The Rojava Revolution
Pushing Back the Islamic State: The Battle for Rojava
The Rojava Revolution is a political upheaval taking place in an autonomous region of Northern Syria, known as Rojava. The revolution has been characterized by the prominent role played by women both on the battlefield and within the newly formed political system, as well as the implementation of democratic confederalism, a form of grassroots democracy based on local assemblies.
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Kurds make up between nine and fifteen percent of Syria’s population, or well over 2 million people. The northeast of the country (where many Kurds live) is strategically important, because it contains a large percentage of Syria’s oil supplies.
Since 2004, several riots in Western Kurdistan have prompted increased tension. In 2004, riots broke out against the government in the northeastern city of Qamishli. During a chaotic soccer match between a local Kurdish team and a visiting Arab team from Deir ez-Zor, some Arab fans brandished portraits of Saddam Hussein (who slaughtered tens of thousands of Kurds in Southern Kurdistan during the genocidal Al-Anfal Campaign in the 1980s), provoking strong reactions from the Kurds. Tensions quickly escalated into open protests, with Kurds raising their flag and taking to the streets to demand cultural and political rights. In the ensuing crackdown by the police and clashes between Kurdish and Arab groups, at least 30 people were killed, with some claims indicating a casualty count of about 100 people. Occasional clashes between Kurdish protesters and government forces occurred in the following years.
Anti-government sentiment has been present among the Kurdish population for a long time. The Syrian government did not officially acknowledge the existence of Kurds in Syria and a number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship in 1962 and instead were registered as foreigners because their ancestors were not included in the Ottoman population registers for 1920. The Kurdish language and culture have also been suppressed. The government attempted to resolve these issues in 2011 by granting all Kurds citizenship, but only an estimated 6,000 out of 150,000 stateless Kurds have been given nationality and most discriminatory regulations, including the ban on teaching Kurdish, are still on the books. Due to the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011, the government is no longer in a position to enforce these laws.
In 2011 the Arab Spring spread to Syria. Similar to the beginning of the Tunisian Revolution, Syrian citizen Hasan Ali Akleh soaked himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in the northern city of Al-Hasakah. This inspired activists to call for a “Day of Rage”, which ended up being sparsely attended, mostly because of fear of repression from the Syrian government. Days later, however, protests again took place, this time in response to the police beating of a shopkeeper.
Smaller protests continued, but it was on 7 March 2011, when thirteen political prisoners went on hunger strike, that momentum began to grow against the Assad government. Three days later dozens of Syrian Kurds went on hunger strike in solidarity. On 12 March, major protests took place in Al-Qamishli and Al-Hasakah to both protest the Assad regime and commemorate Kurdish Martyrs Day.
Protests grew over the months of March and April 2011. The Assad regime attempted to appease Kurds by promising to grant citizenship to thousands of Kurds, who until that time had been stripped of any legal status. By the summer, protests had only intensified, as did violent crackdowns by the Syrian government.
In August a coalition of opposition groups formed the Syrian National Council in hopes of creating a democratic, pluralistic alternative to the Assad regime. However, internal fighting and disagreement over politics and inclusion plagued the group from its early beginnings. In the fall of 2011 the popular uprising escalated to an armed conflict. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) began to coalesce and armed insurrection spread largely across the central and southern parts of Syria.
Kurds and government opposition negotiations
The National Movement of Kurdish Parties in Syria, which consisted of Syria’s 12 Kurdish parties, boycotted a Syrian opposition summit in Antalya, Turkey on 31 May 2011, stating that “any such meeting held in Turkey can only be a detriment to the Kurds in Syria, because Turkey is against the aspirations of the Kurds, not just with regards to northern Kurdistan, but in all four parts of Kurdistan, including the Kurdish region of Syria.” Kurdish Leftist Party representative Saleh Kado stated that “we, the Kurds in Syria, do not trust Turkey or its policies, and that is why we have decided to boycott the summit.”
During the August summit in Istanbul, which led to the creation of the Syrian National Council, only two of the parties in the National Movement of Kurdish Parties in Syria, the Kurdish Union Party and the Kurdish Freedom Party, attended the summit. Kurdish leader Shelal Gado stated the reason they did not participate was that “Turkey is against the Kurds … in all parts of the world,” and that “If Turkey doesn’t give rights to its 25 million Kurds, how can it defend the rights of the Syrian people and the Kurds there?” Abdulbaqi Yusuf, representing the Kurdish Freedom Party, however, stated that his party felt no Turkish pressure during the meeting and participated to represent Kurdish demands.
On 7 October 2011, prominent Kurdish rights activist Mashaal Tammo was assassinated when masked gunmen burst into his flat, with the Syrian government blamed for his death. At least 20 other civilians were also killed during crackdowns on demonstrations across the country. On 20 September, the Kurdish politician Mahmoud Wali was assassinated by masked gunmen in the town of Ras al-Ayn.
