Turkey Is Starving the Rojava Revolution

For a decade, the autonomous administration in northeast Syria has provided an alternative to dictatorship and Islamist terror. Yet still today Erdoğan’s Turkey is working to stop the revolution — including by cutting off its water and energy supplies.

Syrian farmers take part in the corn harvest in the northern city of Raqqa, on October 16, 2022. (Delil Souleiman / AFP via Getty Images)

“We spend most of our waking life on trying to meet our basic needs,” said K. as we sat in the dark in her yard one hot August night. Households in Qamişlo — one of the largest Kurdish-majority cities in the de facto autonomous North East Syria (NES), commonly known by its Kurdish name Rojava — get on average six to eight hours of electricity per day. But K.’s neighborhood had been without power for almost a month. With no electricity or water, people like her were defenseless this summer as temperatures reached as high as 122 degrees.

K.’s family had to flee to the arid Qamişlo when their hometown Serê Kaniyê, located right on the Syria-Turkey border, was invaded and occupied by Turkey and allied Syrian militias in 2019. Leaving behind all their belongings and property has not been easy. K. — who works with the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES), the unrecognized government of the region — and her family are now struggling to make ends meet. Runaway depreciation of the Syrian lira and an embargo that have plagued NES since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 have made securing basic necessities such as food, electricity, and rent an ongoing challenge.

Yet while these hardships have become the norm, the Autonomous Administration, which has governed around one third of the country — and a population of about five million — since 2012, has managed to provide its people with greater safety and economic security than experienced by those in other parts of Syria. More than that, it has pursued nothing short of a social revolution, putting into practice a radical political vision developed by Abdullah Öcalan, the ideological leader of the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey and Syria.

Called democratic confederalism, this vision rejects the nation-state model as being inherently oppressive and instead advocates for a confederation of communes with autonomy for different ethnic and religious groups. Aspiring to overcome all forms of domination, it integrates the principle of direct democracy with those of gender equality, social economy, and ecological sustainability. It is an ambitious — if not utopian — goal to implement in a region ravaged by war and fought over by all the major geopolitical superpowers.

As the revolution enters its eleventh year, many locals are enthusiastically involved in developing new institutions and practices. Communes continue their effort toward empowering local communities within the new decision-making structures. School children from different ethnic backgrounds are learning each other’s languages to overcome long-standing hostilities fostered by the region’s nation-states. Neighborhood peace committees are developing a new justice system to have conflicts resolved by community members themselves instead of resorting to outside institutions like courts. Women are enjoying equal representation ensured by 50 percent quotas and the cochair system — one woman, one man for each leadership position. Women’s science — jineoloji in Kurdish — is a mandatory subject at schools and universities for both boys and girls. It is also taught to members of all the administration’s institutions, including its security forces.

Yet, these remarkable developments have been overshadowed by Turkey’s military and economic warfare. A decade into the revolution, war efforts have greatly hampered the administration’s capacity to provide decent living conditions to its people and to fully realize its revolutionary agenda.

Invisible War

The people of the AANES have lived in conditions of war since 2012. While the region’s multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) put an end to ISIS’s territorial rule in 2019, that did not bring an end to the war. The AANES has continued to face an equally ruthless aggressor. Since 2018, Turkey — which has waged a long-standing war on Kurds both inside and outside its borders — has invaded two large areas of majority-Kurdish northern Syria. It now occupies these areas with the help of its Islamist proxies, the Syrian National Army. They have maintained a rule comparable to that of ISIS — some say, it’s even worse — with murders, kidnappings, and women’s enslavement being the daily reality for the locals who had chosen not to flee.

In what has been widely recognized as ethnic cleansing, Turkey has been resettling people from other ethnic groups into the occupied areas to solidify its rule in this sizable part of Syria. Having oppressed its own Kurdish population for roughly a century, the Turkish state is now doing everything it can to annihilate the de facto autonomy that the Syrian Kurds have gained in alliance with the Arabs, Armenians, Syriacs, and other groups inhabiting the region.

Earlier this year, Turkish president Erdoğan renewed his threats of another invasion. Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, he tried to leverage Turkey’s role as a NATO member in favor of his own expansionist ambitions. Having failed to negotiate a green light from the United States, Russia, or Iran — the major powers competing for control in Syria — Turkey has instead increased drone attacks and heavy artillery bombardments of the region. Short of a full-scale invasion, this invisible war — as local actors call it — has largely been met with silence on the part of the international community, despite violating the ceasefire agreement brokered by the United States and Russia to curtail Turkey’s 2019 invasion. This has allowed Turkey to engage with complete impunity in acts as outrageous as the drone attack on a UN-affiliated school, which murdered five girls playing volleyball in the schoolyard.

