Syria’s Kurds are best known for the role that their military arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), currently play as the military backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – allies of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria who provide the majority of ground troops in the campaign. These forces have made impressive progress against ISIS in recent months, announcing just this Wednesday that the battle to liberate ISIS’ self-declared capital in Raqqa is approaching its “final stages.”
However, as the battle against ISIS continues in the east, the political leadership of Syrian Kurdistan – the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – is quietly building a miniature state in northern Syria, or “Rojava” in Kurdish, based on the unique ideology of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Founded on principles of radical feminism, environmentalism, and direct democracy, the emerging political system of Rojava has attracted media attention and a wide range of foreign converts, inspired by its ideals.
Yet the small territory is beset on all sides by enemies, particularly Turkey, which views the PYD as a branch of its own domestic Kurdish militant group, the PKK, and the political ideology that it pursues as a dangerous beacon of Kurdish nationalism. As the fight against ISIS nears its end and U.S. support for the Kurds threatens to wane, where does the future of Rojava and its strange political experiment lie?
Rojava refers to the thin slice of territory along the Syrian-Turkish border which holds the majority of Syria’s Kurds. Originally, the area contained roughly two million inhabitants, but as an island of stability in Syria’s civil war, the population has grown to nearly five million, and the YPG’s battlefield successes have roughly tripled the areas under PYD control to a territory roughly the size of Connecticut.
As YPG – and eventually SDF – forces fought to wrest control of captured territory from ISIS and secure this thin slice of land across the top of Syria, PYD administrators worked to institutionalize a governing ideology that is pulled from the writings of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the PKK who has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. According to Amberin Zaman, a Turkish journalist focused on minority rights issues in Turkey, “Ocalan spent a significant amount of time in Syria because soon after he founded his party [the PKK] in 1978, Ocalan fled to Syria to escape an impending coup in Turkey.” The Kurdish leader oversaw violent PKK operations against Turkey, as well as other Kurdish militant organizations throughout the region, until the Syrian government expelled him in 1998, just one year before his capture.
However, after his capture by Turkish authorities, Ocalan’s ideology began to change. Inspired by the libertarian communalism of Murray Bookchin and other social theorists, Ocalan authored a number of political tracts advocating a form of government that is inclusive of all groups, uses direct democracy to make administrative decisions, emphasizes environmental protection, and seeks to do away with “imaginary” national borders. Ocalan also enshrines feminist ideals, asserting that the level of women’s freedom determines the level of freedom of the society at large. He even denounced violence and called on the PKK to lay down arms as part of peace negotiations with the Turkish government, although vicious fighting between the PKK and the state returned once those talks fell apart in 2015.
This is the political system that the PYD has tried to establish in Rojava, and Ocalan’s ideology is strongly reflected in the Rojava Charter of the Social Contract, which declared Rojava a democratic autonomous “confederation of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens” in January 2014. In the years since, PYD leadership has sought to implement these beliefs. Women make up 40 percent of YPG forces and male soldiers are required to attend two weeks of feminist instruction before they even touch a weapon. On the administrative side, Rojava is ruled by a multi-ethnic coalition called the Movement for Democratic Society – led by the PYD.
Some Western observers see a unique liberal utopia budding amidst the horrors of the Syrian Civil War. However, says Zaman, the ideology is appealing but “there is a real gap between the rhetoric and the motivation, which is Kurdish nationalism.” The Kurdish PYD may govern Rojava in a multi-ethnic coalition, but they are by far the most powerful political force in the region, and their armed forces, the YPG, are the dominant military force. As Zaman puts it, “you [the PYD] are trying to govern over these territories that are not homogenously Kurdish, and yet your principle motivating ethos is Kurdish nationalism, how do you reconcile that?” To date, players in the region have been willing to accept an alliance of convenience with the Kurds – and vice versa – to face the threat posed by ISIS, but once that threat is removed, would conservative Arab tribal leaders be willing to live under a radical liberal system that directly undermines many of their beliefs and traditions?
However, there is a deeper underlying challenge to Rojava’s existence, Turkey. The PYD claims that it is not connected to the PKK, which both Turkey and the United States consider to be a terrorist organization, but Ankara is convinced that the two are virtually the same organization, and has repeatedly stated that it cannot accept what it views as a PKK haven just across the border in Syria. In addition to this existential military threat, the ideological and rhetorical appeal of Rojava presents a troubling symbol of Kurdish success that threatens to inspire further unrest amongst Turkey’s Kurdish and other minorities. The referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, scheduled for September 25, only compounds this problem, because although Turkey enjoys good relations with the KRG, any formally independent Kurdish state will serve as a beacon for Kurdish nationalists across the region.
This is the critical problem that the Trump Administration will need to resolve once ISIS is defeated in Raqqa. Up until this point, the Kurds have been by far the most reliable and effective ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS, and as a result, Washington has taken steps to protect Rojava and the PYD from Turkish incursion, even going so far as to station U.S. troops in the contested city of Manbij. For the moment, Ankara has grudgingly accepted the status quo in response to signaling from Washington that suggests the U.S. will back away from the Kurds after Raqqa has fallen. But, according to former Ambassador to Turkey and Cipher Brief Expert James Jeffrey, “many [Turkish officials] believe that the U.S. promised the entire northern Syrian border region to the PYD for its support against ISIS.”
In light of these fears, Ankara will look for swift assurances from the United States once Raqqa has fallen that support for the PYD and YPG is not permanent. If these are not forthcoming, Turkey may decide to limit its cooperation with U.S. operations in the region, particularly access to Incirlik airbase. Jeffrey notes, “long term, the U.S. needs Turkish bases and flight clearances for any presence in northern Syria,” so the pressure will be on the Trump Administration to step back from the Kurds once the YPG liberates Raqqa, especially if Iraq’s Kurds vote for independence on Monday.
Fritz Lodge is a Middle East and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.