Prof. James L. Gelvin on How the Turkish Attack on Syria Endangers a Remarkable Democratic Experiment by the Kurds

Kurdish fighters in Syria say the U.S. is abandoning its allies and potentially empowering the Islamic State by withdrawing from northeastern Syria and allowing a Turkish assault, Oct. 7, 2019. (AP Photo)

James L. Gelvin, professor of modern Middle Eastern history at University of California, Los Angeles. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


Turkey’s attack on Kurdish-run territory in northern Syria will likely snuff out a radical experiment in self-government that is unlike anything I have seen in more than 30 years studying the Middle East.

In a surprise Oct. 6 statement, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw its troops from northern Syria.

Approximately 1,000 American soldiers had been stationed in that region as a buffer separating Kurdish forces – who had been working with the Americans in the fight against the Islamic State – from Turkish troops. Turkey feared that the Syrian Kurds would link up with Turkey’s Kurdish minority who have demanded autonomy or independence.

On Oct. 9, the Turkish military began its assault, pummeling Kurdish-held territory with artillery and airstrikes. Kurds are rapidly evacuating the region and at least 24 people have been killed in northern Syria. Retaliatory strikes from Syria have killed civilians in southern Turkey.

According to Turkish president Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s goal is to create a buffer zone separating Syria’s Kurds from the Turkish border.

But his country’s attack will do much more than that. If successful, it will destroy the most full-fledged democracy the Middle East has yet to see.

Turks look toward northern Syria, which has been under attack by Turkey since Oct. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

A different way to govern

The Kurds call their autonomous region in Syria “Rojava,” meaning “the land where the sun sets.”

Kurdish-led forces took possession of this swath of territory in northern and eastern Syria from direct Syrian government control in 2012. Then they successfully defended it against the Islamic State.

Kurdish Syria is a small portion of a territory, known as Kurdistan, that includes parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurdistan is home to approximately 25-35 million Kurds, a cultural and ethnic minority in the Middle East.

The key to understanding the Rojava project, as those involved often refer to it, is the notion of “confederalism.” In this form of government, local units – in this case, Kurdistan’s “autonomous regions” – come together in a federation yet retain a great deal of autonomy.

Because sovereign power belongs to the local units and not to a central government, Kurdish confederalism differs from an American-style federal system.

The Kurds are so serious about devolving power to the local level that Rojava’s charter requires each of its three regions to have its own flag. And within each region, local elected councils are in charge. They organize garbage collection, adjudicate disputes and manage public health and safety.

Confederalism sets the Kurds apart from almost every other government in the Middle East.

Across the region, power is concentrated at the top. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is an authoritarian leader who has ruthlessly crushed his opponents in the country’s eight-year civil war. Egypt has a military government. Saudi Arabia has a king.

But Rojava would be an exceptional society almost anywhere.

Rojava’s charter guarantees freedom of expression and assembly and equality of all religious communities and languages. It mandates direct democracy, term limits and gender equality. Men and women share every position in government. Kurdish women have fought the Islamic State in Syria as soldiers in an all-female militia.

In a region where religion and politics are often intertwined, the Kurdish state is secular. Religious leaders cannot serve in politics. Rojava’s charter even affirms the right of all citizens to a healthy environment.

Surrounding countries, including Syria, also have constitutions with eloquent endorsements of political and human rights.

In Rojava, however, the constitution is actually in effect. Syrian Kurds have realized the dream of the 2010-2011 pro-democracy uprisings across the Arab world.

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Source: Religion News Service