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Rojava an oasis of progress in Syria
YPJ soldiers act as escorts from Iraq border

23 Nov 2018 / international Print

Rojava is an unexpected oasis of progress in Syria

I’ve been lost in my Kindle for the past half hour or so.

I suddenly look up at the road ahead, and it hits me afresh: I’m speeding east across the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, aka Rojava, being driven in a minibus by a calm, patient YPG soldier, from Kobanî to Qamishli, with six other women from various countries, including Irish solicitor Wendy Lyon.

It’s definitely one of those “how on earth did I get here?” moments.

I travelled in May 2018 with this delegation with plans to explore the region and its institutions.

Unique

It is unique in the Middle-Eastern context, in that it is firmly committed to gender equality, secularism and democracy – concepts that are enshrined in its written social contract.

These are the people who held off ISIS single-handedly at Kobanî, until the American-led coalition arrived to carry out airstrikes; such tenacity, I felt, was worthy of a visit in itself.

I was also very interested to explore its legal system, given that the region as an autonomous entity was only established in 2013 when it was abandoned by the Syrian regime during the civil war – in a nutshell, it’s almost as different a system from ours as it’s possible to be.

End of the line

Rojava is bordered on the north by Turkey, the east by Iraqi Kurdistan, and the south and west by the Syrian state (the regime). ‘Rojava’ simply means ‘west in’ Kurdish: it is the westernmost Kurdish population in the Middle East.

There are Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. (Iraq, however, is the only country to have within its borders a legally autonomous Kurdish region, that of Iraqi Kurdistan.)

The population is about 4.5 million and is made up mainly of Kurds and Arabs, with some other ethnicities, which share the region peaceably.

We flew into Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and travelled by car to the border crossing on a tributary of the Tigris, into ancient Mesopotamia and Rojava itself.  

Institutions

During our stay, we visited numerous institutions, especially those promoting the participation of women in the democratic process. Our hosts were Kongreya Star, an umbrella organisation for all the women’s civic, political and economic organisations in the region.

Rojava is not a state, nor does it have a separatist agenda; rather it wants a federalised Syria. However, the regime and neighbouring actors in the region have other ideas.

Buy-in

Encouragingly, they have secured the buy-in of all of the different ethnicities and religions in the region as regards the new political and legal systems.

Many Kurds have been familiar with the social theories underpinning direct democracy from at least the 1980s onwards, based on the writing and activism of Abdullah Ocalan, currently serving a sentence for treason and sedition in Turkey.

Ocalan was one of the founding members of the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organisation in several countries, as well as by the EU and the UN, but the YPG and YPJ (male and female forces, respectively, in Rojava) and the PYD (their political wing) say that they are entirely different organisations and have no crossover with the PKK whatsoever.

The YPG/J also assert that they are defensive forces only and do not engage in offensive action. Turkey appears to think differently.  

Street life

The legal system mirrors the political structure, which is to say that there are fora for resolution of legal problems from street level upwards.

The system is based on consensual restorative law and mediation; emphasis is firmly on rehabilitation rather than retribution; and it lacks the adversarial basis of legal practice in the common law world. It’s difficult to get one’s head around it when one has trained and practised only in an adversarial common law context.

Practitioners in the common law world are, of course, more than familiar with mediation, but a consensus-based approach to legal matters is not quite baked into the system in that world to the same extent as it is in Rojava. 

Street legal

At literally street level, mediation is facilitated by local people, none of whom need be legally qualified, and all of whom are elected to peace committees.

There are five to nine members on a peace committee with a gender quota of at least 40% women. The rules and principles are constantly evolving, but the system has also borrowed principles from other legal systems, so did not start with a completely blank slate.

In family law matters, or criminal matters concerning domestic violence, or any other matter in which a woman is concerned, there is a parallel system designed to create a less intimidating environment.

A level of trust has already been established, such that participants are now comfortable with the new system, as distinct from the regime system that pertained prior to 2011. The latter was considered bureaucratic, time-consuming and rife with delays. 

In contrast, the restorative law system appears to be able to resolve disputes within much shorter time frames and, due to this informality and efficiency of outcome, the system has gained the trust of its users.

