Washington Kurdish Institute
September 27, 2017
Various demonstrations and uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa were collectively labelled the “Arab Spring”, though the most revolutionary episode of these events took place in northern Syria, where the long-oppressed Kurdish people rose up to demand their rights and take control of their land and future.
On March 15, 2011, the people of Damascus mobilized to demand political reforms and the release of political prisoners from Syria’s brutal, dictatorial regime. However, these protestors were not even the first group to risk their lives by engaging in mass protest against the Ba’athist regime of Bashar al-Assad. Years before what is now commonly known as the Arab Spring, during a time in which many still held out hope that Bashar al-Assad would be a reformer despite the brutality and racist Arab supremacist policies characteristic of the regime he inherited from his father, Kurds in the city of Qamishlo (Qamishli in Arabic) took to the streets on March 12, 2004 and protested the Syrian Ba’athist regime for six days without the benefit or mitigating effects of any attention from the international media or interest from the international community. What is often referred to as the March 12 Uprising or the Qamishlo Uprising ended when the protests ultimately succumbed to the Syrian regime’s violent response, which resulted in the death of tens of Kurdish activists and detention of hundreds of civilians.
The protests that began in March 2011 in Damascus spread throughout Syria in a matter of weeks, and the regime responded to these protests with harsh countermeasures and increased repression and surveillance. Within months, the protest movement transformed into an armed revolt which included defected members of the Syrian armed forces and, as the violence continued and intensified, armed Islamic groups played a larger role, and the conflict engulfed more of Syria and became increasingly bloody.
By the middle of 2012, a year had passed since the outbreak of the initial protests in Damascus, and talk of Arab Spring protests and the potential for reforms gave way to concern over full-fledged civil war in Syria, spilling over into neighboring countries. In April 2012, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire aimed at ending the bloodshed throughout the country, but, within weeks, this effort failed and the armed conflict intensified, and Islamic armed groups, including the al-Qaida affiliate then known as the Jabhat al-Nusra (now operating as part of a group calling itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) gained prominence among the ranks of Syrian opposition forces and claimed many attacks on targets associated with the Syrian regime, including scores of suicide bombings. As violence throughout Syria became more organized and intense, the Syrian regime began withdrawing its forces from predominantly Kurdish areas in the north of the country to avoid opening another military front at a time when they were already very stretched, facing significant pressure from Islamic armed groups in particular.
The Kurdish people, who had long suffered some of the worst policies of repression, including denial of their very identity, under the rule of Syria’s Arab chauvinist regime, celebrated the withdrawal of the Ba’athist regime’s forces. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its female fighting force, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), which had been secretly formed years earlier, publicly emerged to provide security for Kurdish areas (often referred to as Rojava, meaning “west” in Kurdish, as this region is the western portion of Kurdistan) following the welcome withdrawal of Syrian regime forces during this time of upheaval and extreme violence. Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra and other armed Islamic groups including the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which soon became a leading threat to international peace and security, now occupied areas near Rojava and were actively seeking to broaden their territorial control and brutally punish those who they believed to be disbelievers, including indigenous Christian populations along with Kurdish and Arab Muslims who did not support these groups. The YPG/J fought to keep the various violent extremist organizations away from areas now under Kurdish control, preventing additional massacres in a country already in the throes of a protracted civil war characterized by large scale human rights violations on various sides.
As the YPG/J provided security for a region within Syria now free from Ba’athist oppression, the Kurdish political parties provided a political vision for a future Syria which would protect and promote the rights of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religion or, importantly, gender – as even gender-based discrimination was institutionalized per the laws of Ba’athist Syria and manifested itself in various ways in law and practice throughout Syria. Most Syrian Arab opposition groups openly aimed to replace the Ba’athist regime of the Alawite dictator Assad with either another chauvinist Arab regime that promoted and protected the primacy of the Arab people over other Syrians, or a Sunni Islamic regime which enforced its own interpretation of Sunni Islamic principles on all Syrians, with no tolerance for citizens of other religions or religious sects (groups which together are estimated to account for over 25% of Syria’s population) or those who embraced secularism in some form. While these Arab nationalist and Islamist forces of various types sought to broaden their areas of control even as they clashed with regime forces and one another, the YPG/J, at great human cost, continued to provide security to Rojava.
