Note from the LeftEast editors: This article by Carne Ross was originally published in the Financial Times on 23 October 2015.
Perhaps the last place you would expect to find a thriving experiment in direct democracy is Syria. But something radical is happening, little noticed, in the eastern reaches of that fractured country, in the isolated region known to the Kurds as Rojava.
Just as remarkable, perhaps, is that the philosophy that inspired self-government here was originated by a little-known American political thinker and one-time “eco-activist” whose ideas found their way to Syria through a Kurdish leader imprisoned upon an island in the Sea of Marmara. It’s a story that bizarrely connects a war-torn Middle East with New York’s Lower East Side.
I visited Rojava last month while filming a documentary about the failings of the western model of democracy. The region covers a substantial “corner” of north-east Syria and has a population of approximately 3m, yet it is not easy to get to. The only passage is by small boat or a creaky pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraq.
Turkey has closed its borders with Rojava, preventing all movement from the north, including humanitarian supplies to Kurdish-controlled areas. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government does not make access easy; permits for journalists are not straightforward and, we were told, repeat visits are discouraged.
The isolation is not only physical. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurd YPG militia that is fighting the jihadi organisation Isis in Rojava as synonymous with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), a longstanding enemy inside Turkey. The YPG’s advance against Isis along Syria’s northern border has been halted by the declaration by Turkey of a so-called “safe zone” to the west of the Euphrates between the front line and the Kurdish-controlled canton of Afrin in the north-west. For the Kurds, the motive seems transparently clear: to prevent the formation of a contiguous area of Kurdish control along Turkey’s southern border.
The KRG, which collaborates with Turkey against the PKK, has also been reluctant to support the YPG, even though they share a common enemy in the shape of Isis. Turkey has likewise pressured the US to eschew the Syrian Kurds, although in the past few days Washington has come out in more open support, including delivering arms supplies to the YPG. Meanwhile, the Kurds maintain an uneasy truce with the Syrian regime, which keeps two small bases in Rojava but otherwise has no military presence here — a tacit deal whereby the Kurds control the territory in return for not fighting the regime.
Those journalists that do get here naturally gravitate to the front lines like the devastated city of Kobani; similarly, images of the photogenic young women who make up the female Kurdish militia, the YPJ, are more eye-catching than the village hall meetings that comprise the reality of an innovative grassroots democracy. But it is in those dusty assemblies across Rojava that a democratic revolution is taking place.
The article can be read in full at Carne Ross’ blog…