What has happened for Kurdish people as a result of the Syrian Civil War?

Syrian Civil War Background

The Kurdish people have suffered much under the various political states that have governed them. The Kurds are a unique ethnic group inhabiting ‘Kurdistan’, a region that spans Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Various attempts to incorporate or remove them from societiesover the centuries has given them a unique identity within the Middle East. 

The history of the Middle East from the perspective of the Kurds is generally one of state oppression and cultural genocide. As a result, various attempts have been made to establish either an independent Kurdish national state or to practise and recognise the Kurdish identity without discrimination. Whilst most reforms have failed or remain ambiguous, the Syrian Civil War which started in 2011, has proven itself to be ground zero for a new revolutionary and political movement for Kurdistan. 

The vacuum caused by the Syrian regime’s retreat from Kurdish regions forced the Kurds to fend for themselves. This led to creating a political system many have considered practically impossible. The Kurdish have taken to calling the administration the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS – previously known autonomous Rojava or Kurdistan). This new system is called ‘Democratic Confederalism’, envisioned by Abdullah Öcalan. Whilst its survival is still in question, its accolades have attracted international attention. 

A transition of ideas

A prerequisite to understanding this kind of impact for the Kurdish people is to understand the movements central figure, Abdullah Ocalan. The concepts and principles behind Democratic Confederalism come from a synthesis of arguments made by Öcalan during his publicised trial in Turkey in 1999.

Öcalan was the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, founded in 1978. Whilst starting out as a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist party, Ocalan’s imprisonment by Turkish authorities in 1999 allowed him to come to terms with his own ideology and question how successful Marxist-Leninism and Kurdish-Nationalism could be for the Kurdish people. His imprisonment “was truly an ideological and political break” according to Öcalan and influenced his future writings. 

Imperialism and foreign intervention

Öcalan’s later writings argue that historically, “the Kurds have been fighting colonisation or conquest by foreign powers since time immemorial” which is largely true. It is important to establish however that by ‘foreign’, Öcalan likely includes anything that is not a Kurdish state, such as the Ottoman Empire. 

The Ottomans Europeanisation and centralization policies in the early 19th century stripped local Kurdish authorities of their semi-autonomous power and destabilised the self-sufficiency of those regions. After the World War 1 partitioning of the Ottoman Empire came European Capitalism, which according to Öcalan, “changed [Kurdistan] in unimagined ways”. The hegemonic powers (Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran) managed to dominate via multiple different avenues. Technological superiority meant local Kurds could not defend or organise themselves effectively. The Kurds were denied their existence as an ethnic group by being restricted from practicing their own traditions and language.

Increasing notions of nationalism and its accompanying ethnic homogeneity (as seen in the Armenian Genocide) led to Kurdish people being further discriminated against. There were various attempts by Kurdish groups to regain autonomy such as the Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925, Mt. Ararat revolt in 1930, and the Dersim rebellion in 1937-38 however these were used as reasons for further repressive reforms by the hegemonic powers. 

Failed revolt attempts by different groups(Öcalan and the PKK attempted a coup in 1984, giving justifications to the Turkish authorities to imprison Öcalan) in the latter half of the 20th century showed many that the solution to Kurdish repression wouldn’t be found in a revolutionary coup. 

Syrian Civil War spillover

These tensions erupted during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Bashar al-Assad had come to power in Syria in June 2000 and likely became worried about Kurdish nationalism as seen in the Iraq War in 2003. His concern was well founded as Kurdish groups rebelled in 2004 and 2008.

As the 2011 protests began, various Kurdish local councils and political parties had established complex networked alliances to organise demonstrations against the regime alongside other groups. Bashar attempted to pacify growing demonstrations against the regime without much success and a brutal civil war had erupted by 2012 between Bashar’s Syrian regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

As the Syrian regime retreated toward Damascus in 2012, Kurdish communities were forced into self-defence against the growing groups of Islamic jihadists such as ISIS as well as elements of the FSA. As a result, Kurds found support in the decentralized militias associated with the PKK like the YPJ/YPG (People’s Protection Units) that had begun to replace the supply of amenities and defence usually supplied by the Syrian state.

The flag of the People's Protection Units, consisting of Syrian Kurds
The flag of the People’s Protection Units, consisting of Syrian Kurds

Around the time of the declaration of the IS Caliphate on the 29th June 2014,  the Syrian Democratic Forces were established. This conglomeration of confederated militias was established primarily to secure US air support (Turkey, a US NATO ally, considered the PKK as terrorists, consequentially considering the YPJ/YPG as the same and would not allow any NATO intervention or aid). Many of the militias apart of the SDF, specifically the YPG/YPJ,and the civilian structures, organise via Democratic Confederalism.  

So how do the Kurds make this work, exactly?

How this political system works in Northern Syria is quite remarkable and unprecedented. It is a form of Libertarian Socialism, a non-state, non-hierarchical form of participatory democracy that has largely been considered impossible by modern scholars. 

Öcalan describes this process in various ways but its central ideological pillars involve standard liberal reforms like the freedom of speech and assembly, women’s liberation, the ‘democratisation’ of society and the preservation of the environment. Öcalan claims states that are enforced via the threat of violence and are ideologically centred in subservience to authority and capitalist individualism, limit freedom, autonomy and democracy. 

Women play a key role in Democratic Confederalism. Ideas practiced in Rojava as a result of the Syrian Civil War
Women play a key role in Democratic Confederalism. Ideas practiced in Rojava as a result of the Syrian Civil War

For Öcalan, women play a key role in society and as a result, feminist studies are taught in school and women are encouraged to join the women-only groups/militias. In addition, each administrative position must be held by both a woman and a man in a ‘dual power’ setup, effectively eliminating patriarchy in the administration, something Western nations are still unable to achieve. 

The further democratisation of society involves allowing residents in local ‘cantons’ or regions access to the decision-making process through federated local councils. Heavy debate eventually leads to a consensus on a proposal, a group is then elected to enact the proposal who works with the help of various other councils and unions to obtain and direct resources.

Each elected position is decided by jury or ballot, recallable, and transparent, making each position of power culpable.  The underlining irony of this system is summed up by Öcalan, that the “Middle east has a history of semi-autonomous clans, tribes and communities, in this way whilst empires appeared centralist they utilised and relied on confederalism.” In this sense, the Syrian Civil war and the regimes retreat shows that state authority in the Middle East was a façade and power always rested within local autonomous communities.    

Hope for an egalitarian future for Kurds?

Whilst the Syrian civil war still rages on it is difficult to ascertain the future of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Whilst ISIS has been mostly defeated, Turkish aggression limits the effective Kurdish security of ex-ISIS members which threatens a return of the movement. Various hegemonic powers like Turkey, the USA, Iran, Iraq, and Russia have become integral powers in the conflict and now the Kurds must serve their interests in order to maintain their independence and international support. 

As a political scientist and anthropologist, Thomas Schmidinger states, “there is a continuously changing, precarious equilibrium between different regional actors” that the Kurds must navigate. Whilst the Kurds would likely prefer to focus on rebuilding their nation, they are again beholden to the whims of international geopolitical players, repeating a cycle of imperialism and foreign intervention the region has seen for centuries albeit in a different form.

The multiple Turkish offensives into North-Eastern Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016, Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019 show the tumultuous future of the Kurdish struggle in the face of Turkish aggression.

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