The democratic system of communes and councils in North East Syria
Each people has its own history. Those without a past have no present. Mesopotamia has a long and thriving history. It can be considered the cradle of civilizations. For thousands of years, people lived on these lands, organized in tribes. It is said that the neolithic revolution, which can be seen as the mother of all revolutions, took place here. Before the Sumerian civilization emerged, the people organized themselves in tribes and lived in a communal way. These groups were living their lives in an organized and collective manner, with little individualism. That is, the system at the time was based on communalism and cooperation, and these societies lived with each other in a democratic and freed way, until the formation of the authoritarian system represented by the Sumerian class. That society, which was based on morality and cooperation, was transformed into an authoritarian class society by Sumerian civilization. At the same time, the old traditions of a more communal life survived alongside that new class-society, especially in the villages. In North and East Syria, a communal spirit and cooperation survived in one way or the other, despite 5000 years of authoritarian regimes since the advent of the Sumerian civilization.
Since the revolution on the 19th of July 2012, the peoples in the North and East Syria were able to build up an alternative. An alternative to the BAAS system, which ignored the rights of all peoples living in this area, and an alternative to ISIS which oppressed the people in the name of religion. Both of those systems have in common that they leave no space for peoples of other religions and ethnicities or other ways of thinking. The alternative in North and East Syria stresses communal values, the strength of the society, the importance of the freedom of women, and a strong cooperation with all religions and ethnicities. Without freedom of women and without a strong cooperation with all people living in the area, a real democracy won’t be possible.
A state is seen as a contradiction to democracy, therefore instead of building a state, the goal is to fight for a political system which embraces the cultural and political rights of all people. This approach aims to avoid the danger of reproducing the oppression of one people by another through the system of the nation-state. The shared values and principles of a society are seen as more important than the ethnicity of the people living in it. Rather than dissolving identity, culture and language, this ideology promotes the idea of a ‘democratic nation,’ which proposes that all identities should be given space to organize themselves and be represented. Practically speaking, this means that through a quota system, the presence of all groups and religions is guaranteed in the decision-making bodies like councils. As well as that, in the drafting of the social contract (which will be the main document in which the peoples in the North and East of Syria will arrange their living together) a quota system is used to ensure the presence of men, women and all religions and ethnicities.
In the North and East Syria three languages are the official languages: Kurdish, Arabic and Syriac-Aramaic. Children in school learn their own language as well as, at a certain age, the language of the others. All peoples can organize themselves according to their culture and religion, but at the same time the people celebrate each other’s special religious days and on all special religious holidays there are official holidays. Children in school learn their own religion as well as all other religions. Not merely tolerance, but living together, is the principle. This is hard work. Coming from a history based on exclusion and oppression, learning to live together and be a part of each other is not that easy.
A system of communes and councils was built up since the beginning of the revolution to overcome the model of a nation state and enable a real democracy based on the freedom of women, ecology, and plurality. Democracy means the people can govern themselves, therefore a real democracy is built up based on how strong society is, when a state has little influence. Democracy is inherent in an open and free society, where individuals and groups are political subjects and govern themselves on the basis of collective consensus. It is the strength of the community to organize itself. The society we strive for, is an ethical-political society, which means a society in which all people are involved and organized, and the ethical values of the society are being protected. We see this as a main mechanism against power regimes like capitalism and patriarchy which work to dissolve society and create a system of individuals without the glue of societal values. The stronger a society is, the less chance systems of power have to rule. Therefore, in a real democracy we see that the first need is for the people to organize themselves in all spheres of life.
A system of communes and councils enables the society to manage itself and organize the society in all its fields and aspects. This cannot be considered a new invention, but must be seen as deeply rooted, although maybe a little bit weakened because of the years of power-regimes. It can be seen as a revival of the lifestyle of the ancestors in the former societies; the word commune means a group of people living in one area, and coming together to protect themselves, manage their lives, and solve the problems and difficulties in their area. The autonomous administration defines the commune as the smallest unit that organizes the neighborhood, village or city and takes care of all its needs. It is the cornerstone of democratic self-administration and its central force. The democracy in North and East Syria is organized in a bottom-up way. Communes, which are the smallest units, come together in councils. It is the collective democratic way of life and directly the basic organization of democracy, which are the units of the ethical and political society. When the societal-democratic system is built on the commune, the society can solve its problems, make its decisions, and organize all its fields like security, education, economy, social life, health and more, in a true democratic way.
