The confederal union known as Rojava is taking a very pragmatic approach to creating and sustaining an anti-state ‘nation’ while being surrounded by typical nation-states. This now-four-year experiment is offering clues to many people around the world watching how stateless governance can thrive or die as it comes to terms with the reality of power outside its borders, as well as the reality of power within its borders.
Rojava itself has the Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been effective in their war against ISIS, driving them out of Raqqa and other regions. Their effectiveness against ISIS also makes them attractive to the powers around them opposed to ISIS.
Rojava is currently in negotiations with the Syrian government in an attempt to preserve the autonomy it now possesses even after the Civil War ends. The anti-state has a powerful ally, one that sees a geopolitical advantage to Rojava preserving its autonomy. That powerful ally is Russia.
Russia sees no point in the Syrian government getting involved in a war with Rojava, which is largely, though not completely, Kurd-dominated. The Kurds have the backing of the US government, who also see a geopolitical advantage in Kurdish independence. A strong Kurdish presence lessens the power and influence of Iran, as well as limits the potential power of Assad, a limitation, apparently, Russia seems content to accept, and, for now, so too does Syria.
Perhaps the process of having less power and influence in the region seems more palatable than what could be the alternative, having no power and influence in the region. Rojava could also serve as a buffer for Syria between them and radical Islamists in the regions beyond the borders of the anti-state.
Rojava has positioned itself, whether intentionally or not, as the potential broker of peace in the region, from which Russia and the US might find common interest, thus bringing along two powers that might otherwise be willing to go to war to destroy the anti-state, Syria and Iraq.
Russia could end up bringing Syria along while the US could end up bringing Iraq along. Though Rojava doesn’t include land in Iraq, the very existence of an independent Kurdish region serves as an example for the Kurds in Iraq who only recently voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq.
Russia has even gone so far as to include in a proposed draft constitution for Syria a recognition of Kurdish independence.
Rojava has positioned itself to be ‘useful’ to the potential states that could either aid or abet their hopes for preserving sovereignty, especially the United States. The region has significant US support, which sees them as a useful ally against ISIS, as well as an ongoing anti-Islamist presence in the region. To that end, the US has bases located within the region which are not only used for staging US forces, but also for training and advising the region’s fighting force, called the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Rojava has a complex model of governance based on confederal democracy. Their official title is the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. They have a complex, well-organized, and highly effective military structure. The very existence of a military structure goes a long way towards debunking the myth that governance without a coercive enterprise, a state in the modern sense of the word, cannot produce an adequate defense against threats from outside the region.
Rojava also, from the start of its formation in November 2013, has never positioned itself as being anti-Assad, but rather simply anti-ISIS. This fact makes the existence of Rojava going forward more palatable to Syria after it emerges from this Civil War (which is really a proxy war being waged by foreign actors, like the United States).
Rojava, like any region that hopes to experience anything approaching non-coercive-enterprise governance, must walk a tight line. On one side, they cannot give up so much to the states around it that the very purpose for its existence, to offer stateless governance to the people in the region, would no longer be powerful. On the other hand, they cannot remain so inflexible and “pure” that they end up losing what support, protection, even tolerance the states around them are currently giving, a level of support, protection, and tolerance that is allowing the experiment in statelessness to continue full bore, as it passes its fourth year of existence.
We will be keeping close tabs on the experiment that is Rojava and drawing what lessons we can from its successes, as well as its failures.