This article focuses on state-building in Syria’s Kurdish area, i.e. the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, also locally called Rojava, and potential impacts. Indeed, we saw previously that the Kurds’ capacity to build a viable polity in Northern Syria was one crucial element for evaluating not only the outcome of the battle of Raqqa against the Islamic State, but also the way Turkey could become further and more intensely embroiled in the conflict (see Helene Lavoix, The Battle of Raqqa, the Kurds and Turkey“,  The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 2 May 2017).

Extreme cases scenarios
  Scenario War with Turkey escalates
Directly Impacted Actors: All Eurasian + Middle East states, U.S. (military, diplo); NGOs (for Syria/Iraq/Turkey); Businesses in Turkey, Trade & exchanges with Turkey; Airlines; Maritime activities; Religious institutions…
 Scenario Kurdish model contributes to peace in Syria
Directly Impacted Actors: Aid and Cooperation (States); NGOs (esp Syria; new ecolo. coop.); Businesses (Construction/Reconstruction, Agriculture, Oil related…); Religious institutions; …
See details below

We shall first here outline potential impacts related to Kurdish state-building in Syria, in best and worst case scenarios. This initial impact assessment determine which actors, beside obviously diplomatic and military actors involved in the war in Syria and against the Islamic State should pay attention to the situation and consequent uncertainties in Northern Syria.

Then, we shall focus with this article on the first part of the path that led to the birth of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria. The road followed shows first the ability of the Syrian Kurds to progressively implement the blueprint decided in 2013, despite challenges, and the related rise of the Democratic Society Movement of Western Kurdistan (Tev-Dem). We shall then turn to the opening up of the Kurdish project to include all inhabitants of the Northern Region, in a way coherent with the belief-system held by Tev-Dem and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). Meanwhile, we shall start being acquainted with that worldview. We shall suggest that, considering the facts, and contrary to other analyses, the polity that is being born in Northern Syria is neither only a proxy of the Turkish PKK nor a convenient American construction, but also – and foremost – an original indigenous project. We shall address later developments and other elements of the Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria, notably its economy, in forthcoming articles.

This article is part of a series aiming at deciphering the factors at work shaping the various outcomes of the battle of Raqqa and related developments, and impacting the future. Such factors must be considered for scenarios as well as monitored for warning, notably by being included in corresponding mapping (see Online Course – Geopolitical Risk And Crisis Anticipation: Analytical Model).

Potential Impacts of the development of the situation in Northern Syria under Kurdish impulse

The first type of impacts we may outline are related to the interactions with Turkey. Indeed, President Erdogan strongly recalled Turkey’s position in Washington regarding development in the region and some of the Kurdish actors there when meeting U.S. President Trump on 16 May 2017:

“Taking YPG and PYD [see below for details] in the region — taking them into consideration in the region, it will never be accepted, and it is going to be against a global agreement that we have reached.” (White House, “Remarks by President Trump and President Erdogan of Turkey in Joint Statement“).

President Erdogan further stated after the Presidential meeting, when speaking to journalists at Turkey’s embassy in Washington D.C., and referring to the territory held by the Kurds in Northern Syria:

“We will never allow the creation of a corridor. If any threat arises from that region, we will immediately take action.” (Serdar Karagoz, “Erdoğan, Trump certain ties will strengthen despite temporary setbacks“, 17 May 2017, Daily Sabah)

Should Turkey escalate its actions against the Syrian Kurds, the potential impacts may quickly become severe indeed, as other actors may likely be forced into further escalation. Consequences may range, to briefly outline a few, from disrupting NGOs and humanitarian work and actions in the region, forbidding or seriously hampering transit through and above Turkey – because of the Turkish Straits, with serious strategic impact for example for Russia and because Turkey’s airspace is a main air corridor for flights as shown on the map – to challenging NATO, to say nothing of the impact on the myriad of business interests in Turkey, as, for example, 49095 foreign companies had established a presence in the country by the end of March 2016 (Mehmet Cetingulec, “Foreign investment in Turkey is rising, but not the type it needs“,  Al Monitor, 21 June 2016). These are obviously related to worst case scenarios.

