By Zaher Baher from Haringey Solidarity Group and Kurdistan Anarchists Forum.
What you read below is the experience of my visit, for a couple of weeks in May this year, 2014, to North East of Syria or Syrian Kurdistan (West of Kurdistan) with a close friend of mine.
Throughout the visit we had the total freedom and opportunity to see and speak to whoever we wanted to. This includes women, men, youth, and the political parties. There are over 20 parties from Kurdish to Christian, of which some are in the Democratic Self Administration (DSA) or Democratic Self Management (DSM) of the region of Al Jazera. Al Jazera is one of three regions, (cantons) of West Kurdistan. We also met the Kurdish and Christian political parties who are not in the DSA or DSM. In addition, we met the top people from the Democratic Self Administration (DSM), members of the different committees, local groups and communes as well as businesspeople, shopkeepers, workers, people in the market and people who were just walking in the street.
Kurdistan is a land of around 40 million people that was divided between Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey after the First World War. Historically, the Kurds have suffered massacres and genocide at the hands of successive regimes, especially in Iraq and Turkey. Since then they have continuously suffered and been oppressed at the hands of the central governments of the countries Kurdistan was annexed to. In Iraqi Kurdistan, under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurdish people suffered chemical weapon attacks under Operation Anfal . In Turkey, until recently, Kurds did not even have the basic rights of talking in their own language. Historically, they have been recognized as the Turkish who live in the mountains (a reference to the Kurdistan region as there are so many mountains there). In Syria, the Kurds’ situation was little better than Turkey. In Iran they have some basic rights and are recognized as forming a different nation from Persians but have no autonomy.
After the first gulf war in 1991, the Kurdish people in Iraq managed to set up their own regional government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). After the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish people took advantage of this to strengthen their local power. They managed to gain the right to having their own self administration, budget, parliaments and army. These have now all been recognized by the central Iraqi Government and, to a certain extent, are supported by the central government. This has encouraged and had a positive impact on the other parts of Kurdistan, especially in Turkey and Syria.
In the same year as the invasion of Iraq (2003), the Kurdish people in Syria set up their own party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD); although there were already a number of other Kurdish parties and organizations that existed in the region. Some of them are so old that they date back to the 1960s, but they were ineffective compared to the PYD which has developed and spread rapidly among the Kurdish people there.
The Arab Spring:
The Arab Spring reached Syria at the beginning of 2011 and, after a short time, spread to the Syrian Kurdistan regions /cantons of: Al Jazera, Kobany and Afrin. The protest among the Kurdish people in those three cantons was very strong and effective. This, to a certain extent, caused the withdrawal of the Syrian army in the Kurdish cantons apart from some areas of Al Jazera which I will explain further on.
In the meantime, the people there, with the support of the PYD & PKK, formed the Tev-Dam, (the Movement of the Democracy Society). This movement quickly became very strong and popular among the region’s population. Once the Syrian army and administration had withdrawn, the situation became very chaotic, (I will explain why). This forced the Tev-Dam to implement its plans and programs without further delay before the situation became worse.
The Tev-Dam’s programme was very inclusive and covered every single issue in society. Many people from the rank and file and from different backgrounds, including Kurdish, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Assyrian and Yazidis, have been involved. The first task was to establish a variety of groups, committees and communes on the streets in neighborhoods, villages, counties and small and big towns everywhere. The role of these groups was to become involved in all the issues facing society. Groups were set up to look at a number of issues including: women’s, economic, environmental, education and health and care issues, support and solidarity, centers for the family martyrs, trade and business, diplomatic relations with foreign countries and many more. There are even groups established to reconcile disputes among different people or factions to try to avoid these disputes going to court unless these groups are incapable of resolving them.
These groups usually have their own meeting every week to talk about the problems people face where they live. They have their own representative in the main group in the villages or towns called the “House of the People”.
The Tev-Dam, in my opinion, is the most successful organ in that society and could achieve all the tasks they have been set. I believe the reasons for its success are:
1. The will, determination and power of the people who believe that they can change things.
2. The majority of people believe in working voluntarily at all levels of service to make the event/experiment successful.
3. They have set up an army of defence consisting of three different parts: the People’s Defence Units (PDU), the Women’s Defence Units (WDU) and the Asaish (a mixed force of men and women that exists in the towns and all the checkpoints outside the towns to protect civilians from any external threat). In addition to these forces, there is a special unit for women only, to deal with issues of rape and domestic violence.
