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Enhancing diverse democracy: NE Syria’s new Social Contract

This week, authorities in the de facto autonomous region of North and East Syria (NES) made an announcement many years in the making. For several years now, representatives of the region known by the Kurdish metonym ‘Rojava’ have promised a new, updated version of the ‘Social Contract‘, which codifies the principles through which the region is governed. In theory, NES operates through a unique system of ‘democratic confederalism’, based on associated principles of direct democracy, women’s autonomy, community justice, inter-ethnic tolerance, a nominally cooperative economy, and a renewed holistic relationship to the environment known as ‘social ecology’. The newly released Contract, developed through long-term consultation with the region’s multiethnic communities, provides vital insight into how the democratic confederalist project is evolving and adapting to harsh geopolitical and economic circumstances.

The original Contract was penned in 2014 and revised in 2016. But much has changed in the years since. In 2016, the Kurdish People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) had only just forged their formal trans-ethnic alliance with Arab partners and the US-led International Coalition to Defeat ISIS and begun the long, painful process of liberating majority-Arab cities from ISIS’ rule. Victories against ISIS and the subsequent establishment of a truly pan-ethnic, majority-Arab polity extending into a conservative, religious hinterland still lay in the future, as did the bitter loss of territory along the Turkish border following successive invasions in 2018 and 2019, striking a blow at the very heart of the democratic-confederalist project. The recent bombardments by Turkey in early October targeted essential infrastructure such as water, gas, and electrical power stations, which have further devastated the region and brought life to an almost total standstill.

The process of drafting the Social Contract has been informed by these harsh material circumstances, with many locals currently struggling to put food on the table rather than worrying about loftier democratic principles. The region is also reeling with the cost of brutal Turkish airstrikes that intentionally decimated humanitarian infrastructure throughout the region and continues to reckon with pan-Syrian economic catastrophe, internal unrest, a frail and untrustworthy alliance with the USA, and violently disruptive pressure from Damascus and Tehran. In light of all this, the Contract is a defiant affirmation that principles of cooperation, tolerance, and women-led governance are not a mere luxury or slogan; in superlatively harsh circumstances, they are an urgent and continued necessity.

There is not room here to look point-by-point at what’s changed in the new Contract, and time will tell how its proposals are implemented. Nonetheless, a brief assessment of how the Contract was drafted, the key new points it contains, and the continued directions it proposes for the democratic confederalist project are essential as it enters its second decade in the face of great hardship – but also opportunities are still foreseen when the original Contract was devised.

Years in the Making: Democratic Process in the NES

The need for a more comprehensive, juridically sound contract acknowledging the new degree of inter-ethnic co-existence in NES emerged as a key finding from public consultations held throughout the region in 2020. Following unrest in the troubled region of Deir ez-Zor and complaints in Arab regions over now-torpedoed negotiations between NES’ progressive, democratic-confederalist Kurdish movement and the nationalist Kurdish opposition conducted at the USA’ behest, the region’s intra-Syrian diplomatic body invited community representatives, opposition and tribal figures, and ordinary civilians throughout the region to join public forums and make their voices heard.

At these consultations, attendees were explicitly invited to voice criticisms of governance under the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its geopolitical strategy. Typically, attendees emphasized the need for inter-ethnic cooperation, particularly based on a shared struggle against ISIS, Turkey, and other foreign actors, and represented the AANES as highly preferable to brutal rule by either of these forces or the central Syrian authorities, but they also voiced wide-ranging grievances over the slow pace of reconstruction, high costs, low wages, runaway inflation, perceived inequity in resource distribution, and instability partially driven by foreign actors.

Some concerns were partially addressed at the time, for example, through the attempted introduction of price controls and anti-price gouging inspections in markets; others have clearly informed the new Contract, and all continue to animate local concerns today, with similar grievances voiced in both Arab and Kurdish regions. But crucially, the new Contract has been developed from the outset with much more grassroots input than its predecessor through a remarkably open procedure (at one point, the committee drafting the Contract had 158 members), partially explaining the extended time as the Contract was gradually revised. This commitment to public participation in the Contract’s formation is in itself significant.

