Rojava: War zone co-operative economies

Workshop notes

The people of Rojava / North Syria are creating an economy based on solidarity and democracy with co-operatives at its centre as part of a far-reaching and truly democratic revolution. In this Kurdish majority region, the society is being re-shaped into a complex bottom-up structure, with local commune assemblies at its base and women’s liberation and ecology at the front and centre of the movement. This is direct democracy without a state, and without the support of any state or international organisation. The UK co-op movement can directly support them—and we can be inspired by them to extend our own co-operative economy and culture.

This session will give a brief overview of the model of Democratic Confederalism and the challenges faced in Rojava, an outline of existing UK co-op support, and a discussion about what else we in the UK co-op movement can do to act in solidarity.

There is a long tradition of co-ops aiding the international fight against fascism, including the ‘Milk for Spain’ campaigns and the International Brigades, who fought Franco’s fascist forces alongside Spanish comrades. The Co-operative Values and Principles have shaped an inspiring history of mutual aid when times are hardest. let’s continue the work of past co-operators and build a better world together.


Introduction (15 mins), including:

  • geographical context (J)
  • historical context (J)
  • ideological context (E)

The situation of coops in Rojava (15 mins) – (E) & (J)
The situation of coops in  Bakur (5 mins) – (E)
Solidarity initiatives taken so far (5 mins) – (C)
Questions & discussion (20 mins)

Introduction to geographical & historical context (15 mins, J)

  • Kurdish inhabited regions split across 4/ 5 countries (East Turkey / North Kurdistan “Bakur”), North Syria / West Kurdistan “Rojava”, north Iraq / South Kurdistan “Bashur”, West Iran / East Kurdistan “Rojhelat” and a small part of Armenia). Majority of this split happened at the fall of the Ottoman Empire / end of WWI. In our project we are dealing with only two parts of Kurdistan: Rojava and Bakur.
  • ROJAVA: Before the war, Cizirê was the ‘bread basket’ of Syria. Large-scale chemical-fertiliser-heavy monoculture crops provided wheat for the whole of Syria. Little else was produced and most agricultural skills were lost. Trees were chopped down to make more land for wheat crops and people were strongly discouraged from growing anything else. Afrîn mostly olives. The region was kept economically poor, despite being oil rich. Arabisation project by the Assad regime broke up previously contiguous Kurdish communities. Low education rates, some illiteracy, few higher education options in region. 15% of Kurdish population were stripped of citizenship, and therefore not allowed to buy land or property. Now Rojava is an active war zone. Situation changing frequently. There are 3 main cantons: Afrin, Kobane and Cizire. Cizire is the largest. Syrian revolution which began in 2011 turned into civil war, many world and regional powers joined the war via proxies and situation increasingly complex. “Rojava Revolution” declared on 19th July, 2012 after Assad’s forces largely retreated from Kurdish areas and his rule there weakened.
  • BAKUR: Birth of PKK in 1978, originally Marxist-Leninist, led armed uprising against the Turkish state in pursuit of an independent (united, socialist) Kurdish state. This began in the 1980s and reached a peak in the 1990s before Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK, was kidnapped and imprisoned in 1999, in an international conspiracy. Later Ocalan changed his philosophy to Democratic Confederalism, which Ercan will tell us more about in a moment. Since early-2000’s the PKK has abandoned aim of an independent state and now seeks a democratic solution to what is termed the “Kurdish Question”. Part of this was the formation of an umbrella party of pro-Kurdish and democratic left political parties in Turkey, the largest of which, HDP, gained 80 seats in parliament in the election of 2015. Most people will be at least a little familiar with the current situation in Turkey: a brutal crackdown on all dissenting voices, which is particularly viscous when it comes to the Kurds and the Kurdish majority south-east. Huge numbers of arrests, detentions and removal from posts of elected representatives, media representatives, teachers, lawyers and even doctors. Even before the coup attempt which was used as a pretext for many of the state’s later actions, cities were being razed and civilians massacred. Turkey has also invaded the Northern part of Syria and is bombing and attacking civilians there, as well as fighting against the YPG/YPJ/SDF

Ideological context (E)

  • The change of nation-state oriented solution of the Kurdish question to Democratic Confederalism (DemConf). No capitalism and no “real-socialism”, rather real empowering of society. Paradigm of DemConf. Embedding of solidarity economy as the last developed pillar in the framework of DemConf. Revolution of Rovaja forced the movement to practice solidarity economy on larger scale and more detail. After ensuring feeding of people and control of prices and “public companies, means of production and land” first cooperatives have been formed. Cooperatives have become the core of solidarity economy in Rojava. The big majority of cooperatives have been built up by communes and peoples councils. Private property is not forbidden, but cooperatives are supported politically. Involving of all “unemployed” or low level productive people in more productive processes. 1/3 are women cooperatives as a tool for women’s liberation. Cooperatives not only in the field of production, also in distribution, direct sale and (public) services. Today cooperatives are a strong element of economy of Rojava.

Coops in Rojava (15 mins, E&J)

  •  How are cooperatives in Rojava different from coops in the UK/Europe? – owned by community; initiated or supported by either TEV DEM or Kongreya Star (for women-only coops) – give out TEVDEM handbook. Examples of some coops in Rojava (pictures and brief explanation). Talk about how coops are set up – example of Nahide, Bistanen Rojava (with pictures and quotes); also information given by Aboriya Jin. Hevgirtin: Rojava’s biggest coop with 10,000 members, branches in every city in the Cizire canton. Now taking on an administrative role in addition to its own shops and warehouses is opening new coops itself, seems to function kind of as a coop of coops, but also some administration. Nasrîn cooperative. Challenges – war, embargo, closed borders, enemies on all sides, patriarchy, corruption. Systems being put in place to try to counter these challenges – coops challenge market prices, re-education, especially women’s education, rules put in place to try to counter monopoly of power, learning to grow a wider range of produce to increase self-reliance. Theory VS practice (eg. co-leader rule not being implemented in all situations; it appears some people have been able to buy more than the allotted number of shares)

Coops in Bakur (5 mins, E)

  • Until revolution of Rojava few cooperatives in Bakur, rather a social democratic economy was developed on local level (an important part of municipalities are ruled by the Kurdish Freedom Movement). Two developments changed this: 1) Strengthening of capitalism in the Turkish state and also in Bakur where more people got a better economical situation → basis of society experienced serious change. 2) Revolution in Rojava showed how alternative/solidarity economy can be realized → Benefit of Experience. The discussion started in 2003. In 2004 there were many workshops and a big economy congress. Today there is a movement and dozens of cooperatives, but these are now being driven underground due to oppression.

Solidarity campaigns so far (5 mins, Sean and Cath)

  • Radical routes fundraiser
  • Feed the Revolution

What can we do?

  • Monetary support,
  • Campaign support, Turkey / KRG political actions – open the border to Rojava, free Ocalan, stop massacres and destruction of cities, Turkey out of NATO, boycott tourism in Turkey etc, etc…
  • Technical skill support for cooperatives in Rojava/Bakur,
  • Twin coops
  • Begin communication: write a letter to Rojava from some members of the UK coops movement, with a summary of the situation, challenges and kinds of coops here.

Discussion (20 mins)

  • Discussion

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