International Security

A Lesson in Democracy From Syria



March 11, 2016 23:40 EDT

There are two visions of a stateless society emerging from the crucible of civil war in Syria—one seeks to enslave the world, the other to free it.

Despite what its name suggests, the objective of the “Islamic State” (IS) is the creation of a stateless society, a global caliphate that effaces all borders and unifies humanity under a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law. In the terrorist group’s eyes, this means freedom, a release from the bounds of secular law and the moral corruption of a secular society.

That IS would replace this with a regime of merciless brutality for any non-conformist—be they homosexual, apostate or unbeliever—should not, however, be taken to mean that all visions of a stateless society are equally abhorrent.

Growing up alongside IS’ monstrous worldview, like an antidote to its poison, is another vision of a stateless society that is the opposite of the Islamic State’s in every way. The Kurdish experiment taking place in Rojava can be seen as IS’ alter ego: Whereas the Islamic State is misogynistic, Rojava is avowedly feminist; whereas the Islamic State is Islamo-fascist and sectarian, Rojava is a democratic and secular rainbow nation that respects all creeds.

So what is Rojava, and how has such a progressive and inclusive society come to emerge from the hellscape of the Syrian Civil War? And what can we, in the West, learn from this experiment in radical democracy?


Rojava is the name given to three Kurdish cantons in northern Syria, bordering Turkey. In 2015, they were liberated from the control of IS by Kurdish forces with the help of the Free Syrian Army. The region is now governed by a coalition of parties led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has been fighting a 40-year war for Kurdish independence from, or more recently autonomy within, Turkey.

That the PKK is deemed to be a terrorist organization by Western governments is a fact. That it has carried out attacks that have cost the lives of thousands of civilians is also true. Whether the PPK is actually a group of freedom fighters defending Kurds against a campaign of terror waged upon them by the Turkish state is a not a debate that concerns us here.

What is of interest in this case is what happened when the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, picked up a book, The Ecology of Freedom, by American political theorist Murray Bookchin. Originally a communist, then an anarchist (before growing disillusioned with that too), Bookchin began to develop his own theory that eschewed the failed idea of class struggle and replaced it with what he called “libertarian municipalism.”



Libertarian municipalism is a system of direct democracy whereby citizens, constituted in people’s assemblies and operating at a municipal level, propose and act upon legislation themselves rather than delegating power to political representatives, as is the practice in representative democracy. Bookchin envisioned these assemblies as initially bypassing the organs of state before ultimately supplanting them, resulting in the reorganization of the political landscape along the lines of a confederation of people’s assemblies.

Before coming into contact with Bookchin’s writing in a Turkish prison cell, Ocalan and the movement he led was of the old school Marxist-Leninist variety. After reading Bookchin, he began to adapt his ideas to the Kurdish situation, and thus, Ocalan’s version of libertarian municipalism, which he called “democratic confederalism,” was born.

In 2015, when the Kurds flushed IS out of Rojava, the relative peace allowed them to begin putting Ocalan and Bookchin’s theories into practice. Last year, they ratified their constitution enshrining the principles of feminism, “All governing bodies, institutions and committees must be made up of at least 40% of either sex” (Article 87); environmentalism, “The Charter guarantees the protection of the environment and regards the sustainable development of natural ecosystems as a moral and a sacred national duty” (Article 90); and cultural and religious pluralism, “Everyone has the right to express their ethnic, cultural, linguistic and gender rights” (Article 23a).

Of course, most constitutions make grandiose statements about the rights of citizens, only to be belied by the actions of the government. Rojava has also not been without criticism for the use of child soldiers and potential war crimes in the razing of Arab villages taken from IS.

But given the cultural norms of the region and the fact that it is a conflict zone, they have managed to institute a system of governance that is radically democratic, gender balanced and ethnically and religiously representative, which marks Rojava out as a small beacon of hope for a region in despair.


It is deeply lamentable that of the two visions of a stateless society—the one proposed by IS and the other by Ocalan—it is the former that seeks to export itself the world over. But it is also true to form. It is in the nature of religious extremism to want to expand the realm of its dominion. Conversely, democratic confederalism could never be imposed from above. The moment it sought to do so is the moment it would cease to exist.

This is something that we in the West could learn from Rojava and the writings of Murray Bookchin. If we concentrated more on closing the democratic deficits in our own societies rather than trying to impose democracy on others, we might not be facing this perpetual state of crisis in the Middle East.

Perhaps it is time that we in the West reflected upon our own political system, and asked ourselves if instability in the Middle East could be the result of weaknesses in our democracy. And if so, what can we do to strengthen it?

One way to start might be by acknowledging a flaw at the heart of our system of governance. At best, representative democracy, vaunted as it is for being the least bad of all options, is democracy in the third person. That is to say that the political power of citizens is outsourced to third parties, professional politicians, who purport to wield it in our interest.

By comparison, the system of governance devised by Bookchin is a form of democracy in the first person, where political power remains vested in the citizen rather than a venal political class. Currently, for most people, their democratic duty consists of a single day’s participation every two to five years—too preoccupied with their own lives to pay much attention to what happens in between.

This leaves a space, a democratic deficit, between the electorate and the elected, which is then filled by private interests and corporate lobbyists. Electoral promises come undone and ulterior motives come into play, allowing corporations to run rampant. Western governments’ support for every dictatorship that welcomes these corporations into their country is in no small part responsible for the perennial state of instability in the Middle East. Thus, the democratic deficit at the heart of our own political system results in destabilization elsewhere in the world.

The beautiful thing about democratic confederalism as a remedy for this situation is that it does not call for violent revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat; all that stuff can thankfully be consigned to the nightmare of 20th century history. At the risk of sounding gimmicky, the purpose of this transition would not be to overthrow the state, but rather to overgrow it.

By turning our attention toward the attainment of pro-social outcomes for our own communities, the wherewithal for corporations to run their smash and grab operations overseas will wither, and the incentive to meddle in the affairs of other nations decrease.

And then, just maybe, we can avoid situations like Syria in the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

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