A comparative study of revolutionary theories and practices in Kurdish-led Rojava and opposition-held Syria - Öcalan to Aziz, democratic confederalism to LCCs - and a lament on the great cost of their failure to connect.

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A Comparative Study of Kurdish-Led Rojava and Opposition-Held Syria

by Andrea Glioti,i originally published in the scholarly collection Altered States
22 August 2022 (publication date of the prohibitively expensive book)

This chapter explores two radical experiments of grassroots democracy between 2011 and 2021: Kurdish-led Rojava and opposition-held Syria. These two alternative statehood projects become what Timothy Mitchell would define as the effects of the state which cannot produce absolute autonomy, mirroring the limits of the official state itself. The chapter identifies the ground for potential collaborations between these two political experiments which, in the absence of shared spaces of encounter and exchange, have thus far been unsuccessful in fully subverting the central hegemony of the nation-state.

Their disjointed experiment is an “effect of the state” insofar as the members of both polities neglect the experience of the other. It is precisely their missed encounter which prevented both polities from building concertedly a “post-ethnic” opposition within Syria.

The chapter discusses the ideological similarities and differences across these two movements vis-à-vis their respective conceptualization of direct democracy. Second, it explores their attempts at edifying a functioning society, which strives to counter the central state through local councils. Third, the eco-agricultural decentralization efforts coming from both sides during wartime further exemplify their desire to implement liberated forms of stateness at a local level and at the same time undermine stateness as the only sustainable mode of governance in the time of the revolution.


As an outsider to both Syrian and Kurdish political communities and a journalist reporting from and on Syria and Syrian Kurdistan, what prompted me to undertake this research is the economy of selective solidarity that has characterized the Western Left in the case of Syria. After the outbreak of the Syrian uprising against the rule of the Assad family in 2011, few leftist voices stood out for their empathy with self-administration institutions in opposition-held regions (e.g., the “local councils,” al-majalis al-mahalliya). As for the Kurdish-led Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS, officially known as Rojava until December 2016ii), in the aftermath of the battle of Kobanî against the Islamic State (IS) organization in 2014, many Western leftists quickly started to see it as an internationalist cause worth supporting (Graeber 2014; Anthony 2017). Similar to what happened in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, leftist volunteers and fighters started to flock to Rojava to defend what they considered a radical experiment of direct democracy.iii

While significant emancipatory social changes are certainly underway – the most visible of which being the advancement of women’s rights (SyriaUntold with Mahwash Sheiki 2017; Leezenberg 2016: 685) – Western leftist empathy with the DFNS is often romanticized (i.e., Zerocalcare’s 2015 comic book Kobane Calling) or is frequently the outcome of TEV-DEM-organized tours for foreign activists who do not speak any of the local languages.iv

In some cases, these accounts stem from a pan-Kurdish perspective, one that is common among activists and academics who sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) cause in Turkey’s Northern Kurdistan and look at the DFNS as a mere extension of that question, without analyzing its relationship with various struggles across the rest of Syria (e.g., PKK expert Joost Jongerden 2017). Their approach to the Syrian Arab opposition and its self-management experiences is largely dismissive (e.g., Jongerden 2017).

International geopolitical rivalries continue to hinder trans-ethnic solidarity networks across Syria, while entrenched political and social tensions have contributed to obstructing a collaborative relationship between civil activists of both sides.

The Arab-majority Syrian opposition’s narrative remains entirely dismissive of political and social changes in the DFNS,v whose supporters are described as “separatist” (infisaliyyin) and/or “loyalist” (mu’ayyidin) to the Assad Although the PKK shifted away from separatism to embrace libertarian-inspired democratic confederalism in the early 2000s (Jongerden 2015), Arab nationalism still informs the way Kurdish activists and parties are labeled as “separatists” regardless of how they formulate their own demands. Arabic-language coverage of Syria still echoes a historically motivated perception of Kurdish regions as peripheral to the Arab centers of power.vii

Liberal and conservative commentators are also critical of the DFNS. They consider the PKK as a monolithic authoritarian Stalinist party.viii While authoritarian practices are still common in the DFNSix and the figure of Abdullah Öcalan still stands as the sole undisputed leader (Leezenberg 2016: 679), the PKK’s ideological shift toward libertarian-inspired models in the early 2000s is often overlooked among liberal commentators. The party’s Syrian branch (the Democratic Union Party, PYD) has crushed forms of dissentx while forming alliances with a range of political and military forces (ANF News 2017; Hawar News 2018). This still ephemeral openness to political dialogue, however, might dilute the party’s authoritarian features in the long term.

International geopolitical rivalries continue to hinder trans-ethnic solidarity networks across Syria, while entrenched political and social tensions have contributed to obstructing a collaborative relationship between civil activists of both sides. The Baathist discriminatory politics against Kurds in the name of Arab nationalism (Human Rights Watch 2009) largely contributed to aggravate tensions prior to the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011.

Exacerbating mutual suspicion, Kurdish parties – other than the PYD – had remained on the sidelines when the uprising erupted in 2011 (Kurdwatch 2011: 28). The revolutionary youth, the initial force behind the uprising, looked at the Kurdish parties as traditional reactionary forces reluctant to engage in a grassroots struggle.xi Even PKK’s founding members acknowledged the difficulty of mobilizing Kurdish youth in Syria, mainly due to an initial lack of consent among them (International Crisis Group 2017: 8), unlike in the 2015 insurgency in Southeastern Turkey-Bakûr (Leezenberg 2016: 679–680).

In this chapter, I identify the missed opportunities of encounter and exchange between these radical experiments of grassroots democracy as of June 2021. These two political experiences corroborate Timothy Mitchell’s argument (1991) that state and society cannot subsist as two distinct entities. Indeed, these two political attempts to counter state hegemony and create an alternative functioning statehood become what Mitchell would call the effects of the state, namely the effect of existing power relations and dominant truth regimes. These alternative statehood projects, therefore, cannot produce absolute autonomy, mirroring the limits of the official state itself (Mitchell 1991: 78).

