Long before he would become commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), General Mazloum Abdi was a Kurdish revolutionary with a plan to transform Syria’s crisis into an opportunity for his people.
“What are the revolutionary tasks that the Kurdish people must perform? What should they do in this historic period that Syria is going through? How should they participate in the Syrian popular revolution with their nationalist character and features, and their own type of struggle? What are the practical steps that they should take in this stage?”
He posed those crucial questions in a 2011 booklet, ‘Practical Steps for Building the Autonomous Administration.’ While the Syrian government clung to power by force and opposition rebels fought to seize power for themselves, he and his comrades proposed a third path: winning self-determination for the country’s two million oppressed Kurds by changing society from the ground up.
Ten tumultuous years later, in a rare interview on the ground in North and East Syria, I had the chance to ask Mazloum Abdi (also known as Mazloum Kobane) how much of the revolutionary vision he put forward back then has come true.
Abdi: ‘We wanted the people to know that our goal is to liberate society’
“The reason we released this brochure, back in 2011, was to make the people feel and understand what our plans were for the future, what our goals were, and what we were looking forward to achieving,” he explained to me.
Syrian Kurds, Abdi and his comrades argued at the time, suffered from four main problems: assimilation, a lack of political organisation, an inability to defend themselves, and resultant social ills like poverty and underdevelopment. Neither the government nor the opposition were interested in finding solutions.
It was thus up to Kurdish society to build their own “autonomous administration”: a new kind of system based on communes and councils and protected by the local self-defence forces that would become the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“Back in 2011, when we released this brochure, the war in Syria was between an Islamic radical wing and the Syrian regime and its allies. And the conflict [between them] was over who was going to lead Syria – basically over authority, who was going to be the authority in Syria,” Abdi observed.
“We issued and published this brochure to make sure that people understood that our goal, and our fight, is not about authority. It is not about wanting to get our hands on Syria and controlling Syria. We wanted the people to know that our goal is to liberate society.”
Abdi : ‘We are still on our feet, and we are moving forward’
In Abdi’s evaluation, North and East Syria has been able to build the kind of alternative system that he always believed they could: “We all expected that we would reach this level.”
“But, on the other hand,” he noted, with such calm and assurance that the great understatement he was about to make barely sounded like one, “some things happened that we didn’t expect.”
“My friends and colleagues and I were not expecting – never expecting – to fight alongside so many countries within the international coalition against ISIS. We were not expecting to fight alongside them against ISIS. And, of course, back in 2011, we did not expect that we would go all the way down to liberate Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor.”
Victory over ISIS would take half a decade, cost the SDF alone more than 10,000 lives, and throw their local struggle for self-determination onto a global stage.
It also brought unforeseen political challenges, as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) moved beyond its roots in Kurdish border cities to govern nearly one-third of Syrian territory.
“We were thinking then that these steps [to build the Autonomous Administration] would be implemented in the Kurdish regions, and in some regions where Arabs are a minority. But we were not expecting that there would be cities that would be liberated in the future, under our control, where Kurds are a minority,” Abdi explained.
Abdi is honest and self-critical about the shortcomings that these upheavals brought. His 2011 writings discuss social and political organisation more than they discuss war – but total focus on the war against ISIS became necessary for survival, he stated.
“Since 2011, we have used virtually all the manpower and brainpower we have to fight terrorism. Thus, we did not focus on improving the system – which was the plan that we had wanted to achieve,” he said.
“My colleagues and I all became busy with the endless campaigns against ISIS, with the war against terrorism. This is why our political wing and our social organisation wing were not as strong, and [why] our focus on these two wings was not as strong as our focus on the campaigns against ISIS. That’s why we see that we have left some gaps in both the social and political wings, which we must work hard to fill.”
Now that ISIS has been defeated, North and East Syria’s leaders are reviewing their successes and shortcomings alike in an effort to do just that.
“We are planning to concentrate on these gaps, to make sure that we fill them, and to realise, or reform, a system or an administration that is acceptable for all components and all people of North and East Syria,” Abdi told me.
“This period will be a period wherein we all understand and learn from the mistakes we made in the past, and make sure that we reform the administration to make it a model that is acceptable for, and trusted by, all components.”
“But at the end of the day,” he added, “we are very proud of what we have done. Despite all the problems, despite the many terrorist organisations that tried to attack us and defeat us, despite the Turkish invasion two years ago, we are still on our feet, and we are moving forward and improving what we have.”
The achievements of the ongoing revolution
Abdi’s ambitious view of the future reflects sentiments made clear in conversations I had across the region.
By rejecting nationalism and religious fundamentalism and basing their system on coexistence, decentralisation and women’s freedom, the people of North and East Syria have achieved things that no other government in the region has even tried. They are also adamant that their revolution is far from over.
New social organisations are still being built. In Raqqa – once the capital of ISIS – I met the leaders of the Zenobia Women’s Conference, an autonomous women’s organisation representing the Arab-majority areas of Raqqa, Manbij, Tabqa and Deir ez-Zor. It was established in June 2021 and its leaders told me their goal was to “liberate all Syrian women.”
A committee is also in the process of rewriting North and East Syria’s social contract. This will not be the first time the document has been revitalised to evolve with changing circumstances; the decision to update it came not from a top-down order, but a consultative process with different local communities and organisations.
I met four members of the drafting committee completely by chance: two at the headquarters of a women’s organisation in Qamishlo, and two in a discussion with the leaders of Arab and Kurdish tribes in Hasakah.
Once the document is approved, the Administration plans to hold their first regional elections since 2017. As representatives of the opposition and the government sit in European conferences and debate a political solution without results, North and East Syria has persisted with its third path, choosing action over words.