This approach of neighbour ‘judging’ neighbour does not sit easily with those of us used to arm’s-length common law jurisdictions but, in one sense, the jury system here is just a formalised way of doing the same thing, albeit with the usual safeguards as to conflict of interest built in.

A parallel court system for matters relating to women did not sit easily with me either – it’s at odds with treating all adults equally before the law but, on the other hand, given the deeply patriarchal outlook of the Middle East, it may be that the pendulum must first swing towards special legal treatment of women in order to gain their confidence, before it switches to one system for all, if that is the ultimate intention.  

Remake/remodel

Peace committees also handle forced marriage, polygamy, and child marriage cases, all of which are illegal. Sentences for domestic or honour-based violence run from six months to three years.

Murder carries a life sentence, which is currently measured at around 20 years. There is no death penalty.

It bears repeating how remarkable a change this represents in the Middle Eastern context. There is a genuine commitment to gender equality: for example, when a man is elected as mayor, a woman is elected alongside him to share power.

Village courts

Next to street-level courts are village courts, also run by elected peace committees. Then come district courts, with seven elected judges. Both the street-level and village courts have a period of one month in which to make a decision. 

There are four appeals courts spread across the three Rojavan cantons: Kobanî, Afrin and Cizire. All appeal court judges are professional jurists.

There is a cantonal court, equivalent to a constitutional court, although there is no constitution as such, since Rojava is not a state.

Social contract

It does have a written social contract, though, and the cantonal court’s role is to ensure the judgments of lower courts are consistent with this. 

Where a local peace committee is unable to resolve a case, a ‘justice platform’ of up to 300 can be convened to examine the issue and put forward solutions.

These potentially unwieldy numbers do not appear to have dissuaded users of the legal system, nor does it appear to have hampered the overall operation of the system itself.

There are public prosecutors in each of the cantons. Minor matters come through the street – district – regional system, but serious crime goes straight to the regional court. Policing functions are carried out by the Asayish, who see their function as protecting the people themselves rather than any official institution.

They will also join with the YPG and YPJ to defend the region when needed. Rojava is one of the safest places in Syria thanks to the Asayish (with the exception of the Afrin region, currently facing aggression from Turkey).

The Asayish have powers of arrest, but cannot detain anyone for longer than 24 hours without a court order.

The legal academy in Qamishli supports judges in their work and assists with the reconciliation of Syrian law with the social contract.

Where there is a conflict, the social contract takes precedence.

The Justice Assembly decides when a region requires a new court and requests resources from the justice ministry.  

There are plans for a children’s court, child detention centres, committees specialising in land law, and a Committee for Democratic Justice, part of whose mandate is to carry out prison inspections. 

Let's stick together

Rojava is an oasis of gender equality, secularism, and democracy – surrounded on all sides by intractable or downright hostile actors (Turkey to the north; Turkey to the west as well, since it invaded Afrin In January 2018; Iraqi Kurdistan to the east – which is supportive of Erdogan’s administration; and the Syrian regime to the south, which has no intention of endorsing Rojava’s plan for a federalist Syria).

Rojava is also subject to trade sanctions, greatly hampering its infrastructural plans.

The Turkish aggression, which continued in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2401 demanding a humanitarian truce for 30 days from 24 February 2018, has caused numerous civilian casualties and displaced thousands.

Afrin has lately gone from the safest region in Rojava (and which, in fact, hosted numerous refugees from other regions within Rojava during the attacks from ISIS) to one of the most war-torn in the whole of Syria.

These setbacks aside, Rojava is a laudable experiment in direct democracy and gender equality, the more remarkable because of the region in which it is situated.

Courageous

Its inhabitants are some of the most courageous but beleaguered people on earth – once the Syrian civil war was over and the region established itself as autonomous, ISIS arrived to terrorise it.

No sooner had ISIS been neutralised, than the Turkish invaded Afrin. 

The fate of the Rojavan experiment in gender equality, democracy and secularism remains to be seen, but deserves to succeed. 

Katherine Finn
Katherine Finn
Katherine Finn is a Dublin-based barrister