gulf states for economic support.  Much of the funding which has been provided to Islamist militias in Syria, all of  which are implacably opposed to the Rojava Kurds, has been provided by these states or their citizens.

The only level of support upon which the Rojava Kurds will be able to depend is certain states within the European Union and, to some extent, the EU itself.  Countries like Norway, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands can be counted on to provide financial assistance as will EU NGOs.  However, neither the EU nor its member states will be willing to provide military assistance.

The Rojava experiment is fragile.  One important way to strengthen it is for the Rojava autonomous region and its supporters to disseminate information about the accomplishments and benefits of an economic, political, social and cultural system which could provide inspiration to efforts at reform in the Middle East.

No comments: