Rojava: The Myths and the Reality

Let us be clear from the outset: Rojava is not a product of a revolution, but simply of one “special armed body” stepping in for another “special armed body”. Enough has been written about the influence on Rojava of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and the alleged Damascene conversion of its leader Abdullah Öcalan from Stalinism to “libertarian municipalism”, so we will not delve into this subject here.(1) The claims about the revolutionary nature of what has been happening in Northern Syria are essentially based on two assertions: 1) the progressive political agenda of the authorities, and 2) the existence of a grassroots social movement on the ground. The Communist Left has from the very beginning been highly critical of attempts to portray Rojava as some kind of alternative to capitalism.(2) However, after 10 years of existence, there is now enough information out there to test the claims of the believers against reality and answer the question of what kind of society actually exists in Rojava.


Rojava, today known officially(3) as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), began its life on 19 July 2012 when People's Protection Units (YPG) militia seized the cities of Kobanî, Amuda, and Afrin following the planned withdrawal of the Syrian Armed Forces. A Kurdish Supreme Committee, founded a few days earlier thanks to an uneasy agreement between the left-wing Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the centre-right Kurdish National Council (KNC), filled the power vacuum. It established its own military force, largely based on the YPG, and its own police force, the Asayish. The YPG fought various Islamist militias and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) over control of the territory, while internal tensions between the PYD and the KNC continued to rise. Towards the end of 2013 the PYD, under the umbrella of the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM) political coalition, declared a new “democratic self-administration project” to replace the Kurdish Supreme Committee. By 2014 a number of cantons declared their autonomy under a new constitution drafted by the PYD, and the KNC was effectively pushed out of the picture.

As the YPG, with newfound military support of the US, scored a number of military successes against the Islamic State, the PYD continued to formalise its political regime. Rojava is today ruled by a Syrian Democratic Council with its own Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which respectively the PYD and YPG play leading roles. The region extends across some 50,000 square kilometres with a population of around 3 million. Local and regional elections were held in 2017, to be followed by federal parliamentary elections which, at the time of writing, have still not taken place. Facing many internal and external security threats, not least the Turkish state, Rojava has tried to variously develop ties with American and Russian imperialism. Despite the fact it has received direct military aid and that its economy relies to a large degree on foreign trade, Rojava is not officially recognised by most other states or international organisations (the one recent but symbolic exception being the Catalan parliament). It has however garnered a lot of international support from various left wing groups and individuals for its emphasis on pluralism, gender equality and direct democracy.

Political and Economic Reality

Despite being known as the “bread basket” of Syria and containing most of the country’s oil and gas resources, the region now under the control of the AANES administration had been struggling with poverty and the effects of climate change since long before the civil war. The agricultural nature of its economy has also allowed the persistence of patriarchal tribal and religious codes. And since the region is home to Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians, Turkmen, Chaldeans and Chechens, ethno-religious conflicts remain an issue. As such, the AANES administration has proclaimed itself "a democratic and ecological system” based on “organisations of ideological, ethnic, feminine, cultural groups, and all social segments”. In theory, power is supposed to rest with local communities who can address their problems through communes, councils and cooperatives from the bottom-up. The ultimate vision is a federal democratic system that one day will encompass all of Syria. Undoubtedly, compared to the agendas of some of the other political actors in the region, Rojava represents a much more liberal alternative. However, official propaganda and reality do not always align.(4)

The power of the communes is largely limited to local issues or consultative functions. Examples of their activity include providing access points for subsidised diesel and bread, addressing conflicts within and between families, organising trash-picking or helping to set up a community centre. Above them stand the councils – these are not working class organs but branches of local government in which political parties, unions, professions and tribal leaders are all represented. Real state power rests elsewhere. The AANES administration in each region consists of an Executive Council, a Legislative Council, a Judicial Council, a High Electoral Commission, and a Supreme Constitutional Court. These bodies are for the most part not elected, but appointed. They, along with the police (Asayish) and the army (SDF), form the executive committee of the ruling class in Rojava. Behind it all stands the Kurdish PYD. In theory, TEV-DEM is supposed to be a check on the higher organs of the AANES administration, but TEV-DEM itself consists of a coalition of parties among which the largest is the PYD itself.