I will show how these political experiences of radical autonomy to some extent reproduce the effect of state power within which they were born and developed. As will be evident in both experiments of radical autonomy, the abuse of power of state-like organisms and an agricultural politics partially centered on intensive monocultures show how even political opponents have internalized state thinking and actions, being themselves the product of a long history of relations with the state.

In this vein, the acts of resistance of both political entities inside Syria do not stand outside the state. As Mitchell put it (1991: 98), “political subjects and their modes of resistance are formed as much within the organizational terrain we call the state, rather than in some wholly exterior social space.”

The members of both political communities as well as their respective external supporters tend to marginalize each other rather than learning from each other’s political projects.

I also identify the key commonalities and the ground for potential collaboration between the two political experiments which, lacking shared spaces of encounter and exchange, have thus far not succeeded in completely subverting governmental techniques and, unlike the Zapatista movement, (Mora 2015: 87), have not dismantled the colonial legacy around the construction of “state margins.” As a result, the Kurdish-led and Syrian Arab opposition autonomies tend to remain “subaltern” political experiences versus the central hegemony of the nation-state.

Their disjointed experiment is also an “effect of the state,” in the sense that the members of both political communities as well as their respective external supporters tend to marginalize each other rather than learning from each other’s political projects. In this framework, divisions inside Syria, such as the ethno-political one of Kurds versus Arabs, were originally fabricated during the French colonial mandate (1920–1943). Historians have documented that there was no articulated concept of “minority” before that time, at least not the way Kurds are represented nowadays.

Instead, such divisions were functional to the crafting of the nation-state (White 2012: 27), which consequently rendered demographic groups such as the Syrian Kurds “minorities.” The resulting disconnection between these two political experiments thus reflects the colonial legacies of state-formation in Syria. It is exactly their missed encounter which prevented both polities from being mutually informative and from building concertedly a “post-ethnic” opposition within Syria.

The continual process of state-building during the political rule of the Assads (1970–) also capitalized on this divide-and-rule strategy, for instance, by using Arab clan members to crush Kurdish riots in Northeast Syria in 2004 (Tejel 2009: 116).

The chapter provides a comparative analysis of the ideological repertoires and the behavioral patterns of resistance as performed by the Syrian Kurdish and the Syrian Arab activist groups between 2011 and 2021. I discuss the ideological similarities and differences across these two movements vis-à-vis their respective local conceptualization of direct democracy.

Second, I discuss their attempts at edifying a functioning society, which strives to counter the central state through local councils. Both political experiences inside Syria similarly attempted to make the official government redundant while, at times, inheriting the state language and state-like modes of governance.

Third, the eco-agricultural decentralization attempts coming from both sides during wartime will further exemplify the extent to which the Syrian Arab and the Syrian Kurdish political laboratories of resistance desire to put in place liberated forms of stateness at a local level and, at the same time, undermine stateness as a sustainable mode of governance in the time of revolution.

The significance of these experiences can be traced in the post-colonial history of the region, where experiences of direct democracy and autonomy have been limited compared to the predominant state-centric models in Arab nationalist and Islamist states. As Gambetti put it (2009), the space for action available for autonomous movements in the region remains limited due to having long been subdued under Ottoman dominion. This led to a still-present “fear of dismemberment” in Turkish society triggered by the Treaty of Sevres (Gambetti 2009: 74) and across the Levant by the Franco-British Sykes-Picot Agreement. Indeed, the Syrian government today still conceives demands for autonomy as foreign-backed separatist threats.

The autonomy projects that do exist have often suffered from skewed scholarly attention. While most scholars examine “first class” citizens to discuss the assets and the limits of direct democracy (Qvortrup 2013; Neblo, Esterling & Lazer 2018; Altman 2019), Middle East/West Asia and North Africa (MENA/WANA)-based refugees (e.g., Sahrawis) and “second class” citizens – often struggling for their basic rights (e.g., Kurds in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran) – have largely engaged in political processes of self-governance in a bid to build their lives outside the central state’s sovereignty.

Political Theory on Direct Democracy

The political thought of Abdullah Öcalan and Syrian intellectual and activist Omar Aziz present similarities in the way they conceived of direct democracy, pointing to a common ground between the theoretical underpinnings of the TEV-DEM and the Syrian Arab opposition councils. Aziz, who died in 2013 after three months in detention (Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 44–46), was a Damascene Arab expatriate completely unknown in dissident circles until he returned to Syria from Saudi Arabia in 2011 to serve the revolutionary cause. He then played a pioneering role in setting up local councils in the suburbs of Damascus (Collettivo Idrisi 2017).

Aziz did not live long enough to fully develop his theorization of local councils, unlike political veteran Öcalan, who articulated his thought in numerous books before the Rojava revolution.

In the framework of direct democracy, the establishment of bottom-up structures normally aims “to reduce the separation between representatives and represented” (Hardt & Negri 2004: 250). The case for direct democracy is built on the belief that “when power is transferred to a group of rulers, then we all no longer rule, we are separated from power and government” (Hardt & Negri 2004: 244). Öcalan and Aziz appear to share historical references to direct democracy such as the 1871 Paris Commune (Jongerden 2015; Sethness 2018), but also the belief that the councils can coexist with preexisting tribal networks (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 95; Aziz 2011 in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 32).

Both thinkers echo the classical anarchist thinker Pyotr Kropotkin, with his celebration of “the spontaneous processes of mutual aid” (Sethness 2018), which resonates with Aziz’s writings on besieged Syrians and “the organization of medical, legal, or food aid among the Revolution’s base communities” (Sethness 2018). In theorizing the establishment of horizontal self-government structures, Öcalan follows the tradition of Kropotkin’s reasoning on direct democracy (Jongerden 2015), while Aziz fully engages with the wider anarchist debates on the crucial role of service provision in bottom-up administrations aiming for breaking away from the nation-state (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017).xii

Aziz describes local councils as horizontal structures that allow revolutionaries to run their everyday lives without relying on state institutions. Nonetheless, Aziz never produced a full-fledged intellectual manifesto as he was politically active in Syria only for a few years, and Syrian activists circulated his writings in the aftermath of his death. Aziz, a potential ideological leader for the Syrian revolutionary movement, was only known within a restricted circle of activists in the surroundings of Damascus, but his ideas resonate in the establishment of local councils across Syria (Yassin-Kassab 2016). He did not live long enough to fully develop his theorization of local councils, unlike political veteran Öcalan, who articulated his thought in numerous books before the Rojava revolution that led to the emergence of a de-facto autonomous Kurdish-led administration in Northern Syria starting from 2012.

