In spring 2015, the only semiofficial way to enter the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, referred to by Kurds as Rojava, was by boat across the narrow Tigris River from Iraqi Kurdistan. The boats were small and rusty. Weighed down with migrants and supplies, they moved with the urgency of sunning water buffalo. It was a trip for desperate people — I shared the boat with an elderly couple headed for Islamic State-held areas hoping to save their family home from occupation — taken at a tourist’s pace.
Like much of Rojava at the time, the border crossing was part reality and part wishful thinking. Our rickety boat flew the green, red and yellow Kurdish flag as proudly as a naval warship. The security forces wore badges declaring themselves to be members of the People’s Protection Unit, or Y.P.G., a fledgling force devoted to protecting the would-be autonomous region. Distributing handwritten permits that would allow us to pass through checkpoints, they welcomed us as though Rojava wasn’t still mostly a Kurdish dream.
Over decades of United States intervention in the Middle East, Kurds have been most often measured by their worth as military allies, and in relation to how much or how little they have helped Americans defeat an enemy. In Rojava, that enemy was the Islamic State; in Iraqi Kurdistan it was Saddam Hussein. Since President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, opening the doors for a Turkish incursion, outcry in the West has been focused on the abandonment of fighters who led a dangerous charge against ISIS. The withdrawal has been rightly characterized as a “betrayal” and the ensuing bloodshed provides more than enough evidence of the brutality of Mr. Trump’s decision.
But to see the move as simply a betrayal of military allies is to miss much of what is currently at stake in northern Syria, where a would-be Kurdish autonomous region is also the site of a deeply ambitious — if young and controversial — attempt at democracy, equality and stability. While the Y.P.G. and their all-female counterparts in the Women’s Protection Unit, the Y.P.J., fought on the front lines, Kurds in Rojava worked to fulfill a plan for Kurdish democracy at least three decades in the making. That plan included equal representation of women and minorities; fair distribution of land and wealth; a balanced judiciary; and even ecological preservation of northern Syria’s rural landscape.
Rojava is a flawed and often fraught experiment. But amid major crackdowns on supporters of the Kurdish movement in Turkey and setbacks toward independence in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish Syria became the heart of the greater Kurdish movement — and the people living there much more than military allies. Those who fought the Islamic State did so alongside Americans they truly regarded as partners. But they fought for Rojava.
Before visiting Rojava, I had spent years reporting on Kurdish movements in the region, with a focus on those influenced by the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan. Over the course of forty years, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the group known as the P.K.K. that Mr. Ocalan founded as a guerrilla army — and which Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization — grew into a political and social force. The success of his doctrines was particularly apparent in the prominent role of Kurdish women in Kurdish politics.
But Kurds in Turkey, like Kurds in Iraq, forged their political and cultural gains in the context of much stronger central states. In Syria, war and political upheaval created a power vacuum in the north. Kurds rushed to create their ideal Ocalan-inspired society.
As an experiment, Rojava was deeply compelling. I met political leaders like Hediye Yusuf, a woman whose early political identity was shaped in Syrian prisons and who eventually became co-president of one of Rojava’s three regions. I met women who were trained to intervene after reports of domestic violence. I talked to shopkeepers who distributed their goods to families in need, and to a Christian Syrian who stayed in northern Syria to ensure Christian representation in the P.Y.D., the governing political party.
What I saw was in keeping both with Rojava’s guiding doctrine — a document called the Social Contract — and a result of extreme circumstance. ISIS wasn’t far away. One farmer shared his food not because he had read the Social Contract but because that’s what you did for your neighbors during a trade embargo. A female fighter would have preferred to be a photographer, but that would have to wait. The ideals of Rojava were often impossible to separate from the pressures of war.
It was tempting to romanticize. Journalists and politicians, drawn to the region by the promises of the Social Contract, were treated to guided tours and organized conferences. The word “utopia” was often applied in headlines, and comparisons were made between the Y.P.G. fighting ISIS and those who fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Mr. Ocalan’s writings incorporate the teachings of the American philosopher Murray Bookchin and reference the Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson’s critiques of nationalism, which gave the Kurdish project worldwide appeal. Defending Kobani, a border town with little strategic significance but massive symbolic importance, raised the profile of the Syrian Kurdish forces in 2014. When the Y.P.G. helped open a safe passage for Yazidis escaping ISIS genocide in Iraq, they were regarded as heroes, not terrorists.
Kurds outside of Syria, particularly in Turkey, hung their dreams of Kurdish autonomy on the dream of Rojava. In 2015, a Kurdish architect in Turkey laid out long-term plans for Kobani. Houses would be built with solar panels, low and whitewashed like on a Greek island, he told me. A Kurdish lawyer drinking tea by the border said he never predicted Mr. Ocalan’s ideas would play out in Syria, rather than Turkey. But he was happy about it. “It’s a dream come true,” he said at the time.
Kurdish autonomy and United States support made Rojava a threat to Turkey and to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Couched in the language of counterterrorism, his administration began increasing efforts to imprison supporters of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, removing democratically elected Kurdish leaders from their positions and cracking down on protests so brutally as to transform cities in southeastern Turkey into war zones. Last year, Turkish-backed forces took over Afrin, part of Rojava. “Erdogan started a war,” Adem Uzun, head of foreign relations for the Kurdish National Congress, told me. “He was afraid that Kurds in Rojava would achieve something and gain recognition.”
Mr. Erdogan’s attacks in Syria show signs of awakening a political fervor that he had effectively quashed; in Diyarbakir, historically the political epicenter of Kurdish Turkey, small protests have materialized in the streets. “When you talk to people they say, O.K., we have lost a lot here. They destroyed our cities. But at least in Rojava we have made some gains,” Ramazan Tunc, a businessman and politician who until the 2015 crackdowns was working to open a Kurdish-language university, told me. The attacks in northern Syrian, he said, “may trigger unrest.”
To be worthy of protection, Rojava doesn’t need to be romanticized or viewed solely through the lens of American goals in the region. It is a uniquely Kurdish experiment, grown out of decades of military and political struggle in every part of a would-be Kurdistan and constantly adapting to the circumstances of war.
It is rightly criticized. In my reporting, I’ve talked to Kurds who fled the political dominance of the P.Y.D., and human rights groups who have accused the Y.P.G. of recruiting child soldiers. Rumors of a political alliance, perhaps tacit, with the regime of Bashar al-Assad have now been given more weight as a result of a new military alliance in the face of the continuing Turkish assault. Those who consider the revolution delegitimized by any ties to the Assad regime will have their argument strengthened; others will say Kurds, as they often have, are simply trying to survive in an impossible situation.
But Rojava has been successful against astonishing odds, laying the foundations of a flawed but ambitious people’s democracy. “I do not claim it was a perfect place,” Yasin Duman, an academic whose research focuses on the administration in northern Syria, wrote to me in an email. “But they have taken a huge step toward achieving an autonomous region that is able to accommodate many of the needs of different ethnic, religious and political groups. All this happened when the region was under attack from different groups and regimes.”
Rojava’s strength, he explained, came not just from its vaunted fighting units. It also came from teaching Kurdish language and culture, respecting other religions and ethnicities, and building toward gender equality. “I do not think Trump’s administration can, or is willing, to understand this,” he wrote.
Jenna Krajeski is a journalist with the Fuller Project for International Reporting.
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