Between 19 and 21 July 2012, Syrian army units loyal to Bashar al-Assad withdrew from a significant portion of Kurdish-majority territories in northern Syria, namely West Kurdistan or Rojava, as the area is known in Kurdish. Those three days signaled the beginning of de facto autonomy for Syria's Kurdish regions, after Kurdish militias YPG and YPJ gained control of the three territories of Efrîn, Kobanê and Cizîre. It was the first time since Syrian independence that Kurds, persecuted and marginalized by successive Syrian governments, achieved real autonomy.
In the political field, Kurdish autonomy is based on the system of democratic confederalism, as devised by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) founder and leader Abdullah Öcalan. Across West Kurdistan, autonomous communes have been established, which are in charge of internal affairs of streets, neighborhoods and towns. Bearing similarities with libertarian socialism, democratic confederalism is based on the principles of feminism, environmentalism, cooperativism, multiculturalism and direct democracy.
As a means for communes' coordination, the Kurdish movement declared in January 2014 democratic autonomy in the three cantons of Efrîn, Kobanê and Cizîre, This was linked to the proclamation of Rojava's charter, or social contract -a sort of Constitution. Leaders of the three cantons announced their intention to hold elections as soon as possible. But cantonal authorities have indefinitely postponed the votes, arguing that the situation of war prevents the elections from being held.
As regards gender equality, women's communes and cooperatives have been established, and a system of co-leadership -whereby all councils must be headed by both a woman and a man- has been introduced. Women now have their own armed militia -the YPJ, in cooperation with the YPG-, and laws against discrimination, female genital mutilation, and violence against women have been passed. In YPG and YPJ academies, both men and women receive instruction on the principles and implementation of feminism.
Further radical change has been witnessed in the extension of Kurdish learning in schools across West Kurdistan, as well as the establishment of Kurdish language academies in the three cantons. Hundreds of teachers have been trained to be able to teach in Kurdish. Arabic and Syriac have also been introduced in the new education system. All three languages have been granted official status in the largest canton, Cizîre.
On the battlefield, Kurdish militias were at their lowest at the end of 2014, when the Islamic State controlled virtually all the canton of Kobanê except for the western area of the city, and achieved significant progress in Cizîre. But since, the YPG-YPJ, supported by US-led coalition airstrikes, have scored a series of victories throughout 2015: the two militias have retaken the entire Kobanê canton, have made progress in Cizîre, and have been able to physically connect both cantons in the Girê Sipî area, in this case in cooperation with Free Syrian Army units.
Criticism against the PYD
Kurdish parties not linked to democratic confederalism ideology claim that the PKK-linked PYD party has become a sort of de facto single party in Rojava, with no real margin of power or influence by other political forces. Three different sharing-power agreements between the PYD and the Massoud Barzani-linked Kurdish National Council have been signed, but never implemented. Critics suggest that the PYD is the de facto controler -or at least the supervisor- of the communes' system.
Similarly, the PYD has prevented Kurdish militias other than the YPG-YPJ from consolidating themselves in Rojava. Other militias exist in West Kurdistan, such as the Assyrian MFS and the Shammar Arab Al-Sanadid, but in both cases they are YPG-YPJ's close allies. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have denounced that, despite "some progress," Kurdish militias continue to enlist children.
Criticism also stems from abroad, and particularly from Turkey, a country that opposes self-government for West Kurdistan. The Turkish government has blamed the YPG-YPJ for engaging in ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmens in the Girê Sipî region, the major town most recently occupied by Kurdish militias. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has denied that a systematic campaign in this regard has ever existed, but nevetheless it has admitted that some YPG uncontrolled elements have been carrying out occasional expulsions of non-Kurds.
(Image: three men in front of a YPJ sign in Qamislo, Cizîre canton / A screenshot by Leo Gabriel.)