Rojava’s Threefold Economy

A Presentation by Abdurrahman Hemo, adviser for economic development in Cizîre Canton, Dêrîk


On December 2, the academic delegation to Rojava visited the economic center in Dêrîk. There we heard a presentation on Rojava’s economy from Abdurrahman Hemo, the adviser for economic development for Cizîre canton. Hemo explained what he called Rojava’s three parallel economies: the community economy, the war economy, and the open economy. 

I. Social Economy

Hemo: Our economic project is the same as our political project. We call it “social economy,” and all parts of society participate. It’s cooperative. We have started to build cooperatives in all different sectors: we have trade cooperatives, company cooperatives, construction cooperatives. The organizational model for our economy is the cooperative. Our aim is to be self-sufficient. If there is just bread, then we will all have a share. This is the main principle of cooperatives.

For two years now, we have tried to develop this economy. Before [the revolution] the culture was different, so now we have academies to promote the cooperative mentality. We’ve organized seminars and discussions, so that the community can be convinced this kind of system is better. Currently participation is at a good level.

The main economic activity here is agriculture, and so the majority of cooperatives are concentrated in agriculture. That is our social economy. The other cantons function in the same way.

Cudi Ossi of the economic office shows us a cooperative greenhouse

Cudi Ossi of the economic office shows us a cooperative greenhouse

Let me explain that in all three cantons we are surrounded—we are embargoed. Rojava is rich in natural resources and agriculture, but we receive no infrastructure investment. Internationally there’s no investment here. Internationally Rojava isn’t recognized—it doesn’t exist. If we want to develop in Rojava, we have to build everything ourselves.

So in the revolutionary process we created companies to develop agriculture economy, and to supply seeds to the peasants so they can continue to cultivate their lands. And we supply them with diesel for the agricultural machinery.

And we created companies to refine oil, produce diesel and other products. To produce diesel is actually less expensive than water. Water costs 25 cents a half-liter, while a liter of diesel costs 25 cents. Water is twice as expensive as oil. In Cizîre canton we have thousands of oil fields. But at the moment only 200 of them are active, because where would we send the oil? We are embargoed—we can’t trade with the outside world. So we just exploit the oil for our own use here in Cizîre.

Jack pumps in Rimelan

Jack pumps in Rimelan

Some oil fields are under the control of ISIS—one emir owns five or six oil fields. ISIS can sell their oil to Turkey–they have contacts with Turkish side and trade with Turkey. We have thousands of oil fields, but we can’t exploit them even for the use of the rest of Syria. We exploit oil only for our own use, for our own income.

We have also created companies to develop infrastructure and to build roads, with asphalt. All these are local companies—we get no assistance from outside.

Q: Who decides how much to produce, of what, and how to distribute surplus?

Hemo: The situation is complex. The democratic self-government, the committees for agriculture and finance, and the companies are all involved.

Q: Who owns the companies?

Hemo: Some of companies are private—the canton self-government has no control over them. Some of them made agreements with the self-government so they can cooperate. For instance, an oil company can be privately owned, but it has an agreement with the self-government. We own the oil, they give us diesel. The energy committee decides how pure the product has to be and how to price it. It’s similar for agriculture—there are private companies that have agreements with the self-government.

The new flour mill in Dirbespiye

The new flour mill in Dirbespiye

Q: How do individuals and people with families make money to live? What occupations are there? Have women and men changed in relation to the economy?

Hemo: There’s no division of labor. Agriculture is the main occupation. This is an economy of survival. There are no wages. Some people just make their living from a cow.

II. War Economy

The second big part of Rojava’s economy is the war economy. Under the democratic self-government, 70 percent of the budget is spent for defense—for the YPG, YPJ, and Asayiş. The war costs us $20 million each year. We buy all our weapons, and weapons are very expensive. We have an army that needs clothes and food. The need to finance the army forces us to centralize the war economy—otherwise it’d be impossible for fighters to live in these conditions.

