By: Farris Al-Banaa

I’m a second year MAIA student concentrating in security studies. My research focuses are on conflict and power structures in the Middle East.


In the field of international relations, history serves as a model with which we learn from past mistakes. When regions of the world are tumultuous it is the job of scholars and analysts of international relations to diagnose the issue, or the opposite by analyzing the reasons for success. Successes can serve as lessons to be implemented for newer states throughout the world. In this paper I will analyze why Rojava in Syria is a successful island for peace in such a troubled region, and what lessons it can teach us. This will be achieved by: defining what good governance is, applying that definition to Rojava, comparing the governance of Rojava to the governance of another island of peace (the Daraa region), and discussing whether or not Rojava can serve as a potential model for the region as a whole.

Syria: Important Background Information

Syria has been home to monumental advances in human history. From the Egyptians and Hittites to the Romans and Ottomans, Syria has been home to some of the most influential civilizations in the world. How does a country of extreme historical significance go from a thriving cradle of civilization to a country torn apart by war, famine, hunger, and sectarian violence?

Inspired by other rebellions during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Syrian people demonstrated publicly against the Assad regime. The fractioning of the Syrian army into different rebel insurgent groups, like the Free Syrian Army, began because of a reluctance to open fire on demonstrating civilians. Like many Middle Eastern nations, Syria is very diverse ethnically and religiously. That diversity led to a sectarian undertone of the civil war, with opposition Sunni groups being supported by Sunni Syrians and foreign Arab Sunni nations (like Saudi Arabia), and the Shia Syrian government being supported by Shia Syrians, Hezbollah, and Iran. Famously, this conflict between government and insurgent groups helped create a climate in which the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq or ISIS could rise to power. This brings us to the subject of this paper, Rojava.

In late 2012, faced with an offensive on Damascus by Sunni opposition groups, Assad withdrew most of his forces out of the northern Kurdish area of Syria. This led to multiple Kurdish opposition groups accumulating into the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and creating the People’s Protection Units (PYD) to secure the area from ISIS. Disagreements between the KNC and PYD began to amount in late 2012 with the KNC wanting to govern the area in a tribalist Kurdish Nationalist fashion. The PYD left this coalition with the KNC and founded a polyethnic progressive polity in the Rojava region. Rojava would be split up into three autonomous regions or cantons of Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani, as opposed to power coming from a centralized state, power is bottom up. In practice, power is community based. Various committees in all areas from neighborhoods to towns and cantons meet to discuss how to solve issues each community faces.  This society also attempts to be secular and gender equal with civil law taking precedence over shariah, and every male council member having a female counterpart. After two years of de-facto rule, in 2014 the Autonomous Administrations of North and East Syria announced elections would be held, mass assemblies established, and the constitution “The Charter of the Social Contract” ratified. Since then, the region has been focused on cooperative economics, restorative justice, religious and ethnic freedom, and direct democracy.

Good Governance

Good governance is a term that seems pretty straightforward, a government that is good. The ambiguity of that definition has led to the term being interpreted countless different ways throughout the decades. We can trace the use of the term “good governance” to a 1989 World Bank report on sustainable growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Many scholars debate when the term entered the mainstream; some cite the third wave of democratization globally and the conditions applied for financial support from western institutions like the IMF.[1] However, I do not agree as most of these conditions were cited as liberalizing policies and were not strictly good governance policies. I fall into the camp that argues consequences of bad governance compelled a discussion of good governance. Individuals in the international donor community questioned why aid to places like Rwanda and Somalia didn’t have positive impacts but instead were negatively impacted by aid. When individuals in the international donor community wondered why aid to places like Rwanda and Somalia did not have positive impacts, it was argued aid negatively impacted them, and that bad governance was to blame.[2] This resulted in many in the donor community to promote and fund the idea of good governance. Discrepancies arose in the defining and operationalization of good governance by different NGOs, “consider, for example, that market liberalization policies are encouraged by the World Bank, whereas the same policies might be classified as bad governance by the United Nations on the grounds that citizens have not been involved in the decision-making process.”[3] The inherent normative structure of the term has made it nearly impossible to define universally. For the sake of this paper and as a means to operationalize I will utilize characteristics of good governance used in this article.[4] I chose this article as it is crucial in the applicability of good governance, and in its critical analysis it boils down good governance to five principles. There is discussion of the differences in definition of these five principles amongst seven sources (four NGOs and three scholars), but there is also a discourse of overall similarities as well. I will define these five principles using the common ground similarities and operationalize them with data in Rojava and South-Western Syria.

