The Rojava : an experience of municipal autonomy in wartime

Interview with Engin SUSTAM

Charlotte Mathivet, Claudio Pulgar, 2016

Collection Passerelle

Although the war continues against Daesh, the Rojava ("~Western Kurdistan~" or «  small Kurdistan ") is built around a revolutionary project of democratic self-management. In this context of war, the Kurdish fighters (Kurdish People’s Protection Units led by the Kurdish commander Rojda Felat) advance towards the most strategically important city for Daesh : Rakka. The fact that women are at the heart of the armed action has caused a lot of talk about the Rojeva revolution. However, what is at stake is less a political struggle against patriarchy than a revolution against the nation-state with a self-management approach that goes beyond the form of the identity state.

What is the current situation in the Rojava and especially in the cities?

The co-leaders of the cantons of Rojava (Cizîrê, Kobanê, Afrîn), are implementing a self-administration of society and micro-economic work with regard to property and land, as stipulated in the constitution of Rojava, called the Social Contract 1.

Despite the war, revolutionary activists continue to question society, ecological issues, alternative economy and cooperation between different peoples. They implement this through an organization without hierarchy or discrimination of gender or ethnicity, to create a common life in the canton. Since April 2016, the Social Contract of the Rojava has decided to incorporate an article on animal rights and their protection (animal liberation) 2, a conscientious objection against the call for compulsory military service (civil and anti-military disobedience) 3. The Social Contract of the Rojava defends collective rights, education against masculinity and self-managed economy for political reasons of emancipation of women and societies. The three cantons continue to «  strengthen  » their objectives of autonomy from their wartime needs. Since the liberation of Kobanê, the cantons have committed themselves to intensify the armed struggle against Daesh in order to liberate the regions from jihadists, in particular the line from Kobanê to the canton Afrîn trapped between Turkey, Daesh and El Nosra. It should be added that the borders between the Kurdistan of Turkey (Bakur) and Syria (Rojava), are a real smuggling market between Kurdish families from Turkey and Syria. This makes it possible to create a political relationship between two colonised Kurdistan. Finally, it gives a panorama of the memory of the struggles and relations between divided peoples. The authoritarian repression in the Kurdistan of Turkey and Syria has engendered the current socio-political struggle. The militarisation of Kurdistan by the Kemalist and Baathist regime has forced the inhabitants to flee their region. This forced migration has given the Kurds an opportunity to create urban political movements as in Istanbul where there is a Kurdish community of 5 million inhabitants. In this situation, it is very difficult for the inhabitants of Kurdistan in Syria.

to express the desire for self-management and revolution, their daily lives being punctuated by embargoes and blockades on both sides of the Rojava border 4, at the heart of ethnic and religious conflicts. However, we can observe a paradigm shift after the beginning of the war in Syria with the declaration of self-determination of the Rojava cantons in Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurdish movement began to claim the name Rojava, which refers to the Kurdish memory. Thus, during all the Kurdish revolts since the beginning of the century, the Rojava has remained a home for Kurdish opponents, fighters and revolutionaries. The Rojava has become a place of accumulated memory of the Kurdish resistance, the place of an alternative economy 5 against capitalism as well as the territory where utopias such as the libertarian democratic municipality concretely develop.

How is the municipal management of these cities?

The first thing that needs to be said is that the Rojava Revolution advocates democratic self-management based on certain ideas of libertarian but unorthodox anarchism. Thus, the revolution is under the influence of the theories of Abdullah Öcalan, the experience of the Kurdish movement in Bakur (Northern Kurdistan) that of the PKK (and its municipal experiences in the region and its armed struggle for 40 years) and of philosophers like Murray Bookchin. However, it is possible to recognize the heritage and history of self-management or experiences of anarchist management as in Spain. The Rojava is thus influenced by a veritable tinkering with theories of urban ecology around the «  Kurdish question  » in the Middle East.

This revolution proposes to think and apply a change in political and societal values. It is a question of talking about a micro-political emancipation within the Kurdish space in Turkey and Syria which is rooted in a heteroclite movement (Kurdish political movement, LGBTI, feminist movement, gender, ecological etc.) and which fights against the capitalist system. I would add that this tendency of micro-revolutionary form encompasses heterogeneous realities. It articulates a policy aimed at creating a Kurdish space with self-managed municipalities in which the inhabitants can participate. As I said, this is influenced by the «  democratic confederalism  » of A. Öcalan, the libertarian municipality developed by Murray Bookchin, and other thinkers such as Foucault or Guattari. These influences are the basis for building a democratic municipal policy from the bottom up with an ecological approach.

The result of all these influences is the need to rebuild a plural democratic society, a neighbourhood of sharing, an alternative micro-economy based on social, «  humanitarian ", environmental and women’s emancipation benefits, to avoid «  individualistic  » or statist approaches. All the illustrious references cited above not only stimulate the movement’s national reflection, but also reflect a policy of dissensus (in the sense of Rancière) in the Kurdish space.