The rest of the budget is used by the self-government provide public services and to finance itself. It finances all the costs of the schools in Rojava. We give the schools diesel. Before the revolution, the regime financed them, but now we are obliged to. We finances heat for the buildings.

And we finance bread. Every family can get three breads a day. [They are yeasted flatbreads.—ed.] Each bread costs us 100 Syrian lire, and we give it to the people for 60 Syrian lire. And we have to finance this. Just for supply bread to the population for a month, we take a loss of 20 million Syrian lire.

The staff of life

The staff of life

Q: You say 70 percent of the budget goes for defense, and 30 percent goes for public services. But where does the money come from? You can’t export the oil, and you consume your own vegetables.

Hemo: The income comes from selling oil products in the local economy.

Q: People have to pay for oil?

Hemo: Yes. Everything we get is just for us.

Q: But there’s just one source, oil, for domestic income? That’s all?

Hemo: And we also have some income from the border crossings.

Q: There must still be some people from the old days here who have more money than others, some wealth. Can’t you ask some kind of tax or contribution from them?

Hemo: We plan to ask for that. But most of the population is very poor. We decided not to collect taxes from the people. If we did, it would all be over. So we get no fixed income in the form of taxes to finance the system.

Since we are under an embargo, we get no outside help. Everything we produce goes for our own needs. We have limited electricity, clean water, the necessities of daily life. We used to get electricity from Raqqa, but not anymore—ISIS controls it. All we have to rely on is the diesel generators.

A lot of displaced people come here, to the Kurdish areas, and they live in very basic conditions. In this war situation, the UN agencies should supply electricity and access to clean water. Education and health are basic needs. Some international humanitarian institutions are in the refugee camps here, and they should help us provide such services, but their presence is just symbolic.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the Assad regime has received billions of dollars in humanitarian help from the UN, the United States, and the European Union. But the Kurdish areas get no assistance from international humanitarian organizations.

A baklava shop

A baklava shop

No state helps us defend ourselves, and no one provides assistance. We consume bread together, and if there is no bread, we do not get bread.

III. Open Economy

The economy in Cizîre/Rojava is functioning on a survival basis. The other cantons, Afrin and Kobanê, depend on the wealth of Cizîre. Our economy is vital for the others.

We are paying all costs for institutions of self-government and public services.

We have no surplus to reinvest. We don’t have the means to develop our economy. We need it to invest in other areas, but we can’t. We’re not able to create an environment where everyone can a chance to work, where professionals can get jobs, because we don’t have the means to create companies.

The social economy income is all we have. The costs are growing because of the war. And the self-government’s administration, which we have to finance, has more members now.

If we get no opening to the outside world, our economy will stay the same, and there will be no development. But we need outside investment. To organize it, the government has passed a law called “open economy” to organize it. Any outside investor would have to respect the economy.

But there’s been no development. The resistance in Kobane has been discussed in the world, but officially Rojava doesn’t exist. International organizations that want to act here are told that they have to go through the KRG or Damascus.

There is a political embargo against us. The Turkish state sees nothing good happening here. Our boundary with Turkey is 900 kilometers long. In Afrin there is a border crossing, but it’s closed. Kobanê had a crossing, and Cizîre had three. They’re all officially closed.

When Al Nusra was occupying Sere Kaniye [in 2012-13], the border crossing was open. But after Al Nusra was expelled, Turkish officials closed the border—with a concrete wall. We need to open the Turkish border, so that all our cantons have access to the outside world. Within Syria, our neighbor is ISIS. With Iraq, we have just a small border. Three months ago, after ISIS occupied Sinjar Mountain, the KRG opened the border gate, but unwillingly. For now we have only the border crossing at Semalka with Iraq. What we call our brothers in KRG, in South Kurdistan, they just act in their own interest to open their borders; if it weren’t in their interest, they’d close it.

A greenmarket

A greenmarket

We need to change this situation internationally, to be recognized by the international community, to force Turkey to open the border crossing.

