These days Syria is a byword for destruction, danger and chaos, which was why the decision to send a Unite delegation to the troubled nation was not taken lightly.
But although much of the country lies in ruins and is subject to the continuing violence of a war that is now in its seventh year and increasingly dominated by foreign powers, one part of the country exists in relative peace and is free from the oppression that typifies politics in much of the surrounding region.
The Kurdish enclave in north east Syria, known as Rojava, has avoided the worst consequences of the war and the collapse of civil society for a number of reasons.
By far and away the most important of these is because the communities there have self-organised to form a grassroots system of democratic governance that includes equal rights and representation for women and ethnic and religious minorities.
Bastion of progressive values
Rojava is a bastion of progressive values in a country torn apart by a vicious dictatorship, religious extremists and the self-interested meddling of geo-political brokers. It was to show solidarity with the people of north east Syria and their efforts, that Unite travelled to Rojava with Labour peer Lord Maurice Glasman and Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle earlier this month.
Rojava was not formed in an attempt to create a utopia, nor is it one. It came into existence to prevent the civil war engulfing the communities of north east Syria after the Assad regime lost control of the country. There are no aspirations to carve a new nation out of the remains of Syria or plans to topple the central government.
Rather, it offers a potential model of how communities in a country bitterly divided by sectarianism could co-exist peacefully, without the need for one group to rule over another.
As a trade union, Unite has a natural affinity with those who want social equality and egalitarianism. However, the ability to rely on the integrity of these values in an environment where the strongest and cruellest all too often thrive, while the weak suffer and perish, extends beyond traditional political positions.
This is reflected in the fact that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic fighting force brought together through Rojava, was a pivotal ally in the international coalition’s fight to defeat ISIS.
Without the terrible sacrifices made by the people of Rojava, who fought and lost loved ones, the threat from ISIS to the wider Middle East and the rest of the world would not have diminished to the extent it has.
SDF soldier Hamza al-Furat, a 22-year-old Sunni Arab from the town of Rmelan in north east Syria (pictured below), lost his leg and suffered numerous other injuries in the battle to expel ISIS from the city of al Tabqa, around 55km from the death cult’s former capital of Raqqa.
Speaking from a makeshift hospital in Qamishli, the capital of Rojava, al-Furat explained why he joined the SDF.
“This is a project for all of us,” al-Furat said. “It isn’t just about Kurds or Arabs but everyone. There will never be peace otherwise. I would do the same again.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Nazira Gourie, a member of the regional parliament in Qamishli.
She said, “I come from a Christian community and we have been constantly under attack. As Christians we fully support the Rojava project. Without it we wouldn’t have survived.”
A few hours’ drive from Qamishli is the city of Kobani, which received worldwide attention in 2014 after it was captured by ISIS militants, who went on to murder hundreds of civilians during an occupation that lasted for more than six months.
In March 2015, following a ferocious battle that resulted in the deaths of a huge number of Kurdish and Arab forces who would later merge to become the SDF, ISIS was finally pushed out of the city and the surrounding areas.
Since then thousands of Kobani residents have returned, rebuilding their lives and homes from the rubble left by ISIS. A vital part of that reconstruction is the system of democratic local government that Rojava is based on.
Three key pillars
“There are three key pillars to our system. To end the oppression of Kurdish people, to end the oppression of other people at the same time and also to liberate women. Without the liberation of women, society will never be liberated,” explained co-chair of Kobani regional council, Anor Mouslem (pictured below), who lost 11 members of her family during the battle against ISIS, including a sister who was part of the Kurdish forces.
“It has not been easy with the restrictions we have faced within the family and within society and on top of all that we have an enemy like ISIS. The battle of Kobani was led by women. ISIS wanted to crush our model of equality between men and women and between communities, but we didn’t let them. It has been difficult to rebuild, but we are progressing because our model works.”
Is it a sad fact that the progress made throughout Rojava in forming a haven from the subjugation and conflict that is currently the norm within Syria stands on a knife edge and will continue to do so until the war ends. Nothing is certain, especially within the maelstrom of duplicitous alliances and international power-plays that dominate the bloodbath that is Syrian national politics.
Many people in Rojava feel cut off from the outside world and worry that their voices will be drowned out by the competing interests of the global and regional powers currently setting Syria’s future course.
Unite’s international director Simon Dubbins acknowledged these fears during meetings with members of local councils from Rojava in which he expressed solidarity and pledged to raise awareness of their plight.
Speaking in Qamishli, Dubbins said, “All of the things we have seen during this trip have confirmed that inclusiveness, tolerance and equality are the direction you want to go in. Your movement shares the values of our movement. What you’re doing is vital for yourselves, your country, for the region and for wider humanity.
“Our union has 1.4m members and we have for the last two TUC congresses carried motions expressing solidarity with the people in Rojava.”
He added, “There are 6.5m trade union members in the whole of the UK and the TUC is now calling for exactly the same things and our biggest labour movement festival, the Durham Miners Gala, where 200,000 people will be present this year, will be calling for solidarity with Rojava as well.”
- Main pic: memorial to the dead of Kobani – an angel rising above a tank.