Kurdish fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag in the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, June 15, 2015.

Kurdish fighters with the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, wave their yellow triangular flag in the outskirts of Tal Abyad, Syria, June 15, 2015. Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The Syrian Kurds Try DIY Nation-Building in a Wartorn Land

The American military's radical, unlikely, democratic experiment in northern Syria now teeters on a knife’s edge.

At long last, the operation to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS) has begun. As an unlikely and uneasy coalition of the Iraqi Army, Shia militias, and Kurdish peshmerga grinds toward the city, all under the aegis of American airpower, civilians caught in the crossfire are fleeing for safety. The lucky ones have found an unlikely haven in neighboring Syria, a place hardly synonymous with physical well-being in the popular imagination. But there is one pocket of the country where the desperate and dispossessed are still welcome. This is Rojava, where the Kurds have established a relative oasis of security and opportunity in a desert of anarchy and oppression. With their backs against the wall, they rescued the Yazidis of Sinjar from annihilation by ISIS, and have sheltered refugees through years of civil war in Syria and Iraq. Now, they’ve opened their arms to those fleeing Mosul.

Rojava comprises the three Kurdish-majority cantons of northern Syria: Afrin in the west and Cizire and Kobani in the east, separated by a bloc of ISIS- (and now Turkish-) controlled territory—a fertile, oil-rich region, but landlocked and hamstrung by a near-total economic embargo. The Turkish and Iraqi borders are closed, and the rest of Syria is an ever-shifting phantasmagoria of regime holdouts, rebel militias, and radical fundamentalists. The start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 gave the historically marginalized Kurds their first real chance to assert their autonomy, and embark on a radical experiment in direct democracy.

I went to Rojava to observe this experiment, crossing the Tigris River from Iraq, driving through fields of golden flowers to the front line of the war against ISIS. The only difficulty I faced crossing the border came from the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, which is hostile to the Rojava experiment and tightly controls media access. Once in Rojava, I was neither assigned any sort of minder, nor subject to surveillance. My interpreter and I could travel wherever we wanted, save for the frontlines, out of consideration for operational security and safety.

From the city of Kobani, I hitched a ride with some fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of Rojava, who were redeploying to the Euphrates. We passed through a series of ghost towns that had been looted by ISIS. All its doors had been kicked off their hinges, and the storefront windows smashed in.

At the water’s edge we gazed across the river towards the ISIS positions dug into the high cliffs overlooking the west bank. Ducks, herons, cranes, and other waterfowl bobbed placidly offshore, undisturbed by the distant “tock-tock-tock” of heavy weapons fire. This summer, supported by coalition airpower, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and other ethnic fighters, stormed across the river and drove a huge wedge into ISIS territory, liberating the key city of Manbij. The scenes of joyous civilians celebrating their newfound freedom offered the region, and the world, clear evidence that the tide had turned against the self-proclaimed caliphate.

See also: ISIS, Syria, and Turkey’s New War on the Kurds
And How the Kurds Drove Turkey Back to Israel

After the failure of the West’s democracy-building efforts in Iraq and the disappointment of the Arab Spring, the Kurdish achievement is unique. It holds the potential to become a viable, America-friendly society—one that can serve as an exemplar of indigenous Middle Eastern, secular, democratic, feminist values, at a time when even those states in the region founded on similar principles are moving in the opposite direction. But that prospect now teeters on a knife’s edge.

Society in Rojava is defined by the principles of democratic confederalism as established by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), now the largest constituent in a governing coalition titled the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM). Power is as decentralized as possible, rising up from village assemblies and communes to the legislative councils and commissions that run the economy, defense, and justice ministries. At all levels, the ethnic and gender balance is zealously asserted. Arabs, Yazidis, and Turkmen participate in the public sphere alongside the Kurdish majority, while the mantra of Rojava as a whole is “Jin, Jiyan, Azadi” (“Woman, Life, Freedom”).

Historically, the closest parallel to a working model of this system might be the anarchist collectives that briefly arose in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. But Rojava has American roots. The subdivision of power “down through all its subordinations” was the ideal form of government envisaged by Thomas Jefferson, and more recently by Brooklyn-based political philosopher Murray Bookchin. Through Bookchin, it was introduced to Abdullah Ocalan, the ideological architect of Kurdish identity. Despite—or because of—the fact that he is currently incarcerated in a maximum-security Turkish prison after being convicted of treason for his role in co-founding the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Ocalan is the ultimate authority in Rojava. His people will fight—and die—for his vision.

The YPG and its all-female counterpart, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), are the most formidable fighting force yet to emerge from the chaos engulfing Syria and Iraq. The siege of Kobani, which raged from the fall of 2014 until last January, was a turning point in the war against ISIS, the moment when the jihadist juggernaut was finally stopped cold. Western intervention was critical; the carcasses of ISIS tanks (many of them delivered to and surrendered by the Iraqi army after being made in the United States) are still scattered around the city, their chassis torn open and turrets blown off and flipped over, a testament to the ferocity of the fighting and the devastating impact of coalition airpower. But this intervention would have been futile without the commitment of a partner on the ground.

Since the siege of Kobani ended, reconstruction has barely begun to compensate for the havoc wrought on the city by both ISIS artillery and coalition airstrikes, which effectively annihilated entire city blocks. Herculean efforts have cleared the streets, but water and power have yet to be restored. Although commerce is trickling back to life (some businesses even have glass storefront windows once again), more than half of the residential structures still standing are little more than blown out concrete shells. Yet the spirit of the people endures: Some now use defused ISIS rounds as ashtrays and flower pots.

