Everyone by how has heard of the horrors of the Syrian civil war. We all know about chemical weapons and barrel bombs dropped from helicopters. We all grieve for the refugees driven into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The deaths and injuries from the fighting and repression are probably on the same scale as those of the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.
By contrast, only a few know where Rojava is or who lives there. It is the name that the Kurds, as the majority inhabitants, give to the Western province of the wider Kurdistan. The Kurds, numbering perhaps 30 millions (the largest national group in the world without a state of their own) live in Turkey (north), Iran (East), and Iraq (south). In the latter they have their own semi-independent and autonomous regional government and defence force. A handful of other Kurds live in the southern Caucasus, formerly part of the Soviet Union, while there is a large Kurdish diaspora, mainly in Germany and Britain.
Western Kurdistan lies along the frontier between Syria and Turkey, with a short border with Iraq. It is made up of the three Cantons of Cezire, Efrin and Kobane. Their population was about 2.5 millions, but has increased by a million or more people displaced from the rest of Syria, since the war began. The latter are mainly women and children, but include a few thousand Kurds of the Yezidi faith, who recently escaped from near Sinjar, in Iraq.
The three Kurdish Cantons suffered severely under the regimes of the Assads, father and son. Many of the people were stateless non-citizens, who were forbidden to live or farm near the frontiers. All the Kurds were subjected to Arabization and their culture was downgraded. Because of the nearby rivers Tigris and Euphrates and their tributaries, Rojava used to produce the majority of Syria’s wheat and cotton. Kurds, however, were excluded from the benefits of nearby oil and gas production.
The Kurds had formed a political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as early as 2003. The party mobilized a wide range of civic and political groups to demand autonomy. In November 2013 they formed a Joint Interim Administration, and in the following March drew up a Social Contract and Constitution. Meanwhile, each of the three Cantons formed its own local administration, which was essential, if only because of the distance from east to west. In July 2014 the Presidency of the three Cantons wrote asking for recognition of their collective self-defence, free access to their territory, especially for medical and relief supplies and support for their initiative for a democratic, decentralized Syria. They followed this with an appeal to the international community on World Peace Day (1st September) signed by the Co-Chairman of the PYD.
I have twice met in London, Mr Saleh Muslim Mohamed, the co-chairman just mentioned. He is a chemical engineer, who worked for many years in petro-chemicals in Saudi Arabia. He described to me the savage attacks that Rojava has suffered, first at the hands of Al-Nusra, a violent Islamist faction, and later from ISIS, or the Islamic State. The latter is particularly well-armed after its capture of heavy weapons etc from the defeated Iraqi army. At this moment Kobane Canton is seriously threatened.
These attacks seem particularly undeserved, given that Rojava had taken a neutral stance as between the Assad regime and the armed opposition groups. Article 3 of its constitution specifically notes the peaceful co-existence of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chechens and Armenians, belonging to Muslim, Christian, Alawi and Yezidi faiths. Article 6 states the equality of all persons and communities before the law, and recognizes three official languages. The Constitution upholds the main United Nations Convention, including freedom of worship, and excludes capital punishment. Men and women are equal before the law.
If Rojava is enabled to implement its constitution, it will provide a shining example to the rest of the Middle East. Where else are such diverse communities already co-existing so harmoniously? Where else does one find such intentional pluralism and such respect for minority traditions and languages?
I therefore urge those who read this article to bring the Kurdish Cantons of Syria to the attention of their MPs. They might ask why we do not arm the defence forces of Rojava, in the same way that we strengthen the Peshmerga of Iraq to defend themselves against the attacks of ISIS. We might also pray that the good practice of the Cantons of Rojava may spread to the whole region.