Part of this is through necessity. Western acquiescence to Turkish pressure has left them excluded from the Constitutional Committee process. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 makes no reference to their region at all. Their stated goal – recognised local autonomy within a decentralized, democratic, and multi-ethnic Syria – is something no other party to the conflict has been prepared to accept so far, though they continue to hold the door open for negotiations.
The influence of the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan
There is also a deep ideological commitment at play. The theoretical heart of North and East Syria’s revolution is the philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
It has been more than two decades since Öcalan was forced out of Syria at the start of an international plot that would lead to his capture by Turkish intelligence. Since then, he has been held in solitary confinement in a maximum-security island prison. The Turkish government violates its own laws to deny him meetings with his family and his lawyers. He has been blocked from communicating with the outside world for years at a time.
On the ground in North and East Syria today, though, his legacy is everywhere. The revolutionary political theories he developed from his jail cell read almost like they were created with the region’s challenges in mind.
North and East Syria’s leaders may not have expected that they would one day be tasked with building an administration that could represent some of Syria’s most diverse territory and undo the damage caused by nationalists and religious fundamentalists alike.
Öcalan’s concept of ‘netewa demokratik’ – ‘the democratic nation,’ a political community that rejects the nation-state in favour of coexistence and solidarity across the communities of the Middle East – gave them an ideological framework ready to meet that challenge.
In meetings with a wide variety of the region’s institutions and community organisations, people cited ‘netewa demokratik’ as both a reason for their success and a framework for their criticisms.
One member of the Women’s House in Manbij, who became a women’s rights activist after surviving several years of ISIS occupation, told me the philosophy “is for all nations, not just one.”
“We as women see ourselves and our roles through the project of the democratic nation,” she said. “It gives us a huge opportunity to participate, in all areas of life, from communes all the way up.”
At the Hasakah offices of the Bethahrain Young Women’s Academy, a member of the Syriac Women’s Union used the idea to critique some nationalist Kurds in the administration: “The Autonomous Administration has made mistakes, but they can’t change the reality, because our project is based on the democratic nation. Some Kurds think the project is only for them – they need to understand this idea better.”
I asked Abdi why, in his opinion, this particular concept has put down such deep roots here.
“There are two main sicknesses here in Syria, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism. People here were led astray by other groups, either radical Islamists or authoritarians. The democratic nation philosophy is an antidote for both of these poisons.”
In his writings, Öcalan describes the democratic nation as “the model of the nation that is the least exposed to such illnesses of being a state” and “the admixture of common homeland, languages and flags through amity and sharing and not confrontation.”
To Abdi, it means “a mixture of the ideas of all components of society. (…) [Something] acceptable at the same time, to all components – all religions and ethnicities.”
He notes that it has not been implemented perfectly. But the armed force that he leads, he says, is proof that it has value.
“One result we have seen is the SDF – a force made up of all components, all religions and ethnicities. Arabs, Kurds and Syriacs have all fought under one flag and shed blood to liberate their cities and towns. No one says [the SDF] is religious, ethnic, nationalist. It is a mixture of all components,” he says.
Not everyone wants to attribute the SDF’s success this way. The same Western powers that supported the group’s military victory over ISIS have condemned the ideological inspiration behind their fight, persisting with an unfounded belief that the two can be separated.
Abdi, however, is open about the roots of the region’s political philosophy. “Of course, the idea of the democratic nation comes from Öcalan’s ideas,” he tells me.
“He is the founder of this idea. Everyone knows that. Öcalan’s position here is very special because he spent a lot of time here [in Syria], with the society. Another reason for the success of the ‘netewa demokratik’ idea was the foundation that he built in this area.”
“I personally spent a lot of time with him. I gained a lot of experience from his ideas. A lot of people want to use this against us, but it’s a fact on the ground. It’s a reality that we’ve been living with. We see it as a point of strength. We’re not hiding it.”
Abdi: People have ‘trusted … this project’
If the Autonomous Administration’s philosophical roots are one source of its strength, the will of the people who built it and fought for it is an even more essential one. For Abdi, the region’s successes from 2011 to today all go back to this starting point.
When we spoke in mid-October, it had been two years since the start of the Turkish invasion and the occupation of Serekaniye and Tel Abyad. Leaders in different Autonomous Administration institutions tell me that many Western diplomats believed that this devastating attack would be the end of the project. To this day, the narrative that the revolution was irreparably broken in 2019 persists, despite realities on the ground.
I ask Abdi why the real course of events has been so different from what many outside observers predicted when the invasion began.
“People thought that this project would end with the withdrawal of the Coalition [in 2019]. But it didn’t happen. I would say this is not because we were strong militarily, but because people trusted in this project,”
“When the Coalition decided to withdraw from some cities, everyone gambled on the fall of those cities and the fall of the Administration. But we’re now two years past what happened, and things are still the same.”
It is that popular resilience, Abdi assures me, that will make their project relevant to the country’s future, despite imperfections and challenges. Through all the changing circumstances since 2011, this seems to have been the essential constant for understanding North and East Syria’s political and military achievements.
“If you go to the streets and ask an informed Syrian what they think of the three main ideas in Syria – if you ask them who do they prefer, the SDF in comparison with the opposition and the government – they will choose us, because the government is following the idea of nationalism, and the opposition are trying to impose the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and of Islamism. The only democratic model is in this area,” he explains.
“There are many fronts now in Syria, and people who have different plans and stories for Syria. Despite all the mistakes in our system, despite all the gaps in our system, we still believe that this is the most suitable plan, the most suitable idea for Syria.”