The 'Rojava Revolution' in Syrian Kurdistan: A Model of Development for the Middle East?

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by Can Cemgil and Clemens Hoffmann, first published on IDS Bulletin website

Kurdish Question


As the civil war in Syria continues, in the territory of Rojava – in Kurdish, 'the West' – the northern Syrian Kurdish political movement is attempting to implement 'libertarian municipalism', based on the thoughts of United States (US) anarchist Murray Bookchin. Since the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces in 2012, the movement has consolidated significant territorial gains as a US ally in the anti-Islamic State (IS) struggle, while simultaneously securing Russian support. Viewed with suspicion by Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan, the geopolitical conditions of Rojava's emergence are its greatest impediment. This article analyses Rojava's model of rule and socioeconomic development, and its theory and practice in the context of the civil war, and regional Middle Eastern and wider global geopolitics. It reflects on Rojava's place and meaning for contemporary geopolitics in the Middle East, and considers the territory's prospects, discussing its transformative potential for an otherwise troubled region.

1 Introduction: locating Rojava among many alternatives

The current global financial, regional geopolitical and environmental crises, are all thought to coincide and express themselves in the most vicious forms in the contemporary Middle East. Historically, hydrocarbon developmentalism, rentierism, recurrent crises and conflict have characterised the region. Authoritarian militarist-bureaucratic rule through clientelist networks, fuelled by oil rents re-invested in arms purchases, has long characterised the whole region. This entrenched militarist authoritarianism is exacerbated by the effects of large top-down hydro-civilizational projects (irrigation, dam building), bloated bureaucracies, and neoliberal policies that have led to new forms of land appropriation and environmental degradation, all of which have contributed to the region's problematic 'development' template.

Despite this declared regional specificity of the Middle East, alternative, critical concepts of development and governance are frequently conceived at the global and universal levels (e.g. Radcliffe 2015). They start by developing alternative macro-policies that are subsequently implemented through national centralised governments, which turn them into local social realities. 'Sustainable development', but also more radical movements such as 'de-growth' (e.g. D'Alisa et al. 2014) and similar concepts, while offering to re-think the parameters of global growth and development, do so within established global macro-political settings where institutionally supported notions, notably those of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, are located in – rather than on top of – a geopolitically fragmented system of nation states indispensable to the formulation and implementation of policy alternatives.

National, centralised states act as interlocutors of a globally formulated developmental 'consensus', as well as implementing it. Similarly, states are important fields of struggle, though alternatives are still developed within national confines. Looking at development in holistic and geographically expansive terms, and changing policies to reflect where power actually lies in the state, is certainly imperative. But there is also a more problematic element in this dominant strategy: by changing developmental notions, strategies and policies in the current universal structures, most alternatives also emulate and, thereby, reproduce, top-down approaches. Even 'participatory development' (e.g. Cooke and Kothari 2001) depends on hierarchically organised national–territorial developmental states and the international organisations they form as the interlocutors.

This article will present and interrogate a yet more radical departure from the developmental mainstream, relating its abstract formulation to its lived practice in a peculiar geopolitical setting: that of a local, anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical and communitarian approach, as well as its current social practice in the northern Syrian Kurdish enclaves, or cantons, of Rojava. Based on the theories of Bookchin, a US thinker frequently labelled 'eco-anarchist', the Rojava model is a radical departure from the hierarchical global growth regime. This 'democratic confederalism' or 'libertarian municipalism', entails elements such as community-based, cooperative production and trade as social ecology, radical gender equality, and local forms of direct democratic political rule.

The following study is based on secondary research into the foundations and realities of Rojava, using personal accounts, reports, academic articles and journalistic sources. It will first set out the ideological and philosophical foundations of this revolutionary project in Bookchin's work, before elaborating on the historic and geopolitical conditions of its emergence. It will then provide an overview of the social structure and lived reality of this political and socioeconomic project. It will close by arguing that the very conditions of the project's emergence – the contemporary crisis-ridden geopolitical conjuncture – are at the same time the greatest threat to it, not so much externally but due to the potential internal contradictions of a militarised society.

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