Q: It sounds like you are calling to the outside world invest in the existing system. You say you can’t be self-sufficient, but autonomy, as in “democratic autonomy,” means self-sufficiency. Yet you are asking for outsiders to help. Also contradicting democratic autonomy: you spoke about a centralized economy, which would be an economy founded on a state. Isn’t there a big contradiction between the political and economic paradigms?

Hemo: Yes, even in this war situation, we want to be self-sufficient. But let’s have no misunderstanding. To raise the quality of life as a whole, we need some kind of industry, we need electricity. Our oil industry is very primitive–we can just barely produce diesel. We need to build a refinery, but we need $300 million for that. Unfortunately the community cooperatives can’t pay for it.

We need electricity. To build ourselves a power plant would cost us $400 million, but we don’t have it. Community cooperatives can’t finance it. Yet we still need electricity. So we need help from outside, private or public.

We don’t have any factories to produce fertilizer for the farmers. We have all the raw materials to produce fertilizer, but don’t have the factories. We have to buy fertilizer from Iraq now. We need $5 million to build a fertilizer factory. Community cooperatives can’t provide have that money.

But we need them to come here so that we can build a kind of social economy together.

That’s why I described the system in terms of the three different economies. All three together constitute our economy, and we have to develop all three of them. The main activity will remain the social economy, but it cannot stand alone. If we were to insist on social economy alone, it’d last maybe one or two years. We have to finance the war. If the war situation becomes stable enough that we can develop industry, we will open to the outside world, in the open economy. If there is any opening, we have to develop industry.

Q: How big is the open economy? How is it implemented?

Hemo: We passed a law for it, but up to now we’ve had no investors. They have no access to our country. No one from outside has come and invested here. All the investment is local. The private companies are all local.

Shopkeepers in Qamislo

Shopkeepers in Qamislo

Q: What about the Kurdish diaspora? Can it link to the open economy?

Hemo: We are open to them, but no one is active. There’s no direct help. Perhaps it’s possible. Please organize it.

Q: Could other oil-producing countries, like perhaps Venezuela, help with refineries?

Hemo: We have some ties, and some people promised things, but practically they have done nothing. There’s been some communication, but … if you know of a company, please help.

Q: What about the airport?

Hemo: The Qamişlo airport is occupied by the regime. Building an airport could be a project to develop the economy here, if someone is willing.

Q: How would you like the economy to work ideally?

Hemo: Our main focus for development would be on the social economy. But it will coexist with the open economy and the private economy. For instance, we need factories related to agriculture. We need processing facilities. We need fertilizer, cotton processing. We produce petroleum, but we need facilities to produce plastics, benzene from it. If there is an opening, we can create facilities. We need some kind of common economy, and factories should be communally owned. But we won’t create a state economy, or a centralized economy. It should be locally organized.

Transcribed and edited for organization and conciseness by Janet Biehl. The translator used the phrase “community economy,” which was what originally appeared in this article. But the correct name is “social economy,” and it has been revised accordingly as of October 2015.




Revolutionary Education

Two Academies in Rojava

by Janet Biehl

“You have to educate, twenty-four hours a day, to learn how to discuss, to learn how to decide collectively. You have to reject the idea that you have to wait for some leader to come and tell the people what to do, and instead learn to exercise self-rule as a collective practice. . . . The people themselves educate each other. When you put ten people together and ask them for a solution to a problem or propose them a question, they collectively look for an answer. I believe in this way they will find the right one. This collective discussion will make them politicized.”—Salih Muslim, PYD co-president, November 2014

After the revolution of July 2012, when new self-governing institutions came to power in Rojava, the need for a new kind of education was paramount. Not that the people of western Kurdistan were uneducated—high school graduation rates were and are very high there, as the Academic Delegation learned during our December 2014 visit. But education was crucial to creating the revolutionary culture in which the new institutions could thrive. It is a matter not for children and youths alone but for adults as well, even the elderly.

