The Kurds & Rojava, State-Building in the Syrian War / By Dr. Helene Lavoix (Red – Team – Analysis)


20.2.2014 – Before to look at the Geneva Conference in general and to evaluate our scenarios and indicators, we need to understand all changes on the ground. Over the Autumn and Winter we have witnessed a major reconfiguration of forces in Syria, as seen in the last post with the rise of Salafi-Nationalists. We shall today look at the evolution that took place in Western Kurdistan, notably the birth of novel political institutions, Rojava, and how and why Kurds relate to the Geneva conference, before turning (forthcoming post) to the last Sunni alliance to emerge the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and to the National Coalition.

Creating Rojava

We recall that on 10 July 2013, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) declared starting making plans to move towards some degree of autonomy for Rojava or the Syrian part of Kurdistan (see for detail 4 Nov 2013 update, 2.1.). News about Rojava and its “project” can be followed on its own website, created in August 2013.

The PYD moved forward on 11 November 2013 when announcing plans for the formation of an interim government, that would include members of other parties, such as the Kurdish National Council (KNC-ENKS) (see Van Wilgenburg for details), the latter having however not yet decided if it was joining or not (Rojava). The Rojava Constitutive Assembly of the Temporary Administration, the latter becoming the ”Democracy Autonomous Administration”, met a first time on 12 November 2013, then a second time on 2 December 2013, when it “decided to establish the regions of Efrîn, Kobanê [Ayn al-Arab] and Cizîrê [(Jazeera), Hasakah province] as three autonomous regions”, each with its own administration, because of the reality of the war , as well as a legislative body – the Legislative and Monitoring Committee (also Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan ?) and a Temporary Administration (Democracy Autonomous Administration) Preparation and Monitoring Committee (Rojava).

On the battlefield, this would also be translated, according to Van Wilgenburg (Al Monitor, 24 Nov 2013), by the YPG’s efforts (the armed branch of the PYD), to take areas between those zones to create a continuous Rojava, even if the population there is mixed. To consider mixed ethnic origin, the YPG created on 1st Nov 2013 an Arab brigade, Ahrar al-Watan, led by Hawas al-Akub (Ibid.).

Finally, on 8 December, the Kurdish National Council (KNC-ENKS) decided not to recognize anymore the Supreme Kurdish Council or Kurdish High Council, thus not to support the Rojava project (Van Wilgenburg, Al Monitor, 30 Dec 2013).

Kurds, Syria, Rojava, Western Kurdistan, KobaniOn 6 January 2014, the Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan agreed on the “Social Contract” creating the three autonomous regions, and declaring:

“Syria to be a democratic, free and independent country and affirms that all three cantons [regions] remain a part of Syria… it also agreed on a governmental model. A 101-seat assembly will be formed, and the administration of each canton will be aided in part by twenty ministries each. The model is outlined in 51 articles based on four different foundations: the Canton system, the Legislative Assembly, the Administration, and the Justice and High Election Commission.” (ANF via Rojava)

They, thus, move forward in constructing their only way to preserve both their way of life and the land that must sustain them, which is greatly endangered as we saw, while attempting not to frighten any other actor by reasserting their belonging to Syria. By doing so, they enhance their chance of survival, whatever happens in the rest of Syria: if the war lasts, as is most likely, then they will be stronger to fight, defend themselves and to be an ally of choice, all the more so that they will hold the key not only to passage ways but also to oil fields; if peace happens, they will be organised and a political system to reckon with. They would also be stronger were a Kurdish National Congress (across the four countries with a Kurdish population) finally be successfully and lastingly organised (Kamal Chomani, Al-Monitor, 8 Aug 2013, Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 7 February 2014).

As a consequence, and as for the Salafi-Nationalist groups, the mapping for the Syrian Kurds has considerably changed, as presented below (click to see a large image)

Kurds in Syria mapping update 10 Feb 2014


Despite the split with the KNC, the main Kurdish parties reached a ten points agreement regarding Geneva on 23 December (Mohamed Zangeneh, Asharq Al-Awsat, 24 Dec 2014). As reported by Van Wilgenburg (Ibid), UK-based PYD spokesman Alan Semo underlined:

“The participation in Geneva II is solved. If the Kurds are invited as their own delegation they will represent themselves in a joint [PYD-KNC] independent delegation with agreed demands. If Kurds have to go with the opposition, then whoever attends from the [Syrian National] Coalition or the NCB would represent Kurdish demands.” Semo via Van Wilgenburg.

A declaration by Aldar Xelîl, a member of the Kurdish High Council (or Supreme Kurdish Council) on 20 December, also underlines that:

“Kurds must be accepted as an essential element of the Geneva-2 talks and that if Kurdish participation was rejected or relegated to a secondary status Kurds could boycott the talks.” Xelîl by ANF via Rojava

This could thus let us expect potential difficulties regarding the very agenda as well as the ways of the “opposition” delegation in Geneva.

Indeed, and despite efforts and international meetings to make sure their objectives (i.e. seeing the Kurdish question put on the Geneva agenda first, and, eventually, to have a specific representation for the negotiations) would be met, it became increasingly clear that most actors, including both the U.S. and Russia, opposed those goals, as described by Van Wilgenburg (Al Monitor, 18 January 2014). Hence, on 15 January in Paris, Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD stated:

“It [Geneva] will only be for show. We want a resolution of the Kurdish question to be addressed. Otherwise we won’t attend. All the Kurds agree with this position.” Saleh Muslim (ANF via, 15 january 2014).

The constructed beliefs that contribute to the Kurdish perspective and Kurdish way to analyse the situation, and thus to their decisions, include a history of disappointment with, betrayal by and thus distrust of the International Community.