The municipality structures self-managed governance. The population organizes itself in assemblies : neighbourhood assemblies, women’s assemblies, religions (Alevis, Muslims, Yezidis, Christians, etc.), ecology, energy, youth, etc. The municipality organizes itself in assemblies of the population. The current strategy is to consider the cantonal municipality as autonomous from the state executive power. According to the Social Contract, the autonomy of the municipalities is structured from below. In this political climate, self-governments have a double practice of power (from security to civil disobedience). In this vision, the democratic confederal system proposed by Öcalan is a system that rejects nationhood, patriarchy, positivist scientism, hegemony, state administration, capitalism and Fordist or post-Fordist industrialism and constitutes the place of democratic autonomy, a social and alternative ecology in the cantons.

It can be said that the Rojava is a place for the practice of this theory of democratic confederalism. The municipality is a place where all peoples, minorities and genders are equally represented. The Social Contract of the Rojava also advances thanks to the political integration of all the components (the Yezidi, Alevis, Kurds, Arabs, Asyriacs, Christians, Armenians, etc.). The municipal system deals with the environment through assemblies, and resists the assimilation of the dominant identities that the Kurds have suffered for centuries, distinguishing its approach from the usual conception of autocratic governance of the territory.

Is there a self-managed (re)construction of housing, for example? How are schools and hospitals managed ? Is there a relationship with the state?

Some buildings are constructed in accordance with the environmental project and are run by the local municipality and the neighbourhood assemblies. A libertarian reflection is carried out to fight against inequalities in order to implement the right to housing of each individual in the cantons. There is also a project on education to ensure that school is a right as in any democratic society. The restitution of disciplinary knowledge involves major changes because it includes a vision of gender and class equality instead of following a centralized model, based in particular on sexism. Moreover, there is no hierarchy between teachers and students.

Finally, I would like to explain the vision of Kurdish political ecology within the municipality. It organizes public hospitals by putting them in relation with the actors of the assemblies, then by insisting on the role of the new actors who redefine the libertarian reinterpretation of the public space by questioning the institutionalized approach of the school and the hospital. Political ecology in the Rojava constitutes a new challenge for a geopolitical approach emerging from the orthodox political conception of the dominant conventional cultures. It is thus a means of carrying out anti-capitalist thinking within colonialism. According to Kurdish ecologists, the exercise of governmentality in times of war should not be limited to a question of identity and territory, but on the contrary should be based on social values.

This approach stems from the Fanonian reading of the Kurdish political movement. It is the expression of a micro-territory’s rejection of the state practice of capitalism, which considers health, education and housing as interchangeable goods. Even if the war continues and structures daily life in Northern (Bakur) and Western (Rojava) Kurdistan, there is a fierce will to live. This will to live introduces a total break with colonial life and the existing order of the Arab nation-state such as under the Bassar Al Asad regime. Such a radical move away from Arab nationalism has given rise to an important dialogue with the various peoples of the region. The inhabitants continue to perfect the cantonal system. The University and the Academy of Social Sciences of Mesopotamia (especially in the cantons of Afrîn and Cizîrê, Kobanê having been totally destroyed by the war) are nevertheless continuing their research and teaching in a libertarian pedagogical perspective, including the teaching of gender studies in certain social and political science departments. The academics invite foreign professors to come and give lectures, such as David Graeber or Janet Biehl, or ourselves. From this point of view, students at the University of Mesopotamia in Cezire (Mesopotamian Academy) have an incredible opportunity to study and practice radical democracy from below.

In spite of the war, many initiatives are taking place. The municipal institutions of the autonomous cantons organize together with the members of the university and students a campaign to create a multilingual library. Local women’s assemblies are organized to cultivate and communalize the land. Recently, about 100 people (mostly women) have started to cultivate the land according to the rules of organic farming. At the same time, urban garden activists in the cities and villages of Bakur are beginning to implement social ecology in some villages. Peasants and villagers are organizing themselves to self-manage green spaces and cultivate the land in an ecological way. Crops from local production are shared among the people of the regions, according to their needs.

What are the demands and demands of the social movements in Rojava? Is there any criticism of the power in place?

At the moment, I don’t think we can clearly speak of a social movement in the Rojava, except for the feminist and ecological movement that tries to constitute the values of the Social Contract of the Revolution. Rather, it is more a question of seeing the actors who question the complexity of the space of revolt and generate a new micro-political perception through counter-power and counter-cultural reproduction.

At the present time, after the self-managed resistance of the Kurds in different regions of the cantons, the jihadist regime is still a brutal threat to the gains of the revolution. This jihadist threat is still there and is pushing the population of Syrian Kurdistan into diaspora or exile. There is a cohabitation of two approaches to the socio-political uprising : civil resistance with the environmentalist, feminist movement and armed resistance against the nation-state, jihadists, violence and state military domination.

1 Syrian Kurdistan, endowed with a « democratic and autonomous authority », adopted its constitution (Social Contract) on 6 January 2014, which defines Syria as a « democratic, free and independent state » and divides Kurdistan into three cantons.

2 See : [in Turkish]

3 See : [in Turkish]

4 On the one hand, Turkey completely blocked the border crossings after the Kobanê victory, on the other hand, the Kurdistan Regional Federal Government of Iraq (led by the KDP) exercises blocking control over the Rojava crossing.

5 On the analysis of the self-managed alternative economy, see the report with Azize Aslan : [in Turkish]

To go further

Link to the issue of the Passerelle magazine. (in French)