While hundreds of small cooperatives exist, they play a relatively marginal role in the economic life of the region. According to Co-operation in Mesopotamia, 12% of the economy in Jazira, the largest region of Northern Syria, is based on cooperatives.(5) For the sake of comparison, according to PwC(6), 18% of New Zealand’s GDP is generated by cooperatives, and 30% of its population are members of a cooperative, yet no one would claim New Zealand to be a beacon of anti-capitalism. The “right to private ownership” is in fact guaranteed by the AANES constitution. Most of the economy is in the hands of either the public or private sector. Electricity, gas and oil are operated through AANES commissions or private enterprises owned by PYD associates. Next to taxes and customs duties, they are the major source of revenue for the AANES administration, which also happens to be the most significant employer in the region. Venture capitalists, businessmen and landlords have also taken advantage of the real estate boom and trade opportunities, and some have secured influence or even positions within the administration. Although there were plans to establish a central bank in Rojava, for now the Syrian Central Bank still operates in the area. Likewise, the Assad regime still has a stake in the economy and employees in Rojava’s public sector.

In other words, certain direct democratic and cooperative practices at the local level cannot hide the fact that a state and a capitalist economy do indeed exist in Rojava.

Social Unrest in Rojava

It is easy to forget that the ongoing conflict in Syria originally began with popular protests against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring in 2011. The role that the PYD played in this initial phase is however controversial, and linked with the process by which the group came to power in the first place.

A tacit and unwritten understanding between the Syrian regime and the PYD was reached in early 2012. It was a kind of pragmatic arrangement that saw the Assad regime transfer key security resources and economic infrastructure in northeastern Syria to the PYD in exchange for the PYD suppressing protests against the regime, steering clear of the revolution, and maintaining economic relations with the regime.(7)

These Syria-wide protests quite quickly degenerated into a civil war, or, more accurately, an imperialist proxy war. Today Syria remains in a state of a violent protracted stalemate. Yet, protests over various issues have continued, even in Rojava itself. Although internal and external factions naturally attempt to take advantage of such unrest, it stems from real socio-economic and ethnic tensions at the heart of the Rojava project which cannot be ignored.(8)

  • Arbitrary Arrests: There has been a number of protests in response to alleged kidnappings and arbitrary arrests. Already in June 2013 there were reports of protests in the town of Amuda following the arrest of some non-PYD political activists. The Asayish and the YPG opened fire killing at least three protestors, and then introduced a curfew the following day. In February 2021 there was another protest in Amuda, this time in reaction to the arrest of teachers. In August 2022 there were protests in al-Izba, al-Sour and Daman after the SDF detained members of their own Deir Ezzor Military Council.
  • Forced Conscription: Rojava introduced conscription in July 2014. Since then there have been reports of conscription of minors and arrests of draft-dodgers. In May 2018 the introduction of conscription in Manbij resulted in protests and a "general strike". YPG fighters, alongside US soldiers, attempted to force business to carry out business as usual. In May-June 2021 protests and a "general strike" once again broke out in Manbij in response to conscription, economic hardship and discrimination against Arabs. Eight civilians were shot by the authorities. The SDF blamed the violence on the Assad regime, but had to temporarily suspend conscription in the city to calm down the situation. In December 2021 there was a small protest against the recruitment of minors by the PKK during which several journalists who covered the event were arrested.
  • School Curriculums: The AANES administration has introduced its own curriculum to replace the old Syrian government curriculum. This has caused some controversy, particularly among non-Kurdish and religious communities, leading to protests by teachers, students and parents. In August 2018 a number of Christian schools in Qamishli, Hasaka and Al-Malikiyeh were temporarily closed by the authorities for refusing to teach the new curriculum. This led to protests and arrests of teachers. In September 2022 there were clashes between students and the Asayish over the ban on extra-curricular courses in Qamishli.
  • Price Hikes: Like everywhere else in the world, workers in Rojava have struggled with rising costs of living and inflation over the past two years. In December 2020 there was a stand-off between the AANES administration and bakeries which refused to produce bread in protest of increasing prices of flour. It was only resolved a month later when the AANES administration agreed to subsidise flour. In May 2021 mass protests broke out in Qamishli, Hasakah, Amude, Deir al-Zor and Shadad over a decision by the AANES administration to raise fuel prices. The Asayish once again shot at protestors, killing at least five. In light of the opposition, the AANES administration was forced to withdraw the decision to raise fuel prices. In January 2022 there was a protest in Raqqa over deteriorating living conditions, with the Asayish introducing a curfew and arresting participants.

