Syria’s Kurdish Northeast Ratifies a New Constitution

What the ‘Social Contract’ introduced in the autonomous region means

Syria’s Kurdish Northeast Ratifies a New Constitution
Syrian Kurds wear traditional attire during a performance in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

As we transition to 2024, the news out of the Middle East remains filled with doom and gloom — horrific violence in Israel and Palestine as Turkey unleashes a bombing campaign against Kurds in Syria. In the quiet corner of America where I now live, all of this felt painfully familiar and yet surreally distant at the same time. Amid the raging chaos, a potentially significant yet little-noticed development unfolded in northeast Syria in mid-December. The General Council of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) formally ratified its constitution, intriguingly called the Social Contract. The term, reminiscent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s musings on a liberal society, bore an ironic twist as the AANES eschews liberal politics.

As a Kurdish researcher and journalist writing about Kurdish and regional affairs, I have maintained a keen interest in the AANES region. Kurds affectionately refer to the Kurdish-majority parts of northeast Syria as “Rojava-y Kurdistan,” or the Western fragment of their homeland, which has been divided since British and French colonialists distributed it among the states of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran after World War I. The AANES region grew out of the three cantons of Jazira, Kobani and Afrin. Today, it is a sprawling region of around 4.6 million people, spanning the provinces of Hasakah, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo, mainly east of the Euphrates River.

The AANES/Rojava is a tale of unfathomable survival against all odds, an epic of wild twists inconceivable even to the most imaginative minds just a decade ago. The heyday of the AANES entity, as a thriving and relatively secure super region within Syria, seems to have waned. But in late 2014, when I was in Kobani reporting on the Kurdish forces’ resistance against the Islamic State group’s onslaught, any thought of Rojava not only surviving but expanding and flourishing was a fantastical dream too.

Under such circumstances, the ratification of a constitution seemed like an audacious attempt to infuse some hope into an otherwise grim reality. Having closely monitored the evolution of the contract since a preliminary draft surfaced around 2016, I intensified my curiosity over its significance, its applicability and the potential effect it could have on the people and the prevailing situation in northeast Syria.

Comprising 134 articles and 10 chapters, the contract seeks to formalize the de facto autonomous status of the Kurdish-led AANES while emphatically declaring that the AANES territory is part of the Republic of Syria. The contract distinguishes itself from the predominantly authoritarian political tradition of modern Syria through its tapestry of progressive provisions. For instance, the preamble celebrates the ethnic and religious mosaic of the AANES-administered territory. Various articles, such as 29, 43, 78 and 91, endorse the rights of Kurdish, Arab, Syriac-Assyrian, Turkmen, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, Muslim, Christian and Yezidi communities to political representation across various levels of governance. Articles 6 and 7 designate Arabic, Kurdish and Syriac as official languages and affirm the right to education in those languages. This is a radical departure not just in the context of the Syrian state but also for much of the surrounding neighborhood, with Iraq being a rare exception, where minority ethnic identities are typically denied and criminalized. In Syria, Kurds have been the subject of ethnic-cleansing policies for the bulk of the existence of the Syrian state, with many of them deprived even of citizenship despite having lived in Syria for generations. Article 38 of the contract prohibits capital punishment in recognition of the inviolability of the right to life, which is, again, a novelty in the Syrian and broader regional context.

However, the contract resonates far beyond Syrian borders, generating a buzz among Kurds in the broader region and diaspora. Kurdish visions for a resolution to a century of colossal violence and unjust political dispossession have alternated between varying degrees of cultural recognition and self-rule arrangements within existing state boundaries or independence if opportune circumstances arise — though not necessarily in the same order.

What sets the AANES contract apart is its universalist aspirations, moving beyond a narrow emphasis on Kurds and engaging with a more comprehensive approach to the social and political organization of populations within its region. This perspective — unique particularly in the regional context — is rooted in the ideas and philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who has been imprisoned on the Imrali island off of Turkey’s western coast since 1999. Indeed, the political engine of the contract in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish party born of and heavily influenced by the PKK’s struggle and ideological evolution; the two parties say they maintain distinct organizational structures and geographical foci. The PKK itself notably advocated for an independent Kurdistan from its inception in the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. But influenced by the ideas of Murray Bookchin, a Boston-based anarchist philosopher and activist, Ocalan encouraged the PKK and its affiliated organizations within the broader umbrella group of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) — of which the PYD is a component — to embrace what he called “democratic confederalism.”