After having helped break the siege, the United States (largely deferring to its ally Turkey) played little role in this flourishing of Kurdish autonomy. The contrast between the success of Rojava and Washington’s embarrassing and expensive failure to construct its own viable democratic alternative in Syria could not be clearer.

This is a recurring theme of U.S. foreign policy. “American assistance can be effective when it is the missing component in a situation which might otherwise be solved,” then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained in 1950, seeking to account for the defeat of the U.S-backed Nationalist regime in the Chinese Civil War. But U.S. intervention is not a substitute for the self-determination of a people. That was the lesson Washington should have learned from the fall of South Vietnam. Instead, it made the same mistake decades later in Iraq. The same process is playing out in Afghanistan, where, after a decade and half of U.S. tutelage, the army is still defined by severe logistical deficiencies, ethnic factionalism, illiteracy, drug addiction, and desertionRichard Nixon anticipated precisely this dilemma, warning: “If a country cannot mobilize the capability and the will to fight and win after receiving our aid and training, sending our own troops to do the fighting would at best provide only temporary success. Once we left, the enemy would take over.”

The people of Rojava seem unlikely to let that happen. Their sovereignty was not gifted to them; they built their own homeland, according to their own tenets.

But America’s partnership with Rojava only extends to the limits of its existing alliance commitments. Complying with the brutal dictates of great-power geopolitics, Washington has signed off on Turkish intervention in Syria with the intent of preventing the Kurds from uniting the cantons of Rojava into a contiguous territory.

Since its birth, Turkey has struggled to assert its authority over its unassimilated Kurdish minority. This conflict, at the heart of a decades-long civil war between the Turkish government and the PKK—a mainstay of the State Department’s foreign terrorist organization list since 1997—recently escalated again to outright guerrilla war after a short-lived peace process. Turkey recognizes no distinction between the PKK and the PYD, the primary target of the Turkish incursion. According to Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik, while ISIS fighters must be “completely cleansed” from his country’s southern border, “the PYD and the YPG militia should not replace” them.

In August, the Turks initiated Operation Euphrates Shield, using Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters as proxies to push the SDF out of villages it had cleared of ISIS militants just weeks prior. With ISIS now tied down in Mosul, the race was on to take al-Bab, the last major city under its control north of its capital, Raqqa. In order to get there first the FSA has launched a full-scale assault on the SDF, backed by Turkish artillery and airstrikes.

This situation will only exacerbate the fault lines of an already hideously tangled civil war, make the Pentagon’s job more complicated, strain relations within NATO, and potentially further widen the conflict by providing a pretext for the expanded involvement of other great powers with a vested interest.

Turkish intervention occurred without prior U.S. approval, but was retroactively endorsed in Washington. On a fence-mending trip to Ankara to allay Turkish concerns about accusations of U.S. involvement in the failed coup of July 15, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized, “We have made it absolutely clear” to the YPG “that they must move back across the river. They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period.” Biden also endorsed the official Turkish line that there will be “no [Kurdish] corridor. Period.”

Yet the Kurds have emphasized that they do not seek to redraw the map in pursuit of their social objectives. Their statement of political intent has mandated: “The creation of a federal and democratic system shall take place within a sovereign Syria.” The emphasis is on balance. “We don’t support the partition of Syria. ... At the same time, we don’t accept centralization,” but aspire to “a democratic Syria that protects the autonomy and freedom of every community,” TEV-DEM spokesperson Aldar Xelil told me.

“We believe the best option is federation,” Rojava’s foreign minister explained when we met over sweet tea in Kobani. “We hope that in the future Syria can declare [a] confederation with other countries because in our project we want to open borders to all the world, not create new borders.” The Kurds also reject the power-sharing models of Iraq or Lebanon. “We want to establish a federation within Syria, but this federation should not be based on nationality, or religion,” Xelil concluded. “We think our system of democratic self-administration would be a good model for all of Syria. We think this is the solution.”

Even if the Kurds themselves cannot dictate an end to the war, they believe their battlefield prowess has given them effective veto power over the terms of any negotiated settlement. America could endorse this position and, crucially, so could Russia. If Vladimir Putin is satisfied with Syria retaining de jure territorial sovereignty in order to resolve the crisis, his Ba’athist clients in Damascus would have no choice but to accept de facto Kurdish autonomy. The real problem from a diplomatic standpoint would be the response of the surrounding states. Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, would be dismayed by the prospect of a self-governing Rojava serving as an inspiration to their own significant Kurdish minorities.

As politicians in Washington continue to spin plates, Rojava’s best friends, it seems, are at the Pentagon. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has consistently signaled his support for the SDF. In congressional testimony, he noted its 30,000 fighters include 14,000 Arabs. The SDF, he said, is “the most effective force that we have right now and the force that we need to go into Raqqa.” The Pentagon is leaning on the White House to directly arm the SDF, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter has affirmed the United States will “support whatever is required to help them move in the direction of Raqqa.” The Kurds I spoke to are happy to have America involved.

Significantly, the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton publicly disclosed during the second presidential debate that she would “consider arming the Kurds,” who she described as “our best partners in Syria, as well as Iraq.” Of course, she conceded, anticipating the immediate outrage her remarks would draw in Turkey, “I know there’s a lot of concern about that in some circles.”

Rojava is a garrison state, under siege on a daily basis, militarily, economically, and diplomatically. In the struggle for survival, harsh choices have been made on the battlefield, and there are legitimate questions about the actual extent of journalistic and political freedoms within the cantons. But these are not arguments against closer relations. Compared to the rest of the Levant, Rojava is already a veritable nirvana. The longer it is isolated the greater the risk of enabling authoritarian tendencies.