Rojava: Syria’s Hidden Utopia?

ISIS is losing ground, money, and influence across Syria and Iraq. Airstrikes from the West are pummeling their infrastructure and military in the so-called ‘caliphate’. However, a barely mentioned coalition of ground-forces is directly attacking the fundamentalists. One of these groups is the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The YPG are a mainly Kurdish militia, that includes Arabs and foreign volunteers. It was formed in 2004 as the armed wing of a Kurdish leftist party. It grew during the Syrian Civil War and engulfed other Kurdish groups that fought ISIS and Syria’s oppressive dictator. The YPG has a sister-wing in the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units, an all-female military that mainly consists of Kurdish women. Both of these military groups have strong LGBT+ presences. These socialist and feminist forces are the main ground forces in the coalition liberating Raqqa – ISIS’ capital.

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The land controlled by these ground forces is called Rojava. The region gained autonomy in 2012 against a backdrop of chaos and war. Since then, the land under Rojavan control encompasses most of Northern Syria.

Rojava Land

Rojava’s leftist political system is radically different to convention, too. They seek to have “a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance”. In this case, local communities govern themselves, through elected assemblies, within limits of a central constitution which has “direct democracy, women’s empowerment, economy of cooperatives, and political plurality” as its guiding principles. These municipals join together to replace the state, thus making Rojava an anarchist experiment.

While they are described as socialists, it’s rather different from Marxist interpretations of socialism. It’s social anarchism. Rojava never directly seized the means of production or took private property, but rather they have taken steps on the local level to make sure that cooperatives are more competitive than privately owned businesses. Dr. Dara Kurdaxi, a Rojavan economist, has said: “The method in Rojava is not so much against private property, but rather has the goal of putting private property in the service of all the peoples who live in Rojava.” The administrations raise money through import tariffs and selling oil and other natural resources. Only one region has any taxes, which comes in the form of an income tax that doesn’t apply to income earned from cooperatives. Due to such policies, “the cooperative system contributes approximately 80% to Rojava’s economy.”

Rojava is currently enjoying lack of interference by most Western nations as it’s crucial to destroying ISIS. However, some worry that once ISIS is defeated that Rojava will be faced with Western hostility. Rojava already suffers from a Turkish embargo, which prohibits fertilisers passing to Rojava, due to Rojava’s Kurdish population supporting Kurdish autonomy within Turkey. This led to food shortages within Rojava.

Compared to other nations and regions within the Middle East, while there is yet work to do, Rojava offers hope. It casts away decades of authoritarian rulers, corrupt and failing economic systems and oppression of women and LBGT+ communities. While it may not be a utopia, it’s a stark contrast compared to the region’s past. This bold political experiment has deep implications for the future if Rojava succeeds.

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