Positioned as an antithesis to the nation-state and the broader paradigm of capitalist modernity, democratic confederalism, as envisioned by Ocalan and Bookchin, proposes a framework for minorities, religious communities, and various gender-specific, cultural and societal groups to organize autonomously. The model of politics aspires to direct grassroots democracy, integrating feminism and ecological awareness into the fabric of social-political organization, challenging the oppressive structures of the nation-state, which Ocalan deems the ultimate embodiment of male power.

As the vanguard of this philosophical-ideological endeavor, the AANES contract’s articles 24 and 78 mandate a 50% representation quota for women across all governing bodies, from local councils known as “komins” to the top levels. Article 50 outlaws all forms of violence or discrimination against women.

But the critical question is how this charter would fare in practice, especially in a region entrenched in enduring traditions of political despotism and exclusionary politics.

Part constitution and part a revolutionary manifesto, the contract has no shortage of lofty ideals and ambitious goals devised to address the social and political challenges in Syria. While the contract is new, the AANES/Rojava experiment itself is around a decade old and offers insight into the authorities’ commitment and potential for implementing it.

To commence, the AANES and its diverse civilian and military bodies have already shown a distinctive commitment to implementing the principles of gender equality, women’s participation in public life and female-male co-leadership across different institutions. The cultural and linguistic rights of various ethnic groups, as well as the freedom of religion and worship for followers of different faiths, are actively respected. Moreover, non-Kurdish and non-Muslim groups find a substantial place in the AANES administration.

Eager to explore the issue of meaningful political representation, I delved into long-standing grievances by PYD opponents on this matter. Indeed, politicians from Kurdish and Arab groups not politically aligned with the AANES whom I spoke with expressed deep concerns about their marginalization, saying they were effectively excluded from participating in the process of drafting and ratifying the contract.

Faysal Yusif, spokesperson for the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the primary rival of the PYD, told New Lines his group “was not invited to partake in deliberations regarding the Social Contract. This document was drafted by only one side in an exclusionary process.” The relationship between the AANES and the KNC is particularly important in the context of Syrian Kurdish politics. The KNC receives support from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Masoud Barzani, in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDP and KCK, of which the PYD is a member, are rivals with a history of armed confrontation between them. The relationship between the pro-Barzani KNC and PYD has been subsequently strained since the PYD assumed control of the Kurdish-majority parts of Syria in 2012.

Similarly, officials from a prominent Arab party in eastern Syria outside the AANES establishment asserted that they were not included in the process of drafting the contract. One official from that party, which was once part of the Syrian opposition coalition, says the contract was issued in inauspicious circumstances and would be difficult to implement.

Critics emphasize that the contract’s approval was orchestrated by the AANES and its inner circles and lacks a popular mandate like a referendum, diminishing its overall legitimacy. They argue that challenging living conditions have left many residents uninformed or uninvolved in the document’s drafting process, contradicting the contract’s advocacy for a nonhierarchical governance system.

While acknowledging the absence of an official referendum plan, Sihanouk Dibo, a member of the core committee responsible for drafting the contract and head of the PYD’s diplomacy bureau, however, asserted that the draft underwent extensive discussions over two years. “All parties had an opportunity to participate in those discussions, and we held tens of meetings over its details,” Dibo told New Lines. “This, in and of itself, constituted a referendum, as the views of various classes and strata of society were taken into account during that process.”

As a journalist and media researcher, I was particularly drawn to the press freedom provisions in the contract versus the actual conditions experienced by the media. Despite the contract’s guaranteeing press freedom in Articles 65 and 66, the AANES’s track record reveals serious challenges.

The Syrian Kurdish Journalists’ Network, monitoring media in AANES-held areas, reported numerous cases of obstruction, harassment and attacks since 2015, with a notable decrease in violations in 2023. The AANES banned Rudaw and Kurdistan24, major pan-Kurdish broadcasters in Iraqi Kurdistan tied to ruling KDP figures. Conversely, the KDP has a history of prohibiting media linked to KCK and PYD from operating in its territory.