Five Principles of Good Governance

The first principle is that of accountability. We will define accountability as: holding all governmental, private, public, and civil actors responsible for acting appropriate in their capacities. The baseline idea is that all these actors in society are held accountable by those affected by them. This can look like: freedom of elections (holding the government accountable), stakeholder reports (holding corporations accountable), and reconciliation meetings (holding civil society actors accountable). Due to the scarcity of data for some of these metrics, in regard to Syria, we will operationalize accountability by using freedom of elections. The second principle is effectiveness and efficiency. Both efficiency and effectiveness are inextricably linked, meaning you cannot have one without the other. This looks like a government that delivers what is needed by its society based on clear objectives. We will operationalize this based on the principles that the Syrian Arab springs started: security and industry. By security we will look at how many people died in each region. Industry is inextricably linked to development and employment, and we will look at this (due to data scarcity) in the form of light pollution, “Population growth, economic development, and urbanization have increased the density and extent of artificial lights in natural, seminatural, and urban settings.”[5] The third principle is openness and transparency. This is defined as governmental information that is available and accessible to all who are affected by said decisions. We will look at this principle in the form of media freedom. Can the media in the region report on government decisions? What are the limitations? The fourth principle is that of participation. This will be defined as: those with an interest to participate in policymaking being allowed to do so by the government. We will be looking at the barriers to participation in decision making. The last principle is the rule of law. It will be defined as the confidence and adherence to rules of society, and this is specifically talking about judicial institutions. This will be measured by local satisfaction in the judiciary.

Rojava: Good Governance?

With all of the information in order we can now assess whether or not Rojava is considered good governance, based on the terms we have defined. Firstly, we will examine the accountability in the Rojava region via the freedom of elections. In Rojava’s constitution article 8 states: “Cantons may freely elect their representatives and representative bodies and may pursue their rights insofar as it does not contravene the articles of the Charter.”[6] One way to examine whether or not an election is free is to look at the turnout. Looking at other nations with well-known fraudulent elections, like Russia, one thing is clear: “fraudulent elections not only change the shape of vote and turnout distributions but also induce a high correlation between them. Unusually high vote counts tend to co-occur with unusually high turnout numbers.”[7] The regional elections in 2017 saw the Democratic Nation List, a group of 18 different parties including the PYD, winning 93% of the seats in the Jazira region, 88% in the Euphrates region, and 89% in the Afrin region.[8] While the vote count was significantly high for the Democratic Nation List, the overall turnout was not suspiciously high, at 69% of eligible voters.[9] Another reason that can explain the Democratic Nation List having such a high vote count is the relative size of them in comparison to their rivals. In the Jazira and Euphrates region independent candidates encompassed 267 and 95 candidates running respectively. Of the 267 and 95 independent candidates running, 144 and 67 were elected, respectively. In the same regions the Democratic Nation List ran 2,902 and 954 candidates winning 2,718 and 847 seats respectively. The difference in size between these two groups and other groups speaks to how the vote turned out the way it was. This election did not show any irregularities, but it is important to note that the Kurdish National Council (the main opposition to the PYD) did not participate in the elections. These elections were for regional governance, which is government at the canton level, equivalent to a congressional race. The elections for the federal government were postponed in 2017 due to Turkey’s invasion of the Afrin region and are scheduled to be held in November of 2021. Overall, there is freedom of elections in Rojava, which is pretty amazing given the circumstances.

Secondly, we will look at the effectiveness and efficiency of Rojava. We will be using light pollution to analyze the first measure of effectiveness and efficiency of the Rojava industry. I took the main city of the Canton of Jazira, Qamishli, as the location of analysis. The map that I chose indicates that Qamishli is considered class 5 out of 10, which would be similar to a mid-level city in the United States.[10] While this is decent it is not extremely impressive. However, when taken in the context of the economic makeup of this new state it is a considerable feat. Rojava’s economy is mainly composed of agriculture and oil exports. The goal of their economy is not like traditional states, their goal is to serve the needs of the citizens and develop a green sustainable economy.[11] The establishment of communes for farmers where they collectively own the land, counters Syria’s government owned agriculture. When more information becomes available in regard to development and industry, I would be curious as to the outcome. In regard to the second aspect of efficiency and effectiveness we will be looking at security. We will analyze the amount of security the state can offer to its citizens in the form of deaths from conflicts. This is Rojava’s claim to fame, and it is shown in the data. Of all the deaths from conflict in Rojava from 2011 to 2019 there have been 4,483 conflict related deaths.[12] 4,113 of these deaths are attributed to the conflict between the PYD and ISIS. The level of security Rojava has been able to offer its citizens is unique in Syria, and not much more needs to be said about it. Overall, due to the fact that Rojava’s industry is geared more towards sustenance then maximum profit-based production it is hard to say if that is successful, largely due to the scarcity of data. However, we can say that Rojava has delivered its promise to the citizens, and that is a land that is secured and safe.