Due to the sacrifice of the brave women and men of the YPG/J and the allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of armed groups in northern Syria, the revolutionary project in Rojava is alive and well. This project in Syria is inspired by the thought of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is currently serving a life sentence (the majority of which has been spent in isolation) in a Turkish prison on the island of Imrali for founding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and leading the Kurdish people’s revolt against the Turkish state, which, like Ba’athist Syria, long denied the existence of the identity of the indigenous Kurdish people living within the state’s borders. Drawing from decades of personal involvement in struggle and the study of centuries of persecution of Kurds and other minorities in the Middle East by chauvinist regimes (both secular and religious), Ocalan, through his writings on history, society and governance, set forth a revolutionary alternative to the classic nation-state model which provides protection for the rights and identities of all citizens. Ocalan calls for co-existence among different peoples and a system of self-governance entirely divorced from nationalist ideologies. The current system of self-administration in northern Syria represents an implementation of Ocalan’s ideology – de-centralization, self-rule and federalism.
On December 5, 2013, after a year and half of organizing among the communities of northern Syria, the Kurds and their other Syrian allies announced a self-administration system – a seemingly small, internationally unrecognized step which nonetheless was to have far reaching consequences for Syria, and set the stage for the implementation of a revolutionary new system that would grow and gain increasing recognition in the face of a number of existential threats. The establishment of the self-administration system was followed by the adoption of the social contract, a temporary constitution, which laid out the underlying principles of the new system and provided guidance for a free life for all citizens following their liberation from the Ba’athist dictatorship of Assad. In the face of many very serious threats, the new self-administration system provided security and basic services to the people of the region, establishing internal and external security forces and local governing bodies in keeping with the philosophy of the new social contract. While this novel exercise in democratic self-administration contrasted starkly with life under the totalitarian Assad regime or the brutal, theocratic models of dictatorship provided by ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamist groups, the international community remained unaware or uninterested in this aspect of the Syrian civil war. This changed with the battle for Kobani.
On September 15, 2014, just months after capturing significant parts of Iraq including the country’s second city of Mosul, the ISIS terrorist organization launched a large-scale offensive against the city of Kobani (officially known by the Syrian regime, which consistently sought to promote the primacy of the Arab identity, as Ayn al-Arab). Using tanks and heavy weapons, ISIS quickly captured a significant amount of territory, and soon laid siege to the small area that remained under the control of the people of Kobani – many civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes in the face of the ISIS threat. Much of the world was resigned to ISIS taking control of all of Kobani and adding another city to their expanding territory, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose forces watched the battle of Kobani as it unfolded south of the country’s border, proclaimed that Kobani was about to fall. Nonetheless, the Kurdish people resisted and the imminent fall of Kobani never happened.
The battle for Kobani captivated the world community, and the Kurds initially resisted the ISIS invaders, who were armed with the most modern of weapons, with just light weapons and without any outside assistance. The leaders of the self-administration system were defiant, and vowed to remain in their home city and resist ISIS, and the Syrian Kurdish forces proved their defensive capabilities at a time when the world was confounded and terrified by the successive military victories of the ISIS terrorist organization and its territorial expansion. The US-led coalition took interest in this unexpectedly strong resistance and, for the first time, began coordinating aid to the Syrian Kurds via the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraqi Kurdistan, seeking to prevent ISIS from capturing Kobani and increasing their access to Syria’s border with Turkey (which had already proven to be the primary crossing point for the thousands of foreign fighters joining the ranks of ISIS).
Following 6 months of resistance, the YPG/J, with assistance from the US-led coalition and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and other allied forces, the Syrian Kurds retook all of Kobani city and the surrounding areas. ISIS sustained significant losses, numbering in the thousands, and was dealt their first high profile defeat since they stormed into Iraq the previous year – their air of invincibility was shattered and the YPG/J emerged as the most effective force fighting ISIS in Syria. Following the epic resistance and victory in Kobani, the US-led coalition expanded their cooperation with the YPG/J, resulting in, among other things, the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of armed groups in northern Syria including the YPG/J. As various other Arab-dominated groups backed by Turkey and Arab states proved to be ineffective fighting forces, fanatical religious zealots, or both, the SDF marched forward in the battle against ISIS, liberating more territory and more civilians from the control of the brutal terrorist organization even as other, allegedly moderate Syrian opposition groups surrendered and often handed their weapons over to ISIS and other radical groups.
About 2 years later, after the liberation of a significant amount of northern Syria and successful protection of their territory, the self-administration officials met in March 2016 and proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria – Rojava on March 17. The Syrian regime, regional powers and international community all declined to formally recognize the new federal structure and authority, but nonetheless the revolutionary forces remained perhaps the foremost local ally of the international community in the ongoing war against ISIS. 9 months later, after the revolutionary forces liberated even more territory, including Arab majority areas of northern Syria, the constituent assembly once again convened and voted to remove the term “Rojava” (i.e., “West”, meaning western Kurdistan) from the administration’s official name, in recognition of the increasingly multi-ethnic nature of the constituents of the federation and the ultimate goal of offering a better life for all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity, through a new federal system.
