Despite the borders that divide them, the repressive policies and coercive diplomacy of the nation-states in which they live, and intra-Kurdish conflicts, Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and in the diaspora have maintained relationships throughout history. These interactions have largely occurred through armed mobilization, political organization, and linguistic and cultural activities.
This helps us understand how the Kurdish political movement and armed forces in Bakur (southern and eastern Turkey) and the political and sociocultural organization of Kurds in Makhmour Camp in Bashur (the Kurdistan Region of Iraq) inspired and influenced the political model of democratic autonomy that is now implemented in Rojava (North and East Syria). It also explains why the democratic autonomy model’s survival in Rojava matters for other parts of Kurdistan—particularly at a time when Turkey poses an active threat to its future.
Democratic Autonomy: A Brief Background
Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan began to build the ideological foundations for the concept of democratic autonomy in the early 1990s. These ideas developed into their current form, inspired by ‘the libertarian and anarchist writings of Murray Bookchin, as an alternative to the authoritarian and centralist nation state, not only in the Kurdish-inhabited provinces, but in Turkey at large’. This was a major shift from Ocalan and the PKK’s previous support for an independent Kurdish nation-state.
Ocalan imagines autonomy as an internal part of democratic confederalism, which he defines as ‘a non-state organization of democratic nation and culture’. He envisions democratic confederalism as an organization of minorities, cultural organizations, religious organizations, and gender organizations.
As this proposed theoretical model evolved, Ocalan and the PKK took steps to build it in practice. In 1993, the PKK created its first women’s army. In 1995, it established faith committees to manage religious affairs. At its 5th congress, the PKK decided to ‘support the ethnic and religious minorities of Kurdistan and to afford them the opportunity to develop their language, culture, and traditions.’
One of the first settings in which the democratic autonomy model was implemented outside of the PKK’s internal structures was the Makhmour Camp, which was founded in 1998 and is located in Bashur. Around 12,000 Kurds from Bakur who were forcibly displaced by the Turkish military are settled in this camp. The social innovations that the Kurdish movement developed there would influence other parts of Kurdistan: Kurdish-language educational programs developed in the camp, for example, were later duplicated in both Bakur and Rojava.
Starting in 2004, the Kurdish political movement attempted to implement the democratic autonomy project in Bakur through local government and civil society structures. In doing so, it faced significant internal challenges, including inadequacies and ambiguities in its institutional design. There were also external threats, like the Turkish government’s criminalization of Kurdish municipalities’ policies on issues like gender equality and language rights, the imprisonment of around 100 mayors and their deputies, and the appointment of trustees to replace jailed elected officials.
In Rojava, the democratic autonomy model has advanced much further. Autonomous administrations were established in Cizire, Kobane, and Efrin in January 2014, with the goal of resolving socio-political and ethno-religious conflicts through democratic participation on the part of various ethnic, religious, and political groups; power-sharing; equality; and promoting societal peace and coexistence while avoiding involvement in national, regional, and international conflicts.
This model was later implemented in non-Kurdish areas of northern Syria, such as Manbij and Raqqa. As a result, the Kurdish movement has had a valuable opportunity to test the ‘boundaries’ of inclusive policies for peaceful coexistence through democratic autonomy in the midst of an ongoing conflict.
These successes for democratic autonomy in Rojava and northeastern Syria were possible despite oppression and violent attacks on the project by multiple actors, including the Turkish state, the Syrian regime, and non-state actors like ISIS and the Free Syrian Army.
Overall, this ‘broken continuity’ illustrates the three stages of development of democratic autonomy as a political model:
At first, the introduction of this model was an attempt to expand the sphere of influence of the Kurdish movement among Kurds and make the Kurdish struggle for rights and recognition a more legitimate demand in domestic and international politics.
As the democratic autonomy model was tested in Bakur and Rojava, it turned out to be an inclusive administrative model in terms of power sharing and local peacebuilding. This contributed further to its legitimacy, but did not lead to formal recognition.
Now, after being criminalized and suppressed by the Turkish state in Bakur, the democratic autonomy model is fighting for survival in Rojava and North and East Syria as a result of Turkish occupation and military threats.
The Kurdish movement introduced and advanced the democratic autonomy model in different settings across Kurdistan under different, though uniformly challenging, circumstances.
As mentioned earlier, early steps towards democratic autonomy were taken in the Makhmour Camp. People there suffer from significant restrictions on their movements and access to services as a result of the prolonged conflicts between the PKK and the Kurdish Regional Government forces, as well as deadly Turkish attacks. Despite these challenges, the PKK as an organization has been the main mobilizer behind the provision of basic local services, including education, water, electricity, and infrastructure. Other services, as well as connections to the international community and international organizations, have been managed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Iraqi Government, and the UNHCR.
