By Carl Drott, Swedish Freelance journalist

The Syrian civil war has presented unexpected opportunities for many political actors in the region that have been able to establish a presence on the ground and implement their own agendas. Among them is the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which follows the ideology of Abdullah Öcalan (“Apo”), the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the main Kurdish party in Turkey.

The PKK is currently engaged in a peace process with the Turkish government, while affiliated parties following Öcalan’s ideology have won elections in some municipalities. However, the “Apoist” movement has never before held the kind of complete control over territory and civilian populations as it does now in northern Syria.

In mid-2012, Kurdish-majority areas were captured by the PYD after Syrian regime forces withdrew. The provisional governance structures that emerged during that time have since become more formalized, and in late January 2014 three interim governments were announced: one each for the three Syrian Kurdish cantons that are separated by territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (a jihadist opposition group known by the acronym ISIS) and other groups.

Abandoning State Nationalism

The PKK started out as a fairly typical Marxist-Leninist national liberation movement, using armed struggle to advance its goal of an independent Kurdish nation-state. However, after the imprisonment of Öcalan in 1999, the movement began to take a new direction. Öcalan’s departure from the scene led to greater nationalization of the Kurdish struggle—with Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran defining that struggle in a more local context. The outlines of a new vision for the struggle for Kurdish self-determination, while sometimes vague or contradictory, can be found in the writings of Öcalan himself.

The principal moves were to renounce the goal of an independent Kurdish nation-state and to increase efforts to reach a peaceful solution to “the Kurdish issue”—especially in Turkey. In his writings, Öcalan expresses wide-reaching self-criticism regarding the past: “It has become clear that our theory, programme and praxis of the 1970s produced nothing but futile separatism and violence and, even worse, that the nationalism we should have opposed infested all of us.”

Öcalan writes further that “illuminating examples of well-functioning federations are the USA (currently the most powerful nation) and the European Union. These examples might serve as a blueprint for a solution to the Kurdish question, namely a democratic federation of the countries with Kurdish populations.” Following Öcalan’s abandonment of state nationalism, the Apoist movement now seeks self-determination within existing state borders, while hoping that the importance of such borders will diminish in the future. However, in northern Syria new borders have de facto been drawn around the autonomous cantons, reflecting an adaptation to the circumstances on the part of the PYD.

Another facet of the abandonment of state nationalism is the stronger emphasis on the right of all nations—not only the Kurdish one—to self-determination. Nowhere is this ideal more relevant than in northern Syria, where substantial minorities of primarily Syriacs and Arabs live in the Kurdish-majority areas controlled by the PYD. These non-Kurdish ethnic communities have been encouraged to establish their own organizations and take an active part in social and political life. Kurdish, Arabic, and Syriac are all designated as official languages in the Jazeera Canton of northeastern Syria, where the Syriac Union Party (SUP), a political party made up of ethnic Syriac Christians, has become one of the main allies of the PYD. The SUP has joined the PYD in the interim government and set up parallel police and military organizations as well as various civil society organizations, including ones for culture, youth, and women.

Decentralization and Direct Action

In his prison writings, Öcalan moves away from the old-school, centrally controlled communist economic model. He argues in favor of small-scale, direct democratic control and environmental sustainability in the economic sphere and radical decentralization in the political realm. He outlines a vision in which local political organs take over most functions from the central state and local communities form a cooperative network (confederation) and engage actively in civil society. This approach has resulted from the political situation in Turkey, where the PKK’s ambition to break off in a separate nation-state, or at least an autonomous region, has failed and where self-organization and direct action offer an opportunity to gain influence on the ground even in the face of resistance from the central state.

In northern Syria, the influence of this new line of thinking has perhaps encouraged the establishment of three separate Kurdish governments, each responsible for one of the cantons—and these governments currently lack any higher decisionmaking body. This solution is reinforced by the geographical isolation of the three enclaves.

Many vital social functions (such as schools and hospitals) remain under central control in northern Syria, while political power has been taken over by Apoist organizations on the ground. Many of them are part of the umbrella called the Democratic Society Movement (Tev-Dem), whose “people’s home” (Mala Gel), a civil society organization, stands in every population center. Among other things, Tev-Dem provides assistance for poor and internally displaced families, deals with social and legal issues, and mans checkpoints together with the police force (Asayish).

Power to the People?

Education is highly valued within the Apoist movement, particularly in subjects deemed important for the political struggle. In northern Syria, the Nûrî Dêrsimî Academy has opened several branches to educate the population and prepare for participation in democratic decisionmaking. In its headquarters in Rmeilan, the academy runs a fifteen-day “closed training camp,” where subjects like philosophy, politics, geography, and history are taught on an intensive schedule that runs from 7:00 in the morning until 11:00 in the evening. There are also open evening lectures and an outreach program for remote villages.

Öcalan’s prison writings include self-criticism regarding the authoritarian and dogmatic features of the Apoist movement and his own role as demigod: “Dogmatism is nurtured by abstract truths which become habitual ways of thinking. As soon as you put such general truths into words you feel like a high priest in the service of his god. That was the mistake I made.” However, these insights do not appear to have influenced Apoist cadres in northern Syria and elsewhere, which tend to express themselves in the same kind of ideological cliches and have shown little interest in fostering independent thinking but rather see ideology as a means to ensure conformity in thought and action.

The Endgame

The policies of the PYD are clearly inspired by Apoist ideology but cannot be fully predicted from the writings of Öcalan, which have been influenced primarily by the situation of the Kurds in Turkey. Since the PYD took power, it has displayed a great deal of pragmatism in a number of areas. As it tries to change Syrian Kurdish society, it is also itself being transformed, and its vision is emerging along the way. While there are clearly authoritarian features in the new system, elsewhere the PYD has also displayed responsiveness to criticism and actively sought to connect with the international community, primarily through its co-chair Saleh Muslim. This interest in outside engagement provides a critical opportunity for international actors to influence the evolution of the PYD and reinforce more pluralistic and democratic tendencies within the party and its organizations.

Published on 20/05/2014 by Carnegie Endowement