Ethnic minorities remain neutral
Democratic Union Party (PYD) chairman Salih Muslim Muhammad said that the lack of Kurdish participation was due to a tactical decision, explaining that: “There is a de facto truce between the Kurds and the government. The security forces are overstretched over Syria’s Arab provinces to face demonstrators, and cannot afford the opening of a second front in Rojava. On our side, we need the army to stay away. Our party is busy establishing organizations, committees, able to take over from the Ba’ath administration the moment the regime collapses.”
Senior Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Cemil Bayik stated in November 2011 that if Turkey were to intervene in Rojava, the PKK would fight on the Syrian Kurdish side. The PKK’s Syrian branch was alleged in the same month to be involved in the targeting of Kurds participating in the uprising. Murat Karayılan, the PKK’s military commander, threatened to turn all Kurdish-populated areas in Turkey into a war-zone if Turkish forces were to enter Syria’s Kurdish area.
Anti-government protests had been ongoing in the Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria since March 2011, as part of the wider Syrian uprising, but clashes started after the opposition Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Kurdish National Council (KNC) signed a seven-point agreement on 11 June 2012 in Erbil under the auspice of Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani. This agreement, however, failed to be implemented and so a new cooperation agreement between the two sides was signed on 12 July which saw the creation of the Kurdish Supreme Committee as a governing body of all Kurdish-controlled territories in Syria.
YPG claims territory
The People’s Protection Units (YPG) captured the city of Kobanî on 19 July 2012, followed by the capture of Amuda (Kurdish: Amûdê) and Efrîn (Kurdish: Efrîn) on 20 July, thus entering the Syrian Civil War as belligerent. The KNC and PYD afterwards formed a joint leadership council to run the captured cities. The cities fell without any major clashes, as Syrian security forces withdrew without any major resistance. The Syrian Army pulled out to fight elsewhere.
The YPG forces continued with their advancement and on 21 July captured Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko), which is located 10 kilometers from the Turkish border. The rebels at the time also intended to capture Qamishli, the largest Syrian city with a Kurdish majority. On the same day, the Syrian government attacked a patrol of Kurdish YPG members and wounded one fighter. The next day it was reported that Kurdish forces were still fighting for Al-Malikiyah (Kurdish: Dêrika Hemko), where one young Kurdish activist was killed after government security forces opened fire on protesters. The YPG also took control over the towns of Ra’s al-‘Ayn (Kurdish: Serê Kaniyê) and Al-Darbasiyah (Kurdish: Dirbêsî), after the security and political units withdrew from these areas, following an ultimatum issued by the Kurds. On the same day, clashes erupted in Qamishli between YPG and government forces in which one Kurdish fighter was killed and two were wounded along with one government official.
The ease with which Kurdish forces captured the towns and the government troops pulled back was speculated to be due to the government reaching an agreement with the Kurds so military forces from the area could be freed up to engage opposition forces in the rest of the country. On 24 July, the PYD announced that Syrian security forces withdrew from the small Kurdish city of 16,000 of Al-Ma’bada (Kurdish: Girkê Legê), located between Al-Malikiyah and the Turkish borders. The YPG forces afterwards took control of all government institutions.
Popular protest continued in Rojava through 2011 and into the spring of 2012 though most Kurds and other Northern Syrians did not join the FSA because of disagreements over Kurdish representation in a future Syria.
Self-governed Rojava established
On 1 August 2012 Assad forces on the periphery of the country are pulled into the intensifying conflict taking place in Aleppo. During this large withdraw from the north, the People’s Protection Units (PYD), a pro-Kurdish militia that formed after the 2004 al-Qamishli riots took control of at least parts of Qamishlo, Efrin, Amude, Terbaspi and Ayn El Arab with very little conflict or casualties.
On 2 August 2012, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change announced that most Kurdish dominated cities in Syria, with the exception of Qamishli and Hasaka, were no longer controlled by government forces and were now being governed by Kurdish political parties. In Qamishli, government military and police forces remained in their barracks and administration officials in the city allowed the Kurdish flag to be raised.
It was reported in August that the Kurds in northern controlled Syria had set up local committees and checkpoints to search cars. The border crossing between northeastern Syria and Iraq was no longer occupied by government forces. Kurds stated that they would defend their towns if government or opposition forces attempted to enter them. In some areas of Qamishli, government checkpoints were still active, however, Kurds denied cooperation with the Syrian government and stated that the troops remained in their checkpoints with hopes of avoiding a military confrontation. In the same month, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) successfully bombed the government’s intelligence center in the city.
After months of de facto rule, the PYD officially announced its regional autonomy on 9 January 2014. Elections had been held and popular assemblies crafted and approved Constitution of Rojava. Since then, residents have been organizing local assemblies, re-opening schools, establishing community centers and pushing back ISIS to gain control of further territory. They see their model of grassroots democracy as a model that can be implemented throughout the country in a post-Assad Syria.