Aziz did not enjoy the personality cult of Abdullah Öcalan, yet his writings represent the best effort to engage with the challenging process of building bottom-up administrative structures in opposition-held territories. In the anti-Assad camp, Aziz’s thinking arguably constitutes the only attempt to engage with revolutionary change in the language of Western political theories. As a matter of fact, in the context of the Syrian Arab opposition, local governance and participatory politics “were not the products of ideological certainties but rather the contingent outcomes of grassroots resistance” (Munif 2017). The fact that grassroots revolutionary language was not familiar to Western pundits led these latter to be dismissive of Syrians’ aspirations to social change in opposition-held territories (Munif 2017).

On the one hand, Öcalan formulates the revolutionary political system in a language heavily influenced by the Western Left. On the other hand, Aziz’s writings present similar influences, suggesting a parallelism between the Rojava and Syrian uprisings. This parallelism went unnoticed in Western leftist circles. While Öcalan’s contribution to leftist political thought is largely recognized, Aziz’s contribution remains mostly unknown due to the leaderless, ideologically heterogeneous nature of the Syrian uprising and to the short-lived experience of the local councils. Drawing parallelisms with similar experiences in other geographic areas, Syrian local councils, under constant shelling by government forces, did not enjoy the favorable international political circumstances that contributed to the rapid success of the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in the Chiapas region (Gambetti 2009: 61).

Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Öcalan shifted the PKK’s political program from the establishment of a Kurdish nation-state to transnational democratic confederalism (Jongerden 2015; Leezenbergs 2016). He articulated the political theory of democratic confederalism as a “non-state social paradigm” which “is based on grassroots participation” (Ocalan 2011: 1), under the influence of American libertarian thinker Murray Bookchin (Leezenberg 2016: 675–676). Öcalan’s ultimate ambition for democratic confederations was that they “will not be limited to organize themselves within a single particular territory. They will become cross-border confederations when the societies concerned so desire” (Öcalan 2011: 32).

The similarities between Öcalan and Aziz particularly emerge in their respective emphasis on “autonomy” and its expected role in revolutionary practices. Öcalan’s democratic autonomy “predicates democratic participation on the recognition of the political will of diverse communes, or societies (komün, or topluluk), definable in terms of a multitude of identifications and issues. In this sense, autonomy […] establishes a legitimate symbolic field for the conduct of democratic processes” (Küçük & Özselçuk 2016: 189).

In Syria, as in much of the world, people’s limited experience with stateless structures continues to undermine the long-term survival of autonomous polities.

PKK leaders distinguish “democratic autonomy” from “autonomy,” insofar as the latter “takes the nation-state as its basis,” whereas “democratic autonomy” is based on democratic-confederalism (Jongerden 2015) and therefore supposed to transcend national borders. Nonetheless, the implementation of this theoretical difference turned out to be pragmatic in Rojava where the authorities have long traded confederalism – and its council system – for conventional representative federalism and were as of late 2019 engaged in faltering negotiations with Damascus that may result in an even more limited form of decentralization (Sheykho 2019).

In his “Foundational Pages for the Idea of Local Councils,” Aziz launched

an appeal for the formation of local councils composed of people from different cultural and social backgrounds in order […] for people to manage their lives autonomously from the state and its services (even should this autonomy remain a relative one). (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 22)

During my stay in Rojava and in the following years, I had conversations with locals from different ethnic, religious, economic, and political backgrounds. Outside PKK-linked circles, there was hardly any local awareness about the importance of assembly elements in the newly established political system. Similarly, in Syrian Arab opposition circles, people were rarely familiar with Aziz’s writings on the council system. Apart from a few intellectuals and activists, aspirations centered on overthrowing the regime and on the democratization of Syria.

Both Öcalan and Aziz are aware of the difficulty of overcoming state structures. Even though Öcalan’s rejection of the nation-state (Öcalan 2011: 1) is more explicit than Aziz’s (Carpi with Glioti 2018: 231–246), the Kurdish leader accepts a form of coexistence between the state and democratic confederalism “as long as the nation-state does not interfere with central matters of self-administration” (Öcalan 2011: 31). He therefore argues that “neither total rejection nor complete recognition of the state is useful for the democratic efforts of the civil society. The overcoming of the state, particularly the nation-state, is a long-term process” (Öcalan 2011: 32). In regard to this, pro-DFNS activists argue that Öcalan conceptualized the state as a “mentality, as an ancient system that has established itself in all pores of society including the individual mind” rather than a single state.xiii

The same activists explain the challenges of dealing with the local state-centered culture by saying that

millions of people there [in the DFNS] are not revolutionary, they don’t support democratic confederalism, they just want to call the police when something happens, they don’t want to go to the neighborhood’s commune to solve their problems. […] This is just one way in which statism manifests itself in the individual (Dirik in author’s interview 2018).

Rather, a local community-approach to problem-solving appears to be pursued through long-term educational efforts.

Omar Aziz raised similar concerns. In particular, he advocated for a gradual approach to becoming accustomed with the absence of state services while contemplating that people might cling on to their provisional safety net in kinship relations. “They need time and practice so that they can access an extended network of social relations that is more elaborated and effective [e.g., the local councils or similar self-management bodies]” (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 26). Aziz advocated for the departure from the state by highlighting the limits of a revolutionary movement that remained embedded within the state’s authoritarian structures, thus identifying the failures of the “contemporary phenomenology of protest” (Carpi with Glioti 2018: 11).

In Aziz’s writings, similarly to Öcalan, the role of armed struggle is described as defensive in support of the revolution. Nonetheless, he was concerned about the growing militarization of Syrian society.