As Aldar Xelîl, a member of the council of Tev-Dem, explained to us, Rojava’s political project is “not just about changing the regime but creating a mentality to bring the revolution to the society. It’s a revolution for society.” Dorşîn Akîf, a teacher at the academy, agreed: “Perception has to be changed,” she told us, “because mentality is so important for our revolution now. Education is crucial for us.”

The first issue that the revolution had to confront was the language of instruction. For four decades under the Assad regime, Kurdish children had had to learn Arabic and study in Arabic. The Kurdish language was banned from public life; teaching it was illegal and could be punished by imprisonment and even torture. So when the Syrian Kurds took their communities into their own hands, they immediately set up Kurdish language instruction. The first such school to open was Şehîd Fewzî’s School in Efrîn canton, followed by one each in Kobanê and Cizîre. By August 2014, Cizîrê alone had 670 schools with 3,000 teachers offering Kurdish language courses to 49,000 students.

Mesopotamian Academy, Qamislo

On December 8 the delegation visited Rojava’s first and only institution of higher education, the Mesopotamian Social Sciences Academy in Qamislo. The Assad regime had permitted no such institutions in the Kurdish areas; this one opened in September 2014 and is still very much under construction.


Mesopotamian Academy

Teaching and discussions are mostly in Kurdish, although the sources are often in Arabic, since many essential texts have not yet been translated into Kurdish.

We met with several members of the administration and faculty, including the rector, Rojda Firat, and teachers Adnan Hasan, Dorşîn Akîf, Medya Doz, Mehmod Kalê, Murat Tolhildan, Serhat Mosis, and Xelîl Hussein.

One challenge the academy faces, they told us, is that people in northeastern Syria think they have to go abroad to get a good education. “We want to change that,” said one instructor, dismissing it as a notion instilled by hegemonic forces. “We don’t want people to feel inferior about where they live. In the Middle East there is a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom, and we are trying to uncover it. Many things that have happened in history happened here.”

The school year consists of three terms, each lasting three to four months, progressing from overviews of subjects to specialization to final projects. The curriculum comprises mainly history and sociology. Why those subjects? we asked. They are crucial, we were told. Under the regime, “our existence [as Kurds] was disputed. We are trying to show that we exist and have made many sacrifices along the way. . . . We consider ourselves part of history, subjects of history.” The instruction seeks to “uncover histories of peoples that have been denied, . . . to create a new life to overcome the years and centuries of enslavement of thought that have been imposed on people.” Ultimately its purpose is “to write a new history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl in Rojava

Two academy instructors

The sociology curriculum takes a critical stance toward twentieth-century positivism and instead seeks to develop a new, alternative social science for the twenty-first century, what Abdullah Öcalan calls “sociology of freedom.” For their final projects, students choose a particular social problem, then research it and write a thesis on how to resolve it, in connection with this alternative. So the learning practical as well as intellectual, intended to serve a social good.

Unlike conventional Western approaches, the academy’s pedagogy rejects the unidirectional transmission of facts. Indeed it doesn’t strictly separate teachers and students. Teachers learn from students and vice versa; ideally, through intersubjective discourse, they ideally come to shared conclusions. Nor are the instructors necessarily professors; they are people whose life experience has given them insights that they can impart. One teacher, for example, recounts folk tales once a week. “We want teachers to help us understand the meaning of life,” we were told. “… We focus on giving things meaning, being able to interpret and comment as well as analyze.”

Photo by Janet Biehl. At the Mesopotamian Academy. in Rojava

Two more academy instructors

Students take exams, but those exams don’t measure knowledge–they’re “more like reminders, like dialogues.” And teachers themselves are subject to evaluation by students. “You did not explain this very well,” a student can say. A teacher who is criticized has to talk out the issue with the student until they both feel they understand each other.

In many ways, the academy’s approach reminded me of the educational ideas advanced by the twentieth-century American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Like the Rojava instructors, Dewey was critical of traditional approaches, in which teachers transmit facts unidirectionally to passive students. Instead, he regarded education as an interactive process, in which students explore social issues through critical give-and-take with their teachers.

