I went to Rojava to observe this experiment, crossing the Tigris River from Iraq, driving through fields of golden flowers to the front line of the war against ISIS. The only difficulty I faced crossing the border came from the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, which is hostile to the Rojava experiment and tightly controls media access. Once in Rojava, I was neither assigned any sort of minder, nor subject to surveillance. My interpreter and I could travel wherever we wanted, save for the frontlines, out of consideration for operational security and safety.
From the city of Kobani, I hitched a ride with some fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Rojava, who were redeploying to the Euphrates. We passed through a series of ghost towns that had been looted by ISIS. All its doors had been kicked off their hinges, and the storefront windows smashed in.
At the water’s edge we gazed across the river towards the ISIS positions dug into the high cliffs overlooking the west bank. Ducks, herons, cranes, and other waterfowl bobbed placidly offshore, undisturbed by the distant “tock-tock-tock” of heavy weapons fire. This summer, supported by coalition airpower, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and other ethnic fighters, stormed across the river and drove a huge wedge into ISIS territory, liberating the key city of Manbij. The scenes of joyous civilians celebrating their newfound freedom offered the region, and the world, clear evidence that the tide had turned against the self-proclaimed caliphate.
After the failure of the West’s democracy-building efforts in Iraq and the disappointment of the Arab Spring, the Kurdish achievement is unique. It holds the potential to become a viable, America-friendly society—one that can serve as an exemplar of indigenous Middle Eastern, secular, democratic, feminist values, at a time when even those states in the region founded on similar principles are moving in the opposite direction. But that prospect now teeters on a knife’s edge.
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Society in Rojava is defined by the principles of democratic confederalism as established by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), now the largest constituent in a governing coalition titled the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). Power is as decentralized as possible, rising up from village assemblies and communes to the legislative councils and commissions that run the economy, defense, and justice ministries. At all levels, the ethnic and gender balance is zealously asserted. Arabs, Yazidis, and Turkmen participate in the public sphere alongside the Kurdish majority, while the mantra of Rojava as a whole is “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”).
Historically, the closest parallel to a working model of this system might be the anarchist collectives that briefly arose in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. But Rojava has American roots. The subdivision of power “down through all its subordinations” was the ideal form of government envisaged by Thomas Jefferson, and more recently by Brooklyn-based political philosopher Murray Bookchin. Through Bookchin, it was introduced to Abdullah Ocalan, the ideological architect of Kurdish identity. Despite—or because of—the fact that he is currently incarcerated in a maximum-security Turkish prison after being convicted of treason for his role in co-founding the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Ocalan is the ultimate authority in Rojava. His people will fight—and die—for his vision.