Sarah Glynn: What Scotland can learn about democracy from Syrian Kurdistan

Sarah Glynn, member of Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan, reports back from a meeting of the Kurdish congress in Brussels

AN industrial estate on the edge of Brussels is not where one would think to find a source of hope in this increasingly barbarous world, but this is the location of the Brussels Kurdish centre that last weekend hosted the 750-strong PYD Congress. 

The PYD (or Democratic Union Party) is the main political organisation in Rojava, in northern Syria, where the predominantly Kurdish population has created an autonomous enclave. 

The Rojavan fighters, the YPG and the female YPJ, have become familiar to us as bold defenders against Daesh/Isis; but little attention is given to the region’s equally bold experiments in grassroots democracy. It is this 'democratic federalism' that provides a beacon of hope for Syria and beyond.

Rojava's bottom-up democracy is inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups.

Rojava's bottom-up democracy is inclusive of all ethnic and religious groups. Councils are formed by local communities and reflect the make up of the local population; and all organisations, including the PYD, have co-leaders, one male and one female. Community organisation can stretch to economic activities.

The PYD hopes that as other areas are liberated from Daesh control, they too will chose to adopt this democratic model; that it can provide the basis for a solution to Syria’s bloody civil war and an inspiration to the wider world. 

When we asked the PYD leaders for a message to our first minister in Scotland, they said they would ask her to support the democratic system that is being developed in Rojava, which can be an ideal system for the future.

The first day of the congress was given over to guest speakers – people from other Kurdish organisations and from various European countries, including our own Ross Greer MSP. 

Councils are formed by local communities and reflect the make up of the local population; and all organisations, including the PYD, have co-leaders, one male and one female. 

The list of speakers was long, and the timing elastic, but no-one could have failed to be impressed by the commitment and optimism of that vast packed room, or to be moved by the Kobani commander lifted onto the stage in his wheelchair or the families of young people who had died fighting Daesh. 

The second day was for party business and in Kurdish, but the leaders took time out from their busy schedule to sit down with our small Scottish delegation and answer our questions. This is a recognition of the importance of foreign support. 

They need us (and our politicians) to spread the word about their new democracy. They also need us to help build the international pressure that can ensure that the PYD plays a full part in any diplomatic discussions and negotiations on the future of Syria, and that can insist that democratic rights for the Kurds be recognised in any new Syrian constitution.

Talking with other congress delegates was like an intensive course on Kurdish politics. Martin Dolzer of the German left party, Die Linke, explained to me how difficult existing conditions are in Rojava, not just as a result of massive war damage, but also due to decades of mismanagement under Syrian rule that has exhausted the soil and promulgated crude polluting industries. 

The PYD hopes that as other areas are liberated from Daesh control, they too will chose to adopt this democratic model; that it can provide the basis for a solution to Syria’s bloody civil war and an inspiration to the wider world. 

The large Swedish delegation recounted their experiences over many visits to the Kurdish areas of Turkey. They were there as election observers (even getting locked into a back room in one polling station); they saw the difference in atmosphere between the refugee camps run by Erdoğan’s repressive AKP and the opposition HDP; and they described former Kurdish towns reduced to rubble by Erdoğan’s security forces, with new towns being built alongside populated by non-Kurdish refugees in a deliberate attempt to change the area’s ethnic composition. 

(The Swedes have a long history of support for the Kurds – ever since Olof Palme – and this support extends from the left to the social democrats.) 

Margaret Owen, the veteran campaigner from London, described how she had been asked by the parliamentary select committee on defence to contribute to a report on how to deal with Daesh in Syria and Iraq, only to find, when the report appeared, that although she was credited as a contributor, everything she had said had been edited out and there was no mention of the YPG or YPJ.

A gentle couple from Sur in central Diyarbakir (in south-east Turkey) showed us a photograph of their smiling 15-year-old daughter. Shortly after it was taken she was killed by a sniper from the Turkish security forces. 

It took her parents five months and a mass hunger strike to get the Turkish government to return her body. Her father was initially told that if they admitted their daughter was a terrorist the government would return her body, but if not, they would keep it forever. 

A gentle couple from Sur in central Diyarbakir (in south-east Turkey) showed us a photograph of their smiling 15-year-old daughter. Shortly after it was taken she was killed by a sniper from the Turkish security forces. 

Together with the photograph, her mother carried the scarf that her daughter wore in the picture and that she was wearing when she was shot.

Steve and Tracey Howell had also lost a child. Their son, Dean, had always planned to join the British army but was rejected due to mild asthma. Instead, he joined the YPG. 

He returned when he became ill, but they soon realised that he would not be able to settle back in England. His comrades in the YPG and YPJ had become his family and he had become committed to their cause of freedom. 

When he went back to Rojava to re-join them, he told his parents that he would either die there or stay until the war was over. He died alongside his (YPJ) commander as they rescued a fellow soldier from a booby-trapped house in Manbij. 

Now, Steve and Tracey found themselves embraced by Dean’s new 'family'; honoured and enthusiastic supporters of a cause and a society thousands of miles from their Wiltshire home.

Her father was initially told that if they admitted their daughter was a terrorist the government would return her body, but if not, they would keep it forever. 

Macer Gifford had also gone from England to fight Daesh alongside the YPG. He is now a full-time ambassador for the Rojavan cause, including speaking at public meetings. We are arranging for him to come and talk to us in Scotland very soon.

Erling Folkvord of Norway’s Red Party told me that he first got interested in Kurdistan back in 1993. He had just been elected as an MP, and a Kurdish journalist asked him what he would do for the Kurds. He answered, truthfully, that he didn’t know, and asked the journalist to educate him. Since then he has been active in support of Kurdish rights. 

We need to ask our MPs and MSPs that same question: what will they do for the Kurds?

(The Scottish delegation to the congress was made up of Honar Kobani, Jan Xal, Sean Baillie, Zeyn Mohammed, Sarah Glynn and Ross Greer MSP.)

Picture courtesy of Sarah Glynn, from left to right: Asiya Abdullah (co-president of PYD), Sarah Glynn, Aldar Kehlil (of the Democratic Society Movement, Tev Dem), Jan Xal, Saleh Muslim (co-president of PYD), Ross Greer MSP, Zeyn Mohammed and Sean Baillie

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