The commune in the concept of a democratic nation is one of the most important pillars on which the Autonomous Administration was built in North and East Syria. Another key thing is that the individual is perceived as communal, that is, an active participant in the areas of community life. The individual as a social being, is being seen as having the wish to be a part of an ethical political society and to take an active role in the community. Everyone constitutes a unified and complementary cell within the community.
The Autonomous Administration was formed from the communes located within the regions of North and East Syria. The communes form the basis of the autonomous administration. It is the goal that each village and neighborhood organize itself in communes. The social contract which has been written in 2016, and now is being rewritten, forms the basis on which the people in North East Syria live together and organize their society. In this social contract the commune occupies a large and influential space. There are several articles in the social contract concerning the commune, including: “The commune is the basic, grass-roots form of direct democracy, the place in which an ethical-political society develops and which produces social life. It is the decision-making and management organ within the administrative and organizational sphere and the commune acts as a stand-alone council at all stages of decision-making. A citizen within the democratic self-administration has the right to voluntarily participate in the commune. Every administrative unit (village – district – town – city or district) has the right to decide on matters and affairs that concerns it, provided that this does not conflict with the essence of the social contract. The Autonomous Administration organizes its democratic and free community life based on the formation of communes, councils, academies, cooperatives, community economic units and institutions that complement the societal system. which organize themselves in the form of a confederation. The democratic system develops and consolidates depending on these institutions”
Communes and councils
The communes are the basis of the democracy. The democracy we are striving for is a bottom-up democracy. The co-leadership of the commune, a man and are woman, are elected. The members of the committees are elected as well. Besides communes, there are councils. At a higher level, with bigger neighborhoods or small towns, again the communes come together in a council. In the council 60 percent of the members are directly elected and 40 percent are representatives of social institutions, religions and minorities. The council is elected for two years. Again, these councils form another council of a higher level like town or canton (which means many towns together). In order to really ensure that the democracy is a democracy from the bottom-up, and that all people are involved, some measures are taken. The communes elect their co-leadership once and the members of the committees once every two years. These co-leaders represent the commune at the level of council. Besides that, each month the council organizes a meeting with the commune. In the councils at a higher level the co-leadership of the councils are represented. Also, at the level of committees this same system from bottom to top is being realized. For example, HPC is responsible for the protection of the communes, and the representatives of the protection committee of the commune again come together at a higher level to discuss the issue of protection with representatives of other communes. In this way, it is been guaranteed that there is a real grassroots process and a real democracy in which all people are represented and, most importantly, take an active part. The elections take place in a meeting. The candidates announce their names and the elections take place. The nomination process takes into account the participation and inclusion of all groups and religions so that everyone is represented and each group has rights with full transparency and fairness.
There are 4464 communes in North and East Syria. The communes are distributed among cities, counties and villages. Al Jazeera: 2296 communes, Tebqa: 172 communes, Manbij: 363 communes. Raqqa: 297 communes, Afrin: 147 communes, Kobane: 537 communes, Deir ez-Zor: 652 communes.
The mechanism of work of the councils: the council takes the members of the commune as its basis. On this basis, the council is formed, and so on to reach the highest joint presidency within the administration. After the elections are completed and the commission announces the results, each council holds its first meeting, where the joint presidency is elected and committees are formed.
To organize the work, each commune can establish committees. In most communes there are at least 6 committees: Service Committee – Protection – Justice (Reconciliation) – Women – Education – Economy. In addition, is it up to each commune to establish other committees according their needs, such as agriculture. For example, the commune of a village should have a committee for agriculture in contrast to the commune of a city which probably doesn’t need one. We will briefly explain the work of each committee within the commune.