Today, the SDF, who are in effect the defense forces of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, control over 90% of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS terror organization’s so-called caliphate, as a result of the ongoing coalition-backed Operation Wrath of Euphrates, which was initiated in November 2016. While a landmark victory is on the horizon, the federal system in northern Syria has yet to receive official political recognition from the international community, even as praise is heaped upon its fighters who are poised to liberate the city that was once the centerpiece the now crumbling caliphate that was considered a major threat to Europe and the US. Turkey, who continues to support radical Sunni Islamic groups in Syria, is steadfastly opposed to the recognition of any entity in Syria in which the Kurds play a significant role and enjoy free expression of their national identity.
On July 30, 2017, the northern Syrian federal authorities announced that elections for their territory would be conducted in three stages, marking the historic first ever elections in a part of Syria following the liberation of part of the country from the Assad regime and oppressive rule of terrorist groups.
Three provinces comprise the federal system:
- Al-Jazira Province, which consists of two regions: Al Hasakah and Qamishlo
- Euphrates Province, which consists of two regions: Kobani and Tel Abyad
- Afrin Province, which consists of two regions: Afrin and al-Shahba (Aleppo countryside)
Just days prior to the historic local elections of September 22 in northern Syria, the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI) had the privilege of speaking with Ms. Hediye Yusif (HY), the Co-Chairperson of the Constituent Assembly of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, to discuss the structure of the revolutionary governing body and its electoral system.
WKI: Could you explain to us the structure of governing body of the northern Syrian federal authority?
HY: The federalism system is based on self-administration for the areas in northern Syria. We have geographic federalism – it is not based on national, sectarian or religious federalism. It depends on an organized society and free individuals as it based on basic principles like gender equality, co-chairs for leadership positions, representation of the youth, and equality of different religious and ethnic groups. All people are equal in their rights regardless of their backgrounds.
The federal structure begins with the commune, which is the smallest and most important component of the structure. The communes are most important part as they provide the basic organization for the whole system. Above the communes are the district councils, the regional councils, provincial councils, and the Democratic Peoples’ Conference, which is equivalent to the parliament. The Democratic Peoples’ Conference is a small governing unit – 80% of its members are elected and 20% of the technocrats and specialists. Our system depends on this horizontal arrangement, but at the same time there is a vertical relationship between the communities and the administration, as the councils are tasked with implementing the will of the people. It is a pure communal system and, at the same time, is a parliamentary system as well.
WKI: for what positions do you use the co-chairs?
HY: All councils have co-chairs, from communes to the Democratic Peoples’ Conference, meaning that a man and a woman serve together as heads of all governing bodies. All the government bodies have their own offices for organization – for example, the communes have an office and the district councils also have an office.
WKI: When will elections be held, and why are they being held in stages?
HY: The elections will be held on three different dates. Elections for communes will take place on September 22, 2017, elections for the local administration, including council members for the villages, towns, counties, and districts will take place on November 3, 2017, and regional elections and elections for the Democratic Peoples’ Conference of northern Syria will be conducted on January 19, 2018.
We are holding elections in three stages because we are currently in the process of establishing our new governing entities. For example, the election of the joint presidency of a commune concerns only the geography of that commune, and later we will elect the local administrations of each region, followed by the elections of the regional council members and then the Democratic Peoples’ Conference.
WKI: Do you have a constitution to organize the laws for the elected people and their terms?
HY: We have adopted the social contract document, which is drafted by the consensus between all the components and approved by the constituent assembly. There are term limits for all posts – from the head of the commune to the provincial councils. every two years elections will be conducted and a member is not allowed to run after serving for two consecutive periods. Elections for the regional councils and Democratic Peoples’ Conference will take place every four years, and officials will not eligible to run after serving for two consecutive terms.
WKI: What are the roles of the political parties in this system?
HY: Our system is based on individual lists and closed lists. Each licensed party can stand on its own or in a list based on alliances among several parties that agree with each other and submit candidacy as a closed party.
WKI: Is there a designated percentage for the minorities in elections?
HY: In our governing system, we have adopted certain percentages for all the institutions at all levels to ensure that proper representative democracy is achieved – 60% of representatives are elected via direct elections and 40% represent quotas assigned to different ethnicities, and this percentage has been determined through consideration of each region and according to their demographics.
We made sure that all beliefs and ethnic groups are represented properly in the federal system of northern Syria. We worked hard and had intensive discussions with the people and held tens of meetings with the political parties before deciding on this shape of the governing. As a result of our work, we were able to reach agreement on the social contract and the laws of the administration, including electoral laws.
WKI: What is your message to the international community?
HY: We would like the world to see what we have accomplished in building a democratic system which depends on philosophy of the democratic nation – as opposed to a nation-state, which has denied the rights of the peoples in our region.