In the Syrian war the Kurds have played a key role in stemming the advance of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and they control now vast swaths of territory. An analysis of the political project of the PYD and its linkages with Abdullah Öcalan’s PKK
Last update: 2022-04-22 09:57:43
In 2019, the uprising in Syria will enter its ninth year. Since 2011, most of Syria has turned into a multi-layered war zone, with the regime and various opposition groups fighting for state power with and among each other. Moreover, various states have been interfering in the war, in particular Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Great Britain and France, bringing their own political agendas to the war. While most of the opposition groups in Syria pursue a sectarian agenda of regime change, the mainly Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD, Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) and the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Council, of which the PYD is a member, have been pursuing a decentralized governmental system which they refer to as non-statist. The difference in political outlook between the PYD/SDC on the one side and other opposition groups in Syria on the other side has resulted in mutual animosity from the very beginning of the uprising against the Assad regime. This article will discuss and contextualize the distinctive political outlook the PYD/SDC.
A Multi-Layered War Zone
In 2011, following a sequence of protests that swept through North Africa and the Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt eastwards generally referred to as the “Arab Spring”, mass protests erupted along with violent actions and reactions in Syria, too. The civil uprising in Syria in 2011 quickly transformed into an active insurgency, with the state as the main trophy. This insurgency was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 and then by the emergence of Al-Qaida and Islamic State (IS), with various states in the region fuelling an attempted armed overthrow of the regime in Damascus. The result was an increasingly violent cluster of interlinked conflicts in different locations with alignments of armies and militias made up of variously independent and proxy forces in which no single power could prevail. Russia and Iran intervened decisively for the regime, with the US and West focusing on removing IS, including through a collaboration with the Kurdish forces, and Turkey supported radical Islamist groups, diverting their war from one against the regime to one against Kurdish influence and autonomy.
Though the Kurdistan region in Syria had its own history of resistance against oppressive Syrian state policies, under Hafez el-Assad and then his son Bashar, including Arabisation and denial of citizenship, protests in Syrian Kurdistan broke out relatively late in 2012. Kurds were deeply suspicious of the intentions of the opposition.
While the central state faced an existential threat in the capital, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG), established in 2012, and allied to the PYD, took the city of Kobanê on July 19, followed by Amude and Afrin on July 20, and Derik and Qamislo in the days after. Within two weeks, regime forces had pulled back to the south of Rojava, though maintaining strongholds in Hasakeh and Qamislo. In the years that followed, the YPG forces —and later, too, the 2013-established Women’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Jin, YPJ) and the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), a coalition of forces established around the YPG and developed into a broader, progressive, multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance—were able to establish a monopoly of violence in the regions under their control and build relatively stable and working administrations.
Regime change or system change
Not only the relation to the regime, but also the question of the state became an important and dividing issue between the Apoist movement and other parties, both the Kurdish parties organized in the Kurdish National Council (KNC) that oriented themselves to that other Kurdish political entity, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, and the Arab opposition. Importantly, the PYD and the political umbrella organisation of the Syrian Democratic Council (Konseya Demokratîk a Sûriyê, SDC) did not aim at conquering the state to take over from the Assad regime nor at constructing a new state. For the PYD, the principle issue was not a replacement of (Bashar) Assad, but a change of the very political system underlying the repression in Syria and the Middle East as a whole, one that involved the construction of more genuinely democratic institutions for a societal empowerment.
Contrary to the statist political outlook of the Kurdish parties in Başur (Iraq), the political outlook of the PYD was centred on a strengthening of society vis-á-vis the state through a form of active citizenship and self-government—a non-state, or better, non-statist democracy—which stood square to Assad’s objective of restoring centralised state rule.
