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Governing Rojava: Layers of legitimacy in Syria


  • Syria is without functioning government in many areas but not without governance. In the northeast, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has announced its intent to establish the federal region of Rojava. The PYD took control of the region following the Syrian regime’s handover in some Kurdish-majority areas and as a consequence of its retreat from others. In doing so, the PYD has displayed pragmatism and strategic clarity, and has benefited from the experience and institutional development of its affiliate organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD now seeks to further consolidate its power and to legitimize itself through the provision of security, services and public diplomacy; yet its local legitimacy remains contested.
  • The provision of security is paramount to the PYD’s quest for legitimacy. Its People’s Defense Units (YPG/YPJ) have been an effective force against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), winning the support of the local population, particularly those closest to the front lines. Conversely, in areas further from combat zones, the PYD has less support, with locals citing its brutality and authoritarianism. While many in Arab-majority areas appreciate the YPG’s expulsion of ISIS, the PYD is seen with fear and distrust as a result of its human rights violations against rebel groups and its perceived linkages with the regime. The PYD continues to suppress critical civil society voices and political opposition.
  • The PYD is an effective provider of services, a function it also instrumentalizes as a means of consolidating its power. Service provision varies across Rojava: in areas where the PYD co-exists with regime authorities, a myriad of institutions have developed, sometimes creating parallel structures. Meanwhile, in areas where the PYD enjoys greater control, power remains centralized, despite the PYD’s claims to decentralize power to the local level. In Arab-majority areas such as Manbij, locals report that the PYD ensures that only representatives that are loyal to it are able to govern, undermining the legitimacy of the new structures in the eyes of the local community.
  • The PYD utilizes its access to global communications and advocacy networks to pursue a sophisticated programme of public diplomacy. The PYD appeals to international audiences by presenting its fight against ISIS as a battle between universal liberal values and extremism. However, for many Kurds, it is the undertones of Kurdish nationalism that entices them. Balancing the apparent contradictions in its discourse is likely to become more difficult in the event that ISIS is defeated on the battlefield.
  • Rojava’s leaders continue to walk a tightrope between international and regional interests. However, Turkey’s continuing opposition means that prospects for the PYD to build international support for its political goals are slim. This places greater import upon locally-derived legitimacy, an area where the PYD continues to fall short. Only by ensuring real representation of civil society, opposition and Arab and Syriac constituents can Rojava achieve this legitimacy. Failure to move past security and stability-based arguments will greatly diminish the long-term prospects for the survival of the Rojava project.