Echoing Frankfurt School Marxists such as Walter Benjamin and Chiapas’s Zapatistas in their notions of the “time of power” (Reyna 2018; Sethness 2018), that is, the idea that “the time of power needed to be destroyed and broken away from, and that a new time and space needed to be created” (Reyna 2018), Aziz believed that the success of the revolution was dependent on the capability of the “time of the revolution” to permeate every aspect of people’s daily life and liberate them from the “time of power” (Aziz 2011). He knew that people might hesitate to embrace a hypothetical non-state as a new ruling power and provider of services, especially because it bears no historical precedents in Syria (Carpi & Glioti 2018: 12). In Syria, as in much of the world, people’s limited experience with stateless structures continues to undermine the long-term survival of autonomous polities.

Another similarity between the two thinkers is their reliance on Rosa Luxemburg’s council communism when they envision bottom-up administrative structures in times of revolution (Hassan 2013; Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 42). The Kurdish-led DFNS experience draws on Luxemburgian thinking by envisaging revolution through the organization of the masses into radical democratic self-governance rather than through the conquest or dismantlement of power by political actors. This is supposed to counterweight authoritarian tendencies (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 42).

On these premises, Öcalan is more Luxemburgian than Aziz. While the PKK leader is practically willing to accept a pact of non-belligerence with the nation-state, Aziz explicitly advocates for the overthrow of the Syrian regime (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 19). Öcalan’s approach to councils is thus more reminiscent of how Luxemburg conceived them during the Weimar Republic in Germany (1918–1933), that is, as capable of transforming Weimar into “a more democratic republic and leave the door for socialist revolution open” (Schmidt 2014). Some scholars have however argued that authoritarianism under the Syrian regime is more akin to Nazi Germany (Schmidinger 2018: 57 and 65) rather than that of the Weimar Republic, thus making the survival of Rojava’s communes even more complicated.

To a certain extent, Öcalan’s theorization of “self-defense” as the shield of democratic confederalism against “nation-state militarism” (Öcalan 2011: 28–29) appears in line with Luxemburg’s thinking, in that he sees violence as a response to attacks with no aprioristic intention to dismantle authoritarian regimes. In practice, as of June 2021, the DFNS coexists with Syrian military and security forces in the two main cities of the Jazira-Cizîre plateau (al-Hasakah/Hesîçe and al-Qamishli/Qamişlo), alternating a turbulent relationship with different degrees of coordination (Glioti 2013; Lund 2016).

In Aziz’s thinking, a further confirmation of the incompatibility between the Assad regime and the council system was his wary support for the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 18 and 21 and 30), whose main goal – unlike the Kurdish-majority People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) – was to topple the Syrian dictator. In his writings, similarly to Öcalan (2011: 28), the role of armed struggle is described as defensive in support of the revolution. Nonetheless, Aziz was concerned about the growing militarization of Syrian society and stressed that

the more the self-management of society will become independent from power, the more it will deepen the social basis that will enable the revolution to protect itself and protect society […] against the armed solution that slowly turns society and revolution into hostages of the rifle (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 21).

The rejection of militarism is present in both Aziz’s Pages and the Charter of the Social Contract in Rojava, which some consider a de-facto Constitution (Ayoub 2017).

Council Systems in DFNS and in Syrian Arab Opposition-Run Territories

Based on the above-mentioned theoretical similarities, I will now show how autonomous administration in DFNS’s councils resembles that of Syrian Arab opposition-run councils.

The structure of the DFNS grassroots self-government institutions is relatively complex. At the foundational level, we find the “communes” (which are composed of thirty to more than four hundred households), followed by the “neighborhood/villages community people’s councils” (the coordination boards of seven to thirty communes) at the upper decisional level, the “district people’s councils” representing the cities and their surroundings formed of coordination boards (TEV-DEM) that comprise political parties, social movements, and civil organizations, and finally the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (MGRK; which includes all the TEV-DEM district coordination boards) (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 92).

Service provision tends to widen an administrative base of support, especially in wartime. Both political experiences attempt to replace the state as the main service provider and disentangle everyday livelihoods from the central power.

At each of these levels, eight commissions are in charge of specific affairs (women, defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice, ideology), with the health commission not directly connected with the MGRK (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 92). The “women’s councils” represent an autonomous parallel system to the council system, with each commission having two co-spokespersons, a man and a woman (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 92), reflecting the importance of women’s empowerment in Öcalan’s thought. Council democracy draws on Bookchin’s principle of confederalism as

a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that chose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves (Bookchin 1992: 297).

Syrian Arab opposition-run councils were different. They were set up in opposition-held regions “as an alternative to the regime and its institutions” (Daou 2017). In some respects, we can consider the tansiqiyyat the equivalent of the MGRK’s communes at the bottom end of self-management structures because of their “closer relationship with the neighborhood and the area where they operate” (Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 60).xiv Even though the tansiqiyyat are known for having primarily focused on organizing anti-regime protests, in some areas – such as Darayya, south-west of Damascus – they were the precursors of local councils, providing medical aid and food supplies (Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 53–57).xv

At the district level, the elected representatives of the local councils gather in a “general assembly of the local councils” (Daou 2017). Since the formation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ (NCSROF) Interim Government in March 2013, its Ministry of Local Administration, Relief and Refugees Affairs has been in charge of local councils (Daou 2017).

The DFNS’s and the Syrian Arab opposition’s councils also share their vision of basic services. For instance, “ensuring the continuity of education” despite the ongoing war is a shared mission (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 23 and 25–26; Zaman al-Wasl 2013a; Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 175–184). Education comes with the challenges related to the enrollment of pupils in teaching institutions that are recognized by neither the Syrian state nor the international community (Nassar, Ibrahim & Edwards 2017; Rageh 2017). Once again, the state manifests itself in multiple realms, including education, as stateless polities would not have their newly established educational system recognized by the nation-state.

The same applies to the elections of council members, with a common emphasis on the importance of turnouts in unprecedented democratic practices in both opposition-held areas and the DFNS (Middle East Online 2013; Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 109; Gopal 2018). At the same time, the exclusion of segments of the electoral constituencies from the decision-making process questions the democratic nature of both experiences, whether it is the exclusion of the pro-Iraqi Kurdistan Kurdish National Council’s (KNC/ENKS) parties in Rojava (Schmidinger 2018: 133) or of those who were not considered “revolutionary” enough in opposition-held areas (Yazigi 2014).

