A Kurdish Experiment in Decentralized Governance

The Kurds of Northern Syria are trying something different, for better or worse.


The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts, by Harriet Allsopp and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, I.B. Tauris, 264 pages, $34.95

Syria's Kurds have managed to defeat ISIS, manage multi-ethnic coexistence, and possibly hold off an invasion by a NATO army, all without a state of their own—not because of starry-eyed idealism but because of the practical advantages of a consensus-based, bottom-up society.

In The Kurds of Northern Syria, Harriet Allsopp, one of the foremost experts on Kurdish political movements, and Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a journalist at the front lines of the fight, try to understand how the Kurdish revolutionary project has played out on the ground. Their book mixes interviews, sociological surveys, and reporting to draw a detailed picture of Syrian Kurdish life before and during the current civil war.

After the First World War, the Kurds found themselves under the thumb of four nationalist states, each of which saw Kurdish identity as a threat to its ethnic unity. But the group's story has played out in different ways on the ground. In Syria, unlike in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, there was little hope for an armed struggle. There was no mountain wilderness from which to wage a guerrilla war, and Syrian Kurds were scattered among Arabs, Syriac Christians, and other ethnic and religious groups. So politically active Syrian Kurds focused on supporting Kurdish independence wars in neighboring countries while pushing nonviolently for minority rights at home.

The oldest Syrian Kurdish parties grew out of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria, founded in 1957. But another faction, born in 1978, clustered around the guerrilla leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Öcalan spent years in Syria and Syrian-occupied Lebanon organizing a Marxist guerrilla army to fight the Turkish state in a brutal war that killed tens of thousands of people. As part of an agreement with Turkey in 1999, the Syrian government kicked out Öcalan, who was condemned to a Turkish jail cell for the rest of his life. There he supposedly had a change of heart, renouncing Marxism in favor of the American anarchist Murray Bookchin's model of a revolution that does not take state power. His remaining followers in Syria organized under the flag of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

After Syria's civil war erupted in 2011, dictator Bashar Assad pulled his troops out of the northeast to cope with a revolution closer to the capital. The Kurdish parties initially tried to organize together to fill the vacuum as the "Supreme Kurdish Council." Then the PYD realized it had an army of armed supporters and the other parties did not.

So the PYD sidelined its competitors. It set up checkpoints, pushed out other militias, and began setting up an alphabet soup of local committees to run daily life. But the PYD-led administration found itself trying to herd cats in a checkerboard of religious, ethnic, and demographic groups. Although the region was not suffering the air raids and sieges that were devastating the rest of Syria, armed clashes and mass migration broke up communities and shuffled the demographic landscape. To complicate matters even more, Assad loyalists continued to control pockets of northern Syria, including a military airport in the region's largest city.

As a result, the PYD had no choice but to go local. The basis for its administration became a system of commune and neighborhood councils. In theory, inhabitants would come together voluntarily to decide on local issues in consensus-based meetings.

In practice, the councils controlled access to vital resources, such as sugar and fuel, often taken from formerly state-owned industries now run as worker cooperatives. Many of the people Allsopp and van Wilgenburg interviewed felt intimidated by the PYD cadros—party loyalists—who seemed to dominate every meeting. Others didn't bother showing up.

Yet the new system was a boon for women. At the time, much of Kurdish society looked down upon women's participation, and the older Kurdish parties were almost entirely male-dominated. The PYD, inspired by Öcalan's (somewhat eccentric) theories about women's innate "emotional intelligence," pushed back hard against gender taboos.

Women took the opportunity to establish local committees against gender violence to deal with domestic abusers. The PYD-led administration guaranteed women a seat at the table for other issues, too. There were no solo leaders: Every civilian executive office had to be filled by one man and one woman.

Finally, they built a women's army that spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State. After losing thousands of Kurds en route to winning an epic siege at a town called Kobanê, the PYD-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with its elite all-female fighting units, emerged as America's favored ally in the war against the Islamic State in Syria.

There have been challenges as well. The SDF evolved as a patchwork of different factions, not all of them Kurdish. Some of the fighters came from the PYD's own militia, the YPG, or closely aligned groups. OtKurdKhers came from the Sutoro—the armed wing of a Syriac Christian party. Still others were ad hoc allies who joined the PYD during the war, such as the Shammar tribe, whose leader Allsopp and van Wilgenburg interview. And some were recruited by the SDF as it swept through the Arab- and Turkmen-majority areas between the pockets of Kurdish settlement.

The SDF also introduced the "duty of self-defense," a euphemism for conscription. The draft was supposed to funnel men between the ages of 18 and 30 only into local defensive militias, not front-line offensive campaigns. But this did little to assuage the fears of potential conscripts. Many young men went into hiding or fled the country entirely, while the SDF resorted to increasingly heavy-handed tactics, including home raids, to find them.