1-Service Committee: The members of this committee are elected by the members of the commune as a whole. This committee requires patience and social skills with its members and this work is of great importance for the community. This committee is the one that supervises all service work within the municipality and its members are considered the link between the families and the service bodies in the Autonomous Administration to be able to fulfill needs like water, gas, electricity and others. Given the conditions in the North and East of Syria such as the embargo and attacks of Turkey, there is a lack of water, gas and electricity. Turkey uses water as a weapon and occupies the regions with the highest availability of water. Also, the embargo influences the economy in a negative way. However, the Autonomous Administration tries hard and uses all its possibilities to meet all the requirements of the region and the Service Committee has a major role in providing citizens with what they need. There is a lot of work that falls on the shoulders of this committee, for example, the committee coordinates with the municipalities to maintain the cleanliness of the neighborhood, as well as in coordination with the Hydrocarbons Authority providing domestic gas at very reasonable prices compared to other areas of Syria where these services are lacking.
2-Self-defense Committee: The tasks of this committee are to conduct night and day shifts to protect the neighborhood from any terrorist acts that violates its security. Its work is not limited to that, but its duties are to participate in repelling all internal and external attacks that affect the security of the people and the region, in cooperation and coordination with the security institutions. At the beginning of the revolution, the Community Self-defense Forces (HPC) took the work of protecting neighborhoods day and night and maintained the security of all areas because of the situation at that time and to prevent chaos from breaking out so that thieves and saboteurs could not take their chance. This continues until today: the Community Self-defense Forces organize at the level of communes. There are many security threats: Terrorism like ISIS and other jihadist groups, attacks of the Turkish state, plus Turkey and the regime trying to destabilize the region by using agents, thieves and others. So, especially at the level of communes, the people who know their neighborhood closely are able to protect it. When there is a need, these unit cooperate with the internal security forces (asayish) or SDF (military forces). The HPC exists of people of the commune who work voluntarily, but the other forces are professional. The women who do this work organize themselves autonomously as well, as HPC-jin (Women Community Self-defense Forces). A very good example of the importance of the Community Self-defense Forces can be seen in the attack of ISIS in January 2022. ISIS attacked a prison in which its members are being held in a coordinated attack from inside and outside the prison. This could have ended in a revival of ISIS, but all the self-defense forces, including the Community Self-Defense forces did not let this happen. Especially the Community Self-Defense Forces played an important role in not letting panic win and helping to catch the attackers. Another example of the importance of the Community Self-Defense Forces can be seen in their role in protecting the fields. Each year, Mercenaries and ISIS put the wheat fields on fire, to make the people starve. HPC- men and women protect the fields. This means whole villages as well as people from the towns come together to protect the fields. When fires occur, everybody helped to extinguish the fire.
3-The Justice (Reconciliation) Committee: According to the social contract, the commune is at the heart of the work of the judiciary. The social contract states the following: “The social justice system is based on the organization of society, whereby social issues in the communes of villages, neighborhoods, towns, and cities are addressed in a fair manner, and takes the principle of reconciliation as a basis for solving problems. The organs of the judiciary start from the commune in the form of reconciliation committees”. The reconciliation committee works to resolve differences, achieve peace and promote social harmony. This committee comprises of members of the commune who are accepted by the society; the committee brings together the different parties of a conflict, dispute or crime (including crimes like violence and theft), listens to everybody involved and tries to find a solution outside court which is accepted by all people involved.
The North East of Syria has seen many things: an oppressive regime of BAAS which was based on ‘divide and conquer’ principles and building mistrust among the peoples; a feature that we can see in most power systems including capitalism. Then ISIS ruled through a system without any space for thinking aside from that of the Salafists, with very strict rules. As well that, wars have a big impact: first ISIS, later Turkey and NATO using airplanes, drones and mercenaries, continuing until the present day. The economic embargo and the cutting off of water also influences the economy in a negative sense. So, like all societies, the North East Syria has its share of social problems. In the communes, the committee of reconciliation or problems-solving aims to solve social problems, like disputes including theft and violence without going to the court. There are courts, but if it is possible the aim is to solve problems without going to court. Women particularly play a very important role in these committees and only about 20 % of the social problems can’t be solved or are too complex or hard such that there is a need of going to court.
