In 2021, the Syrian crisis reached its tenth year since beginning with anti-government protests in March 2011, seeking democracy in a country that has been dominated by an autocratic regime for decades. Despite suffering setbacks and near total defeat at points, the Ba’athist regime, largely due to foreign support from Iran and Russia, has managed to survive and crush opposing forces in areas around Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and other parts of the country.
As of July 2021, the regime had regained control of major population centers and its survival in Damascus appears all but certain due to military victory. In Idlib, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham used hard-line theocratic ideology to dominate what little territory the Ba’ath regime has been unable to regain by force. In the Turkish-occupied areas where the Syrian National Army and its subsidiaries operate, infighting, kidnapping, looting, and general lawlessness are pervasive. The Syrian people are trapped between radical terrorist groups and a brutal, authoritarian regime.
Some analysts claim that despite facing an unimaginable economic crisis and the effects of COVID-19, the Assad regime has won the war and Syria’s hopes for democracy are shattered beyond repair. Nowhere is this claim more disputed than in the one-third of Syria that is governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Since the Rojava Revolution began in 2012 in the Kurdish-majority areas, and with the progressive territorial defeat of the Islamic State from Kobani to Baghuz, the administration has come to govern this diverse part of the country with a new model of direct democracy based on empowering local communities, ensuring all ethnic and religious groups (especially minorities) are given equal rights, and focusing on women’s liberation at every level of society.
Akin to the Constitution of the United States, the Social Contract of the AANES determines the relationship between the governing administration and the people it serves. One of its essential points about the future of Syria is federalization of the country, in order to ensure localized autonomy for its various ethnic and religious groups. The governing bodies on the most localized level are known as communes, and they are considered the “essential basic organizational form of direct democracy.” They allow individuals within Syria to determine their own need-based issues and solutions within their communities. The organizational level above these are the councils of the AANES, which are made up of representatives that are directly elected by the people. The system continues similarly in structure through district councils, executive councils of the cantons (large regions such as Afrin and Kobani), and the Executive and Legislative Councils of the AANES as a whole.
The AANES has taken a different approach to this democratic system than any other party to the Syrian conflict by focusing on rights of different ethnic groups and of women. Every political office must be made up of at least 40 percent women and 40 percent men, including co-chairs of both genders. Women have their own military units, such as the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units. Women’s issues have their own committees and civil society organizations to deal with issues that pertain especially to them, such as domestic violence. Honor killings, polygamy, and other practices that have long plagued the women of the region are now being cracked down upon and made illegal by women themselves.
In terms of ethnic minority rights, the diversity of the AANES is unparalleled in Syria. The Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, and Armenian languages (among others) are all legalized and used at formal levels. For many members of marginalized ethnic groups in areas that were once governed by the Ba’ath Party, they are only now able to speak, utilize, and receive education in their native languages, while being able to openly express their culture in public without fear of persecution.
Every ethnic group in the region is represented in the Administration itself, and in many areas, such as Manbij or Raqqa, the narrative of the AANES being a “Kurdish Separatist Project” has been dismantled by the fact that at every level of society, multiculturalism and linguistic pluralism has been protected by law.
In the wake of the redrafting of its social contract, the democratic, diverse, and egalitarian system of the AANES has continued to keep the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people alive in the face of jihadist terror and Ba’athist repression. The Syrian state cannot survive if it were to revert back to an ethno-centric and repressive centralized state that does not guarantee the basic human rights of its own people.