The provision of services such as waste management, fuel, water, electricity, and bread supplies is another shared key component between the two experiences (Zaman al-Wasl 2013b; Yazigi 2014; Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 104–109; Al-Faham 2017): such provision tends to widen an administrative base of support (Beals 2016; Martínez & Eng 2017; Gopal 2018), especially in wartime. In doing so, both political experiences attempt to replace the state as the main service provider and disentangle everyday livelihoods from the central power.

The Kurdish women’s movement has been particularly active in bridging gaps with other communities, in contexts such as Manbij (Dirik in author’s interview 2018). Engaging people in the Rojava political experience in areas such as Kobanî and Efrîn was easier than in Manbij and Jazira (Cizîre), since the PKK had consolidated its presence in the former before the Rojava revolution (Dirik in author’s interview 2018). This might explain why the pervasiveness of the Rojava revolution in Jazira (Cizîre) was limited compared with Kobanî or Efrîn, where the PKK militancy was more widespread. But “spreading the revolution” in such areas was easier also because Kobanî and Efrîn are almost entirely populated by Kurds.

Before the IS takeover in January 2014, a relatively efficient opposition-run local council and a newly established trade union operated in Manbij (Yazigi 2014; Yassin-Kassab 2016), where residents were already trained in managing the town’s affairs autonomously. Similar to other cases inside Syria, Manbij’s self-management experience was fraught with challenges: opposition-armed factions were blamed for kidnappingsxvi and a Sharia court succeeded in replacing a more liberal one (Yazigi 2014). Nonetheless, it is legitimate to wonder whether the Rojava activists drew on the Manbij self-management experience and if valuing it in the pro-DFNS media would have fostered greater solidarity with part of the Arab population.xvii As of June 2021, this appears even more relevant, as Manbij witnesses unprecedented popular turmoil against the Kurdish-led administration.xviii

In addition to the risk of seeing grassroots structures devoured by top-down institutions, militarization poses a threat to the democratic nature of the council system in both opposition-held territories and the DFNS.

In the Syrian Arab opposition-held areas, critics have maintained that the role of local councils has remained limited to municipal services while they have been unable to exert control over armed factions. Moreover, the “big political talk” has here remained a prerogative of foreign-backed external entities such as the Syrian National Council and subsequently the NCSROF (Daou 2017).

As early as 2011, Omar Aziz envisioned the establishment of a “national council,” but this was conceived as a “coordinating” body that would protect local initiatives, in line with the movement’s horizontal “autonomy” (istiqlaliyyah) (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 33), recalling the Zapatista horizontal network of villages that are then linked vertically via a system of delegation rather than representation (Gambetti 2009: 66). However, locals have criticized some of the main expatriate branches of the Syrian Arab opposition for dismembering the local councils rather than protecting them. For example, in 2013 members of the Raqqa local council accused the Syrian National Council for having replaced them with a new council in “a move that was decided abroad, which had nothing to do with our capabilities of managing public affairs in Raqqa” (Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 60).

In both opposition-held regions and the DFNS, self-government structures are supposed to remain accountable to the people and develop their own mechanisms to safeguard accountability (Middle East Online 2013; Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 88). The DFNS, however, seems to undergo a similar divide between grassroots activists and profit-driven politicians. Now that the council-based grassroots movement is more entrenched in Rojava (Leezenberg 2016: 682), it has entered a tense relationship with the components of the DFNS that see the revolution as an opportunity to become officials in the Democratic Autonomous Administrations (DAAs) (Schmidinger 2018: 129 and 137–138).

The DAAs were established in January 2014 in each cantonxix to partially contest the exclusion of Kurdish authorities from the UN-backed Geneva II conference on Syria (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 114). In December 2015, the DAAs became part of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC, Meclîsa Sûriya Demokratîk), the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, Hêzên Sûriya Demokratîk), which is a US-backed Kurdish-majority but multi-ethnic militia that was established a few months earlier during the war on IS (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 92). In March 2016, the DAAs and the SDC announced the foundation of the DFNS to better coordinate between the DAAs and the recently annexed Arab-majority territories that had been captured from IS (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 92).

Unlike the council-system, the DAAs bear similarities with top-down governments, for they are structured in legislative and executive councils; the latter allocate ministries to the different parties in Rojava (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 114). The refusal of international institutions and global political actors to recognize the Kurdish-led council system influenced the decision to establish a parallel semi-state, which may be more likely to win the stakeholders’ trust in the international arena.

The conflicting functions between the DAAs and the MGRK’s council system remain either unresolved or resolved at the expense of the council system, which has become “less active in order to avoid a dual decision-making structure” (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 119). Pro-Rojava activists worry that the council system will be “put on the back burner for short-term political gain” (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 119), but they are also optimistic about a solution aimed at ensuring the representation of the grassroots councils in the DAA’s legislative councils (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 120–121).

Activist Dilar Dirik (in author’s interview 2018) pointed out that “people who head these boards for education, diplomacy, etc. [in the DAAs] often looked like normal ministers. Visually, they have nothing to do with what the people were doing in the communes.” She also stressed that one woman out of two deputies is elected in order to counterbalance patriarchal power. In her view, thanks to the existence of multiple layers, these vertical representative structures “remain accountable to the grassroots and the women’s movement.”

In addition to the risk of seeing grassroots structures devoured by top-down institutions, militarization poses a threat to the democratic nature of the council system in both opposition-held territories and the DFNS. Jihadist and Islamist opposition armed factions repeatedly attempted to subjugate the local councils in towns such as Douma,xx Saraqib (Gopal 2018), and Kafranbel (Abdul Rahman 2016), but their actions often met resistance. DFNS’s critics have likewise maintained that the final say on key decisions lies with the PKK leadership on the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan rather than with the council system (Gunter 2014: 128 in Schmidinger 2018: 134). In both cases, top-down military institutions risk reinstating vertical decisional structures that resemble state-focused modes of power.