On the contrary, best case scenarios may also be envisioned, Turkey understanding the situation as non-threatening and showing restraint or being coerced in not escalating the situation, for example. In that case, state-building in Northern Syria may potentially not only contribute to peace in Syria but also to long-lasting victory against the Islamic State, as a novel model of post-sectarian relations among communities are developed. State efforts (diplomatic and in terms of aid and cooperation) to support the new model should then be designed and implemented. Meanwhile, considering the multiple needs of the region and country, NGOs and private actors will have a major part to play, including for businesses in terms of new markets stemming not only of reconstruction but also from construction. Considering the new model being designed, it will then be crucial that the new Syrian ways be understood (this aspect will be more precisely addressed in the forthcoming article on Norther Syria state-building and economic development).

Considering this very high potential impacts, proper and in-depth strategic foresight and warning, anticipatory and risk analysis work is of the utmost importance. The two types of scenarios outlined above should be further detailed to obtain a whole set of scenarios covering the range of possibles, which in turn will also lead to finer-grained impact assessment.

Thus, how is state-building in Northern Syria developing, by which actors and what are its characteristics?

Starting to build an autonomous Rojava and the rise of Tev-Dem

On 8 December 2013, the Kurdish National Council (KNC-ENKS – a political alliance of parties and groups with a more nationalist outlook and leaning towards the Iraqi KRG) left the Supreme Kurdish Council (SKC) (see for the a background leading to 2013, Helene Lavoix, “The Kurds in Syria“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 10 Feb 2014). The SKC had been meant to gather all Syrian Kurdish movements, and notably the two main opponent forces, the KNS and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish political force in Syria, linked to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) through the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) (Tanir et al.: 9, Lavoix, “The Kurds in Syria“, Ibid.).

Sinem Mihemed, co-President of the Rojava People’s Assembly (MGRK), April 23, 2014, Rojava Report

As the project to launch Rojava as a fully organised and constituted polity was well advanced and of utmost importance for the other actors, chief among them the PYD (see “The Kurds in Syria”, Ibid.), another Kurdish platform, the Democratic Society Movement of Western Kurdistan (Tev-Dem), came to the fore filling the void left by the KNS departure and resulting SKC irrelevance. This move forward was necessary to preserve the democratic legitimacy of the state-building endeavour, as representing not a single party but a larger part of society. It was also to strongly colour the belief-system presiding over the Kurdish Syrian state-building with impacts upon the ways it is endeavoured and then results.

The Democratic Society Movement of Western Kurdistan (Tevgera Civaka Demokratîk a Rojavayê Kurdistan or Tev-Dem) was formalised during a conference held by the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (MRGK-PCWK), also establishing the MRGK, on 16 December 2011 (“The declaration of the People’s Council in Western Kurdistan“, Peace in Kurdistan, 4 January 2012). This had been a first PYD-sponsored attempt at unifying Kurdish groups (Tanir, van Wilgenburg & Hossino, 2012: 19). Notably, the charter of Tev-Dem was approved and its Executive Committee was elected (see text of the charter on Afrin News, 25 Oct 2012). Tev-Dem philosophy is grounded in “Apoism”, or the philosophy developed by the Turkish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, Apo  (Carl Drott, “The Syrian Experiment with “Apoism”, Carnegie Center Middle east Center, May 20, 2014). Nationalism is abandoned, and extreme democratic, bottom up decentralisation favoured, “local political organs take over most functions from the central state and local communities form a cooperative network (confederation) and engage actively in civil society” (Drott, Ibid.). In the case of Rojava, it would lead, economically to a Fourth Way – to build a “people’s economy” – distinguishing it from Öcalan’s Third Way, as we shall further examine in a forthcoming article (Maksim Lebsky, “The Economy of Rojava“, Co-Operative Economy (transl.), March 17, 2016.

