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.