While the legacy of such a hierarchical paramilitary organization is still visible nowadays in the PKK Syrian offshoots (Schmidinger 2018: 134–135), there is no evidence that pro-DFNS civil activists have protested the influence of the PKK military leadership. Indeed, the main armed factions (YPG and YPJ) are aligned with Öcalan’s political vision of the council system, whereas the Syrian Arab opposition’s Islamist factions tend to envision a different political system toutcourt. For example, although one of the key demands of Syrian protesters since 2011 has been the democratization of their country, hardline Islamist ideologues refer to democracy as an “infected game” (Arabi 21 2019), partially because of the notion’s ties with the West.

Meeting local needs through cultivation complements the process of liberation initiated by the military confrontation.

Despite their idealism, a certain degree of Realpolitik is also a shared trait between the two political experiences. For example, Omar Aziz was aware of the need to take into consideration the weight of tribal “clans” when forming local councils (Aziz, cited in Collettivo Idrisi 2017: 32). In what was until 2015 opposition-held southern Syria, tribal allegiances have indeed played a role in the selection of candidates for the council seats (Darwish 2016: 2). In 2014, likewise, the legislative council of the DAA in the Jazira (Cizîre) canton elected Shaykh Humaidi Daham al-Jarba, a leader from the Arab Shammar tribe, as the co-chair of the canton (Marei 2014).

A realist approach also emerges in regional and international alliances that have indirectly contributed to the survival of both political experiences, while turning local actors into proxies of Turkey in the case of the Syrian opposition and of the US and to a lesser extent of Russia in the case of the DAAs. Neither Turkey nor Russia nor the US deem the development of direct democracy in Syria to be a priority. These alliances will continue to be detrimental to the survival of grassroots social experiences as long as foreign powers exact political tolls in exchange for support.

This is exemplified by the rise of political bodies (NCSROF, DAAs) that behave like nation-states and purport to represent bottom-up council systems in the international arena. At the same time, these alliances remain fragile and prone to collapse considering the volatile decisions of major stakeholders, like in the case of the Turkish invasion of Efrîn, which was made possible by the withdrawal of Russian troops (Haid 2018).

Eco-agricultural Decentralization

Another realm in which it is possible to draw a parallel between the DFNS and Arab opposition-held areas is that of food sovereignty. After decades of Baathist centralization efforts in the provision of seeds and fertilizers (Beals 2016; Martinez & Eng 2017), numerous experiences of food sovereignty surfaced in the absence of the state in both the DFNS and Syrian opposition-held territories.

According to a Europe-based activist involved in a solidarity campaign,xxi international peasant networks and European “eco-anarchists” supported Syrian activists from besieged opposition-held areas such as Idlib and Ghouta in the development of urban farming solutions to cope with hunger during the winter. In both DFNS and opposition-held areas, local activists built a connection between the cultivation of lands that had fallen outside of government control and resistance to the “occupier,” whether it was the Syrian regime or jihadist groups. In the countryside of the province of Daraa, opposition activists taught internally displaced persons (IDPs) – and children in particular – who lost access to their lands how “to build a relationship with the land and […] grow plants in the [IDP] camps” (Jasim 2017).

In some cases, these initiatives were connected with international networks. Some of the international activists who have supported initiatives in opposition-held areas have also aided a network of local activists in Kurdish-populated Kobanî. IS reportedly seized equipment and seeds during the siege (2014–2015), forcing many to leave for Turkey. Once the siege was lifted, Syrian Kurdish activists went back to their hometown and set up the first plant nurseries.xxii In Bîstanên Rojavayê, the main greenhouse project in the Cizîre/Jazirah canton, international eco-activists highlight the significance of cultivating “liberated” lands that were at “the front-line of the fighting when [former al-Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat Al Nusra came. […] When the YPG liberated the land, they gave it back to the people, to the society” (Interview by Cooperation in Mesopotamia 2016). In other words, meeting local needs through cultivation complements the process of liberation initiated by the military confrontation.

In the dire conditions caused by conflict, local activists in both the DFNS and opposition-held territories treasured the importance of self-sufficiency and organic farming: first, because all the border crossings shared with Turkey are closed and Iraqi Kurdistan cyclically shut down the Semalka/Faysh-Khabur passage due to political disputes with Syrian Kurdish authorities; and second, because of the Syrian regime’s politics of siege and starvation.xxiii

It remains to be seen whether the sustainable solutions developed out of necessity in dire conditions will inform farmers’ choices after the end of the conflict (Al-Faham 2017) when chemical fertilizers and centrally subsidized seeds and irrigation water will become more easily available. Other environmentalist projects in Syria and Rojava have attempted to raise local awareness on sustainable agriculture, such as biomass-fueled irrigation in besieged Eastern Ghouta and the return to organic fertilizers in Kurdish-majority Girkê Legê-Maabadeh (Al-Faham 2017). After decades of Baathist wheat monoculture, which depleted the soil and groundwater of the Kurdish-majority Northeast (Selby 2018: 7), activist-led initiatives today focus on diversifying agriculture and reforestation (Cooperation in Mesopotamia 2016).

As the conflict raged on, everyday violence led people to be more concerned about their own plight and less willing to build up and express trans-ethnic solidarity. Nevertheless, Idlib networks were reportedly still sending locally produced seeds to Rojava peasants in October 2018.

Agriculture officials in both the Kurdish-led DAAs and opposition-held territories appear to be unreceptive to agricultural sustainability, thus confirming the shared divide between grassroots activists and officials. This is partially due to older agricultural engineers viewing “organic agriculture as a luxury” or a good thing for Western societies only,xxiv and intending to “defend their authority by any means” (Jasim 2017). However, in some cases, these experiences of food sovereignty have served the purpose of bridging the gap between peasants and agricultural engineers (e.g., between the grassroots and experts) and paved the way for closer collaborations between them (Jasim 2017). Like what occurred with the council system, these initiatives managed to “reduce the separation between representatives and represented” (Hardt & Negri 2004: 250) in a vacuum left by the state.