After declaring autonomy, grassroots organizers, politicians and other community members have radically changed the social and political make up of the area. The extreme laws restricting independent political organizing, women’s freedom, religious and cultural expression and the discriminatory policies carried out by the Assad regime have been abolished. In its place, a constitution guaranteeing the cultural, religious and political freedom of all people has been established. The constitution also explicitly states the equal rights and freedom of women and also “mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.”
The Rojava cantons are governed through a combination of district and civil councils. District councils consist of 300 members as well as two elected co-presidents- one man and one woman. District councils decide and carry out administrative and economic duties such as garbage collection, land distribution and cooperative enterprises. Civil councils exist to promote the social and political rights within the community.
Women’s councils have formed to handle domestic abuse and sexual assault cases. Additionally, there is a 40% quota required of all councils in order for a vote to take place. There have also been the establishment of women’s houses, which are safe houses for victims of violence to stay to seek refuge.
Christian Assyrians, Muslim Kurds and others have worked together both in fighting regime forces and Islamist groups as well as in managing political affairs. The right to religious expression is also safeguarded in the constitution. Because of this as well as the extreme hostility towards religious minorities in Islamist controlled areas has led to a large migration of religious minorities to Rojava.
The vast majority of the economy continues to support forces fighting Assad forces, Islamist forces and now on occasion Turkish forces. However, the canton administration has been working to support worker cooperatives.
Ethnic minority rights
Closely related to religious freedom and the protection of religious minorities is the protection of ethnic minorities. Kurds now have the right to study their language freely as do Assyrians. In some areas, there is an ethnic minority quota in addition to the gender quota for councils.
Criticism of the current political structure includes the marginalizing of dissident political parties and their repression by the community police, Asayish. The region has also implemented mandatory military service, which some oppose. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has found that the YPG, the People’s Protection Units still has youth under the age of 18 serving in the forces.
There are four major forces involved in the Rojava Revolution. The People’s Protection Units are working with the PYD and other political parties to establish self-rule in Rojava. Syrian government forces still maintain rule in some areas of Rojava under the leadership of the Assad regime. A collection of Islamic forces, the largest being ISIS are fighting to rule the region by Sharia law. Finally, there are several militias under the general banner of the Free Syrian Army whose intentions and alliances have differed and shifted over time. At the moment, most FSA fighters are working with the YPG against Islamic forces and the Syrian government.
YPG-Syrian Government conflict
While conflict between the YPG and Syrian Government has not been as active as fighting against Islamist forces, there have been several conflicts between the two forces. Territory once controlled by the Syrian government in Qamishli and al-Hasakah have both been lost to YPG forces.
YPG and FSA relations
The relationship between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been one of tentative cooperation. Both are opposed to the Assad regime and ISIS, however clashes have taken place. Recently, the two forces have been working together to battle ISIS under the name of Euphrates Volcano.
On 4 May 2013, YPG forces and Jihadist militants, including Al Nusra, clashed in areas close to the cities of Hasaka and Ras al-Ain. Reports seemed to suggest that FSA forces were arming Arab tribes in the town of Tal Tamer; encouraging them to confront Kurdish groups. Despite hit and run attacks which led to the deaths of several YPG members as well as civilians, YPG forces reportedly held off the armed groups.
YPG forces have clashed heavily with Islamist forces. Most notable have been the Siege of Kobani and more recently the Al-Hasakah Offensive and Tell Abyad Offensive. The YPG has been one of the most reliable and effective fighting forces against Islamic groups such as ISIL and al-Nusra Front.
The majority of tension and conflict in Rojava has been between the YPG and Islamist groups. However, there has also been internal conflict between various Kurdish political parties and militias. This was particularly true at the beginning of the revolution, while those tensions have largely subsided as the autonomous administrations of Rojava have become more established and the urgency for a united front against Islamic forces has developed.
Towns under semi-autonomous rule
In January 2013, the following towns were under YPG control:
- Afrin (Efrîn)
- Al-Darbasiyah (Dirbêsî)
- Al‑Jawadiyah (Çil Axa)
- Al-Ma’bada (Girkê Legê)
- Al-Malikiyah (Dêrika Hemko)
- Al-Qahtaniyah (Tirbespî)
- Ali Kuz (Aali Kôz)
- Ashrafiyeh (Eşrefiye, district of Aleppo)
- Amuda (Amûdê)
- Ayn al-Arab (Kobanê)
- Ain Diwar (Eyndîwer)
- Jindires (Cindirês)
- Rajo (Raco)
- Ra’s al-‘Ayn (Serêkanî)
- Sheikh Maqsoud (Şêx Meqsûd, district of Aleppo)
- Tel Adas (Girzîro)
- Tell Tamer (Girê Xurma) also known as Tal Tamr or as Tal Tamir
- Al-Yarubiya (Tel Koçer)
- SuluK or Saluq 
- Tell Abyad (Girê spî)
- Ayn Issa (Ein Issa/Ain Issa)
- Sarrin (Zêrîn)