Dewey would likely have approved the fact that the academy, rather than requiring students to memorize, teaches them to “claim,” or overcome separateness. “We emphasize that everyone is a subject.” Moreover, it instills habits of lifelong learning: “Our goal is to give students the ability to educate themselves,” beyond graduation Dewey too thought learning should address the whole person, not the intellect alone; that it should highlight our common human condition; and that it should continue throughout life.

The academy seeks not to develop professionalism but to cultivate the well-rounded person. “We believe humans are organisms, they can’t be cut up into parts, separated into sciences,” an instructor told us. “One can be a writer or a poet and also be interested in economy, understand it, because human beings are part of all life.”

For decades, the schools of the Baath regime, with its nationalistic focus, had aimed to create an authoritarian mentality. The Mesopotamian Academy is intent on overcoming this grim past by “helping create free individuals and free thoughts.” Once again I was reminded of Dewey, who also rejected the notion that the purpose of education is to create docile workers for hierarchical workplaces. Rather, he thought, education should help students fulfill the full range of their human potentiality.

The Mesopotamian Academy does not encourage professionalism; least of all does it show students how to maximize their economic self-interest. In the United States, far too many top students nowadays head to Wall Street for careers as investment bankers, but education in Rojava is not about “building a career and getting rich.” Rather, academy students are taught to “ask themselves how to enrich society.”

John Dewey thought the ultimate purpose of education was to create reflective beings who participate ethically as citizens in the democratic community; and that education should thus be a force for social reform. As if echoing this thought, one of the instructors remarked to our delegation, “When we do science of society, what we are trying to do is struggle for social freedom.”

None of the Mesopotamian Academy teachers mentioned John Dewey, and I have no reason to think that they knew his approach; surely they arrived at it independently. But the similarity was striking.

I was also struck by a further coincidence. In the mid-twentieth century, Dewey’s ideas influenced several experimental schools in the United States. Most notable was Goddard College, located in central Vermont, which in the 1960s and 1970s was a trailblazer in Deweyite education. During most of the 1970s, one of the teachers at Goddard College was Murray Bookchin, who taught his ideas under the name “social ecology” there. Bookchin did not write much specifically about education, but his writings on democracy and ecology would go on, in translation, to influence Abdullah Öcalan and Democratic Confederalism, the overall ideology to which Rojava is committed.

Yekitiya Star Academy, Rimelan

The women’s academy (Yekitiya Star Academy) in Rimelan pushes the educational approach of the Mesopotamian Academy further. Founded in 2102, its purpose is to educate female revolutionary cadres, so naturally its emphasis on ideology is more pronounced. The Academic Delegation visited on December 3, 2014.

Over the past thirty years, instructor Dorşîn Akîf told us, women participated in the Kurdish freedom movement, first as fighters, then in women’s institutions. Three years ago Kurdish women produced Jineolojî, or “women’s science,” which they regard as the culmination of that decades-long experience. At the academy in Rimelan, students are first given a general overview of Jineolojî, “the kind of knowledge that was stolen from women” and that women today can recover. “We are trying to overcome women’s nonexistence in history. We try to understand how concepts are produced and reproduced within existing social relations, then we come up with our own understanding. We want to establish a true interpretation of history by looking at the role of women and making women visible in history.”

Photo by Janet Biehl

Inspirations at the Star Academy

Jineolojî, said Dorşîn, considers women to be “the main actor in economy, and economy as the main activity of women.” Yet capitalist modernity defines economy as man’s primary responsibility. But we say this is not true, that always and everywhere women are the main actors in the economy.” Because of this basic contradiction, it seems, capitalist modernity will eventually be overcome.

The way people interpret history affects the way they act, said Dorşîn, so “we talk about pre-Sumerian social organization. We also look how the state emerged historically and how the concept has been constructed.” But power and the state are not the same. “Power is everywhere, but the state is not everywhere. Power can operate in different ways.”

