The political structure of Rojava

The political structure of Rojava

In 1990 Osman Sebrî wanted to pick himself up from his sickbed in Damascus to greet his guest standing.
He was eighty-five years old, and in no condition to walk.
His guest, Abdullah Öcalan, leaned toward his bed, embraced and saluted him.
Arrested along with his uncle during the Sheikh Said Rebellion, set free and then rearrested in 1928, Osman Sebrî was one of the most prominent Kurdish youth forced to flee Turkey and migrate to Syria under pressure from the Turkish state in 1929.
When he arrived in Syria, Sebrî joined Xoybun—an organization founded in Beirut by Kurdish intellectuals in exile.
A living witness to Kurdish history from 1925 into the 1990s, Sebrî—also known as Apê Osman—and Öcalan talked about Xoybun for hours on end during Öcalan’s visit.

At one point in the conversation with Öcalan, tears came to Apê Osman’s eyes, and he told Öcalan: “You are realizing our dreams. I have never been so proud at any time of my life. Now there is an organization to liberate Kurdistan.”
Öcalan responded in agreement, “We are merely following in your footsteps. This time we will prevail.”
Three years after this conversation, Osman Sebrî passed away at the age of eighty-eight.
Apê Osman now rests in the Berkevir graveyard—a village administratively tied to Dirbesiyê. On either side he is flanked by his fellow travelers: Mele Evdılahê Timok of Batman on one side and Rustem Cudi, one of the most prominent leaders of contemporary Kurdish movement, on the other. A large Kesk-Sor-Zer flag flutters over the graveyard.


Influenced by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Southern Kurdistan (in Iraq) and conceived as its successor, Rojava’s first Kurdish political party was founded in 1957 under the leadership of Osman Sebrî and Hemîdê Hecî Derwêş: the Democratic Kurdish Party of Syria, or El Parti for short. In an era characterized by intense political turmoil and rapid transformation, El Parti—which had been forced to continue its activities illegally—together with other Kurdish political formations in Rojava was greatly affected. As a result of the political polarization experienced in Southern Kurdistan in 1966, Celal Talabani broke off his alliance with Mele Mustafa Barzani and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (the Yeketî Niştîmanî Kurdistan, known by its acronym “YNK”). This political reorganization in Southern Kurdistan directly affected Rojava: Hemidê Hecî Derwêş, a close ally of Talabani, left El Parti in Rojava and founded Partiya Pêşverû. To this day he serves as the leader of the party and spends most of his time in Suleymanieh.

Osman Sebrî also left the party, having deemed its merely nationalist line unsatisfactory. Instead, he focused on social and writing projects. The literary and political works he has left behind are the fruits of this period. Without compromising its political alliance with the Barzani family in Southern Kurdistan, El Parti has continued on its path until today. Abdulhakim Beşar is the current leader of the party. When the Southern Kurdistan Revolution took a serious blow due to the 1975 Algiers Agreement between Iraq and Iran, which cut off some Iranian supplies to Iraqi Kurdistan, Rojava’s political structures also experienced further fragmentation.
Taking advantage of the situation, the Baghdad government initiated the formation of a new party under the leadership of Salahê Bedrê, who had been in communication with Yasser Arafat in Lebanon and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Bedrê founded a party with the name of Partiya Yekgirtina Gel, or The People’s Unity Party. Having declared that “Southern Kurdistan was being crafted into a second Israel” and having committed every defamation imaginable against the Barzani family, Salahê Bedrê not only left the leadership of the party, but also started serving as an advisor to Mesud Barzani for the next ten years. Even after his career as an advisor to Barzani came to an end, his relationship with Barzani never deteriorated, and Bedrê configured all of his subsequent political activities around an opposition to the PKK. Once Bedrê left the leadership of the Party and started serving Barzani as an advisor, one of Bedrê’s closest friends, Mustafa Cumo, assumed the leadership. The party’s name was changed to Azadi. Not long after the name change, however, internal disagreements and power struggles surfaced once again, and a group under the leadership of Mustafa Ose broke off and founded another party, also named Azadi, in the early 2000s.