From what I have seen, Syrian Kurdistan has taken a different route (and, in my opinion, the right one) from the “Arab Spring” and the two cannot be compared. There are a couple of major differences between them.
1. What happened in the countries that were part of the “Arab Spring“were great events and many kicked out tyranny in those countries. The “Arab Spring” in the case of Egypt, produced an Islamic State then a military dictatorship. Other countries fared little better. This shows that people are powerful and can be the heroes of history at a particular time but they were not in a position to achieve what they wanted in the long term. This is one of the major differences between the “Arab Spring” and the “Kurdish Spring” in Syrian Kurdistan where the latter could achieve what they wanted long term – or, at least, so far.
2. In Syrian Kurdistan the people were prepared and knew what they wanted. They believed that the revolution must start from the bottom of society and not from the top. It must be a social, cultural and educational as well as political revolution. It must be against the state, power and authority. It must be people in the communities who have the final decision-making responsibilities. These are the four principles of the Movement of the Democracy Society (Tev-Dam). Credit needs to be given to whoever is behind these great ideas and the efforts being made to put them into practice, whether it’s Abdulla Ocallan and his comrades or anybody else. In addition, people in Syrian Kurdistan set up many local groups under different names to make their revolution work. In the other “Arab Spring” countries, people were not prepared and knew only that they wanted to get rid of the current government but not the system. Also, the vast majority of the people thought that the only revolution is the revolution from the top. Setting up local groups was not undertaken except by a tiny minority of anarchists and libertarians.
The Democratic Self Administration (DSA):
After a lot of hard work, discussions and thought, the Tev-Dam has reached the conclusion that they need a DSA in all three Cantons of Kurdistan (Al Jazera, Kobany and Afrin). In the middle of January, 2014, the People’s Assembly elected their own DSA, with autonomy, to implement and execute the decisions from the “House of the People” (the main Tev-Dam committee) and to take over some of the administration work in the local authorities, municipalities, education and health departments, trade and business organizations, defence and judiciary systems etc. The DSA is made up of 22 men and women with each of them having two deputies (one a man and the other a woman). Almost half the representatives are women. It is organized so that people from different backgrounds, nationalities, religions and genders can all participate. This has created a very good atmosphere of peace, brother/sisterhood, satisfaction and freedom.
In a short space of time, this administration has done quite a lot of work and issued a Social Contract, Transport Law, Parties Law and a programme or plan for the Tev-Dam. In the Social Contract, the first page states, “the areas of self-management democracy do not accept the concepts of state nationalism, military or religion or of centralized management and central rule but are open to forms compatible with the traditions of democracy and pluralism, to be open to all social groups and cultural identities and Athenian democracy and national expression through their organization …” There are many decrees in the Social Contract. A few are extremely important for society, including:
A. Separation of state from religion
B. Banning marriages under the age of 18 years
C. Women’s and children’s rights must be recognized, protected and implemented
D. Banning female circumcision
E. Banning polygamy.
F. The revolution must take place from the bottom of society and be sustainable
G. Freedom, equality, equal opportunity and non- discrimination.
H. Equality between men and women
I. All languages people speak must be recognized and Arabic, Kurdish and Syrian are the official languages in Al Jazera
J. To provide a decent life for prisoners and to make prison a place for rehabilitation and reform.
K. Every human being has the right to seek asylum and refugees may not be returned without his/her consent.
The economic situation in Al Jazera Canton:
The population of Jazera is over one million people. This population consists of Kurds as well as Arabs, Christians, Chechens, Yazidis, Turkmens, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Armenians. 80% percent of the population is Kurdish. There are many Arab and Yazidis villages plus up to 43 Christian villages.
The size of Al Jazera is bigger than Israel and Palestine combined. In the 1960s, the Syrian regime implemented a policy in the Kurdish area called the “Greenbelt” which the Ba’ath party continued when they came to power. This stated that conditions for Kurds would be worse compared to those for Syrian people with regards to political, economic and social life and also education. The main point of the Greenbelt was to bring Arabs from different areas to settle in Kurdish areas and to confiscate Kurdish lands which were then distributed amongst the recently-arrived Arab people. In short, Kurdish citizens under Assad came third, after Arabs and Christians.
Another policy was that Al Jazera should only produce wheat and oils. This meant that the government made sure that there would be no factories, companies or industry in the area. Al Jazera produces 70% of Syrian wheat and is very rich in oils, gas and phosphates. So the majority of people were involved in agriculture in the small towns and villages, and as traders and shopkeepers in the bigger towns. In addition, many people were employed by the government in education, health and local authorities, in military service as soldiers and as small contractors in municipalities.
