Dutch travelling writer Chris Keulemans examines the tragedy unfolding in north-east Syria since Turkey launched its military offensive there.

The Turkish invasion of north-east Syria is more than just another war.

Yes, civilians are being killed again, chemical weapons are being used with impunity, hundreds of thousands of parents and children are being forced to leave their homes. But, this time, there is even more at stake: a model of democracy that has inspired people across the globe is being obliterated.

In January 2014, this model was laid down in the Charter of the Social Contract, which went on to function as the Constitution of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, also known as Rojava. Today, this territory is being trampled by the same forces the Social Contract aimed to counter. At this moment of terror, it is almost uncanny to read how precisely this Constitution holds up a mirror to everything that is wrong in geopolitics.

“In establishing this Charter, we declare a political system and civil administration founded upon a social contract that reconciles the rich mosaic of Syria through a transitional phase from dictatorship, civil war and destruction, to a new democratic society where civic life and social justice are preserved,” it stated.

Imagine writing this over five years ago. Syria was in flames. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, had lost military control over large parts of the country after the revolution of 2011. Iranian troops, in collaboration with Hezbollah from Lebanon, came to his support in securing Damascus. The Free Syrian Army, born in the revolution, had turned Islamist and occupied half of Aleppo. Islamic State, or Daesh, rose from the ashes of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and moved into Syria. Turkey harboured and weaponised their fighters. And, in the predominantly Kurdish part of the country, on the northern and eastern borders, people were designing a new constitution dedicated to the “rich mosaic of Syria”.


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“Under the Charter, we, the people of the Autonomous Regions, unite in the spirit of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation so that all may express themselves freely in public life,” it said. “In building a society free from authoritarianism, militarism, centralism and the intervention of religious authority in public affairs, the Charter recognises Syriaʼs territorial integrity and aspires to maintain domestic and international peace.” 

At the time, these autonomous regions covered a territory larger than Belgium and counted some five million inhabitants – predominantly Kurds, but also large numbers of Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Yezidi, Armenians and Chechens.

In a society under siege, conventional leadership will enforce national unity and clamp down on diversity, dissent and difference. Even the notion of reconciliation, pluralism and democratic participation will be out of the question. At best, they will be postponed until an indefinite future beyond wartime. Society will be militarised and centralised. Political leaders and the heads of the dominant religion will join forces. 

Not so in Rojava.

While the pressure on citizens of all ages to join the YPG, YPJ and later the Syrian Democratic Forces remained high, in the face of threats from all sides, these armed forces were educated from the outset to defend the values of decentralisation, gender equality, environmental sustainability and pluralistic tolerance for religious, cultural and political diversity. 

Contrary to the widespread misconception about Kurdish aspirations to create an independent state, the Social Contract “recognises Syria’s territorial integrity”. Its social system, called democratic confederalism, regards the nation state as the root of many evils shaping the world as we know it: capitalism, patriarchy and authoritarianism. It will, by definition, not work towards the creation of a new nation state. Instead, it believes in a borderless future, a patchwork of self-governing towns, cities and regions, connected by common values.

Since 2014, democratic confederalism has been introduced to the territories gained from Daesh. The Democratic Federation does not challenge the borders of the Syrian nation state. It aims to disable it from within, by developing an alternative system based on consensus, not force. 

Article 2 

  1. Authority resides with and emanates from the people of the Autonomous Regions. It is exercised by governing councils and public institutions elected by popular vote. 
  2. The people constitute the sole source of legitimacy all governing councils and public institutions, which are founded on democratic principles essential to a free society.

This society is not ruled by leaders who cling to power and dodge accountability. Every village, neighbourhood and city has its own kommune. Whatever they decide goes up to the next level of self government, where the main responsibility is to implement these decisions. A system of checks and balances, including an independent judiciary, is in place throughout. 

It is a tiresome process. Communal meetings take place constantly. Introducing this citizen-based style of democracy among communities based on traditional, often patriarchal hierarchies takes endless time and persuasion. Imagine the deliberations in towns formerly under Daesh control, where Islamist thought still has a grip and fighters and their families have started to return.

And yet, until the Turkish invasion, the Democratic Confederation had been expanding until it covered almost a third of the whole country, introducing its model of democracy along the way.

Article 28 

Men and women are equal in the eyes of the law. The Charter guarantees the effective realisation of equality of women and mandates public institutions to work towards the elimination of gender discrimination.

The equality principle was put in place immediately. Every public function, at every level, is shared by a man and a woman. One will not meet mayors, commanders, judges or ministers, only co-mayors, co-commanders, co-judges and co-ministers. Very often, these men and women are very different in age, ethnic background, education and experience. Some have never left their village. Others have studied abroad. All are new at this system.

The Social Contract lays down the ground rules for how the system is to operate, but mistakes and disagreements are common. Many public officials have been voted out of their position. The effects are visible and tangible, in a part of the world where male authority in the public domain has been the default position for so long, with all its devastating consequences. 

I visited the Democratic Confederation, then still known as Rojava, once. In October 2015, I was invited to the New World Summit in Derik by Dutch artist Jonas Staal, along with a delegation of artists, activists, writers and politicians from all over the world. The only safe way to get there was on a small boat crossing the Tigris river from Iraq to Syria. We toured across the region and, in my case, especially to places of artistic interest.

I met the co-ministers of culture: a young Kurdish woman who had studied French in Aleppo and an older Arab man who didn’t speak English. Together, they were responsible for an annual budget of €80,000. In towns and cities along the way, government buildings abandoned by the regime had been converted into schools for language, music, dance and visual arts. I met a commander with a grey crew cut and George Clooney’s grin who told all army volunteers to spend six months studying art and history first because “How else could they understand what we are here to defend?”

The trip was invigorating. I cherish the image of our guard, a tiny young woman with a kalashnikov, reading a book of poetry. At the same time, the confusion, the misjudgements and the impossibilities of this democratic project were clear to see. Ever since, the Democratic Confederation has run into all kinds of justified criticism. Still, it inspires activists across the globe and shows them that there is an alternative. 

But, now, tragedy strikes.

By the very way it is swept aside, the Social Contract proves it was right all along. The reality on the ground is dictated by the leaders of nation states. Erdoğan, Trump, al-Assad, Putin, Rouhani, Bin Salman. Rulers of militarised, centralised societies. Self-proclaimed champions of national unity. Enemies of dissent. Friends of religious conservatism. Destroyers of rich mosaics. Men.

Photos: Chris Keulemans

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