By mid-2012, Tev-Dem would have become an “umbrella organization for around 80 percent of the Kurdish groups in Syria”, organizing rallies in all Kurdish towns (Benjamin Hiller, “Syria’s Kurds Quietly Consolidating”, Warscape, August 13, 2012).

Throughout 2014, following the November 2013 Rojava Constitutive Assembly, and the declaration and establishment of The Social Contract on 29 January 2014, the Democratic Autonomous Administration started being implemented in a highly decentralised way, with one administration per autonomous region: Efrin/Afrin, Jazira/Cizire [Hasakah] and Kobane [Ayn al-Arab] (“Charter of the Social Contract: Self Rule in Rojava”, Peace in Kurdistan; “The Kurds in Syria“, Ibid.).

Meanwhile, the threat of a conquering Islamic State had further risen, with notably the start of the siege of Kobane in September 2014, after the fall of Mosul in June 2014 (Siege of Kobane, Fall of Mosul, Wikipedia). This led to a perception of a common enemy and favoured rapprochement between the new polity and the KNC-ENKS (Interview “TEV-DEM Rep: Kobanê Has Upset Their PlansThe Rojava Report, October 25, 2014).

Considering the ongoing efforts at state-building, Tev-Dem was in a strengthened position regarding KNC-ENKS when negotiating the Duhok Agreement in October 2014, by which KNC-ENKS would join back the new polity.

Even though the agreement would be short-lived (see below), the Kurds in Syria were again on a path towards entente. The construction of the polity could continue, while the fight against the Islamic State heightened, notably in Kobani.

Reaching out to all people of Northern Syria

Throughout 2015, the Kurds fought against the Islamic State, pushing them away, thereby enlarging the territory to administer and increasing the diversity of people to “govern” (see the maps in Lavoix, “The Battle of Raqqa, the Kurds and Turkey“, Ibid.).

The end of 2015 saw the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), gathering not only the Kurds but also other ethnic and cultural factions, and of its political equivalent, the Democratic Council Syria (MSD), as detailed below.

One approach is to argue that the rationale behind the SDF and MSD creations was purely utilitarian and a way to allow the U.S. to support able forces on the ground against the Islamic State in Northern Syria while being able to assert America was not arming the Kurds, thus not angering Turkey (Aron Lund, “Syria’s Kurds at the Center of America’s Anti-Jihadi Strategy“, Carnegie Middle East Center, 2 Dec 2015; “Origins of the Syrian Democratic Forces: A Primer“, Syria Deeply, 22 January 2016; International Crisis Group – ICG, “The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria“, 4 May 2017, fn4). By also minimising indigenous agency, this fits well with the perspective according to which the PYD and YPG are first a proxy of the Turkish PKK, as held by Turkey (Lund, Ibid.; ICG report, ibid., although the report itself shows the “Syrianisation of the PKK: pp 7-11).

Yet, we may also wonder if another hypothesis should not be envisioned.

Indeed, in March 2015, Tev-Dem published its “Project of Democratic Syrian Solution” (Anha, 18 March 2015). This project was issued in the wake of local elections, which took place in 2015, the overall electoral system being planned by the Rojava autonomous instances (Rojava report, “Work Around Elections Speeds Up In Rojava“, 24, June 2014). Rudaw suggests that the local elections in the three regions took place on 13 March, although for this date, details are only available for Jazira/Cizire [Hasakah], however without results ; Rudaw, “Municipal elections called off in Syrian Tal Tamir because of ISIS fighting“, 13 March 2015; Rojava reportRojava Goes To The Polls, 14 March 2015). Actually, according to Aranews, provincial elections in Afrin occurred on 17 September 2015 and were won there by Tev-Dem, with contestation by others (Aranews, “Kurdish Auto-Administration holds first elections in Syria’s Afrin“, 17 Sept 2015). We do not know, though, if these were held at the same level as the election in Cizire. No element has been found on Kobane. (In the framework of a commissioned report, research would have to be completed by interviews).