From 2008, the situation deteriorated as Assad’s regime issued a special decree to ban construction of any big buildings justified by the situation arising from the war (referring to continuous war in the region) and also because the area is remote and on the border. Currently, the situation is bad. There are sanctions imposed by both Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan (I will explain this in other sections). Life in Al Jazera is very simple and living standards are very low but they do not have poverty. The people, in general, are happy giving priority to what they have achieved in order to be successful.
Some of the necessities any society needs to survive exist in West Kurdistan which is important, at least for the time being, to avoid starvation, stand on their own two feet and resist the boycotts sanctions by Turkey and KRG . These necessities include having lots of wheat to make bread and pastries. As a result, the price of bread is almost free. The second thing is that oil is also cheap and, as people say,” it’s price is like the price of water”. People use oil for everything; in the home, driving vehicles and making a little equipment needed for a range of industries. To facilitate this dependence on oil, the Tev-Dam reopened some of the oil wells and refining depots. At the moment, they are producing more oil than they need in the region so they are able to export some and also store any excess.
Electricity is a problem because most is produced in the neighboring region under the control of Isis (currently is IS) (The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) or (The Islamic State). Therefore, people only have electricity for about 6 hours a day. But it’s free as people are not charged for it. This has partly been resolved by the Tev-Dam by selling diesel, at a very low price, to anybody with a private generator on the condition they supply power to local residents at a very cheap rate as well.
In terms of phone communication, all mobile phones are either using the KRG line or Turkey’s line; depending on where you are. Land lines are under the control of the Tev-Dam & DSA and seem to be working well… Again, this is free.
The shops and markets in the towns are normally open from early morning until 11pm at night. Many of the goods from neighboring countries are smuggled into the region. Other goods do come from other parts of Syria but they are expensive due to heavy taxes payable to Syrian forces or terrorist groups who allow goods into the Al Jazera region.
The Political Situation in Al Jazera:
As mentioned, most of Assad’s army withdrew from the region but some still remain in a couple of towns in Al Jazera. The regime still has control over half of the main town (Hassaka) while the other half is in the hands of the PDU (The People’s Defence Units).
Government forces remain in the second town in the region (Qamchlo) where they control a small area in the centre of town. However, in the occupied area, the vast majority of people do not use the offices and services centers. The number of the regime’s force in this town is between 6 and 7,000 and they only have control over the airport and the post office.
Both sides seem to recognize the position, power and authority of one another and refrain from clashes or confrontation. I call this situation, the policy of “no peace, no war”. This does not mean there have not been clashes between them in either Hassaka or Qamchlo. Clashes do happen causing the deaths of many people from both sides but, so far, the head of the Arab tribes makes the two sides coexist.
Both sides have taken advantage of the withdrawal of the Syrian army and not fighting with the Kurdish protesters and its military forces saves a lot of cost and expense. Further, the government does not have to protect the area from other opposition forces , as the Kurdish forces do this instead. Also, by withdrawing from Kurdish lands, Assad has freed up forces which can be used elsewhere against other opponents. Secondly, with Assad’s forces leaving Kurdistan, it is protected and defended by the Kurdish people. Indeed, the units defending the people and women protect their own people from any attack or any force, including Turkey, much better than the Syrian army.
The Kurdish people have also benefited in the following ways:
1. They have stopped fighting the government and this has protected their land and property, saving many lives and leaving people in peace and freedom. This has created an opportunity for everybody to live in peace and without fear when running their own business.
2. The government still pays the wages of its old employees although almost all of them, at present, are working under the control of the DSA. This obviously helps the economic situation there.
3. This situation has allowed people to manage their own lives and make their own decisions. It also means that people are allowed to live under the authority of the Tev-Dam and DSA. The longer this happens then the more chance they have to firmly settle and make themselves stronger.
4. This gives the People’s Defence Units and Women’s Defence Units opportunities to fight terrorist groups, especially Isis/IS, as and when necessary.
In Al Jazera, there are more than twenty political parties among the Kurdish and Christian people. The majority of them are in opposition to the PYD, the Tev-Dam and the DSA for their own reasons (a point I will come back to later on) as they do not want to join either Tev-Dam or the DSA. However, they have total freedom to carry out their activities without any restriction. The only thing they cannot have is fighters or militias under their own control.