Power, for example, is present in grassroots democracy, which has nothing to do with the state. And Jineolojî regards women as quintessentially democratic. The Star Academy educates students (who are still mostly women) in Rojavan civics. “We look at the political mechanisms— women’s parliaments, women’s communes; and the general [mixed] parliaments, general communes, neighborhood parliaments. Here in Rojava we always have both mixed ones and women’s exclusive ones. In the mixed ones, the representation of women is 40 percent plus there is always a co-presidency to ensure equality.”

Photo by Thomas Jeffrey Miley in Rojava

Students at the Star Academy

At the Star Academy, as at the Mesopotamian Academy, students are taught to see themselves as subjects, with “the power to discuss and construct.” “There is no teacher and student. The session is built on sharing experiences.” Students range from teenagers to great-grandmothers. “Some have graduated from universities, and some are illiterate. Each has knowledge, has truth in their life, and all knowledge is crucial for us. … The older woman has experience. A woman at eighteen is spirit, the new generation, representing the future.”

Every program culminates in a final session called the platform. Here each student stands and says how she will participate in Rojava’s democracy. Will she join an organization, or the YPJ, or participate in a women’s council? What kind of responsibility she will take?

We queried Dorşîn about the academy’s teachings on gender (a word that does not exist in Kurdish). “Our dream,” she said, “is that women’s participating and building society will change men, a new kind of masculinity will emerge. Concepts of men and women aren’t biologistic—we’re against that. We define gender as masculine and masculinity in connection with power and hegemony. Of course we believe that gender is socially constructed.”

Moreover, she explained, the woman problem isn’t solely the province of women; “it’s embedded in society, so women’s exclusion is society’s problem. So we have to redefine women, life, and society all together at the same time. The problem of women’s freedom is the problem of society’s freedom.”

She went on to cite a phrase from Öcalan, “Kill the man,” which has become a watchword, meaning “the masculine man has to change.” Equally, women’s colonized subjectivity, or femininity, must be killed. The social ambition embodied by the academy is to overcome domination and hegemonic power and “create an equal life together.”

How much impact do these teachings have on Rojavan society as a whole? That question I cannot answer and will leave it to future researchers to determine.

The quotations from instructors have been edited for conciseness.

The First Kobanê

On December 7, 2014, the Academic Delegation traveled to Serê Kaniyê, where we visited the local YPG command center, the PYD headquarters, a neighborhood that had been a battlefield, and the border crossing to Turkey.

The YPG and YPJ’s astounding success in liberating Kobanê deserved every bit of the universal praise it received. Yet as astounding as that liberation was, Kobanê was not the first place where the Rojava’s defense forces beat back fanatical, murderous armed jihadists. In November 2012, Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda spinoff, attacked and occupied the city of Serê Kaniyê, on the western edge of Cizire canton, and over the next months the YPG threw off that occupation as well.

A city of 50,000 people, mostly Kurds, but also Chechens, Armenians, Aramaeans, and Arabs, Serê Kaniyê lies hard on the Turkish border, across from the city of Ceylanpınar. A century ago the two were actually one, but in the wake of World War I, when the new states of Turkey and Syria were established from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, the great powers drew the boundary line between them through the old intact city.


Sere Kaniye residents

The two halves remain divided after almost a century of uneasy Turkish-Syrian relations. “The border separates us from our relatives,” the guide told our visiting delegation. “People here still refer to Ceylanpinar as ‘Serê Kaniyê above the line’ and this part as ‘below the line.’”

The Syrian uprising began in the spring of 2011 and soon degenerated into a brutal civil war, as many the forces opposing the Assad regime emerged as radical Islamists. In the darkness of the morning of November 8, 2012, one of those forces, the Al Nusra Front, entered a residential neighborhood of Serê Kaniyê, the sounds of helicopters and machine guns shattering the silence. The several hundred invaders seized people’s homes for military use.

Although Al Nusra was part of opposition to the Assad regime, its fighters entered Serê Kaniyê not from the south but from the north, from Turkey. In fact, they were able to cross with no problem. As PYD co-president Asiya Abdullah would soon point out, “The attacks are coming from Turkey, and are in violation of international law. We call on all states and organizations and the UN to condemn Turkey for this violation of human rights.“ Nothing would come of her appeal—indeed, the invasion scarcely registered in international media reports.