The SDF's expansion into non-Kurdish areas may have alienated parts of the Kurdish population. Some Kurds questioned the necessity of dying for people from different ethnic groups. Others worried about the influx of Arab refugees into their neighborhoods.

To promote its image of inclusiveness, the PYD-led administration has cycled through a litany of names, all of them using some combination of democratic, federal, autonomous, northeast, and Syrian, with nary a Kurdish to be found. To the Kurdish parties, especially the older ones, this was selling out the Kurdish cause.

The intra-Kurdish rivalry—and paranoia about the neighboring Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq—led some PYD officials to commit petty tyrannies, from shuttering political offices to demanding licenses for news media in certain areas. It remains to be seen whether the decentralized nature of the system will keep these abuses local.

Allsopp and van Wilgenburg note that the PYD has done a much better job accommodating non-Kurdish factions than have their Kurdish rivals, but the authors unfortunately don't talk much about the internal dynamics of these groups. Other than a few specialty blogs, the non-Kurdish communities of Northern Syria are still a black hole for English-speaking readers, even though these communities have complex histories with the Kurds that could make or break the revolution. I have seen in my own reporting the fraught relationship between the Kurdish and Syriac Christian communities, for example.

Another black hole is the future of Northern Syria. While the book was being researched, Turkey invaded the Kurdish enclave of Afrin. After the book was published, the Trump administration convinced the SDF to disarm along its border with Turkey, only to abandon the peacekeeping deal in October.

Turkey then invaded from the north, while Assad loyalists and Russian peacekeepers rushed in from the south, promising protection. But they have demanded a high price: They want the SDF to pledge allegiance to Assad's army. We don't yet know whether the PYD, the SDF, and the Syrian Kurds as a whole will accept that.

The authors predicted that an "impending reckoning on northern Syria (involving the Syrian government, Syrian rebel forces, Russia, Turkey, the United States, Iran, the [various Kurdish parties], and, of course, the PYD) appeared to be drawing closer." The changing situation prevented them from gaining a clearer picture.

But the project for Kurdish autonomy in Syria has left a mark that won't go away soon. Because the party devolved power to the local level and did not try to build a nation-state, the revolution has burrowed deep roots into both Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities of Northern Syria.

"Although the Syrian government continued to hold onto power [in some areas], its reach over its people and territory had been broken," the book concludes. "Under the prevailing circumstances of war and uncertainty the democratic autonomy project offered successful strategies for coping with security issues, economic chaos and internal disunity and dispersal." The Kurds' system of decentralized self-rule may not always live up to the PYD's revolutionary ideals, but it has survived because it works.

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  1. Have the Kurds ever had a centralized authority? I don’t know much about the Kurds, but I just assumed they were like every other group in the region and their governance system has always been tribal-based and speaking of “the Kurds” is like speaking of “the (American) Indians”. Cherokee? Pawnee? Cheyenne? Apache? Arapaho? They aren’t one single group and they’ve never been one single group.

    1. When you look at Syria and you’ve got Assad on one side and anti-Assad revolutionaries on the other, are the anti-Assad revolutionaries actually fighting as one group? Or is it a dozen or more different groups each individually fighting Assad and 5 seconds after Assad is gone they’ll all be fighting each other? Same with the Kurds – if they did gain a Kurdish state are they all going to agree on a central government for Kurdistan or is there going to be a 12-way civil war for control of the national government? Maybe a de-centralized government is the only way any sort of government can work at all – a sort of United States of Kurdistan loosely organized and operating under Articles of Confederation.

      1. Damned good questions! Sad to say, I have NO answers!

        Maybe Monty Python does…

        Life of Brian – The People’s Front of Judea / Kurdistan / Stanstanstanstanstanistan / Whateveristan / LetsSplinterAndBickerAndFightistan

          1. Yes, oh Great Judge of All Humor-Quality! HOW can I do better, oh Mighty and Wisely Tasteful One?

            1. By not posting.

              1. Could I trouble Your Majesty with the thought that you could SKIP READING my posts? Do you have any books or magazines in your house, which contain unworthy thoughts or messages? If so, do you stop every time that you pass them by, to cuss and swear at them? Does doing this make You feel more Special and Worthy?

                1. You asked how you could do better, and I told you.

                2. It would be good if you never posted again.

                  1. I like SQRLSY One and would prefer if Shitlord and R Mac never posted here again. See how that works?

                    1. Except we know you don’t. And he asked me how to do better, so I told him, whereas I didn’t ask you. See how that works?

                3. Well you could just not reply to those comments. These flame wars just make it harder to scroll through and find the actual comments.

                  For what it’s worth. Not up to me to tell anyone else what to do or say.

              2. R Mac, you’re a raging self-centered, egotistical, vain narcissist! The sooner you face it, the better!

                1. He’s really not. Whatever faults you possibly zing him for are not even close to that.

                  It’s just depressing how stupid you are, and how needy you are in constantly showcasing that fact.

