REDWeb Conversations Series – Cultivating autonomy in Rojava

Ashish Kothari speaks with Yasin Duman about the role of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in establishing grass-roots democracy in Rojava, northern Syria.

Ashish Kothari: Yasin, thanks for taking the time to speak with us on the socio-political changes shaping Rojava, Syria. But, before we talk about those issues, could you give us the historical context to the contemporary challenges being faced by the Kurdish people?

Yasin Duman: The Kurdish struggle for self–determination and the recognition of their ethnic rights started in the beginning of the 20th century. The Kurdish Movement, Khoybun (Xoybûn) was established in 1927 in Lebanon and parts of Syria, especially in the Kurdish regions. Kurdish intellectuals and politicians were instrumental in advancing and propagating these ideas. But, that movement was suppressed by the authorities under the French mandate. In 1957, the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria was established, but it also faced hostility and suppression under the authoritarian military government in Syria. There was a break from Khoybun and the related activities of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria until recently, and that was why Kurdish political activism was relatively low compared to other parts of Kurdistan. Then, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was founded in 1974 in Lice in the Kurdish region of Turkey, but its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, moved their headquarters to Syria in 1980. That led to the development of new relations with the local community, which eagerly participated in political programs and training. So, looking at these years it’s obvious that there were breaks in terms of the political institutions, but there is also continuity in regards to the struggle by different groups and actors for ethnic rights despite the interruptions. If we look at Rojava as part of this trajectory, we will be able to identify this continuity. The PKK seems to be internalizing all the struggles of the Kurdish people not only in northern Syria but in other parts of Kurdistan as well. You can see this in their policies and projects on the ground, activities, publications, and ideological trainings in Rojava.

The Syrian Arab Republic didn’t recognize the Kurdish people as citizens.

AK: How has this history shaped the role of the Kurdish people in the current conflict in Syria?

YD: Well, the historical experience pertaining to their ethnic identity has certainly played a part in the Kurdish people’s view of the conflict. Before 2011, the Kurdish people were not recognized as part of Syrian Arab Republic. In 1960-62, a census held by the governor of the Hasakah province asked the citizens to register within two days for that administrative exercise. That, naturally, was impossible because millions of people were expected to register in such a short time. Those who couldn’t register, according to the governor of Hasakah, couldn’t expect to belong to Syrian Arab Republic and they could not be considered as part of the nation. The state authorities did not recognize them and approached them as refugees or migrants from either Turkey or Iraq because of the number of Kurdish populations in these two countries. The unregistered Kurds didn’t have any rights because they didn’t have an identity. They couldn’t move or travel to another city. They couldn’t own private property or gain access to basic public services. But, in the ferment of the present conflict and thanks to the history of Kurdish mobilization as a heritage of Khoybun, PDK-S, and the PKK, people began gaining some political power to a certain extent. The PKK sent its members to Rojava so that they could mobilize people by benefiting from the temporary vacuum in administrative authority in that area. That happened because the Syrian army commanded by the Assad government avoided fighting the Kurdish people as they did not join the Syrian opposition against Assad, or were not as aggressive in their opposition against him. Gradually, the Syrian army also withdrew from northern Syria and intensified its attacks on the opposition’s armed groups, elsewhere. That’s basically one of the accusations that Rojava autonomy receives from many groups in Syria, claiming that the autonomous administration cooperated with Asad against the Syrian opposition.

AK: It seems the Kurdish organized groups were able to leverage their ability to mobilize people to their advantage and in the process create an alternate power center in northern Syria.

YD: Yes, that’s correct. Soon after the conflict started, Assad announced in a press meeting that, “Kurds are the basic component of this [Syrian] nation and we [the Syrian government] are ready to grant citizenship to them”. Salih Muslim, a prominent political leaders and also the head of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), returned to Syria from exile to actively engage in politics. In short, when we look at the history of Kurdish politics in Syria, we see that there was a struggle for national recognition, which was achieved to a considerable extent; there was a struggle for political authority, which was partly addressed by autonomous administrations; and now the process which is playing out is that of the politics of survival and a struggle for maintaining the gains accrued over the last few years of struggle, even if the circumstances keep changing.

AK: I’m quite curious to know how the administrative consolidation in Rojava accompanied the political process and how were the modalities of administration figured out by the Kurdish groups?