We may surmise, thus, that the capacity to organise elections in Cizire and possibly a vote there that gave victory to Tev-Dem further bolstered the movement, and strongly contributed to the timing for the publication of Tev-Dem’s “project”, while enhancing the legitimacy of its content.

In the Project, Tev-Dem seeks a way to finally end the war in Syria and move the country towards a better and more desirable future. They stress that:

“We need a formation able to freely contain all these [Syrian] elements in all their cultural differences, promote them toward development and recognize their existence and their rights to survival and development through this diversity. … So the solution lies in turning Syria into a common entity of all the components, being away from the concept and the logic of sacrificing parts for the sake of all… “

They reassert they want to remain within a united Syria and that they are seeking neither independence nor federalism but something different allowing for their understanding of true democracy. The project finally details various sections from economy to the right to self-defence and ends with relatively concrete steps including:

  • “First: Putting forward the accredited solution draft and discussing it with all political forces which believe in peaceful and democratic solution, without exception, and discuss it with them to get the project to be finalized.”
  • “Second: Forming the largest possible grouping of these [Syrian] political forces and hold an expanded meeting of the representatives”,
  • “Third: Holding a Syrian national conference”,
  • “Fourth: Electing a council of the Conference with a specific powers includes all the components… “
  • “Fifth: the powers and the functions of the Syrian Democratic Council end with the end of the transitional period in Syria.”

This looks very much like a first blueprint for the creation of both the SDF and the MSD. Furthermore, when comparing the map of the territory under Kurdish influence on 10 March 2015 below with M. Izadi’s map (2000 Gulf project of Columbia University) of Syria 2010 Ethnic composition, the Project also shows an understanding of the need to progress into “Assyrian territory” in Cizire. It too shows possibly foresight and understanding of what lies ahead militarily and in terms of population to govern as regarding territories mainly settled by Arabs.

Map 10 March 2015: Map of Syria and Iraq by By Haghal Jagul updated Nima Farid [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Syria 2010 Ethnic composition by M. Izadi’s (2000 Gulf project of Columbia University)

True enough, assuming our hypothesis is correct, the defence part of the Project was created first, but the fight against the “jihadist Salafist expiatory groups” is the second basic principle of Tev-Dem’s Project, and the multiethnic component of the SDF may only fulfil the 4th principle, i.e. “Respect for the diversity of the Syrian community in all its components” (Project, Ibid.)

Furthermore, the progressive demise of the Duhok Agreement with the KNC-ENKS over July-September 2015, paving the way for more internecine struggles, may only have heightened the need to proceed with including non-Kurdish forces into the overall political project (Ali Çelebi, “On The Possibility Of A ‘Rojava Agreement’“, Özgür Gündem/The Rojava Report (transl.), September 28, 2015).*

Finally the territorial gains by September 2015 only made the formalisation of a multi-ethnic force already operating more urgent (see map 21 Sept 2015).

On 10 October 2015, 13 fighters’ groups and factions, including  the Kurdish YPG/YPJ announced the joint establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk‎, قوات سوريا الديمقراطية – SDF, websiteFacebook, SDF Press Center on Twitter: @SDF_Press_1), regrouping not only Kurdish military actors, but also “Arab, Kurdish, Syriac, Assyrian and Turkmen” (ANF News, “Declaration of establishment by Syrian Democratic Forces“, 15 Oct 2015; ANHA, 15 Oct 2015). In May 2017, the SDF would count 50.000 fighters, half of them part of the YPG/YPJ (Chase Winter, “The Middle East’s complex Kurdish landscape“, DW, 18 May 2017).