A prominent SDF commander Jiyan Tolhildan (center) was killed by a Turkish drone on her way from a women’s conference in Qamişlo. Since then, Turkey has assassinated at least two more important members of the Kurdish women’s movement, including Nagihan Akarsel, who was killed in Kurdistan Region of Iraq. (Ali Ali)

On Saturday night, Turkey escalated its war of aggression, carrying out heavy airstrikes across NES, targeting major populated areas such as the historic city of Kobanî. This came on the heels of an unclaimed bombing attack in Istanbul, which the Turkish government has blamed on the AANES, providing no credible evidence for its claims. These latest attacks on NES leave little doubt that Turkey has taken advantage of the Istanbul bombing to justify yet another military operation in the region. Evidently, it secured permission from both the United States and Russia to target areas in their airspace. Whether or not this is a prelude to a full-scale invasion, Turkey’s attacks threaten the very survival of the revolution.

War by Other Means

In addition to terrorizing and demoralizing the local population and eliminating the movement’s most committed and experienced leaders, the ongoing war has created a heavy burden for the region’s already-meager economic resources. “The administration has had to balance a double task in the last ten years — that of defending itself while building up the economy to provide for its people,” explained Foza Yusuf, the cochair of the council of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). She met with us at an American base — a precautionary measure against the Turkish drones that have been hunting down the AANES’s military and civilian leadership. Given the compounding military, economic and humanitarian crises, combined with the region’s prewar underdevelopment due to colonial practices of the Syrian government, this balancing act has been a daunting task — one that the administration is not in the position to handle on its own.

Time and again, we were told by officials from various institutions that in order to rebuild the region’s economy, to rehabilitate its war-torn infrastructure, and to provide for around seven hundred thousand internally displaced persons whose homelands Turkey continues to occupy (as well as for tens of thousands of former ISIS affiliates and their families whom the world has ungratefully dumped on the administration), the AANES is in need of external investment and international reconstruction aid.

This is not merely a question of raising people’s standard of living. According to Mohamed Nour al-Zib — the Arab cochair of Raqqa Civil Council who shares his office with Kurdish cochair Hevîn Ismail — achieving economic stability is essential to stemming the resurgence of ISIS for whom poverty-stricken, jobless men provide a rich pool of recruits. The former capital of the ISIS caliphate, Raqqa, was 95 percent destroyed, and half-ruined buildings across its urban landscape are a haunting reminder that the city has been only partially rebuilt. Emphasizing that the existing international assistance has been woefully insufficient, al-Zib shared a long list of strategic projects that need external financing, from rebuilding the energy sector to setting up factories to create much-needed jobs.

Raqqa still in the process of reconstruction. (Anna Rebrii)

With no end in sight to Turkey’s invisible war, the region’s complete reconstruction and economic redevelopment remain a pipe dream. Earlier this year, the United States lifted its sanctions on NES, a decision that to locals seemed to herald an arrival of foreign investment and reconstruction aid. In anticipation, the Autonomous Administration adopted a new investment law, intended to protect local people and resources from predatory practices of capital. Despite an anti-capitalist perspective that is central to the philosophy of democratic confederalism, the administration is convinced that this pragmatic compromise is necessary for the revolutionary project to maintain its legitimacy.

However, the initial excitement was quickly curbed as Turkey intensified its threats of another invasion soon thereafter. Al-Zib believes that such threats were at least partially a response to the lifting of sanctions, as a way of preventing the Autonomous Administration from improving its economy. As Yusuf made clear, as long as the stability and security of the region continues to be threatened by Turkey, it is naive to expect that any company would be willing to invest in the region. As she added with an ironic smile, “The decision is meaningless. As we all know, capitalists also fear.”

Turkey’s low intensity war is not only fought with drones and heavy artillery. It has also weaponized water by intentionally restricting the flow of Euphrates and Tigris rivers into Syria and shutting down a major water station in the territory it occupies. This is the main reason why K.’s family — and the majority of NES households — have such unstable and insufficient access to electricity and water. A recent cholera outbreak testifies to the deadly effects of Turkey’s policies, as the record-low levels in the Euphrates have caused water contamination and rendered over two hundred treatment plants inactive.

Moreover, agricultural lands are drying up as Turkey’s water war leaves farmers without means of irrigation, exacerbating the record-breaking droughts already in effect due to global climate change. For a region with an agriculture-based economy — historically a breadbasket for all of Syria — this greatly endangers the livelihood of millions of people.