To be clear, in some cases unrest also stems from religious and political conservatism in Rojava. For instance, while some oppose the AANES curriculum because it is not accredited anywhere else outside of Rojava and others because they see it as an expression of Kurdish nationalism, there are also those who resist it because of its focus on secularism and women's rights. The multitude of problems that the AANES administration faces are exacerbated by the fact that, with the potential exception of certain majority-Kurdish areas where the project of Kurdish self-determination may have enjoyed a degree of popularity already before 2012, the rule of the PYD is by many others perceived as something that has been enforced in a top-down manner from outside.


Following the disintegration of the Islamic State around 2017-8, Rojava considers a Turkish invasion to be the main danger facing it. The Turkish state, with the help of the FSA – rebranded as the Syrian National Army – now occupies more than 8,000 square kilometres of Northern Syria, including the city of Afrin.(9) A network of decentralised local councils is also said to exist there but they work together with the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government in Azaz. Turkey considers the PYD a threat to its national security and to this end has been encouraging the US to drop its support for the Kurdish group. The US, for its part, is wary of a potential realignment in the region between Turkey, the Assad regime and Russia, which backs it. Cracks are reportedly beginning to emerge within the SDF/PYD itself, with a faction around Mazloum Abdi wanting to continue to seek safety in the arms of Washington and another faction around Aldar Khalil looking towards Damascus, an option allegedly preferred by the PKK as well.(10) The dilemma of which imperialist faction to align with is nothing new, it has divided the Kurdish nationalist movement for decades.(11)

Rojava’s survival is ultimately dependent on this labyrinthine movement of imperialist alliances. Possibly for this reason, the AANES administration has remained relatively quiet on the war in Ukraine (which has split the world along the NATO-Russia divide), to keep its options open. The next few months are expected to see Turkey's fourth incursion into Northern Syria, which will raise the stakes in the region once again and cause more bloodshed. One thing is clear: the capitalist superstructure, whether unitary or federal, whether centralised or decentralised, whether progressive or conservative, provides no solution to the conflicts, divisions and misery being spurred by a system in crisis. As always, it will be the working class and the poor, Kurdish and non-Kurdish, who pay the price.

There is no brighter tomorrow in the absence of the emergence of a real working class alternative, which would unite proletarians of all ethnicities above and beyond arbitrary border lines. Where and how that may come about cannot be predicted but the economic situation in Rojava is tied to that of its neighbours and the world economy at large. Indeed it could be the protests over rising costs of living, which are now happening across the region, that might spark a common class resistance the likes of which we have not seen there since the Arab Spring. Such unrest is bound to drive a wedge between the AANES administration and the masses even further. And as we have seen already, despite all its claims to a progressive political agenda, the PYD is willing to go to great lengths in order to stay in power. In these circumstances, the development of a political organisation which defends the independence of working class action faces many obstacles, but the class struggle in Rojava does not sleep.

Communist Workers’ Organisation
11 October 2022


Image: protest in Manbij against SDF conscription. Manbij has been variously under the control of the Assad regime, the FSA, the Islamic State, and now the SDF. Under each regime there have been reports of protests and even strikes.

(1) See: Alex de Jong, Stalinist caterpillar into libertarian butterfly? The evolving ideology of the PKK, and Mouvement Communiste, Rojava: the fraud of a non-existent social revolution,

(2) See: In Rojava: People’s War is not Class War and The Bloodbath in Syria: Class War or Ethnic War?

(3) Between 2012 and 2016 the region was mainly referred to as “Rojava”, meaning “the West” (of Kurdistan) in Kurmancî, but the title gradually fell out of favour in official circles as the territorial expansion into non-Kurdish areas continued. It was renamed the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) in 2016. The current title was adopted by the Syrian Democratic Council in 2018.

(4) Much of the information in the two paragraphs that follow can also be found in: Sinan Hatahet, The Political Economy of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria,

(5) Co-operation in Mesopotamia FAQs,

(6) COOP News,

(7) Rena Netjes & Erwin van Veen, The YPG/PYD during the Syrian conflict,

(8) The following list of protests taking place in Rojava is not exhaustive. More information about them can be found across various news outlets, though often tinged with either pro- or anti-Rojava bias.

(9) The Turkish Invasion of Syria

(10) Mehmet Emin Cengiz, The PYD-PKK Relationship Under Scrutiny,

(11) Cf. the split between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022