Some residents of Makhmour have joined the PKK, both to take part in its armed struggle and to contribute to its socio-political and cultural programs in different regions of Kurdistan. Those who gained theoretical and practical experience in structures based on democratic autonomy in Makhmour have had opportunities to go to Bakur and Rojava to spread the framework there.
This cross-border ideological and practical mobility also aimed at contributing to the peace negotiations in Bakur. In both 1999 and 2009, Ocalan requested that groups of PKK members from Makhmour and Qandil return to Bakur as an indication of the PKK’s willingness to make peace. Both groups were unsuccessful. The members of the first group (in 1999) were imprisoned, while the second group left Bakur to avoid facing a similar fate. This is one example of how the Kurdish movement’s efforts to end the war and have the PKK members return home to lead efforts to build democratic autonomy, contribute to peaceful social relations, and engage in communal sociocultural and economic life was hindered by the Turkish state’s security-oriented policies that saw their political actions as threats to its ‘national unity.’
In Rojava, where the Turkish state has had less influence, intra-Kurdish interactions have differed slightly. When Syrian Kurds took control of areas near the border, PKK members from different parts of Kurdistan went to Rojava to help build their armed forces and contribute to the creation of local administrations inspired by Ocalan’s theories. Rojava was the first part of Kurdistan that had a real opportunity to initiate the democratic autonomy model, not only to address the Rojava Kurds’ historical demands for political, cultural, and economic rights and demands but also to show the rest of Kurds whether and how this model can function outside of a relatively isolated and homogenous setting like Makhmour.
Having conducted extensive research in Rojava between 2014 and 2015 on the emergence and evolution of the democratic autonomy model and how it accommodates peoples’ needs and resolves intergroup and interpersonal conflicts, I have found that its policies that focus on inclusivity and power-sharing between different ethnic, religious, gender, and political groups and that consider self-rule as the basic component of and starting point for political organization have played a key role in winning popular support. This has also made it a promising option to end the conflict in Syria while protecting and empowering society against destabilizing nationalist and sectarian groups and ideologies, including those of the Syrian regime, the Syrian opposition led by Turkey, ISIL, and other factions.
The early democratic autonomy and self-governance practices in Makhmour Camp and Bakur were reflected in Rojava. For example, to support Kurdish language educational initiatives in Rojava, teachers from these regions were sent to the region, along with educational materials, books, and journals. Medical experts from the Democratic Society Congress based in Amed (Diyarbakir) visited hospitals in Rojava and medical units in the IDP and Yazidi camps in 2013 and 2014 to identify gaps and needs and offer solutions for how to best address them based on their experiences in Bakur.
The experience of democratic autonomy in Rojava is more similar to that of Bakur than it is to that of the Makhmour Camp—largely because the former two regions shared more comparable circumstances. In both Rojava and Bakur, society is ethnically and religiously diverse, composed of Kurds, Arabs, Turks/Turkmens, Armenians, Assyrians, and other groups. The need for multilingual administration and power-sharing in local governance bodies was thus important and addressed in both Qamişlo (Rojava) and Mêrdîn (Bakur), for example.
The Kurdish movement in both regions made efforts to reach out to non-Kurdish groups and encourage them to support and take part in the democratic autonomy model through local organizations. In particular, the gap left by the Assad regime’s withdrawal and the Global Coalition’s support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against ISIL gave the Rojava administration a significant opportunity to introduce the democratic autonomy model in Arab-majority regions in Syria like Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zour and encourage local populations to participate in it.
These intra-Kurdish interactions were possible mainly because the Turkish government was holding ‘peace negotiations’ with Ocalan in prison and with Syrian Kurdish leaders. For example, Salih Muslim, then the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD, the major actor behind the foundation of democratic autonomy), visited Ankara for negotiations. The Kurdish movement in Rojava did not accept the Turkish state’s attempts to unite them with the Syrian opposition to fight the Assad regime during this time period. They instead decided to develop the democratic autonomy model as a ‘third option’ constructed based on the values of secularism, gender equality, multiculturalism, power-sharing, democracy, inclusivity, and peacebuilding.
In Bakur, the ceasefire that was in effect during the negotiations with Ocalan allowed the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to run a more effective election campaign, reach out to and gain support from non-Kurdish groups, and reactivate local organizations as part of the democratic autonomy model.
The political atmosphere of the time also gave the HDP and the PYD a chance to support each other, as well as to maintain peaceful relations with the Turkish government in order to prevent an armed confrontation and protect increasing Kurdish political legitimacy and ‘territorial gains’ in both Rojava and Bakur. The term ‘territorial gains’ here does not only refer to a geography controlled by military and political means. It also indicates a sphere of influence in a region that does not necessarily need geographic boundaries. I assert that both the PYD and the HDP have had the chance to expand their territorial gains by becoming more inclusive and implementing the democratic autonomy model, but that changing circumstances, particularly the Turkish state’s suppressive policies, military attacks, and incursions into Syrian territory, significantly undermined their efforts and criminalized their demands and rights.