The above-mentioned Europe-based eco-activist recalled (2018) three episodes in which she had the occasion to meet with Rojava officials: in Turkey in 2014 and 2015 (in the latter occasion as a delegation member from La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement for food sovereignty) and in Kobanî with the co-chair of the DAA agricultural committee in 2018. Officials reportedly gave no importance to sustainable agriculture, to the extent of explicitly demanding pesticides and tractors in at least one episode. Even in the literature that is supportive of the Kurdish-led administration (Knapp, Flach & Ayboga 2016: 211–221), it is recognized that many more measures would be needed to address dire environmental conditions.

Local authorities still seem to focus on wheat monoculture through subsidized chemical fertilizers and fuel-driven irrigation (Kobanî DAA’s agricultural commission Facebook page 2017 and 2018).xxv On 22 October 2018, the agricultural commission in Kobanî announced its plan to “develop agriculture” and “transform the area into a green agricultural one” by cultivating wheat and barley.xxvi

Having said that, it is worth noting that some militants are seemingly more committed to an ecological revolution in the DFNS, as emerges in the words of YPJ fighters and TEV-DEM-linked feminist organizations such as Kongreya Star.xxvii This is partially due to the strong influence of Öcalan’s political thought on YPG-YPJ and Kongreya Star unlike the DAA officials.

Agriculture is a realm where the manifestations of the Syrian state are still visible despite its limited physical presence in the Northeast. The Syrian government still subsidizes these areas with seeds produced at the General Organization for Seed Multiplication (GOSM), to the extent that in January 2019 the Ministry of Agriculture announced that wheat and barley seeds had been planted across half of the province of al-Hasakah (SANA 2019). In summer 2018, the Syrian government announced its intention to import around 1.5 million tons of wheat from Russia and Eastern Europe due to the poor results of the last crop season in al-Hasakah, in which many farmers preferred selling their harvest to the DAA or traders in other areas (Al-Hussein 2018; Ibrahim 2018).

The farmers found it more convenient to sell their yield to the DAA, but if the Syrian government was to succeed in offering better business conditions – or in extracting concessions in the framework of the ongoing negotiations between Damascus and the Kurdish-led administration – it could re-establish its monopoly over wheat monoculture and the consequent depletion of soil and water resources.

The National Coalition interim government’s approach to agricultural policies is not particularly different from that of the Syrian government. Although the opposition’s GOSM is largely independent from the interim government in terms of funding, one of its main donors is the German Corporation for International Cooperation (MIZ), a ministerial organization that focuses on “high performance seeds produced by big multinationals that require the addition of chemicals and minerals to grow” (Jasim 2017). Hence, it is not surprising to see the availability of chemical fertilizers and pesticides promoted on the website of the opposition’s GOSMxxviii or to notice that their marginal projects, aimed at localizing the production of certain seeds, in fact copy those of the Syrian government.

In early 2020, the parallel GOSM appears too similar to the original, and therefore hardly representative of localized grassroots initiatives. In both cases, the state’s approach to intensive agriculture paradoxically influenced the newly established administrations, under which the activists’ efforts to achieve localized food sovereignty clash with the local officials’ “recidivist” tendency to keep farmers dependent on central suppliers.

As the conflict raged on, everyday violence led people to be more concerned about their own plight and less willing to build up and express trans-ethnic solidarity. Further factors have hampered such solidarity processes. The Turkish blockade against the Kurdish-led administration since it came into existence in 2012 and the wall built by Turkish authorities between 2015 and 2018 have made it impossible for activists to cross into Kurdish areas from Turkey. This translated into fewer opportunities for Arab and Kurdish eco-activists to encounter each other and exchange experiences.xxix Nevertheless, Idlib networks were reportedly still sending locally produced seeds to Rojava peasants in October

If activists from both sides had communicated more effectively, they could have benefited from their respective experiences in autonomous democratic administrations. Communication channels were actually open in the early phase of the upheaval against the Assad regime.


This chapter has shown how the two stateless experiences of self-management in Syria overlap and differ by highlighting the dialectic between alternative, bottom-up modes of power co-existing with the multifaceted resurgence of the state. Both the Kurdish-led DFNS and the territories held by the Arab opposition have witnessed the emergence of horizontal structures of governance, which were to some extent inspired by two intellectuals who believed that it was possible to carve up autonomous polities, while they were also aware of the challenge represented by people’s enduring ties with state structures.

The development of these horizontal structures was fraught with challenges posed by state and semi-state actors on multiple fronts. However, many local citizens are not accustomed to managing their lives in the absence of a state.

The fact that several semi-state political bodies purport to represent these grassroots movements in international talks also proves that some movement members yearn for acting like a state rather than offering a stateless alternative. For example, both political entities attempted to pursue food sovereignty and break the cycle of dependence from central suppliers, yet they also mimicked the Syrian state’s approach to agriculture on a local level.

Nonetheless, my aim here has primarily been to highlight the missed opportunities of encounter and exchange between two radical experiments of grassroots democracy. If activists from both sides had communicated more effectively, they could have benefited from their respective experiences in autonomous democratic administrations. Communication channels were actually open in the early phase of the upheaval against the Assad regime: the Al-Taakhi and Rukneddine tansiqiyyat and the leftist Syrian Revolutionary Youth collective were all examples of Arab-Kurdish solidarity (Hassan 2014).xxxi

Indeed, if the course of military events has exacerbated divisions between the two fronts, there is still room for cooperation between non-nationalist opposition elements – many of whom had to flee war-torn Syria – and their counterparts among DFNS supporters. Kurdish activist Dilar Dirik (in author’s interview 2018) said that “the [DFNS’] perspective of democratic nation is meant genuinely […] to reach out to […] progressive forces across national and cultural boundaries.” It is on these yet-theoretical grounds that cooperation between progressive elements from both sides could still be possible.

As I write in June 2021, a significant blow to the DFNS’ multi-ethnic credentials would be the loss of most Arab-majority territories, such as Tel Rifaat, Manbij, Raqqa, and the Deyr az-Zawr countryside, which could be handed over to other regional forces. Such a development would almost confine the DFNS model to Kurdish-majority territories. Some geopolitical factors might also impede a trans-ethnic project, as the reasons why Kurdish-majority forces might be compelled to withdraw transcend their capability of ruling inclusively over Arab-majority territories.

