Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

The Egalitarian Revolution in Syria

Image by Jan Sefti

The Syrian civil war recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. The morbid occasion provides an avenue for reflection upon the havoc wreaked in the region. Yet, not all reflection is cause for depression, although you would be forgiven for thinking so. The sensation-driven news media mostly report on the latest advances of Islamic radicalism or when appropriate amounts of people are deemed to have died. Yet, the region contains more than destruction and death. Much more.

Among the most positive impressions is that of the Rojava Cantons, located across Syria’s northern Border. These include the Kobané, Efrín and Cizíré Cantons. Kobané will probably stand out, as the self-proclaimed Islamic State recently brought it under concerted attack. The attack was ultimately repelled due to the strength of the defenders on the ground and careful U.S. bombing. The fighting received international coverage, but what the defenders were fighting for received very little. This post will attempt to make up for that.

Map of Rojava - Feb 2014

The Rojava Cantons were founded as a direct result of the outbreak of the civil war. As fighting started raging across the country, the Syrian Army and administration left the area, effectively leaving behind them a power vacuum. The largely Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) seized upon this opportunity and moved swiftly to institute a wealth of deep democratic reforms. These reforms include measures of ecological sustainability, radical gender equality, ethnic pluralism, and direct democracy.


Direct democracy

Some ten years ago, the pseudo-spiritual head of the PYD, Abdullah Öcalan, reformed his earlier Marxist-Leninist beliefs to include more left-libertarian thought after reading, among others, Murray Bookchin. Following this change, the PYD no longer considered itself a nationalist entity – fighting for the establishment of an independent Kurdish nation. Since then, it has rather considered itself a movement interested in radical decentralisation through an increase in direct democracy. This project stands in contrast to liberal representational democracy, yet does not seek the disbanding of existing nation-states. The idea is that, while elections are held and representatives of the people do administer some public services, local matters are governed mostly by popular consensus. Accordingly, this entails a proliferation of town meetings and an increase in democratisation and politicisation of all matters, investing power in ordinary people rather than in bureaucracies or narrow elites.

Ecological Sustainability

The Rojava Cantons have set a target for themselves to become completely self-sustainable. They aim to do so through measures such as reviving indigenous agricultural knowledge, increasing the number of cooperatives and generally restructuring the relationship to private property. To be sure, private property is still respected, but it must be put to use to the benefit of all. Finally, with Article 90 of the constitution, they provide strong legislative support for this project.

Ethnic Pluralism

The Rojava Cantons consist mostly of Kurds. However, there are also many Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens and other ethnicities living there. Representational democracy holds as a key virtue its protection of minorities – a protection not as easily secured in direct democracy. Yet, quota systems have been instated across the administrative public service sectors in order to ensure the participation of ethnic minorities. Furthermore, the official languages of Rojava are all of Kurdish, Syriac and Arabic, and article 9 of the constitution stipulates that all ethnic communities have the right to teach and be taught in their native languages.

Gender Equality

This is perhaps the most eye-catching feature of the Rojava Revolution. There is now radical gender equality across society – both in civilian and military life. There is an all-female section of the defence force, there is an all-women’s political party, all institutions are co-chaired, with woman representation guaranteed, and academies have been set up for the general public in order to, in part, raise consciousness on gender equality and combat conservative attitudes towards women. In general, women are an integral part to the whole of society, both institutionally and normatively.



Several international academics and observers have visited Rojava, and all have been very impressed. Nevertheless, challenges do remain. Political Sociologist Dr. Jeff Miley of University of Cambridge, one of the recent visiting academics, while thoroughly impressed by his experiences in Rojava, warns that the ethnic pluralistic element is very difficult to maintain, and that there are feelings of distrust directed at the Arab population as to their degree of sympathy with radical Islamists. He also warns that, despite the leadership having given up on the nationalist struggle once championed by Abdullah Öcelan, the revolutionary cadre might still envision a Kurdish state as a desired outcome.

Another major challenge is the way the PYD handles political dissent. While representation is still a central element to the administration of the cantons, the waning influence of political parties has created unrest. This has previously resulted in deaths, for which PYD cadre was accused of being culpable. However, there has been no such unrest recently.

Other major challenges include a lack of Kurdish unity across national borders, the cult of personality seemingly erected around Abdullah Öcelan, shaking the image of being a U.S. ‘lackey’, and, of course, gaining enough strength to continue to withstand attacks by radical Islamic elements.

However, in spite of all these challenges, the astounding success of so many features of this democratic vision, in such a hostile environment, does nothing but testify to the supreme bravery, dedication and competence of the revolutionaries in Rojava. For not only are they transforming a part of Syria to encompass aspects that all self-proclaimed progressives would be proud to endorse, they are tangibly making life better for the people in the area. In addition, they are providing a supreme answer to all those critics of radicals worldwide, who claim that ‘liberal capitalism is the best we can hope for’. Indeed, they provide everyone with proof that there are alternatives, that struggle does matter and that change is possible. For those of us living in the West, under an ever-increasing neoliberal assault, these are lessons we must take to heart.


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