Due to these internal disagreements, Rojava is now home to two parties named Azadi, both of which are politically aligned with the KDP. The main interlocutor of the KDP in Rojava, however, remains El Parti, even though another splinter group under the leadership of Nasreddin Ibrahim formed the Kurdish Democratic Party. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the fragmentation that has resulted from these internal disagreements was directly related to the allocation and sharing of the financial support that Southern Kurdistan received in the early 1990s.
With the PKK movement establishing a political base in Rojava as well as in greater Syria, three political lines became pronounced in Rojava in the 1990s: the PKK, the KDP, and the YNK. Öcalan, Barzani, and Talabani would hold meetings from time to time to discuss the national framework. There were other parties formed during this period as well. The Yekiti (or Kurdish Union in Syria) Party, from its inception, declared its independence from all three party lines under the leadership of İsmail Hemê.

Subsequently, İbrahim Bıro and friends broke off from the party and formed another Yekiti. At present, the Leftist Party, liberal formations, and other splinter groups populate Rojava’s political landscape. When the revolutionary process began in 2011 in Syria, Kurds of various political inclinations mobilized and formed Encûmena Niştimanî ya Kurdên Surî, or the Kurdish National Council of Syria. Sixteen political parties and lesser institutional political formations that had endorsed the political line of the KDP and the YNK (including those mentioned above) came together under the auspices of this Council. Only the Partiya Yekîtuya Demokrat (the Democratic Union Party of Syria, known by its acronym “PYD”) was not among them.

The PYD and The People’s Council of Rojava

Abdullah Öcalan crossed from Suruç in Northern Kurdistan to Kobanê in Rojava. According to his own account of the cross-border journey, when he crossed the border with the help of smugglers from the border villages who knew the border area extremely well, a Turkish soldier on duty told him, “Hurry up, hurry up, my friend!”
Last year I conducted interviews with people in the area who remember those times. A middle-aged man and a contemporary of Öcalan recounted that period and his encounter with him as follows:

Leader Apo [short for Abdullah] would constantly read, be it in the room given to him, or under that tree over there. We knew him as a fugitive. We had no idea that he was the Leader. We had only been told that he was an important person. One day, we village youth gathered in the coffeehouse, playing cards. He came to watch us. We invited him to join the game. He kindly accepted our invitation. We realized that he did not know how to play cards very well, so we played a little trick on him. A few days later, he was nowhere to be found; he had disappeared. It was only in 1984 that we learned he was the Leader. In 1988, a one-hundred-person delegation was formed in Kobanê to go and meet with the Leader in Bekaa’. I was among the delegation. He greeted each and every one of us individually. Although there were approximately ten people between us, he addressed me by my name. Smiling, he asked me to come closer. He remembered and embraced me. ‘I knew that you played a trick on me that day when we played cards, but I didn’t want to embarrass you,’ he told me. We saw each other a few more time after that. It was as if he never forgot anything. He had a very strong relationship of fidelity with the people. My only expectation in life is to be able to see him once more.
Abdullah Öcalan made this landscape his home for over twenty years. He maintained constant and systematic communication with people throughout the area.

According to PKK sources, between the years of 1984 and 2012, five thousand men and women from Rojava lost their lives in various parts of Kurdistan among the ranks of the PKK guerillas. That said, the PKK did not, and could not, undertake any open operations in Syria. When Öcalan left Syria, anyone and everyone who had saluted the PKK found themselves under increasing surveillance and pressure from the Syrian state. Since then, Syria has handed dozens of PKK guerillas over to Turkey. However, the PKK also left its indelible mark on this landscape. A very deep spiritual connection was established between the PKK and Rojava. The PKK might have been absent, but its political stance and soul lives on in Rojava. Even those who remained distant from the politics of the PYD and the PKK had an Öcalan portrait hanging in their homes.

The PYD formed itself on these lands and declared its official founding in 2003. Not unlike other Kurdish political formations in the region, it carried out its activities illegally. A number of its high-ranking leaders have been arrested and executed. It proved itself by leading the March 2004 Serhildan (Resistance) in Qamışlo. The PYD never became or claimed to be the PKK, yet as the honorary representative of the twenty-year-old struggle of the PKK it entered almost each and every home in Rojava. When the revolutionary process began in 2011, it was the strongest and most prominent political organization in Rojava, capable of taking part in the process.