The social justice system is an independent apparatus based on the ethical, political and cultural principles of society, and has as its principle that the freedom of the people and of women are protected. It pursues its goals to protects the rights of the individual in the community through the participation of all in the organization of local units. The articles of the judicial system were drawn up by specialists and jurists from all groups, parties, and political competencies to establish a justice system in line with the nature and reality of society in North and East Syria. The justice system is the essence of the social contract to achieve social justice. From the beginning, the Reconciliation Committee was concerned with the principle of living together, tolerance and non-discrimination between races and beliefs. Disagreements were resolved through the Reconciliation Committee, in addition to the participation of religious figures and dignitaries from the region. The latter would sit with the litigants to listen to their opinions and resolve them in a way that satisfies both parties. The Reconciliation Committee greatly helped to unite the components of society and create friendship, respect, trust and love between them.
4-Education and Awareness Committee: The members of this committee have good capabilities in the field of education. Their work is dedicated to giving educational courses to the people of the neighborhood of different age groups. This includes different themes in the field of ethics and democracy, as well as societal organization and administration to form a sound and conscious democratic society. This committee helps in building up a resilient society that knows its rights and fulfills them and understands its duties and respects the rights and freedoms of others. For the young age group, especially for primary school students, the committee follows up their affairs and the obstacles they face and discusses them with the school administration to solve them with the participation of parents. Among the distinguished work carried out by the Education Committee is teaching older age groups to write and read, as well as giving lessons in students’ mother tongues within the commune.
5- Committee of Economy. The commune also plays a role in the development of the societal economy and it was stated in the social contract that “the self-administration adopts the principle of a community economy that establishes self-sufficiency and sustainable and balanced development.” Given the difficult conditions experienced by the regions of North and East Syria, the communes have not really been able to activate the communal economy the way it should function. Rather, its work was limited to the possibilities available to the commune, like opening sewing workshops, for example. The economic committee tries to implement cooperatives at the level of commune, so the people are able to provide for themselves and become less dependent on a capitalist market. The system of economy we are striving for is a social economy based on cooperatives. At present, we have not managed to be as independent of capitalism as needed. Besides practical conditions, also capitalist ways of thinking need to be overcome. There is the need to believe that a social economy can work and that this revolution is long standing. Because of the many changes in short time periods and the continuing attacks, strengthening this belief is an ongoing struggle.
6-The Women’s Committee: Since the beginning of the formation of the communes, Kongra Star has prepared, trained and supervised the Women’s Committee to take its place and protect women’s rights in the communal society. The Women’s Committee of the Commune is independent in its work and the men of the Commune do not interfere in their decisions. On the contrary, they provide all the assistance required of them to crown the work of women with success and progress. The work of the committee is dedicated to everything related to women and this committee bears a great responsibility, given the previous circumstances under the previous regime and clan customs that marginalized women and denied their rights. Women were not seen as persons under ISIS. As well that under the BAAS-regime many problems were prevalent, like being denied rights, discrimination in the constitution, violence from men, forced marriages and so on. The Women’s Committee formed to deal with all these issues. In addition, the committee holds periodic meetings for women of all ages, provides them with advice and discussions related to their rights, listens to their problems, if any, and addresses them in cooperation and coordination with the bodies and committees concerned with women within the self-management bodies. The Women’s Committee has been and still is an advocate for preventing underage girls being married, and by repeating continuous training, and raising awareness, we can see that this phenomenon has greatly decreased in society.
Besides these committees, there are committees which only exist at the level of council like the committee of municipalities and environment, the committee of health, the committee of culture and art, the committee of diplomacy, the committee of politics, the committee of the families of Martyrs and the committee of religion and beliefs.
Summarizing, we can say that in a short time a lot has been achieved. Maybe the revolution started in 2012, but some areas only got liberated from ISIS in 2017. The communes have been especially important in strengthening the community, strengthening friendship and cooperation between people of all beliefs and ethnicities, and creating stability. War, and poverty created by war and embargo, could have devastating social effects, like growing of mafia, prostitution, and the creation of a situation in which nobody can trust another. With the establishment of communes and councils the opposite happened: a stronger belief in the self and others.