        1. Everything in that movie is a classic.

    2. I believe there is no more unanimity among Kurds than American Indians. I have long had the impression that this is so for almost all Arabs, not just Kurds. Don’t know about Persians / Iranians, they might just be a different super tribe like Kurds. Some of the American tribal names are similar, in representing multiple tribes.

      Sort of like sailors and Marines and Coasties, always glad to fight each other, but as soon as the Army or fly boys show up, they join forces. And all those will close ranks when the cops show up.

      The Arab world is tribal, near as I can tell. All the State borders drawn by Europeans are just lines on a map. Best thing to happen to Arabs would be to eliminate the lines and let the tribes settle things.

      1. the Kurds aren’t Arabs in fact, the Arabs hate the Kurds, while it is true the Kurds are divided into tribes, they also have a long history of nationalist thinking behind them with a nationalist movement stretching back to the ottoman empire days.

        1. “the Kurds aren’t Arabs in fact, the Arabs hate the Kurds,“

          Echoes of Tom Lehrer

          …and everybody hates the Jews

    3. According to their own history, they are descended from the Medes, who were instrumental in overthrowing the Assyrians in the seventh century BC, after which they founded their own kingdom, which itself became the foundation of the Persian Empire.

      Not all Western historians think this history is entirely true, but they’ve certainly been in the area for a very long time, probably since pre-history, and were certainly part of the ancient Persian Empire.

      From the 16th century through 1918 most of the area was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the Persians spent a good deal of that time trying to convince the Kurds to throw off the Ottomans and rejoin their ‘rightful’ Empire (much as the Russians had been doing with the Slavs in Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans with the Turks living under Russian rule in Central Asia).

      tl;dr Kurds have had a centralized authority (albeit a very, very long time ago) and have as much of a national identity as, say, Macedonians.

      My impression is that Arabs, however, are more like Native Americans that way – Arab unity has been a struggle as Arabs tend to have more localized tribal loyalties.

      1. My impression is that Arabs, however, are more like Native Americans that way – Arab unity has been a struggle as Arabs tend to have more localized tribal loyalties.

        One of the more surreal aspects of Arab history, and this goes back a long time, is how easily supposed “allies” will stab each other in the back over the most marginal of short term gains, even if it means they fuck themselves over in the long run. For a people with such a long memory, their future-time orientation is terrible.

        1. Incidentally, as you’ve already identified, this was a big reason why Nasser’s vision of a pan-Arab superpower was never going to come to fruition, even if he managed to destroy Israel.

  2. “…dictator Bashar Assad pulled his troops out of the northeast to cope with a revolution closer to the capital…”

    Assad is not a dictator and supporters of the US government are not morally fit to judge Assad, Putin, Kim, Khameini, nor anyone else, not even Charles Manson. You cannot kill or maim millions across the MENA for nothing and be a judge.

    1. Is there, or has there ever been, such a thing as a dictator? Why does the word exist? Does “dictator” denote a mythical beast, similar to a unicorn?

      If someone barges into my house and starts killing members of my family (these things do happen), can I judge the killer enough to be allowed to defend myself and mine? Can I “gang up” with a buddy to perform the same function? Can I “gang up” with all of my close neighbors to do the same? How far can we “scale up”?

      How do you make the “judgement call” (judge me, my buddy, neighbors, etc.) concerning these matters?

      1. A dictator, according to the US foreign policy establishment, is a non-elected leader.

        And Assad does not barge into innocent people’s houses and start killing family members. The US government arms head-chopping jihadists to do worse things to the Syrian people.

        1. I once got a potato that strongly resembled a gentlemens’ sausage and yarbles. Dicktater.


    2. You are not a very good troll. You come across as mean, shrill, angry, humorless; blunt, not clever. Like Lizzie Warren. You will never be as good as OBL, who is closer to Bernie Sanders, who at least seems to believe what he spouts.

    3. No one here supports the US government.

  3. Why don’t they just open their borders? Problems solved!

    1. Open borders is only for the US. Everyone else needs strong sovereign borders, and border walls.

    2. Open borders has been a fact of life for most of human history. However, human nature has significantly changed in the last 100 years, and humans are now entirely different from what they were for most of history. Therefore, open borders are no longer a good idea.

      1. I asked a representative of the other most intelligent species on the planet, the dolphins, about this. They have been observing us for a very long time.

        He said.

        “Humans are taller and live longer. Also a much more dangerous animal in many ways. Other then that I don’t think much has changed. “

        “ Oh yeah? I replied. “ If you’r so smart why haven’t you left the water?

        He smiled and said “because that’s where all the fish are”

  4. human life has changed significantly. modern humans are different from ancient humans. Open borders are no longer a good idea.

  5. if a kurdish experiment is happend by the governance then the centralized person there should be the formal with other facts. Its clear should be

  6. How can the do gooders force them to ban plastic bags if they don’t have a centralized government?

  7. If the Kurds want a state of their own, then they should have a state of their own.

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