News | Economic / Social Policy - Lebanon / Syria / Iraq Rojava’s Difficult Transformation

The political economy of North East Syria is changing for the better, but enormous challenges remain


A large oil pump on the edge of a sand road.
Oil pumps operating in Rojava.  Photo: Christopher Wimmer

Rojava — or, as the region is officially called, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) — has become a positive point of reference for social change for many on the Left. AANES is a multi-ethnic society that has had its own autonomous government since the Rojava Revolution in July 2012.

Christopher Wimmer is a sociologist and freelance writer from Berlin. He writes regularly for various weekly and daily magazines, such as the taz, nd, and Freitag. In the summer of 2022 he spent several months researching in North East Syria.

Translated by Sonja Hornung and Sam Langer for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The aim of AANES is not to found a nation-state, but rather to achieve autonomy within a federal, democratic Syria. As a political community, it is secular and democratic, and promotes the rights of women, the environment, and tolerance in regard to religious and cultural issues. It aims to decentralize political power to a large extent, and delegate decision-making to communes and councils. A key component of this process of societal transformation is an approach to political economy understood as a municipally organized system.

There is no shortage of challenges. Inflation, coupled with the rising costs of food and oil, are driving almost the entire population into poverty. Air pollution caused by substandard oil extraction methods is leading to health problems for those living close to oil fields. To this (incomplete) list can be added the complete devastation of infrastructure and a shortage of qualified workers. Basic services for the majority of the population cannot be guaranteed, there is only electricity for a few hours a day, petrol is scarce, and droughts lead to poor harvests and food shortages.

North East Syria as a Supplier

Before the Syrian civil war, despite its peripheral geographical position, North East Syria played a central role in the Syrian economy as a supplier of oil and food. On the one hand, the oil deposits in the Jazeera region are so vast that they account for around 50 percent of Syrian oil production. On the other hand, agriculture — which was systematically converted to the monocultural cultivation of wheat under the Ba’ath regime — played a key role. Jazeera delivered up to half of Syria’s wheat, and was considered the “breadbasket of Syria”. Further west, in Afrin, mainly fruit and olives were cultivated. This area was the source of around 30 percent of the country’s olives.

However, this wealth of raw materials did not lead to wealth for the region. “The Ba’ath regime did not encourage economic development, but simply took all resources for itself”, according to Karker Ismail, an expert in the economy of North East Syria. He currently works in the Cooperative Committee of the self-governed region of Jazeera.

All products were processed outside of the region. Oil was transported via pipelines to Homs, where Syria’s largest refineries are located. Likewise, there were no grain mills in the region. “North East Syria was systematically neglected and despite its riches, it was kept poor”, Ismail points out. Its only economic role was to supply Syria with raw materials. This meant that the region was among one of the least developed regions in Syria, with the country’s highest rates of unemployment and poverty.

The Political Economy of North East Syria

In the midst of the Syrian Civil War and the Syrian revolutionary movement that began in 2011, the Rojava Revolution erupted on 10 July 2012. On that day, Kurdish units took over the North Syrian city of Kobane. From there, the uprising spread to further cities.

This occurred without major military clashes — the Syrian army withdrew without any significant resistance. To this day, it is disputed whether this was due to the political and military force of the insurgency, or because the regime voluntarily withdrew in order to avoid opening a further front in the civil war.

Councils were quickly established across North East Syria, and public life resumed on a self-governed basis. Among the councils’ tasks were the distribution of food and fuel, as well as the organization of education, self-defence, and the establishment of an independent judiciary. Within a few months, a functioning council system was established. From 2014, self-governance in the three autonomous regions of Afrin, Kobane, and Jazeera was proclaimed under the name “Rojava”.

Rojava faced the challenge of saving the economy from collapse. Economic councils and commissions were set up at the municipal and regional levels. These established and controlled price limits for basic needs at retail and wholesale levels, preventing famine.

Equally important was the diversification of the economy. Export-oriented production decreased, while the production of vegetables, lentils, spices, and bulgur increased. The development of regional markets had top priority, because deliveries from other parts of Syria stagnated, and the region was embargoed.

Karker Ismail described the political economy of North East Syria as follows: “Our economy is communal and decentralized, it operates on a grass roots level, and in that sense it’s the complete opposite to the economy of the regime. We support cooperatives and communally organized work, as well as local products. The municipality lies at the heart of our system. Here, people come together and vote for an economic commission that is responsible for the municipality’s economy. These commissions then elect economic commissions at the next level up.”

The economic commissions manage everyday activities in their respective municipalities. Fundamentally, they have the right to make decisions regarding all local issues (economic, social, etc.). Their tasks include services such as the establishment and administration of cooperatives and land distribution. The commissions assess needs at a grass roots level and coordinate them with the next highest administrative level (borough, district, and region). AANES oversees these decisions from above through the Executive Council, which enacts uniform frameworks such as the standardization of customs duties, the setting of fuel prices, or labour law.

The economic order explicitly provides protection for private property as well as entrepreneurship. At the same time, AANES sees itself as an alternative to capitalist and (state) socialist economies. The system is based neither on the idea of the market nor that of the state, but on self-governed units.

North East Syria’s economy is still primarily characterized by agriculture and livestock farming, as well as small workshops and petty trade. The aim of agrarian policy here is to allow for the shortest supply chains possible, ensuring that the means of production remain closely tied to local demand.

Economic and agricultural commissions try to regulate the price for grain, but are regularly undermined by the Ba’ath regime, which sells or acquires large amounts from local markets. Additionally, water scarcity is a central problem for agriculture, leading to a lack of significant investment and necessitating imports, which are expensive.

Industry is small and can scarcely expand. Factories consist mostly of small workshops that produce textiles, shampoo, or conserves for household use. There are many reasons for the stagnation of the sector, including the fact that local capital prefers to make safer investments (such as in real estate).