While many parties have endorsed a policy of wait-and-see, or joined the Syrian opposition, the PYD supported neither the regime nor the opposition. Instead, they abided by the following stance: “Let’s organize and protect our own region first, and subsequently lend our support to the opposition if the rights of our people are recognized.”
With this policy the PYD turned to the Rojava streets.

It is obviously a very difficult task for a single party to meet the demands of a people’s revolution. In order to meet these demands, the Rojava Democratic People’s Council was formed. Its administration and representatives were established through elections, whereby the Women’s movement Yekitiya Star, the Democratic Society Movement (Tev-Dem for short), as well as youth, professional, and student organizations found their voice in the Council. The PYD also partook in the formation of the Council. Consequently, two umbrella organizations that represent all political parties and organization in Rojava came into existence.

The ENSK—the Kurdish National Council of Syria, which is comprised of sixteen political parties and organizations—and the Rojava Democratic People’s Council came together in July of 2012 to form the High Kurdish Council, which is comprised of ten members. Both the ENSK and the Rojava People’s Council are represented by five delegates to the High Kurdish Council, where the co-presidents of the People’s Council and one of the PYD co-presidents serve as members. The High Kurdish Council managed to build remarkable synergy in Rojava, even though their activities came short of meeting the people’s demands. While other parties found themselves embroiled in internal disagreements, the political organization formed under the umbrella of the Rojava People’s Council has so far led the revolution, acting in large part under the auspices of the PYD.

The Fundamental Differences among Rojava’s Political Parties  

One of the most fundamental reasons for the respect and support the PYD enjoys among the people of Rojava is its adherence to Öcalan’s political vision. When the revolutionary process began, many parties and other political formations struggled to remain in the political arena and to compete with the PYD. The stance endorsed by the parties closely aligned with the KDP led to disappointment among the people of Rojava—who easily discerned the disconnect between political rhetoric and concrete action. Moreover, the PYD endorsed and followed a society-focused political program. For instance, it is impossible to see women in the higher leadership roles in any of the other parties, where the average age of the representatives is well above forty. Taking the co-presidency of the party beyond a rhetorical formality, the PYD implemented a forty-percent quota for woman representatives across its party ranks. While most party leaders retreated and remained in Hewler, the PYD leadership hit the ground more than any other party. While others struggled to send their children abroad, the PYD members built defense barricades shoulder to shoulder with their children. The people, in other words, saw very clearly who did what on the ground. As far as these ground operations are concerned, one of the most prominent figures among the PYD ranks had been Isa Hiso, who was recently killed in a bombing attack in Qamışlo.

The media in Southern Kurdistan and Turkey, having endorsed a political stance akin to that of the KDP, indirectly strengthened the PYD’s position in Rojava. The propaganda emanating from outside of Rojava aimed at defaming the PYD redounded to the benefit of the organization, because people actually living in Rojava were able to see for themselves that the situation on the ground was the opposite of its “bleak” representation by these media outlets. The PYD actively campaigned among the people to reveal the intentions behind such media representations. As a result, the PYD’s support base doubled, and even those who do not agree with the PYD’s political stance in Rojava now respect the party for its consistency. Since the PYD was in no position to lead the revolution due to its internal structure and limited resources, the formation of the People’s Council proved to be a crucial strategic gain. It is also important to mention, however, that the PYD’s occasional sectarian stance and its hasty reactions to provocations has led to criticisms. Most parties and other political actors, having endorsed a policy of wait-and-see, had assumed that the PYD would be harmed by its activist stance. Despite all of its shortcomings, however, the PYD emerged stronger than ever from the revolutionary process. By reflecting on the party’s shortcomings themselves, and listening to the criticisms and problems of Rojava’s people in open forums, the PYD also marked its difference compared to the other political formations in Rojava.

In his last meetings with BDP representatives in Imrali, Öcalan suggested the formation of a political organization based in Qamışlo, which would serve as a forum for not only the PYD and the Kurds, but also for all social groups and political formations in Rojava. The PYD drew up plans for the formation of such an umbrella organization based on Öcalan’s suggestions and presented them to other parties. Subsequently, both councils came together in September 2013 and endorsed a historical agreement regarding Rojava’s future. They have also decided to form a sub-committee charged with the task for preparing for elections. The Rojava Parliament, which is intended to come out of the elections, aims not only to form a transitional government, but also to create a legal framework for the people of Rojava.