The PYD/SDC orientation towards systemic change rather than to regime change through a conquering of the state informed its distrust of the Syrian National Council (SNC), a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated entity sponsored by Turkey that called for regime change but was considerably less vocal on systemic change. The PYD/SNC also rejected the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella organisation established in 2011 under the political guidance KRG President Massoud Barzani, which was collaborating with the Syrian opposition. The tensions between the KNC/SNC, on the one hand, and the PYD/SDC, on the other, expressed a fundamental division between the two different approaches to the state. While the PYD/SDC aimed to develop a ordering based on the idea of autonomous assemblies, the KNC aimed at autonomy for the Kurds within a Syria in which the Ba’ath regime would be replaced, something we may refer to as the KRG model.
This conflict between the PYD and the pro-KRG Kurdish parties has its backgrounds in a crisis within the Kurdish party political system that had developed over the previous decade or more. The popularity of the main Kurdish political parties in Syria had been falling since the 1990s, due, among other things, to factionalism and the domination of personality issues, along with the inability of the parties to gain concessions from the state (Allsopp 2014: 176-177). While support for these parties diminished, however, the levels of Kurdish national consciousness and youth activism increased. It was from out of this contradiction—a crisis in traditional party politics set against a raised political awareness—that the PYD was able to make its political alternative of autonomous assemblies, horizontally connected and bottom-up constructed, attractive for youth activists, who had become suspicious of bureaucratic and centralised structures. The PYD/SDC political outlook, often not understood by classical party organisations, resonated strongly with the emerging activism.
After large parts of Rojava had come under the control of the YPG in 2012, local (neighbourhood) assemblies were developed to provide some form of government and the provisioning of services, such as the distribution of food and fuel to the organisation of education and self-defence. The establishment of councils, it should be noted, was not solely a “Rojava-affair.” In fact, hundreds of councils sprang up all around Syria during 2011 and 2012 in the context of the uprising, councils referred to as “the essence of the Syrian revolution.” Interlinked in a variety of ways—e.g. through WhatsApp groups with like-minded councils and organisations—these councils were the creative product of local needs, an immediate response to the collapse of central government structures in the wartime context, and the governance vacuum resulting from the sudden absence of state administrators through forced departure and/or local rejection of their office. In other words, the councils took over state functions. The local councils in the ethnically diverse city of Manbij, for example, were described as a “compelling example of successful grassroots governance during the two-year period between the Syrian regime’s withdrawal from the city in 2012 and the Islamic State’s takeover in 2014.” Importantly, the councils emerging were not a function of the central state but rather the way in which opposition was articulated and people administrated themselves.
The councils that had emerged throughout Syria in the springtime of the protests were different from those that emerged in Rojava, however, primarily in terms of political organisation. The councils in Rojava were not just a local working practice, but also interrelated in a larger network that provided cohesion and direction. Together with the establishment of the first councils in the Kurdistan region, the PYD initiated the establishment of the Movement for a Democratic Society (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk, TEV-DEM), a platform of political parties, professional and societal organisations, and council representatives for deliberation and coordination (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga 2014). TEV-DEM firmly framed itself as promoting pluralism, based on the “rights of all ethnic and religious groups to manage themselves according to their own free will.” It argued that such pluralism was not possible within Syria as a unilateral and centralized state.
Promoted by TEV-DEM, councils for decision-making and administration have been established at the level of streets and villages, neighbourhoods and district, cities, regional and the level of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), all with a 40% gender quota. The smallest unit in this confederation is the commune, which may consist up to a few to 400 households, equal to a residential street or streets or a village. The commune meets monthly or bi-monthly and all residents are entitled to participate. Often, a women’s council, in which the women of the residential area are entitled to participate, function in parallel to the commune council, discussing issues the women consider important and which they can bring to the agenda of the commune meeting.
It was also determined that each commune has an executive, composed of the co-chairs (a man and a woman) and additional members. The communes meet weekly and ideally have committees for peace, self-defence, economics, politics, civil society, free society and ideology. Not all committees have been established, but the peace and self-defence committees are common. A neighbourhood council is composed of several villages or a city-quarter, and its members are the executives of the communes. These neighbourhood councils have an executive and further committees. (Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga 2014: 87) This is repeated at the level of the city council, cantons and regions (Cezîre, Euphrates and Afrin) and the DFNS. The development of an alternative system of local self-administration was to address the contradiction between (the) people and state, while the idea of autonomy as the right of diverse (cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.) groups to organise themselves and give expression to their interests and identity responded to the problem of the state.