Threats to the AANES Project
Under current circumstances, the outlook for the democratic autonomy model in both Rojava and Bakur is not positive. There are several key reasons behind this.
First, Turkish President Erdoğan and his coalition partners have been looking for opportunities in both domestic and international politics to launch a full-scale operation against Rojava, while increasing pressure on the Kurdish movement in Bakur by attempting to shut down the HDP and silencing the Kurdish media.
Second, the lack of geographic connections between different parts of Rojava due to the Turkish occupation of North and East Syria, as well Turkey’s militarization of the borders between Rojava and Bakur, do not allow ‘cross-border’ intra-Kurdish interaction and support.
Third, Turkish drone attacks that target key figures in the SDF, the AANES, the PKK and other Kurdish political and military groups in Rojava and Kurdistan Region, and the Global Coalition’s lack of response to these attacks in areas under its influence, contribute to instability and insecurity. They undermine the campaign against ISIL, create distrust between the SDF and AANES and the Coalition, and increase the threat of an ISIS resurgence, including the potential escape of ISIS militants currently imprisoned in territories under SDF control.
Fourth, the destabilization of the region caused by attacks from Turkey and ISIL will cause further displacement, human rights violations, indiscriminate killings and substantial demographic change—as occurred during Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Efrîn (Afrin), Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain), and Girê Spî (Tal Abyad).
Fifth, democratic autonomy, which was designed to be a multicultural, multilingual, secular, equality, and self-governance-oriented model, has been successfully introduced to non-Kurdish communities, especially in Manbij, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zour. This has happened despite a long history of state-sponsored Baathist nationalism; military attacks from multiple sides (including the Syrian regime, Syrian opposition, Turkish state, and ISIL); economic embargoes imposed by the Syrian regime, Turkey, and the KRI; and intra-Kurdish conflicts. Losing the remaining regions of North and East Syria under SDF control to the Turkish military and its affiliated armed groups will severely damage the peaceful relations and trust between ethnic and religious groups there. As evidence from Efrîn (Afrin), Serêkaniyê (Ras al-Ain), and Girê Spî (Tal Abyad) shows, people under Turkish occupation are categorized, criminalized, and punished based on their identities, affiliations, and real or perceived support for the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
In the face of these serious challenges and their potential long-lasting consequences for all parties involved, the following recommendations are brought to the attention of various stakeholders:
- Hostility towards the democratic autonomy model should end. The AANES should have the opportunity to negotiate for national and international recognition, as well as for the possibility of including elements of its administrative model in other parts of Syria as part of a political settlement.
- Turkey and Turkish-backed armed groups must end their attacks on the AANES. These attacks threaten regional stability and increase the likelihood of an ISIS resurgence.
- IDPs and refugees must be allowed to return to their original homes and reclaim their properties regardless of where they have been since the conflict began and what their ethnic, religious, or political affiliations may be.
- Regional and international actors and powers should immediately stop military operations in Syria. This should include a comprehensive cease-fire and a withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country, although international peacekeeping forces supported by local actors could stay to prevent a re-eruption of the conflicts until a comprehensive political solution is prepared and implemented. Political activity should be the primary means by which different parties negotiate and address social, political, and economic problems.
- Humanitarian support and long-term stability interventions should be redesigned and implemented without delay in order to rebuild infrastructure, provide security, enable access to basic public services, and create sustainable livelihoods.
- The international community should continue to support the AANES in managing the return and reintegration of ISIL affiliated families in camps and ISIL members in prisons.
- Local and national actors should initiate peacebuilding mechanisms between political and military actors and between different ethnic, religious, and political groups and individuals to ensure sustainable social cohesion. These efforts should be encouraged and supported by regional and international interested parties.
- Kurdish parties and political movements, both in the region and in the diaspora, should increase their efforts to resolve intra-Kurdish conflicts and cooperate. In particular, they should work to strengthen and develop the capacity of the democratic autonomy model to make it a more effective local governance model. Intra-Kurdish peace will also contribute to Kurds’ efforts to establish peaceful relations with other communities in the region and with regional governments.
- A national committee composed of representatives of as many different groups as possible should be established for the purpose of preparing a new Syrian constitution. Given the ideological, ethnic, religious, and territorial polarization and animosity in the country, the foundations of the new constitution should be built on democracy, de-centralization, and power sharing.
- The borders between Syria and neighboring countries should be open for business purposes, humanitarian projects, and visits. Interaction between different ethnic and religious communities across the borders should be facilitated.
(Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)