As the war in Syria unfolded and President Bashar Assad pulled his troops out of the Kurdish northeast to quell uprisings in the country’s western population centers, Syria’s Kurds – with U.S. support – took it upon themselves to defeat the Islamic State on their territory.  

As the Kurds pushed ISIS back in brutal battles in first Kobani and later Raqqa, Rojava – or “The land where the sun sets” – began to take shape.

The autonomous state was declared in 2014. While it was never officially recognized by Assad, the United Nations or NATO, it had the de facto support of the United States since its inception, as the Americans provided Kurdish fighters with air cover and weapons in their fight against ISIS. But now, with President Donald Trump ordering the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s looming threats to attack, the days of Kurdish autonomy in Syria appear to be numbered.

In 2016, Rojava morphed into the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) as the Kurds incorporated other ethnic groups into their governing bodies and militias – forming the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The federation was heralded as a fledgling democracy forged out of the horrors of civil war and a “secular utopia” in totalitarian, ISIS-ravaged Syria.

Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018
Control of terrain in Syria as of October 26, 2018Reuters graphic

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Rojava and later the DFNS governed its some 2 million people with an ideology antithetical to ISIS: Promoting minority rights, religious tolerance, gender equality and governing by direct democracy. Kurdish women fight in the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) and even famously held a rally in Raqqa – the former de facto capital of ISIS – to denounce violence against women after they helped defeat the terror group.

The philosophy underpinning the state came from leftist revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founding members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but currently in prison in Turkey.  Turkey and the United States both designate the PKK a foreign terrorist organization.

Syrian Kurdish parties said last Friday that Turkish threats to attack their region amounted to a “declaration of war,” and asked world powers to prevent an assault. Erdogan has vowed to clear Syria of all terrorists east of the Euphrates River. The Turkish president sees the Kurdish militia in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a “terrorist offshoot” of the PKK – which has been conducting a deadly insurgency against Turkey since 1984.

“All the forces in north and east Syria … are asked to agree on strategies to confront this aggression,” read a statement signed by Syria’s main Kurdish parties and other allied groups.

There are contradictory statements about the U.S.’ stance regarding the Turkish offensive. Speaking at a political rally on Monday, Erdogan said: “We talked with Mr. Trump. He gave a positive answer. We are going to sweep Syrian lands until the last terrorist is eliminated.”


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