Similarly, the embargo means that the import of raw materials is virtually impossible.

The construction sector has boomed in recent years. This is primarily due to an increase in demand for housing as a result of high levels of migration in the region. Additionally, restrictions on the issuance of construction licenses previously imposed by the Ba’ath regime have been relaxed by AANES, which has recognized the sector as a lucrative source of income. For a long time, Kurds were only allowed to build one-storey houses. Now, up to four-storey buildings are allowed.

Large sacks lying on a field, next to some people.
Harvesting wheat near the city Derik. Photo: Christopher Wimmer

The Reality of the Cooperatives

Cooperatives form a key part of the alternative economy of North East Syria. Their aim is to keep surplus production circulating in local communities. The focus in the region is on the provision of the municipality — the market plays a secondary role. Cooperatives must be kept under communal control and it is illegal to privatize them. They are thus withdrawn from the capitalist imperative to produce profit.

The administration of the cooperatives is elected by the municipalities and controlled by their economic committees, which differentiates them from private businesses. The Cooperative Committee chaired by Karker Ismail coordinates all cooperatives, and has issued general rules for them: 25 percent of all income must be reinvested, 20 percent is paid as tax to AANES, and five percent goes to the Cooperative Committee.

Similarly, all cooperatives must uphold ecological principles. If a cooperative does not adhere to these rules, the Committee can dissolve it.

The majority of the cooperatives in North East Syria are agricultural enterprises that have leased former state-owned land (around 80 percent of land in the region) for the purpose of production. Cooperatives have also developed in other economic sectors, primarily in bakeries, but also in the textile and dairy industries. Because the emancipation of women is of decisive importance for AANES, special women’s collectives are also promoted in order to create employment opportunities for women and support their economic independence in the framework of the collective economy.

AANES seeks to make cooperatives the dominant form of the economy. Due to the decentralized form of the political system, however, it is difficult to get data on the expansion of cooperatives. Even Karker Ismail cannot provide precise figures. He can only state that “our cooperatives are developing. Currently, however, they are still at low numbers.”

Given that there are approximately four million people living in North East Syria, the role of cooperatives is still marginal relative to the overall demand for production and consumption. Most cooperatives are only small businesses with a handful of workers, and compromise a minimal part of the economy. Strategically important production sectors (such as electricity, gas, and oil) are not administered cooperatively. They lie either under the direct control of the commissions of the AANES, or they are operated by private companies, most of which are affiliated with the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat/Democratic Union Party).

A welfare-oriented and communal economy on the basis of cooperatives is therefore not a lived reality in North East Syria.

Diverse Dependencies

A further area of tension between grassroots democratic ambitions and a reality defined in part by monopolies lies in the fact that AANES, a quasi-state and the largest actor in the region, has a decisive influence on the political economy of the region. According to official figures, AANES employs around 250,000 people, including 100,000 in the armed forces. Additionally, regulatory interventions in economic development are frequently carried out by the commissions, for example through taxes and the fixing of prices.

At the same time, the private sector continues to dominate. A fundamental shift in ownership and property relations has yet to take place. The self-administered government is strongly influenced by landowners and businesspeople. Both the commissions and the private sector tend to maintain good relations with the PYD, harbouring the latent danger of nepotism and inefficiency.

This is reinforced by a lack of transparency regarding budgetary matters. Because the budgeting system differs substantially from that of Western states, it is not easily understood from a European perspective. Alongside the general budget, there is an additional, separate budget for the military. The civilian budget of 2022 amounts to 981 million US dollars, with oil sales, income tax, and import duties the main sources of revenue. The oil fields in Heseke and Deir ez-Zor are key income sources.

Seventy percent of expenditure, which amounts to 157 million dollars in total, goes to the wages of employees of the self-administered government. The rest flows into infrastructure. Military expenditure is financed primarily by the US and is channelled directly, without further democratic control, to the self-defence forces.

The self-administered government does not have final control over broad swathes of the economy. The regime in Damascus, for example, continues to pay the wages of tens of thousands of public service employees, including in the oil and education sectors. North East Syria is also largely dependent on Syrian banks to supply the money market. Although the self-administered government recently established its own bank, it has very little influence. Additionally, the Syrian pound continues to be used, which means that the regime’s monetary policy also affects AANES.

The region’s political economy therefore cannot be considered in isolation. The consequences of the war in Syria, as well as the war against the “Islamic State” and constant attacks from Turkey are omnipresent in the northeast.

On top of immediate damages from war such as the destruction of the workforce and the means of production, the economic consequences of Turkey’s occupation have set back transformation efforts. Before Turkey’s invasion of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad in October 2019, countless cooperatives were formed there: in Sere Kaniye alone, more than 12,000 hectares of land were farmed by cooperatives. These have been destroyed by the occupation.

Likewise, Turkey is waging a “war of water” against AANES by withholding water from the Euphrates river. In the “breadbasket” of Syria, the wheat fields are drying up. Moreover, an embargo has rendered international trade impossible. This means that people in the region are forced to provide for themselves and are not able to export. “The war and the siege are the biggest problems for North East Syria”, says Karker Ismail in regard to this situation. He continues: “They are like black clouds that hang over us. The economic situation for the entire region is very bad.”

The self-administered government faces the Herculean task of solving these multiple problems in the face of renewed Turkish threats of war. Since July, a state of emergency reigns. “All municipalities, councils, and institutions of the self-administered government are required to draw up emergency plans in order to meet the current challenges and threats” according to the announcement of the self-administered government. Budgetary resources are to be reallocated to the military.

The ambition to radically democratize and decentralize society remains a challenge in the context of an (ongoing) war economy.