Journalists in northeast Syria acknowledged a considerable measure of media freedom within AANES areas, contrasting with regions controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government or pro-Turkey opposition groups. An anonymous journalist noted, “We have more leeway to report on cultural issues or problems with public services.” Yet several journalists noted a number of red lines — such as the recruitment of minors into military bodies, corruption in governing bodies and the sale of oil from the region — that they refrained from reporting on critically or at all.

The recruitment of minors into AANES-related armed bodies emerges as a source of widespread concern, as evidenced by a 2023 United Nations report documenting the recruitment of 829 children from 2020 to 2022, despite prior commitments to cease the practice.

Beyond the local context, the contract reverberates within the broader Kurdish struggle, drawing reactions from Kurds outside Syria. While some celebrate it as a progressive milestone consolidating the AANES/Rojava entity, others criticize its ideological stance and deliberate avoidance of the terms “Rojava” or “Kurdistan” to describe the Kurdish-majority parts of the AANES territory. An earlier draft of the contract in 2016 included four references to “Kurdistan” and more than 50 to “Rojava.”

“Any law issued on behalf of Kurds that, under any justifications, denies the Kurdistaniness of a part of Kurdistan is more dangerous than such denials by the foes of Kurds because it creates legal-historical precedence” for such denialist attitudes, said Kamal Soleimani, a Kurdish scholar and associate professor of the Middle East and Islamic world at El Colegio de Mexico.

As I write these lines and ponder what will become of the contract, the harsh reality of geopolitics looms large. Geopolitics assumes the role of a callous and indifferent deity that appears bent on transforming each Kurdish endeavor to etch a place in history into a Sisyphean pursuit. The viability of the AANES/Rojava project relies on the complex network of regional geopolitical relations, with the United States at its core. However, the predominantly transactional U.S.-Kurdish relationship in Syria, primarily focused on countering the Islamic State and, to a lesser extent, confronting Assad and Iranian influence, seems to be in jeopardy.

Recent reports suggest Washington is contemplating a possible withdrawal of its 900 troops from northeast Syria. While these troops may not have shielded Rojava from ongoing Turkish aggression, their presence serves as a deterrent against a comprehensive invasion by various actors — from Assad and his Russian and pro-Iranian militia allies to Turkey and its Syrian opposition partners, and even the Islamic State.

As far as the Assad regime is concerned, it has consistently rejected any decentralization of power. At one point, a proposed future constitution of Syria, presented by Moscow during peace negotiations in Kazakhstan in 2017, included timid and vague references to limited “Kurdish cultural autonomy.” However, there is no evidence that Assad endorsed this proposal. An indirect indication of the regime’s dissatisfaction with the contract emerged when the National Coordination Board, a government-friendly domestic opposition group, recently severed ties with the AANES over the contract. It denounced the contract because of its “major negative repercussions” for the Syrian state and its people.

To the north, Turkey stands as a hostile force awaiting the opportune moment to strike. Despite a promising period between 2012 and 2015, during which it seemed that a functional though uneasy relationship between the PYD and Turkey might be possible, Turkey and its allied Syrian opposition persist in military attacks on AANES areas. Since 2018, they have occupied significant portions of the AANES territory, such as Afrin, Sari Kani and Tal Abyad. Meanwhile, Washington remains a passive observer amid ongoing Turkish assaults.

Conversations with sources inside Syria, from officials to tribal figures, journalists and regular citizens, reveal an acknowledgment of the daunting challenges ahead. Despite the grim geopolitical reality, the human instinct for survival sparks hope in unexpected places. In the midst of upheavals, some find solace in the possibility that a positive outcome might emerge from the region’s tumultuous events, as counterintuitive as it might appear now.

I asked Dibo of the PYD whether he saw any hope, given the challenging geopolitical reality encircling the AANES. He promptly pointed to the contract itself as “a source of hope,” framing it as a step toward founding the Third Republic of Syria — after the immediate postcolonial and Baath-dominated stages since 1946.

“The vision in this document can be an alternative and solution to the Syrian crisis,” he asserted.

If the AANES manages to weather the myriad threats, the contract could indeed serve as a beacon of hope, even if it marks an imperfect start. Ensuring meaningful inclusion of opposing voices in the political process would provide the AANES with added impetus, potentially warranting a redrafting of a more unifying charter.

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