While state formation and federal autonomy were top of the agenda of the Kurdish movement in neighbouring Iraq, the political thought of the PYD/SDC was inspired by the post-1999 work of Abdullah Öcalan, who problematized the concept of the state. In Liberating Life, Öcalan (2013: 55) argued that the struggle for justice “entails creating political formations aiming to achieve a society that is democratic, gender equal, eco-friendly and where state is not the pivotal element” (emphasis added). The state was critiqued by Öcalan (Öcalan 2010: 193) as an institution that stands not for democracy, freedom and human rights but rather their denial.
Briefly, Öcalan’s critique of the modern state combines two analytical threads. The first is a state-critique that problematises the administrative state, the creation of a bureaucracy as a dominant class, in which the main contradiction becomes that between the people and this dominant class. The alternative of a system of local self-administration is suggested to address this contradiction. The second is a state critique, which problematises the nation-state form as having ultimate objective of homogenising the population through assimilation into a dominant identity and thus erasing diversity and difference. The idea of autonomy as the right of cultural, ethnic, gender and religious groups to organise themselves and give expression to their interests and identity aims to address this.
Thus, rejecting the administrative state and the nation-state, Ocalan proposed a new model:
The people are to be directly involved in the decision finding process of the society. This project relies on the self-government of local communities and is organized in the form of open councils, town councils, local parliaments and larger congresses. Citizens are the agents of this kind of self-government instead of state-based institutions. The principle of federative self-government has no limitations. It can even be continued across borders in order to create multinational democratic structures. Democratic confederalism prefers flat hierarchies where decision finding and decision-making processes take place within local communities… It provides a framework within which minorities, religious communities, cultural groups, gender-specific groups and other societal groups can organize themselves autonomously.(2014: 32)
Following the libertarian socialist thinker Murray Bookchin (1991), Öcalan uses the term “democratic autonomy” to refer to the decision-making capacities and responsibilities of people themselves, a politics fundamentally based on an engaged involvement, a primarily participatory rather than representative democracy. (Akkaya and Jongerden 2013) The principle of “democratic confederalism” refers to the inter-connective context in which self-government should take place, comprising a multi-layered network of assemblies as a principle of social organisation aimed at “democratizing the interdependence without surrendering the principle of local control”. (Bookchin 1991) Thus, a bottom-up process of extension starting with the establishment of “direct-democratic popular assemblies at the municipal, town, and neighbourhood levels” becomes, through the emergent confederated form, an alternative to the state; this is “a politics that seeks to recreate a vital local political or civic sphere.” Over larger regions, these assemblies would confederate and, as they gain strength, challenge the centralised nation-state. Bookchin argued for a municipalisation (rather than a Marxian nationalisation) of the economy, as a way of opposing the present corporate capitalist system of ownership and management. (Simkin 2014)
The ideological change within the PKK was accompanied by an organization change. One of the main changes was a differentiation of the PKK, resulting in the establishment of separate parties for the organization of the struggle for Kurdish rights in the context of a democratization of Iraq, Iran and Syria. This resulted in the formation of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PÇDK, Partiya Çareseriya Demokratik a Kurdistan) formed in Iraq in 2002, the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK, Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistan) in 2004 and the Democratic Union Party (PYD, Partiya Yekitiya Demokratik) in Syria in 2004. The PYD program has officially announced its aim of realizing democratic autonomy, which its charter reaffirms, adding that it sees the project of democratic confederalism as the general mechanism not only for uniting the Kurds in the Middle East, but also as a model for living together and as such an alternative to ethnic and religious sectarianism and fragmentation.