YD: The autonomous administration adopted the democratic autonomy model that the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan proposed. He claims this model has the potential to be a solution not only for the Kurdish conflict in Turkey but also in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Öcalan believes that autonomous peoples could create a confederation in the Middle East, and all the conflicts that ethnic and religious minorities, political groups, ecological movements and feminists face could be solved through practical solutions that were implemented in Rojava. For some people that was a utopia because although this model worked in Rojava it may not work in Turkey. It seems that it did not work in Turkey because there was an oppressive and aggressive state authority that did not hesitate to use coercive power. In Syria, there was a lack of state authority and Kurds could benefit from it. Consequently, they could deliver certain services or implement policies and get the attention and support of the local communities. The latter, in fact, became a part of the autonomous administrations and gave their wholehearted support to it.

The local Kurdish communities have given full support to the Rojava Autonomous Administration.

AK: What’s the percentage of population in Rojava that was part of this experiment on democratic autonomy?

YD: Various statistics show that before the present conflict started around 10% of the Syrian population was Kurdish, which would make it around two million. But, according to some sources it is about three million. At the time when the autonomous administrations were created in northern Syria, the population there had shrunk – some people had already left Syria because of the uncertain political situation and settled in other countries and became refugees. While this was happening a part of the simultaneously getting internally displaced from Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa, and Deir-ez-Zour and settling in the territory controlled by the autonomous administration. According to some sources, the population in Afrin, for instance, was around 500,000 before the conflict but soon tripled because of this internal migration. People, in fact, kept moving to the Kurdish autonomous regions from other conflict areas, too, because they felt relatively safer, there. Although we do not have reliable statistics on the number of people who were living in the area controlled by the autonomous administrations, I would say it is around 2 million.

AK: That’s a substantially large population!

YD: Yes, it was, and that was also the first time that the PKK got the chance to implement its autonomy model with millions of people.

AK: Yes, it’s a good scale to operate on. Often, the criticism of these experiments is that they’re confined to one village or two villages, and they don’t work on a large scale.

YD: No, this was quite a big population.

AK: Can you very briefly explain what an autonomous administration is and how it is structured?

YD: Sure. The autonomous administration is basically composed of several autonomous units. These administrations started with very small local units. In the local neighborhoods, for instance, they tried to establish “People’s Houses” where people would come and discuss their issues. It was here the principles of the Kurdish movement were explained to them – what it was trying to achieve in Syria, how people could contribute to it, and what sort of benefits people would get from this form of autonomy. Once this was achieved, and since there was no authority to provide even the basic services to people, they started transforming the local municipalities of the Syrian regime into what was called “People’s Municipalities”, to give access to local services to the residents. Their aim was to give the power of decision making to the people themselves and in return receive their support for managing local services. That is why they called everything in people’s name, like “People’s House” or “People’s Assembly” etc. Once this was achieved the society realised that this movement has the capacity to be in charge of an effective administration, at least at a local level for the benefit of the local people despite the impact of the conflict all around. People could now have access to basic services and facilities like clean potable water. They started becoming part of this experiment, and gradually they started forming local councils – like councils for villages, towns, cities, and regions. Since there was a Kurdish Party in operation, too, they mobilised their supporters to become part of this autonomous administration and movement. They shared the power as well as the responsibilities.

People’s Assemblies are the backbone of an effective administration in Rojava.

AK: Are these councils or municipalities elected? How are they chosen?

YD: When I conducted my research in 2014-2015, council or municipality members were not elected, instead they were appointed by the High Kurdish Council. Later it was the Democratic Society Movement (TEV DEM), which did that. But, soon they took a decision to hold elections. However, the on going war with ISIS forced them to postpone implementing that decision. Finally, as the situation settled down around 2017, they began the process of organizing and conducting elections in this region. It was problematic in many ways because first they had to identify how many people are going to vote – that was a bit difficult because there were still thousands of people who did not want to be a part of this autonomous administration for various reasons including security and concerns over a potential conflict between the autonomous administration and the Assad government. Local sources from Rojava reported that an important part of the population voted, though with no reliable statistics available to back that claim.

Since 2017, the Autonomous Administration of Rojava has been able to conduct regular elections for the local bodies.

AK: Given the diversity of ethnic groups living in northern Syria, was the autonomous administration able to reflect that in the selections to responsible positions?

YD: Yes,this was achieved in several ways. In regards to appointments, for instance, the High Kurdish Council or TEV-DEM decided to select co-mayors and municipality staff from different ethnic and religious groups for the autonomous administration so that they could be broadly representative of the demographics.  There was no hierarchy in the administrative set-up – if there was a Kurdish mayor in a town, an Arab or Assyrian was also appointed to create a balance. This happened in the towns of Dêrik, where the Kurdish and Assyrian communities are the largest in numbers, and in Minbic where the Kurdish and Arab communities are in the majority. The same strategy of power sharing was applied in the selection of city council members to ensure that ethnic and religious groups are well represented.