The ENKS has recently applied to join the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) on the condition that the Coalition recognizes Kurds’ basic rights. The SNC leaders’ declarations on the one hand and the ENKS demands on the other so far appear irreconcilable, but a final decision has not yet been made public as of this writing. Representatives from both councils in Rojava claim that whatever the decision is, it will not affect the plans to form a transitional government. That said, the process promises to be painful, as the people of Rojava themselves continue to press on all political formations to work together and address people’s demands.

The Rojava revolution, however, has already surpassed the PYD or any political council. The parties aligned closely with the KDP continue to suggest and impose a Southern Kurdistan model. In other words, they want the two major political factions to come together and govern in a power-sharing framework. The YNK and PYD insist on the participation of everyone based on election results. Although the KDP’s power-sharing framework finds support abroad, it lacks any social support in Rojava itself.
Could Southern Kurdistan be a model for Rojava? Or has Rojava itself emerged as a model for the whole of Kurdistan?

Concluding Remarks: Models and Gains of a Social Revolution in Rojava

It is important to flag in passing that there are important differences between Southern Kurdistan and Rojava that must be examined before we can address the possibility of the former serving as a model for the latter. At present, Rojava is divided into three parts, and intense fighting rages on in areas that cut these three parts off from one another. These areas that sever the connections between the three parts of Rojava are populated mostly by Syrian Arabs—themselves mired in internal power struggles among their ashirat (tribes). Although political authorities in Rojava work in a coordinated framework, the geographical separation remains a very serious issue to tackle in the future. Southern Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a contiguous geographical entity, even though it is not wholly under Kurdish control: while the Kurdish regional government controls fifty-six percent of Southern Kurdistan, oil-rich areas such as Kirkuk remain under the control of the central government in Baghdad. Even though the oil-rich areas of Rojava are currently under Kurdish control, their future remains uncertain at best, given that oil serves as the focus of almost all power struggles and a significant motivation for prolonged war in the region.

It is also crucial to remember that culturally speaking, the people of Rojava are much closer to those of Northern Kurdistan. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that they are like relatives living on the same street under two states, where the only Kurdish dialect spoken remains Kurmanji. Since 1966, two political formations (the KDP and the YNK) have dominated Southern Kurdistan politics. Even though other political organizations have been recently budding there as well, the region is characterized by a power-sharing framework, both in terms of military force and of geographical organization. Even though a staggeringly diverse group of political parties finds footing in Rojava, there is only one military force. Even though some Kurdish parties have suggested forming a second army, the idea lacks any support in Rojava. The KDP has proposed to create a power-sharing framework with the PYD, yet the latter rejects the formation of such a framework prior to elections. It is due to this disagreement that the KDP closed the Semalka border crossing.
Southern Kurdistan’s and Rojava’s political economies also complicate any suggestion of using the latter as a model for the former. While most families and peshmergas rely on monthly salaries distilled from oil revenues in Southern Kurdistan, life in Rojava is not predicated upon financial interests at all. Rojava’s political economy is characterized rather by community-based production and large-scale cooperatives. Despite the fact that one could possibly argue that this difference is merely a result of the current material conditions, I would suggest that cultural differences constitute an important factor not to be dismissed as well.

Hence, Southern Kurdistan might not serve as a model for Rojava, but rather Rojava for the rest of Kurdistan, if not the whole of the Middle East. Political conduct in Southern Kurdistan, if not in the whole region, is characterized by social engineering schemes, which are then refracted though the initiatives of various social classes. Despite all of its shortcomings, politics in Rojava remains squarely focused on the society as a whole, whereby the status of politicians is measured against their success in meeting people’s demands on the ground, and financial interests and calculations are relatively marginal. Perhaps this is simply a result of the severely limited financial resources on the ground. It should suffice at this point to say that the material conditions in Rojava do not allow for a financial interest-based politics to emerge. Most importantly, however, and contrary to other global and regional examples, a social revolution preceded a political one in Rojava. The gains of a political revolution could be easily lost due to false strategic pretensions; yet social revolutions open up countless possibilities for multiple political revolutions. What has been happening in Rojava is therefore better approached as the culmination and articulation of social organization and political activity over the course of the past thirty years

* First published in ANF Turkish page
Revised by the author and translated from Turkish by Emrah Yildiz for Jadaliyya