On 27 December in the town of Rmeilan (Rimelan), the Northern Syria Constituent Assembly voted to remove “Rojava,” meaning ‘Western (Kurdistan), from the federal system; initially named the “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria-Rojava and now called the “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria”.
The removal of “Rojava” has led to debates and tensions among Kurdish people across the four Kurdish regions. The opponents of this change see it as a degrading of the Kurdish aspiration for national rights. Others have gone so far as to say it devalues and belittles the sacrifices of the Kurdish people in Rojava. People who have defended the change have said the removal of an ethnic term makes the federal system more inclusive and correct in terms of encapsulating areas outside Rojava and which do not have Kurdish dominated populations.
Rojava as a collective and revolutionary heritage
So what is the correct way of looking at the situation in terms of the political and ideological approach of the system being built there?
We know that communities, societies and peoples have a strong collective memory. In this sense the change in name cannot erase “Rojava” from social life and history because it has become a collective and revolutionary heritage – to use Hannah Arendt’s terms. For the past five years Rojava has been celebrated in songs, stories, poems, and in local, national, regional, and international conferences, newspapers, and outlets. Many people have even named their new-born children Rojava.
Furthermore the impact and potential of Rojava and its project of building a “Democratic Nation” – in terms of administration, democracy, pluralism, gender equality and self-defence – is not and should not confined to a specific Kurdish geography (Cizire, Kobani, Afrin). Importantly, as a leading member of the TEV-DEM Aldar Xalil wrote in Arabic newspaper Elaph, it should not exclude the other ethnic groups, cultures, languages and religions, which are in coexistence with Kurdish people in the same geography. Aldar wrote: “Therefore not using “Rojava” a political term does not mean to dissolve or deny its existence. Rather it shows a real effort to increase the effectiveness and impact of the Rojava revolution on the national and regional levels in terms of democracy and resistance against repressive and reactionary regimes and ideologies.”
What does the North mean?
In order to grasp the significance of Northern Syria, it is essential to shed light on the voice of one of its martyrs, Abu Leyla, who knew well the sociological complexity of the region. During the Kobani resistance against the Islamic State (IS) group, Abu Leyla sent a letter to his daughter, Leyla. He wrote: ” This is our way my daughter, our way is a duty to defend, work and fight to have a better and free future for you and for all children like you.” In this letter, Abu Leyla focused on a “better and free future” for all future generations in Syria, going beyond narrow national tendencies.
Abu Leyla was leading a battalion called the “North Sun” whose members were Arabs, Turkmen, Armenians, Alevis and Kurds. The name of the battalion was carefully chosen to denote it’s welcoming of all people in Northern Syria. It played a major role –alongside the YPG and YPJ- in the liberation of Kobani. Many Arabs were martyred in Kobani fighting IS; in return, Abu Leyla, a Kurd, was martyred in the liberation of Manbij, which is composed predominantly of Arabs.
In a phone call the official spokesperson for the Manbij Military Council (MMC) Shervan Darwish -who was Leyla’s best friend and together with him established the North Sun battalion- told me that the new federal constitution is what the North Sun Battalion aimed for. “Our project was not only limited to defending the people against terrorism, but for a democratic project. A project that can embody the dreams of all peoples in a democratic constitution which contains all the different social components in Syria.”
Shervan expressed that a homogeneous political vision cannot contain all the diversity of cultures and languages in the city of Manbij, for the city is both multi-cultural and multi-ethnic. He said that the reason the people of Manbij were successfully administering their lives in a democratic manner was because, “there is a democratic political project that encompasses all the richness and diversity of the city. Now there is cooperation and solidarity among all people. This is because we work on the basis of the democratic constitution, not on a narrow nationalistic vision.”
What is the Northern Syria Democratic Federal System project?
The core of the Northern Syria Democratic Federal System project, as it was issued by the Constituent Assembly in its final declaration, is the Democratic Nation.
The Democratic Nation is a project developed by the ideological leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, and aims to engender fraternity, democracy, peace and freedom not just in Kurdistan and Kurds but also across the rest of the Middle East. The project’s objective is to create a mind-set and structures formed by and of free and active citizens regardless of their race, language, culture and religion. It is a project that goes beyond “the limited artificial political borders that were drawn by the colonialist powers as an extension of its politics of divide and rule in society”.
Ocalan continues: “The definition of a democratic nation that is not bound by rigid political boundaries, one language, culture, religion and interpretation of history, signifies plurality and communities as well as free and equal citizens existing together and in solidarity.”
This project aims to empower and politicise all people at the grassroots level. The power stems from institutions and assemblies created by all people. These assemblies confederate with each other on the local, regional, and national level. It is on the basis of this blueprint that the people of Northern Syria have declared a federal democratic system.
The Northern Syria Democratic Federal System also stands at odds with the centralised nation-state in Damascus. Damascus’s nation-state is based on the denial and marginalisation of all the different languages, cultures and religions of the region, whereas the federal project celebrates all diversity and pluralism by embracing each unique aspect of the various languages, cultures, religions, and peoples in all Syria. This diversity is reflected in its social contract, society and daily politics.
Democratisation starts with the democratising and radicalising of terms. Therefore, terms should be carefully chosen to avoid nationalistic attributes. Nationalism should be fought whenever it becomes the determining factor in driving institutions to make political and social decisions. These terms should be named on the humanistic level.
To protect and secure the legacy of Abu Leyla and all fighters who lost their lives for a free and democratic Syria, the Northern Syria Democratic Federal System should be the new sun rising from the north that can light the darkness of what Damascus’ nation-state has clouded for the past six decades. Rojava will continue being one of the brightest rays of this sun and will live on in the collective and historic memory of all peoples who contributed and continue contributing to this revolution.
Note: “Rojava” as a term and geography is a constituent entity of the Northern Syria Democratic Federation and will be recognised as such.