AK: And gender balance, too?

YD: Yes, one of the co-mayors was always a female.

AK: So, is there an explicit feminist policy ensuring that women are co-equal partners in the decision making process?

YD: Yes. In an interview I conducted in 2014, I was told that a 60% gender quota in favour of women was in practice, instead of a 50-50 representation.  This was done so that women could increase their role in policy-making and local administration. The publications and reports of the Kurdish women’s movement and organizations constantly remind the readers that women are intrinsically powerful and can contribute immensely to politics and economy. This literature also propagates the ideas of self-defence and self-administration for women. Not only did this effort increase the participation of Kurdish women in administration and other forums, it also motivated women from other ethnic groups, as well. Assyrian armed forces, for instance, were composed only of male fighters at the beginning of the conflict, but a few years later the Assyrian female fighters established their own brigades. Arab women started participating in Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). It’s quite possible that in a few years there would be all-Arab female fighter brigades as well. It needs a lot of effort to fight against societal patriarchal structures and the various forms of suppression they contain, but women in Rojava have challenged them very seriously, and considerable changes have been made, albeit gradually. Women are fighting on two fronts at the same time, one to defend themselves and their rights against patriarchy and one to defend their territory against jihadist groups, the Assad government, as well as the various Syrian opposition groups.

AK: I assume that traditionally it is a very patriarchal society like most other parts of the world. So how did this urge for feminising the politics come about? What was the driving force?

YD: I think over the years a determined attempt has been made to understand women’s issues in the context of the patriarchal and capitalist systems. Öcalan has argued that there is a need for reorganizing social sciences so as to examine these issues from a feminist perspective. He has proposed Jineoloji, the science of women. He says “the key to the resolution of our social problems will be a movement for women’s freedom, equality and democracy; a movement based on the science of women”. Jineology or the women’s struggle in Rojava aims to challenge and change mind-sets as well as policies, and make them more radical for equal power-sharing and representation in all institutions including the municipalities, academies, communes, and self-defence units. Self-defence is considered a must, and the most critical part of Jineology. This is how it has attracted women’s attention as a liberating movement.

AK: And so, did you find while doing your studies that it is not just on the paper that you have 60% but women are empowered to speak and take decisions?

YD: Yes, exactly.

AK: I say this because in India and many other places they’ve introduced new constitutional provisions ensuring 50 % reservation for women, but frankly those have been quite ineffective. Women, for instance, attend community meetings, but it’s the men who are doing most of the talking or taking decisions.

YD: I didn’t personally attend any high-level meetings during my fieldwork. I was there when this was a very early experiment in 2014. In fact, it had been just a few months since the process of establishing the new administration had begun. I was told in the interviews that women compose 60% of some institutions and they also have all-female autonomous units and organizations. My study does not conclude that the autonomy model works perfectly.  Soon after I returned from the field, local sources reported that some communes need to be reformed and its members to be re-elected. One reported reason among many others was that women were not given enough room and time to talk about their issues as members of the communes. Ultimately, they decided to demolish the existing structure and create a new one. Asya Abdullah who was then the president and co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, once stated that “we, women, know that the struggle does not end once the administration is recognised, and we will continue fighting for ourselves, our society, our rights and for our autonomous administration.” Women are intensely aware of the power dynamic and the power struggle, and they don’t really naively trust anyone in that sense. I think this is something that the Kurdish women’s movement tries to internalise, and expects others to do the same. They know very well that male-dominant authority can re-emerge at any point and they should remain very vigilant so as to never allow that to happen.

AK: This is an incredibly powerful attempt at establishing a direct, radical feminist democracy. Is there also an ecological basis for this administration? Has it been stated in any relevant political literature or is it being attempted in some concrete ways?

YD: The autonomous administration approaches ecology and nature from the perspective that people are connected to nature. They encountered serious problems in the beginning while implementing ecological policies. In the interviews I conducted it became clear that the administration found it very hard to explain to people what their ecological approach was, how they planned to manage production and consumption, and how they proposed to utilize and share available resources. To be fair, though, they did make an honest attempt to explain their perspective from the very beginning. As for policymaking, both Kurdish and international organizations have been involved in supporting autonomous bodies as well as councils of agriculture. They collaborate with them on how policies can be implemented in a better way to minimize damage to nature and people, and protect both from the long-term impact of the capitalist production/consumption cycle. As far as I could figure out from the reports I got, it does work in certain areas, but not in others for various reasons. Therefore, this is not a region-wide policy at this stage.