Photos of the participants to the Congress, 8 Dec 2015, from MSD wesbite

Then, multiple groups and parties held on 8 and 9 December 2015 a Democratic Syria Congress, to “develop a common vision to institutionalise this national umbrella project” (MSD, “Document agreed“, 9 Dec 2015). We should note that the document agreed by the Congress mentions it followed an August 2015 appeal by Tev-Dem to create “a democratic coalition in the whole of Syria”.

The Congress resulted in the creation of the Democratic Council Syria (also Syrian Democratic Council, Meclîsa Sûriya Demokratîk/مجلس سوريا الديمقراطية – MSD, website)‎ (ANF News, “Executive Board of Democratic Syria Assembly elected, 13 Dec 2015).

Official Logo and Denomination of the MSD, from its website.

MSD’s Executive Board was established on 12 December 2015, constituted by 43 people, together representing all the parties and movements part of the Congress (Ibid.). Nine members of the Executive Board were elected for a Joint Coordination Board, while two presidents for the MSD were elected, one from TEV-DEM and one from the Law – Citizenship – Rights Movement (QMH). The SDF agreed that the MSD would represent them and asserted their commitment to the political vision of the MSD (Document agreed, Ibid.; Agence France-Presse, “Kurdish-Arab coalition fighting Islamic State in Syria creates political wing“, 10 Dec 2015).

Although institutions and groups tend to bloom and falter quickly in Syria, by mid 2017 the SDF and the MSD still exist as evidenced by their military success on the ground or more superficially by the activity relayed by their respective websites.

Official photo of the SDF

Certainly the creation of the SDF and MSD were useful to the U.S. and the Coalition it leads, but to dismiss the agency of the actors on the ground, as well as the Syrian singularity of the initiative, even more so when elections, however imperfect, have been organised while war against the Islamic State was ongoing is daring. Furthermore, it may very well be this very ability of the Syrian Kurds to offer a new project that may federate beyond differences around hope for the future and that permits appropriation by all, while also allowing for victorious fighting that is one of the Kurds and of their Northern Syrian brethren most valuable strength. It also makes them precious partners for those who want to fight the Islamic State and end the war in Syria.

“Ciwana Tolhildan, Wife, husband and three sons in the YPJ/YPG” from YPG/YPJ Media Office

This very capability, however, may only frighten further Turkey, which finds itself confronted with an imagined directly-strengthened PKK and certainly possible safe-haven for PKK related activities, on the one hand, and, on the other, with a model which, by its exigent secularism, exemplified by the equal place given to women (e.g. Tev-Dem’s Project, the YPJ, i.e. the female equivalent of the YPG), as we shall see more in detail in forthcoming articles, and its refusal of nationalism is at odds with the Islamism and nationalism the Turkish AKP promotes  (e.g. Toni Alaranta, “Turkish Islamism and Nationalism Before and after the Failed Coup Attempt“, CACI Analyst, December 1, 2016; Ramazan Kilinc, “Turkish Islamism 2.0: Hegemonic, Nationalist, and Populist“, Georgetown University, Berkley Center, 30 August 2016).  

More positively the seeds of a new model for Syria, fully respecting its territorial integrity as well as its diversity could avoid generating further conflict in the war-torn country and, on the contrary, be embraced by all actors, notwithstanding self-interested power-struggle issues.

We shall see next how this state-building in Northern Syria developed further over time.

*Since then, the fratricidal tensions between Syrian Kurds and  the KNC-ENKS have run unabated (e.g. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Tensions between Syrian Kurdish parties intensify, local security forces deny involvement“, Ara News, 8 Dec 2016; Ara News, “Tensions between Kurdish rivals in Syria continue, three PYD opponents arrested“, 12 February 2017; Ara News, “Syrian Kurdish council condemns arrest of KDP reporter by Rojava Asayish“, 17 May 2017, and here for a list of various incidents).

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.

Featured mage: Photo by YPG Press Office, from YPJ fighters taking part in Wrath of Euphrates to liberate Raqqa, 13 December 2016, YPGROJAVA.ORG.