Initially, and despite potential problems, the never ratified 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the victorious World War I Allied power and Ottoman Turkey abolishing the Ottoman Empire was also meant to create an autonomous Kurdistan (Section 3 articles 62-64 – Kurdistan is the hatched area at the center of the map (cropped) of the Treaty of Sèvres above, full map here).

However, the new 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated by a stronger Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for Turkey, sacrificed Kurdistan on the altar of other interests, from great power strategies and rivalries, to wishes for a stable Turkey, to the fear of a rising Bolshevik threat to interest in newly discovered oil, as well as Kurdish erroneous beliefs in gratitude for supporting Muslim interests against “Armenians, Greeks or Russians” (Lokman I. Meho, The Kurds and Kurdistan: A Selective and Annotated Bibliography, 1997. 9, 21 MacDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, I.B. Tauris, 2007 [1996] 115-150).

Thus, and logically, Kurds can be expected to be extremely suspicious of international conferences, as well as of support they could give to others. From their point of view, being only part of an overall “opposition” delegation without seeing the Kurdish question set on the agenda, could only mean to increase the risk to see a bitter repetition of history, as indeed often underlined by Kurdish leaders (e.g. Saleh via ANF, Firanews, 15 Jan 2014 – last sentence; ).

Thus, the logic of the inner Kurdish decision should have been that no Kurds went to Geneva. However, on 18 January, the KNC decided nevertheless to join the “Syrian opposition delegation” (Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 18 January 2014). This showed, once more the difference, tension and struggle for power between the PYD and sympathizing groups on the one hand, and the KNC nexus on the other, as well as the pressure put on the KNC (for details Ibid and Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 26 January 2014). However, the KNC also belongs to the same ideational sphere, and sees, as the PYD, dangers in Geneva. As reported by Van Wilgenburg (Ibid.), Welid Sexo, a member of the Kurdish Freedom Party, a KNC member, stated:

“[The] opposition is no better than the regime in dealing with the Kurds…We may be obliged to attend Geneva II to end the violence and killing in Syria, but we are not obliged to obey its decisions if it contradicts the interests of the Kurdish people.” Welid Sexo via Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 18 January 2014.

Starting to implement the political institutions of Democratic Autonomy

Showing the disconnect between an International Community and Syrians that do not pay attention to Kurds and the Kurdish will to take their destiny into their own hands, and moving forward according to plans, on 21 January 2014, “following the Legislative Assembly of the Democratic Autonomous Government of Western Kurdistan meeting in Amûde”, the region of Cizîrê [(Jazeera), Hasakah province] declared its democratic autonomous admnistration (, 22 Jan 2014).  The region’s institutions follow the general programme (22 ministries etc. see above), however they also pay attention to be representative of the ethnic diversity of the area, namely Kurds, Arabs and Syriacs. Hence the region will have three official languages, three representatives will be named for each ministry and “Ekrem Heso, who has been elected the President of the Cizîre canton, will be accompanied by Syriac Elizabet Gewriyê and Arab Husen Ezem as vice presidents.” The name of the appointed ministers may be found on here, on

On 27 January, “the Kobanê (Ayn al-Arab) Canton … declared its own autonomous administration. This canton will be administered by a legislative assembly president [Enwer Mislim], two deputies and 22 ministers” (ANF,, 27 January 2014).

In Efrin, on 29 January, the autonomous administration with Hêvi İbrahim as President of the Legislative Assembly was declared (Ibid.).

The three regions must conduct elections within 4 months (of the 6 January 2014 agreement on “Social contract”) to replace appointed representatives with elected ones, and thus abide to the objective and hope for democracy. Elections already took place in Efrin and in other towns of the Efrin region (Rojava, 16 Jan 2014). To be able to hold elections everywhere  in such a war-torn environment is, however, fraught with difficulties, as rightly underlined by Hakem Xelo, President of the Justice Commission in Cizîre (Rojava, 8 February 2014).

Indeed, fighting continues in Syria, ignorant of the Geneva conference, and involving Kurdish fighting groups. Rojava stresses their involvement in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the latter having, among others, launched an offensive notably attempting to retake ground between Raqqa and Azaz , while “fighting is now occurring along a 270 km stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border” (Rojava, 6 Feb 2014).  However, one also finds an instance of reporting of Syrian Kurds fighting with ISIS (Taha Hussain, 3 Feb 2014, Basnews), which could be both true (but the fact of isolated elements) and part of a mobilizing propaganda by ISIS.

The relationships between the Kurdish fighting groups and the other Sunni fighters are more complex as described by Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 16 January 2014), and evolve according to tactical needs but also strategic ones for each actor. For example, there are fundamental differences between Salafi-Nationalists and Kurds, which can hardly be thought about as reconcilable.

Furthermore elections are, at least in post-conflict situations, destabilizing, dangerous and difficult moments (e.g. Benjamin Reilly, “Post-Conflict Elections: Uncertain Turning Points of Transition“, 2006). Indeed, the bitter and acrimonious declarations between the KNC side and the pro-Rojava one (Van Wilgenburg Al Monitor, 7 February 2014) show how much the terrain is ripe for renewed and intense infighting.

Finally, the real success of Democracy is not limited to elections but to what really happens afterwards and this would tend to be dependent upon the strength of the political administration (Lavoix, 2005).

With Rojava, the Kurds in Syria have started a crucial process of state and democracy building, within another state, but they are only starting on a path fraught with many challenges. They are, however, and more than ever, a force that must be reckoned with in Syria, and that should be integrated within any strategic assessment.