The heritage and identity of each ethnicity and belief are preserved, according to the concept of the democratic nation. The Autonomous Administration greatly emphasizes the convergence of religions and beliefs and steers away from intolerance and sectarian racial discrimination that lead society to destruction.
Autonomous Administration and communes
Communes are the bases of the Autonomous administration. The smallest units to ensure a real democracy from the bottom to top. To ensure this, the Autonomous Administration has developed some foundations and rules around the work and responsibility of the commune. All groups in North and East Syria have free will, the final say and the final decision, and make their own decisions. They are the ones who set the program for managing their affairs, such as gender equality, building youth councils, and the responsibility of the communes to develop plans and projects for children (children’s gardens, cultural and sports activities for them). Representing all beliefs and cultures within the councils, taking into account the needs of each group and the number of its members. The project of self-management has met with great success and resonance in all countries as a pioneering experience in the Middle East. The main reason for its success is the reliance on the people of all groups and making them the main reference for the self-management.
We present two examples of how communes and councils can cooperate, especially when there are people at the level of the commune who do not agree with the decision made by the council. In May 2021, trying to find solutions to the economic problems caused by external power politics, the General Council of the Autonomous Administration decided to increase the prices of fuel and gas. This decision was met with immediate public protests. People made the criticism that the communes had not been sufficiently included in the decision-making process, and that the people’s economic situation could not cope with the increase of fuel and gas prices at present. Against this background, the General Council reconsidered and canceled its former decision 3 days later. Now, in line with the people’s demand, discussions and counseling meetings are organized in all communes to ensure the best possible solution in the interest of the people. This recent example ensured people’s confidence. It shows that the awareness and strength of society to shape politics can defend the people’s will and interests.
The same could be seen in Minbij in 2021. The Syrian regime tried to organize its people against the Autonomous Administration and organized violent protests. ISIS supported these protests with mines and some members of the security forces of the Autonomous Administration were killed. Despite being attacked the security forces, did not let themselves be provoked. In just a couple of days, through discussions with the tribe leaders, the problems were solved and the involvement, belief and acceptance by the tribes in Minbij became stronger.
Autonomous Administration under fire
From the beginning, the Autonomous Administration was subjected to a special war by the Turkish and Syrian regimes, which tried to distort the image of the administration and incite people against it. In particular, they tried to create a situation of aggression between Kurds and Arabs, but because of the system of communes and the hard work of the committees, especially the committee of reconciliation, these states failed. The wisdom of the people from all groups of the region who believed in the principle of democratic self-management, made the planning of these saboteurs fail. We can see in the North and East Syria that the mechanism of its work is going well in most areas of life and in other areas there is still a need for more progress and work.
We can conclude that implementing democracy is hard work on a daily basis. It is a struggle in itself. Authoritarian regimes, including capitalism, affect people’s ability to organize themselves and their society and the ability to believe in themselves and others. Therefore, a lot of learning, awareness and discussions are needed on a daily basis. But at the same time, the project in North East Syria, despite its difficult conditions, shows that it can work. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is still not recognized by the international community, although it can be a model for bringing peace and people’s democracy to the whole of Syria and the Middle East as a whole, only the Catalan parliament has recognized and approved it. North and East Syria still faces daily war, and civilian employees of independent departments are daily targeted by drones by Turkey, with compliance of Russia and NATO.
In fact, what we really need for real democracy is the firm belief and self-confidence that the democratic project can succeed, and that society can organize and protect itself without a state. In a time of profound despair and human and ecological crisis, we have learned that the democratic confederal organization of a society can satisfy many of a society’s spiritual and material needs. We have learned that democratization is an ongoing process that requires constant and self-reflection. None of our gains will be guaranteed and preserved if we don’t protect them and take them forward. What will help stabilize North and East Syria, especially at a time when Turkey, ISIS and international powers continue to threaten this project, is that people all over the world are starting to organize themselves away from the state and capitalism.