NES’s energy sector has especially suffered, also due to its heavy reliance on hydro resources. As Bilind Milla from Development and Cooperation Agency (a local civil organization) explained, current energy production capacity is sufficient to cover the needs of just one-third of the population. This problem could be easily solved by tapping into the region’s bountiful solar energy resources — but the administration is prevented from importing necessary equipment by the de facto embargo imposed by Turkey and the allied Kurdistan Region Government in Iraq (KRG).

Borders have been weaponized, too. Al-Zib is convinced that the KRG’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has used the closure of borders into Syria to exacerbate an economic crisis inside NES, obstructing the import of even such basic necessities as flour and sugar. Many believe that the KDP operates under orders of the Turkish government, with which it has deep economic and political ties. Turkey appears to be determined to starve the region by any means possible.

Turkey’s economic warfare, combined with the ceaseless war and skyrocketing inflation, has not only undermined the people’s ability to meet their basic needs but has also dampened their morale and enthusiasm for the revolutionary project. When the University of Rojava opened its doors to a new cohort of applicants earlier this fall, translation was among the most popular programs — for its promise of a well-paying job with an international NGO. Faced with an uncertain future, people from various walks of life shared with us their desire to emigrate, though very few have the means to do so.

A women’s baking cooperative. (Rojava Information Center)

Glimpses of Hope

Hadia Ali Al-Ali, the cochair of the economic board of the Jazira Region, tells us that economic hardships have also impacted the administration’s capacity to carry out projects that further its revolutionary objectives. Building a “communal economy” is one of those, and it is quite remarkable that despite all these challenges, the movement has remained steadfast in its commitment to radically transforming the existing economic system. Following Öcalan’s anti-capitalist vision, it aims to build an economy based on the ethic of sharing and social well-being rather than the pursuit of profit. As we were told by Karker Ismail, the cochair of the cooperative committee of the Jazira region, the ultimate goal is to complement each commune with a cooperative so that commune members can meet their own needs by sharing both the work and the fruits of labor. A democratized economy is conceived as part and parcel to the directly democratic system of governance the revolutionary movement has been building.

Karker and his colleagues are still very far from their goal of converting most of the economy into cooperatives. Until now, the region’s economy has been dominated by private and public enterprises, while war profiteers have been benefiting from everyone else’s misery. In addition to Turkey’s war, the cooperative movement has to battle the mentality of individualism and centralism which, as Karker explained, is deeply ingrained in people’s minds as the result of hundreds of years of living under a centralized statist system. While their work has been one of trial and error, the region now boasts dozens of agricultural, livestock, food producing, manufacturing, and consumer cooperatives. Trying to increase their number, the movement is in the process of launching an ambitious project of turning all publicly owned bakeries into cooperatives.

An agricultural cooperative. (Rojava Information Center)

Women’s cooperatives have been a particularly transformative endeavor. As we were told by Gulistan, a representative of the women’s economy commission of Kongra Star — the women’s umbrella organization of NES whose busy office in Qamişlo we visited — women cannot be free unless they are economically independent. Her own life journey is a revealing example. Gulistan’s husband divorced her some years ago and took away their four children (an all too common practice in Syria), claiming that she would not be able to provide for them without a man. Gulistan proved him wrong. After five years of working with Kongra Star, she got her children back. “Thanks to this work, I did not need a man to do that,” she told us with a proud smile.

In addition to popularizing a communal mentality by forming cooperatives, Aborîya Jin’s (the Kurdish name of the women’s economy committee) work involves quite radical transgressions of traditional gender norms. When the project was first launched, women initially feared joining cooperatives. The idea that they should run their own economic enterprises — or even handle their own money — was viewed as sacrilegious not only by men but by society as a whole. Now women are confident of their competence in managing economic matters and — Gulistan commented with a playful laugh — their success has even made some men jealous.

Asked about challenges in their work, Gulistan named already known culprits. Some of the cooperative stores run by women had to be shut down as they could not keep up with the ever-rising prices. Certain agricultural projects were suspended due to Turkey’s bombardments of the rural areas bordering occupied territories in the north. And some other projects have suffered from delays in delivery of equipment through the KRG-controlled border. Turkey has proven to be the singular major obstacle in preventing the revolution from truly flourishing and achieving its many ambitious goals. With the international community persistently silent, it appears to be determined to destroy the seeds for a better future in Syria and beyond.

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Anna Rebrii is a New York–based activist, writer, and researcher focusing on the Kurdish freedom movement and indigenous movements in Mexico. She is a member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava and Sexta Grietas del Norte.

Jihan Ayo is an instructor at the University of Rojava in Qamişlo, North East Syria. She has a degree in translation from the University of Damascus.

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