Aircraft of the Assad regime soon bombed the city, ostensibly to fight the jihadists. But the bombs killed at least ten civilians and wounded seventy others; fifty houses were demolished. Thousands of terrified residents bolted, within a day or two, mostly for the east. The YPG mobilized to defend the city.

Seven days after the initial attack, on November 19, a coalition of Kurdish parties called a march to protest the occupation. Civilians from Dirbespiye, Qamişlo, and Amude—other cities in Rojava—took to the roads leading to Serê Kaniyê. In advance, Al Nusra set up barriers to block them.

The co-head of the local people’s council, Abid Xelil, emerged, accompanied by Kurdish security forces (Asayiş), and demanded that the armed Islamists remove the roadblocks and allow the march. By way of an answer, the jihadists opened fire and shot him to death, along with a young demonstrator.

According to PYD co-president Abdullah, Xelil had been “a symbolic figure for interethnic understanding” in Serê Kaniyê. Here “Arabs, Aramaeans, Armenians, and Kurds live together peacefully. … Turkey is trying to undermine our harmonious coexistence and provoke a war between Arabs and Kurds.”IMG_2451

On November 20 the Turkish army helped Al-Nusra’s invasion by firing short-range missiles from across the border. The jihadists in Serê Kaniyê gave the Turks the coordinates of YPG positions, the better to target them.

As the YPG fought back, observers noticed that injured jihadists were being taken in Turkish ambulances back across the border to hospitals Ceylanpinar, but wounded Kurds were barred from receiving treatment in the same hospitals. It was and is hard to avoid the conclusion that the invasion of Serê Kaniyê was a Turkish operation, ordered from Ankara and coordinated from Ceylanpınar.

On the twenty-first, five Turkish tanks rolled over the border, again on behalf of Al Nusra. Thereupon the jihadists occupied most of the city, except for the districts of Hawarna and Xiraba. But the YPG resisted fiercely, and on the morning of November 23, Al Nusra asked for a truce, which was negotiated. Although broken by intermittent clashes, it persisted for two months.

Two months later, on January 16, 2013, some 1,500 jihadists again crossed the Turkish border into Serê Kaniyê, this time with several tanks. But over the next days, once again, the YPG resisted, destroying three of the tanks and killing 100 to 120 jihadists, losing only a few of their own. Reinforcements arrived for the jihadists, leading to a clash of forces over the police station, the governorate building, and an Assyrian Christian church. But by now the YPG was beginning to liberate neighborhoods, and by January 30 it had mostly driven Al Nusra from the city and retaken the all-important border crossing.IMG_2473

On February 17 the YPG and the Free Syrian Army agreed to a cease-fire, which Al Nusra said it would observe. Under its terms, armed groups were to leave Serê Kaniyê; a civil council, consisting of representatives of various Syrian peoples, was to control the border crossing. Salih Muslim, co-president of the PYD, said, “The Kurdish side is fully behind the agreement … We have to formulate and guarantee the rights of the various ethnic and religious groups as well as women in a democratic constitution.”

But the attackers—and their Turkish underwriters—refused to give up, for on July 16, the jihadists attacked Serê Kaniyê yet again. This time the YPG’s resistance was quick and decisive: after only two days, it repelled the invaders and retook control of the entire city. In areas once occupied by jihadists, YPG fighters found Turkish passports

Consigned to the rural areas around Serê Kaniyê, Al Nusra, now amplified by ISIS, took to looting, abducting, and executing civilians, Kurdish and Arab alike. On November 1-5, the YPG launched an operation to drive the jihadists from the villages. As it liberated villages by the dozen, it recovered weapons, vehicles, ammunition, and logistical material. Stolen goods were returned to their owners. The people’s council distributed bread. The Arab residents were just as relieved to be liberated as the Kurds, expressing their joy with slogans of “Long Live the YPG.”