Such geopolitical factors manifested themselves glaringly when Turkey invaded the DFNS territories in October 2019, facilitated by the partial withdrawal of US troops. Kurdish-led authorities called on Damascus to deploy the Syrian Arab Army in the area, with the aim of deterring further advances of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition, mostly composed of Arab militants. The DFNS remains torn between unfruitful negotiations for local autonomy with Damascus and the constant threats of Turkish military expansion, leaving little hopes for long-term self-governance.

In the least catastrophic scenario, the Kurdish-led authority might succeed in obtaining a certain degree of autonomy from the Assad government which, in turn, will remain heavily dependent on as-yet-to-materialize international pressures on Damascus. “If there were a few years of stability [in Manbij], [the grassroots experience] could be even more radical, because it would have the perspective of more nations, more languages,” according to Dirik (in author’s interview 2018). These words reveal the potential of a Rojava revolution and its truthfulness to Öcalan’s political thought, if it proved to be fully functioning in Arab-majority areas.

Shared spaces of encounter for these two political projects would have allowed both polities to identify their respective capacities for social and political transformation vis-à-vis state hegemony, therefore paving the ground for an effective “post-ethnic” laboratory of direct democracy.

Ultimately, both political experiences remain experimental projects that have made effective attempts at countering state hegemony. For the moment, their success has been undermined. While the Syrian Arab opposition has largely been swept away by Assad in most regions, the Kurdish-led DFNS physically preserved its partial sovereignty but needed to renegotiate its own presence and politics with the Syrian government at a high price while facing a new Turkish invasion.

As I have shown, such temporary failures are indeed the product of an intimate interrelationship between state institutions and entities aimed at countering the state, which give rise to a complex assemblage of contradictory political effects, parts of the same “organizational terrain” (Mitchell 1991: 98). As a result, these alternative statehood projects cannot produce absolute autonomy, mirroring the limits of the official state itself (Mitchell 1991: 78). Even more so, shared spaces of encounter for these two political projects would have allowed both polities to identify their respective capacities for social and political transformation vis-à-vis state hegemony, therefore paving the ground for an effective “post-ethnic” laboratory of direct democracy.

Featured image: painting by Syrian artist Reham Abo al-Nojoom, photographed at an exhibit in Germany. Source: Souria Houria


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i This chapter would not have been possible without the invaluable contribution of my partner Estella Carpi, who is definitely more versed than I am in relevant academic literature.

ii See

iii Yet the number of Westerners who fought alongside the Kurds appears to be significantly smaller if compared with that of Western volunteers who served in the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Preston 2016; Specia 2018).

iv On language barriers, see

v In a Qamishlo-focused research paper published on pro-opposition website Syria Untold in 2016, the achievements of the Rojava revolution have been largely ignored vis-à-vis the Syrian Arab revolution. See .

vi See in Arabic

vii For a brief history of Kurdistan and the Kurdish principalities on the peripheries of non-Kurdish ruling entities, see Sheyholislami, Jaffer (2008). Identity, Discourse and the Media: The Case of the Kurds. PhD dissertation, Ottawa, Carleton University, 162–166.

viii See

ix See

x On 27 June 2013, I witnessed in Amude one of the worst crackdowns on dissidents since the outbreak of the Rojava revolution in 2012. See

xi Author’s conversations with Syrian Kurdish activists since 2011.

xii On the historical developments of this debate, see Cahm (1989: 31, 37, 49).

xiii Interview with Dilar Dirik, a Kurdish activist and a researcher at Cambridge University (15 July 2018).

xiv Interview with Abu Ahmad, a member of the Raqqa local council and one of the founders of the coordination committee. Interview by Lorenzo Trombetta, summer 2014, Beirut (Collettivo Idrisi, 2017).

xv Interview with Rima, a member of the Darayya tansiqiyya. Interview by Lorenzo Trombetta, summer 2014, Beirut (Collettivo Idrisi 2017).

xvi Author’s interviews with Manbij residents, January 2019:

xvii On the Arab limited support for the Kurdish-led council system, see Knapp, Flach and Ayboga (2016: 110). On the Arab lists’ scarce success in the elections held for the DFNS regional councils in December 2017, see Schmidinger (2018: 133).

xviii See Reuters

xix “Canton” was the official term used for the three largest administrative units in Rojava. The borders of these units were subsequently renamed as “regions” in parallel with the military advances of the SDF.

xx Informal conversations with Douma local council members in Turkey’s Gaziantep in March 2017.

xxi Interview conducted via Facebook Messenger audio call on 6 October 2018.

xxii Author’s interview with Europe-based eco-activist, 2018.

xxiii With the exceptions of the Aleppo and Idlib provinces who have often had access to Turkish crossing points.

xxiv Author’s interview with the Europe-based eco-activist (2018), referring to an interview she had with an agricultural engineer of the Syrian opposition (NCSORF) interim government.

xxv On 11 November 2018, the pro-opposition Syrian news agency SMART carried a statement by an official in the agricultural commission of the Cizîre/Jazirah canton in which he announced that 50% of the land would be destined to wheat, 25% to legumes and 25% would be left to rest. See [Accessed on February 17, 2019, but inaccessible as of August 29, 2022]. In another report published on 22 November 2018, SMART carried a statement by an official of the agricultural commission of Derbasîa in which he said that local farmers still preferred the cultivation of wheat. See [Accessed on February 17, 2019, but inaccessible as of August 29, 2022].

xxvi The official statement is available in Arabic at:

xxvii Author’s interviews with YPJ fighters in Rojava, 2013, and with the Europe-based eco-activist, 2018.

xxviii Available in Arabic at:

xxix Author’s interview with Europe-based eco-activist, 2018, and conversations with Syrian Arab and Kurdish citizen journalists and activists since 2011.

xxx Author’s interview with Europe-based eco-activist.

xxxi Also mentioned in the author’s interview with Europe-based eco-activist, 2018.

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