What’s in an Abbreviation? Subtle Geopolitical Realignment

So, too, are the basic terms it deploys. The AANES is no more; long live the Democratic Autonomous Administration of the North and East Syrian Region (DAANES). While the region could perhaps do without another cumbersome abbreviation, the subtle name change made in the opening line of the contract and repeated in different forms throughout the text to refer to the administrative body and the region it governs is suggestive of key concerns animating the new Contract. In particular, representing NES as a Syrian ‘Region’ is clearly intended to quell misguided or bad-faith criticism over the Kurdish-led project’s secessionist ambitions by emphasizing the AANES’ regionalist approach – important in the context of serious ongoing issues in Arab-majority Deir ez-Zor, discussed in more detail below.

At the same time, the text describes DAANES as part of the Syrian Democratic Republic rather than using the state’s formal, legal name of the Syrian Arab Republic – long condemned by Kurds for epitomizing their exclusion from the country’s social, political, and economic life. This usage underscores the DAANES’ continued hope of contributing to a new, federal political settlement for all Syrians while maintaining some pragmatic links to Damascus on the one hand and representing itself on the other as the sole legitimate representative of the democratic opposition on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile, the Contract renews language familiar from the early days of Kurdish-led autonomy, redesignating NES’ seven constituent regions as ‘cantons’. This term, which had largely dropped out of formal usage, again implies a disavowal of larger transnational goals in pursuit of both regional legitimacy and international recognition as a devolved part of the Syrian state rather than its own entity outright. (It could also be suggestive of a renewed democratic commitment through a link to the republican values promoted by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was impressed by the Swiss system of decentralized governance and used the term in his own Social Contract.)

New Reforms: Elections, Referendums, and Healthcare

More broadly, the new contract by no means revolutionizes political organization in the NES. The Contract describes a renewed role for communes, the nominal village – and neighbourhood-level political units, which are the nominal building blocks for NES’ model of bottom-up democracy. But in practice, issues of geopolitical and economic significance remain necessarily directed from the centre, while the communes have proven less effective sites for democratic participation than the public consultations described above. It remains to be seen whether there will be more devolution down to this most granular level or if the communes will remain, in practice, functional sites for resolving practical neighbourhood disputes and distributing subsidized oil and bread while remaining disengaged on the macropolitical level.

Perhaps more significant is municipal restructuring, through the announcement that new People’s Councils will be chosen by election, with 60% of the council appointed by popular vote and 40% elected by ‘community organizations’ – likely meaning women’s, youth, minority ethnic, and other interest groups. The same system will be repeated on the municipal, regional, and national levels, with elections at all levels of governance to be held on a biannual basis and overseen by an independent electoral body. The announcement of elections, which may begin as early as the start of 2025, will be welcomed by external observers, given that elections have been repeatedly delayed under the pressure of war and internal unrest in northern Syria.

But at the same time, observers should not expect democracy in NES to precisely resemble a Western parliamentary system. On the one hand, during public consultations, locals have repeatedly expressed the desire for more technocrats in government, while the tribal nature of civil society in much of NES means an open vote will only cleave along nepotistic lines. Neither of these realities is compatible with a straightforward one-person, one-vote system, and hybrid political solutions that guarantee more genuine democratic participation must be found.

These factors contribute to the AANES’ ongoing effort to find new modes of political participation and democratic representation which can cope with the particular challenges of governance in Syria while also providing for more genuine political participation than that achieved through casting a single, biannual vote. Parliamentary democracy is not a silver bullet. To this end, the new provision for hyper-local and regional referendums on “all crucial issues,” allowing for the veto of AANES-level decisions, could prove significant as the AANES continues to explore alternate avenues for citizen participation in governance while still maintaining the security, stability, and basic social and humanitarian provisions that are democracy’s necessary corollaries.