At the YPG Command Center

By the time my Academic Delegation arrived in December 2014, normal life had mostly returned to the city, although clashes with ISIS continued 25 kilometers the west. At the YPG Contact and Administrative Center in Serê Kaniyê, a spokesman told us that “Daesh [ISIS] is in a defense position rather than offensive. . . . We’ve had an operation against them for the past two weeks. . . . High-level commanders were killed on their side, and we are approaching their center.”

At the YPG Command Center

At the YPG Command Center


The YPG and its female counterpart, the YPJ, call themselves “people’s defense units.” explained the YPG spokesman, Dr. Huseyin Koçer: they defend not a state but the society, for Rojava is self-governed through a popular democracy. “We are here for the people, for the society, that is how we understand ourselves.” Even so, Dr. Koçer emphasized, “the mobilization we have is stronger than ten states.”

Crucial to popular self-defense is interethnic and interreligious cooperation among the Kurdish, Assyrian, Arab, Aramaic, and other ethnic groups. “Only in this way can we defeat those who are attacking us try to displace us and pit communities against one another.” said Dr. Koçer. Rather than discriminating against non-Kurdish minorities, the social will of the self-government, expressed by the YPG, is to protect minorities’ cultural values and traditions.

“Hundreds of Arabs take part in the YPG and YPJ,” Dr. Koçer told us. The Assyrians have an armed militia, Sutoro, under the leadership of the YPG. A Chechen fighter at the command center told us that his people had arrived in this area generations earlier “but we have become people of this region as well. We have come here and we have joined the YPG and YPJ forces, and together with them we protect this region.”

What happens when the YPG and YPJ liberate an Arab village? we asked.

“Many of the Arab villagers support Daesh,” Dr. Koçer replied. But “we don’t try to harm them. … We are sure many of them don’t like Daesh but feel they have to support it out of fear. Daesh loot and rob wherever they go … They are committing these crimes in the name of Islam, but they have nothing to do with Islam. . . . We try to strengthen the Arab villagers’ mobilization capabilities. …We try to create consciousness of freedom and liberation. We try to communicate the need for self-organization, not only to sustain daily life but also politically.”

The YPG, the military spokesman said, is trying to bring democratic self-government to the Arab villages. “In places that we have liberated, the people’s council of Serê Kaniyê goes there and helps organize, and sometimes we go together. . . . We help and support them in creating the councils where they live. . . . We discuss with them and propose to them our [democratic] project and our goals.”

How do they perceive you? we asked. Do they join you out of fear as well?

“We don’t go to places to make them be like us. We want to ensure that they can express their own political will. Through discussions we try to raise liberationist consciousness. Many villages have supported us and joined the YPG as well.”

In the wake of its victory over Daesh in Serê Kaniyê, and the progress being made in Kobanê, the YPG’s morale is very high, Dr. Koçer us. “No matter how many times they attack us, we will no longer accept any occupation … by anyone. … We are prepared to be the graveyard of those who are attacking.

“This is a force that is committing crimes against all of humanity,” he continued. “Daesh is posing a threat to the communities of the world. We are resisting this force. It is here today, but it will be elsewhere tomorrow.”

As fierce as the resistance is, it is plagued by lack of material means, for Rojava is embargoed both politically and economically by Turkey and, with some exceptions, by the KRG. As a result, “we can’t treat the wounded adequately. We have doctors, but we lack medicines. … We really need to lift this embargo. … We want to be neighbors with Turkey, but the Turkish state is actively mobilizing, supporting, and facilitating the Daesh attacks.”

He begged the Academic Delegation to tell the West, to pressure Turkey to relent and at least open a humanitarian corridor to Rojava, so that basic medications as well as arms can get through. Those who are committed to fighting Islamist extremism, indeed terrorism, should indeed do nothing less for these most dedicated of allies, the warrior-democrats of Rojava.

Written by Janet Biehl. The account of the battle is based on reports from Firat, Civaka Azad, and Rojava Report. The comments from the YPG have been edited for conciseness.