The Arab Spring in Syria

Kurdish YPG/YPJ fighter. Syria, September 2016.

Kurdish YPG/YPJ fighter. Syria, September 2016.

In late 2010 and early 2011, popular uprisings challenged the ruling dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, as opposition groups campaigned for a democratic transformation. Their actions inspired opposition groups in neighbouring countries, opening the door for change across the region, in what became known as the “Arab Spring.”

The first Syrian protests were held in February 2011 in several cities, but they were small and had limited impact. Then in mid-March in Dara’a, in the south, two youths had allegedly sprayed slogans on a wall. Syrian police arrested them, and some sources report that while in custody, one youth was fatally tortured. Strong protests and demonstrations broke out, demanding not only the release of the youths but also political reform and an end to corruption. Police attacked the demonstrators, opening fire and killing several. The next day’s funeral was accompanied by an even larger demonstration, and protests then spread to other parts of the country.

The regime tried to calm the situation, but the protest wave could not be contained. People from all strata of Syrian society, even from within the Ba’ath Party, took to the streets to express their outrage at what had occurred in Dara’a. The shootings by the security forces finally drove people in most Syrian towns to armed revolt.

In the spring of 2011, the protesters won several concessions. In June, the state of emergency that had been in place since 1963 was ended. And in April, a Syrian ministry announced that the stateless Kurds would finally receive Syrian citizenship, and the next month they were told they had the right to work. But this policy affected only those who were registered as “foreigners,” the ajanib. The “hidden,” the unregistered maktoumeen, would not. Many Kurdish activists interpreted this sudden concession as an attempt to induce Kurds to support the regime.

But repression by the intelligence service and the security forces continued. A new constitution was written, from which the words “socialism” and “pan- Arabism” were scrubbed. Gradually in the spring and summer of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood became central to the mobilizations. Despite the Hama massacre, it had a still working underground organization and solid ties to the Gulf states and to Turkey.

In July, former soldiers, including onetime Colonel Riad Al-Asaad, founded the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the armed wing of the Syrian opposition. It comprised mainly Sunnis, who were Syria’s majority. The Gulf states backed the FSA financially. The FSA was also backed by Turkey which meant it would not be an acceptable ally for the Kurdish movement.

The Kurdish freedom movement, especially the youth organization and the PYD, supported resistance to the Assad regime as a matter of democratic change; it did not want the conflict to be militarized. But gradually the political conflict turned into civil war, the opposition to Assad became Islamized to a large extent, its democratic character became marginalized, and foreign regional and international forces began to dominate these Islamized parts and the Ba’ath regime. Neither the regime nor the opposition were responsive to Kurdish demands for recognition, so Rojava’s Kurdish movement opted for a third path: it would side neither with the regime nor with the opposition. Would it defend itself? Yes. Would it participate in the civil war? No.

“We positioned ourselves as a third force” between the regime and the opposition, said Hisen: “Our declared goals within the Syrian rebellion were (1) to permit no attack on Syria from the outside, (2) to avoid armed struggle, (3) to find solutions through dialogue and ally with other opposition forces. But once we established ourselves, people started attacking us. They accused us of collaborating with the regime. It’s a lie — the regime had always oppressed the Kurds. Even as you and I are speaking today, there are still people in prison from the old days. We don’t collaborate with the regime … And most of the Syrian opposition was Islamist, and we couldn’t ally with them — a revolution can’t come from the mosque.

“Abdullah Ocalan had said only a few sentences about Rojava,” Hisen recalled, “but those became our program. (We) know the people of Rojava,’ he said. They should organize themselves, build a party, and create self-defence forces. Politically, they should organize themselves independently from both the regime and the opposition.’ We took these sentences as the basis of our work.”

“In the spring of 2011, we expected that the protest movement would spread,” Silvan Afrin told us. “We talked about how to get ready for it, and what we would do. We were very watchful. That spring we began to build people’s organizations. The question arose as to how we would protect ourselves. So in July or August, we established the YXG [predecessor of the YPG],” the Self Protection Units. “At first we were few in number, as most people were still so intimidated by the state. We invited all the minorities to a founding congress, but because the war was going on, only a handful had the courage to show up.

“The only party that supported us was the PYD. We were always criticized for that, but the PYD had worked every day at the grass-roots, and our numbers grew. We built the armed units illicitly. Many people in Kurdistan had weapons hidden away: shotguns, pistols, Kalashnikovs. Within six or seven months we organized the self-defence committees of the YXG clandestinely.”

“The first to join,” Heval Amer told us, “were young people from the streets, with no strong [political] views. As soon as the first martyrs fell, more people joined. Almost every family already had members who were martyrs,” meaning PKK guerrillas. “At first our work was very dangerous. Regime agents were everywhere, all around us. In all of Derik there was only one friend [heval]. But gradually we visited all the families of martyrs and prisoners, and everyone was ready to do something. The state left us in peace, and we established a few strong points.”

During the PKK’s two-decades-long presence in Syria, many Kurds had had a close relationship with Abdullah Ocalan. That contact and the presence of the Kurdish freedom movement in Syria altered Rojava ’s feudally dominated society, as women who had been working to liberate Kurdish women for more than twenty years emphasized to us in May 2014. During the 1990s, many Syrian Kurds had left to join the PKK and fight in the guerrilla army in North Kurdistan. Tens of thousands of activists from Rojava participated in all levels of that struggle, and many had given their lives. That experience accounts for the strength of popular organizing in the wake of the 2011 uprising.

Once the protests in Syria started on 15 March 2011, people of diverse identities encouraged Democratic Autonomy in Rojava, as a way to create a society together without a nation-state. Ocalan’s models of Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy were widely known, driving forward the radical democratic organizing. The construction of multiethnic councils, courts, security forces, military units, women’s organizations, and economic cooperatives spread (all) over Rojava in the following months.

“Before the revolution began,” recalled the current PYD co-chair Asya Abdullah, “both as a party and as a movement, we had stayed away from people’s assemblies and instead hashed out our differences in ideas at congresses. But then at people’s assemblies, we listened to the views of the people. Projects were proposed, decisions were made, and a roadmap was created. Subsequently, we published our project for Democratic Autonomy. We think it’s the best solution not only for West Kurdistan but also for all of Syria.”

Excerpted from Revolution in Rojava, by Michael Knapp, Anja Flach, and Ercan Ayboga (2016, Pluto Press) courtesy of All rights reserved. Photograph courtesy of Kurdish Struggle. Published under a Creative Commons license.