Other significant reforms include the establishment of a constitutional court overseeing the implementation of the Social Contract; the establishment of a monetary court and new independent financial body to manage the ongoing crisis and ensure continued liquidity and solvency; the introduction of elections for the women’s council; and a promised commitment to develop health insurance and deliver free public health services to all of society, currently a practical impossibility given limited economic resources and the mass exodus of trained medical workers during the conflict. These concrete measures could all contribute to meeting the severe challenges faced by the region and improving ordinary life for locals to the best of the AANES’ abilities.

Continued Challenges: Toward a Resolution for Deir ez-Zor

The contract generally exhibits continuity with the pre-existing political system in NES despite being responsive to feedback expressed during regional consultations. Despite some rhetorical gestures, there is no particular provision for addressing the region’s most serious internal crisis by restructuring governance in the conservative, tribal Arab region of Deir ez-Zor. This region has undergone major recent unrest occasioned by the AANES’ belated arrest of its key local interlocutor, tribal strongman Abu Khawla, whom they relied on to maintain order in the region despite clear evidence of his corruption, nepotism, and abuses toward other locals. While a minority of cynical tribal actors subsequently received backing from Damascus and Tehran in doomed-to-fail efforts to seize regional control, more have used the crisis to issue renewed demands for regional reform.

While DAANES governance remains the preferred option for most locals and their tribal representatives, Deiri grievances are legitimate. The DAANES must tread a difficult democratic tightrope in finding ways to devolve more decision-making authority to the region without granting too much power to other corrupt, patriarchal tribal leaders, empowering ISIS, Assad, or Iran to wreak havoc in the region, or imperilling ordinary locals at risk of further exploitation and violence should the DAANES withdraw its security presence.

Following its latest public consultation in Deir ez-Zor, launched in response to this year’s unrest, the AANES had announced 42 wide-ranging commitments, beginning with ‘restructuring the local, legislative, executive, and municipal councils… the Internal Security Forces and the Deir ez-Zor Military Council within six months’ while also gesturing to various broader legal, economic, and security reforms. More granular, specific commitments, such as refurbishing a particular grain silo, imply concrete responses to particular complaints rather than generalized hand-waving over deep-seated issues, while the AANES has already green-lit a new body uniting scores of Deiri civil-society groups and activists.

But the real test will be how the noble principles enshrined in the new Contract play out in practice and whether these proposals can help the process of democratization and devolution into the Arab regions continue. Indeed, this democratization is taking place not despite but because of the challenges faced by the DAANES in governing a highly diverse region of millions under extreme external pressure.

Conclusion: A Bulwark Against Collapse

It is often overlooked that Rousseau’s own seminal ‘Social Contract’ of 1762 is based on a fundamentally pessimistic political analysis, proposing newfound modes of social organization only as a way to countermand the inequality and decline which Rousseau viewed as brought about by private property, commercial society, and hierarchal social organization as exemplified by the tyranny of absolute, divine-right monarchy under France’s ancien régime. This first ‘social contract’ was an attempt to organize human society against forces Rousseau believed were inexorably tearing it apart. Rousseau’s account of history thus closely prefigures the anti-hierarchical thought of jailed Kurdish leader and philosopher Abdullah Öcalan, who could himself have penned Rousseau’s famous argument that “the first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Rousseau is sceptical of the social contract yet views it as the best bulwark we have against social collapse.

Like Rousseau’s theoretical proposal, the real-world ‘social contract’ based on Öcalan’s ideas is, in many ways, an attempt to reckon with severe external and internal social pressures and halt society’s steady rush toward inequality, stratification, violence, and inhumane repression. But at the same time, it’s only through a bold, clear-eyed, thoughtful response crafted in full recognition of these existential threats that genuinely systemic alternatives can emerge. The new Social Contract and its continued real-world practice and implementation in NES is a tentative further step along the way toward a mode of political organization capable of responding to crises, which will only continue to grow in NES and throughout the region.

The new full Social Contract in English can be read and downloaded here.

~ Matt Broomfield

This article first appeared in The Kurdish Centre for Studies.

Image: Michael Sullivan

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