The Autonomous Administration of Rojava is trying to incorporate ecological thinking into its policy framework and practice.

AK: Yasin, you have been looking at autonomy more generally not just what’s happening in Rojava. What are the key principles, lessons or learnings that you think are relevant for the current struggle for autonomy?

YD: Autonomy, as a conflict resolution mechanism, basically requires decentralisation, power sharing and recognition of different groups within the community. That would ensure that one group does not dominate the other. Several factors determine the effectiveness of an autonomy model to solve conflicts, which include its relations with the central government as well as the regional powers, and the kind of resources it has, such as oil, agriculture or industry. An autonomous administration can benefit from peaceful relationships and ample resources to make sure that it is capable of creating and implementing responsive policies.

However, under circumstances where an ethnic group is concentrated in a certain region that has rich resources or an advanced economy, local autonomy may easily evolve into a federal government and then into an independent state. At that stage, the relations between the central government and autonomous administration or neighbouring states and autonomous administration can raise serious issues just like in the case of Catalonia in Spain and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. My research concludes that Rojava autonomy will remain as a federal or autonomous region in some form or the other, as the conditions to build a Kurdish nation state in Syria do not exist. Kurds need to maintain good relations with the Syrian government as well as regional and international powers. In this regard, we need to keep in mind KRG’s failure to create an independent Kurdistan because of conflicting interests within Iraq and the lack of regional and international support for a Kurdish state. Rojava autonomy is evolving into an administration that aims to remain as an integral part of decentralized Syria, share power with the central government at the regional level and further share that power with the local population through autonomous administrations.

AK: So, would you say that autonomy exists, both, externally and internally? It is not just about the autonomous administration being able to take decisions in relation to the Syrian state but that internally also it wants power to be shared with people.

YD: Yes, exactly. This is what autonomous administration tries to accomplish. Now, they have been doing this by supporting the autonomous units and organizations of Arabs, Assyrians and the Armenians. Ethnic and religious groups are included in policy making and policy implementation. This is one of the reasons why and how the autonomy model has expanded. While this goes on, the Kurdish movement is also expanding and evolving. What I mean is that the change in its name from Rojava Democratic Autonomy to Northern Syria Democratic Federation is not just a change in name, it also shows the direction this model of autonomy has taken.

AK: Lastly, we know that Öcalan himself has not been physically present while these experiments have taken place. So, how much of his influence is still there, and how does it manifest itself? Is there a second line of leadership, which follows the same principles?

YD: I think that is an important question. In order to negotiate certain policies, you need to have leadership either individually or collectively. So, even though Öcalan is not there physically, his ideas are very much present, and have influence in this region to a very important extent. There was an attempt to create a form of collective leadership but that faced some problems. It was also critiqued by Öcalan himself and we can decipher that from the negotiations he had with the Turkish state. Öcalan, for instance, did not want his pictures or Kurdish flags to be displayed everywhere, as he believed that the autonomous administration did not only represent the Kurdish people, but all the nations. This is a symbolic demand but indeed one of the main components of autonomy, which is to ensure that every nation whether small or big in number is represented and feels a sense of belonging to the autonomous administration.  

AK: Essentially the autonomous administration is stepping beyond the Kurdish revolution and identity and proclaiming that they need to integrate with the ethnic groups around them.

YD: Yes, that’s right.

AK: Yasin, thanks a lot for speaking with Radical Ecological Democracy.


This interview was conducted in August, 2018. The situation on the ground in northern Syria has changed since due to the vicissitudes of the ongoing conflict. However, the following video links provide the latest understanding of the unfolding situation in the Kurdish regions. Please take a look at the video interview with Besime Konca, a Kurdish activist and politician, conducted by Ashish Kothari and Shrishtee Bajpai, and a presentation by Dilar Dirik, an Oxford University based Kurdish researcher and activist, given recently to Kalpavriksh.

Interview with Besime Konca

Presentation by Dilar Dirik

Yasin Duman is a PhD. student at Coventry University in England. He is affiliated with the Center for Trust, Peace and Social Relations. Yasin’s research focuses on the role of ethnic and religious identities in inter-group contact, and integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. His Masters thesis was on the emergence of the Kurdish autonomous administration in Northern Syria (Rojava) and how it perceived past and ongoing conflicts.

Ashish Kothari is a co-founder of Kalpavriksh.

This interview was transcribed by Shrishtee Bajpai.

The interviews published in the REDWeb Conversation series are not based on an exact transcription of the recorded interviews. They are an approximation based on an interpretation as well as a summation of the original interview.

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