A model under attack
So when parties in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq were preparing themselves for independence elections, which were held on September 25, 2017, the Kurdish movement in Syria was preparing for local elections. A total of some 728,450 votes were cast, representing around 70% of all eligible voters. In the Cezîre region (Qamişlo and Hesekê cantons), people elected co-chairs for 2,669 communes from over 12,000 candidates, while in the Fırat region (Kobane and Grê Spî cantons) people elected co-chairs for 843 communes from over 3,100 candidates, and for the Afrin region (Afrin and Şehba cantons), people elected co-chairs for 435 communes from over 1550 candidates. In the same month, an attempt to establish an independent state was made in one part of Kurdistan, in the other part of Kurdistan an attempt was made to strengthen self-administration through the local elections of co-chairs, the core of what claimed to be a non-statist form of government. It is this alternative, participative and inclusive vision on government, which is under attack from all sides: Islamic State and other radical Islamist groups, the regime and Turkey.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
 Nikolaos van Dam, Destroying a Nation, The civil war in Syria. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.
 Harriet Allsopp, The Kurds of Syria. New York:Palgrave, 2014; Michael Knapp, Anya Flach and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava Democratic Autonomy and Women's Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan. London: Pluto, 2014; Robert Lowe, “The Emergence of Western Kurdistan and the Future of Syria” in David Romano and Mehmet Gurses (eds.), Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014 and Thomas Schmidinger, Krieg und Revolution in Syrisch-Kurdistan. Wien: Mandelbaum Verlag, 2014.
Michael Knapp, Anya Flach and Ercan Aybog, Revolution in Rojava and Michael Knapp and Joost Jongerden, “Communal Democracy: The Social Contract and Confederalism in Rojava,” Comparative Islamic Studies (2016).
 E.g. Salih Muslum, former co-chairman of the PYD, declared in 2011: “We want a fundamental change to the oppressive system. There are some who hold up the slogan ‘the fall of the regime’. Our problems are not of powers. The ruling powers in Damascus come and go.” Cit. in Harriet Allsopp, The Kurds of Syria, p. 209.
 Robert Lowe, “The Emergence of Western Kurdistan and the Future of Syria”; Harriet Allsopp, The Kurds of Syria; Michael Knapp, Anya Flach and Ercan Ayboga, Revolution in Rojava;Thomas Schmidinger, Krieg und Revolution and Rene in der Maur and Jonas Staal (eds.), Stateless Democracy, Utrecht: BAK, 2015.
 Harriet Allsopp, The Kurds of Syria, pp. 176–177.
 The regime policy was generally to continue paying the salaries of local officials, signalling the regime’s non-acceptance of the new arrangements and intention to reassert (control of) the state at some point in the future.
 Michael Knapp, Anya Flach, and Ercan Aybog, Revolution in Rojava.
 Michael Knapp, Anya Flach, and Ercan Aybog, Revolution in Rojava, p. 87.
 Abdullah Öcalan, Liberating Life: Woman’s Revolution. Neuss: International Initiative Edition in cooperation with Mesopotamian Publishers, 2013, p. 55.
 Abdullah Öcalan, Demokratik Uygarlık Manifestosu: ortaduğu'da uygarlik krizi ve demokratik uygarlık çözümü. Neuss: Mezopotamya Yayınları, 2010.
 Abdullah Öcalan, War and Peace in Kurdistan. London: Transmedia Publishing, 2014.
 Murray Bookchin, “Libertarian municipalism : an overview,” Green Perspectives, (October 1991).
Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya and Joost Jongerden, “Confederalism and autonomy in Turkey: The Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the reinvention of democracy,” in Cengiz Gunes and Welat Zeydanlioglu (eds.), The Kurdish Question in Turkey: New perspectives on violence, representation and reconciliation. London: Routledge, 2013.
Murray Bookchin, Libertarian municipalism.
 See also the speech of Salih Musli at the EUTCC conference in Brussels (5, 6 December 2012).