Rojava, a mosaic of peoples and religions under Turkey’s threat

Un grup de dones protesten a Qamislo contra l'operació turca.
Un grup de dones protesten a Qamislo contra l'operació turca. Author: Amina Hussein
More than 300,000 displaced. Cities, towns and infrastructure destroyed. Allegations on the use of white phosphorus. More than 400 killed, thousands injured. The establishment of a safe area by Turkey in the north of Syria and Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) has an immense cost. Attacks do not make a distinction between civilian and military targets, between Kurds and Arabs, between Muslims and Christians. The Turkish army attacks and kills people.

According to Turkish President Erdogan, the main goal of this military operation is to establish a “safe zone” allowing more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey to return. But in order to do this, most of the people who were there before need to flee. The Turkish army enters the cities it occupies along with radical armed groups, most of whom are former fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS), threatening the lives of thousands of people of different ethnicities and religions.

Serê Kaniyê and Girê Spî (Tel Abyad) are two towns on the border with Turkey. They were the most affected ones by the Turkish offensive of 9 October. They are now occupied by Turkish and pro-Turkish forces. Most of the displaced people come from those two cities. After occupying them and forcing civilians to flee, the names of squares, streets and hospitals have been changed. Last week, Christian-majority villages of Til Temir have been attacked. Some churches have been destroyed, and many villages have been left empty. In 2014 and 2015, ISIS did the same to the religious minorities in that area: they beheaded civilians who did not want to change religion. This is an area of strategic importance, because controlling it means controlling the M4 —the main road in northern Syria—, and thus ending the coexistence between those religious minorities.

Rojava is a mosaic. It hosts more than 1 million IDPs. But Rojava is not only a physical and geographical place: it is a diverse political project where all minorities belong and live. All the administrations there are governed by a woman and a man of different ethnicities, as defined by the co-presidency system implemented at all levels: communes, councils, municipalities, popular houses, canton administrations, and at the federal level too. In fact, in 2016 it adopted the official name of “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria”, in order to recognize that it is the place and home of all, not only Kurds, but also Arabs, Christians and others.

Coexistence between peoples

The political system in Rojava is based on direct democracy, which allows diverse local communities, starting with communes and neighbourhood assemblies, to take many of the decisions of self-government. In addition, it is a way of organizing that seeks to enforce active measures to represent the interests of all minorities. The pillars of this system are cooperative economy, gender equality, non-discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, colour, religion or language, the role of women, and ecology. The self-government administration has introduced those positive practices in order to protect and guarantee the rights of linguistic, political, and religious minorities. One of the goals of this system of democratic self-management is to ensure cooperation among all minorities in a secular and democratic framework.

Before 2011, this region was controlled and governed by a single system that did not allow the representation of all those groups, which were not even allowed to speak or learn in their mother tongue. In contrast, in Rojava, an education system has been introduced in three official languages: Arabic, Kurdish, and Assyrian. Children study in the three languages, allowing them to get to know different cultures and to be closer to other communities and religions.

When federalism was unilaterally declared in March 2016, the adoption of the idea of a democratic nation as an alternative model and against the state was reaffirmed. This is a solution based on the respect and guarantee of the freedoms and rights of minorities and women. One of the first laws was the prohibition of forced marriage, bride price, polygamy, honour crimes, and child marriage. To understand and accept such changes in society, the administration taught courses and offered solutions in the areas of education, economics, justice, and defence to ensure dignified and meaningful life and revolution.

Each of these communities has absolute freedom in terms of religious practices, which are explained in a subject in schools, in a textbook that reviews all religions in the world, not just Islam. In fact, the Forum of Religions for Peace is held every year in April, in which representatives of all faiths take part. In every city and town of Rojava there is a drawing of a mosque, a church and of Lalesh (a sacred place of the Yazidi minority) with the words “peace, love and justice,” confirming the right of all to practice their religion in peace and freedom.

The role of minorities in the defence of the territory

After the withdrawal of the Syrian regime’s forces from this area in 2012, Kurdish authorities established the People’s and Women’s Defence Units (YPG and YPJ). At first they were of Kurdish majority, but later on many Arabs and Christians joined. The YPG and YPJ fought the Jihadist forces of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria) and later against ISIS. After years of fighting, they took the name of “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which became the only ally of the US-led international coalition in its fight against ISIS and its threats to wipe out ethnic and religious minorities in the area.

The forces of Sutoro and Women’s Sutoro (“Security,” in Assyrian) played a very important role in the battles and liberation of Christian-majority towns. The Sutoro was formed a few years ago and is linked to the Syriac Military Council, which is the main Assyrian component of the SDF. These forces also guard and defend Christian neighbourhoods of Qamislo or Derik (the two largest cities in Rojava), protect the border, and fight along the Kurds against the Turkish army and its radical Islamist gangs attacking the north and east of Syria right now.

When Turkish-backed militias occupied Afrîn (the Kurdish canton of northwest Syria) in 2018, all Armenians and Yazidis fled as those radical Islamist groups were threatening their very existence. They were afraid that the Armenian genocide, or the Sinjar massacre at the hands of ISIS, would be repeated. In fact, an Armenian family was forced to convert to Islam: their family names were changed, and they were forced to pray at the mosque. This also happened to two Yazidi elderly women. But to cope with these threats, young people belonging to those two religions joined the SDF.

The lives of these communities are in danger following the latest attack by Turkish forces on all towns and cities in Rojava on the border with Turkey. The forces fighting along the Turkish army threaten the peaceful, multicultural, multiethnic coexistence of this part of the world. They are groups that have forced many people to change religion and convert to Islam, as well as have forced women to wear the veil and have prevented them from having jobs. Right now, villages with Christian and Yazidi majorities are empty because people are afraid of the brutality and crimes of those radical gangs.

With support from the  
Ministry of Labour,  
Social Affairs and Families  
Government of Catalonia