Thirdly, we will look into the openness and transparency of Rojava. The topic of media freedom  is a sensitive one in a lot of parts of the world, and it is important to note that this is not a black  or white issue but many shades of grey; “media freedom’s many facets make it difficult for any single index to fully capture.”[13] The positive of not having a single index analyze Rojava’s media freedom is that we can look at their media freedom in a more nuanced way. Article 24 of Rojava’s constitution affirms there to be no impediment of an individual’s freedom of opinion and expression, no restrictions of media, but like the United States there is a limit to these freedoms: “Freedom of expression and freedom of information may be restricted having regard to the security of the Autonomous Regions, public safety and order, the integrity of the individual, the sanctity of private life, or the prevention and prosecution of crime.”[14] The 2015 information law “identifies a code of conduct journalists should abide by; avoiding racist  contents and incitements to violence, respecting privacy, safeguarding the secrecy of official  documents (especially of court proceedings), and publishing rectifications when needed.”[15] The  2015 law also established the Higher Council for Media as the agency for granting media  licenses. Journalists in Rojava admit that their freedom to cover subjects is better than surrounding areas, but many also consider the Higher Council for Media and their control of licenses as a means of controlling media outlets. They also cite instances when security forces have detained journalists and the lack of protection from the Higher Council for Media.[16] There does exist one independent union in Rojava, the Union of Kurdish Syrian Journalists, and while they are not officially recognized they have not been removed by Rojavan officials. Analysts of media in Rojava note that there are two main forms of media: media backed by a political party and independent media. Politically backed media illustrate the democratic values of Rojava in the fact that every party has their own media platform allowed by the government “all parties, no matter how small, have their media outlets such as printed magazines and newspapers, albeit with limited distribution.”[17] What is truly unique to Syria specifically and the region generally is the independent media organizations. These organizations are not affiliated with any political party, are funded in part by NGOs, and reflect the growing civil society within Rojava. These “journalists enjoy relative freedom of expression. The PYD did not forcefully close those it considers as antagonistic media. Reporters can move freely in the region and cover a wide array of issues.”[18] Media freedom is definitely amongst the best in the region as a whole and is truly unique in this aspect. However, as scholars have noted the freedom is linked to the situation on the ground, “Independent media are deeply affected by all of these aspects as much as by the widespread feeling among the population of Rojava of being under constant threat.”[19] Is the media free in Rojava? Yes and no. In a western sense it is not at times, but in the west, there does not exist the same geopolitical conflict climate that Rojava has. So, I would have to say given the circumstances on the ground Rojava definitely has relative media freedom.

Fourthly, we will look at participation. We will be looking to see if there is a barrier for those who want to enter the decision-making apparatus in Rojava to do so. Due to the inherent horizontal structure of Rojava’s direct democratic decision-making apparatus, participation is almost guaranteed. Decision making in Rojava is divided up to the smallest levels of societies. There were popular elections for over 3,600 different communes at the local level and popular elections for the three Cantons of Rojava in 2017. The participation level at the local level was measured at 20-50% which is considered relatively good considering participation is not compulsory.[20] In article 76 of the Rojava constitution it is noted that the Higher Commission of Elections, an independent body, oversees the eligibility of all candidates for office. There is discussion of the detention and boundaries to political representation of the KNC, the largest opposition group to the PYD.[21] While this is true this statement should be taken with a grain of salt. The KNC has been at odds with the PYD since the creation of Rojava, as noted in the background information. Turkey has always been the enemy of Rojava: taking over the Rojava area of Afrin in 2019, and committing war crimes against Rojava.[22] [23] The fact that the KNC has been officially backed by Turkey has removed them from the possibility of political participation in Rojava, reasonably so.[24] Overall, there are few if any barriers to entry into the decision-making process in Rojava.

Lastly, we will be looking at the rule of law in Rojava. Are the people satisfied with the judicial system in Rojava? Rojava’s judicial system is the complete opposite of what Syria’s is. Syria has a punitive judicial system; this means that the system is built on punishing behavior that the law has deemed wrong as a means to change that behavior. Rojava on the other hand has a restorative justice system meaning that the goal of the system is to repair harm, facilitate remorse, and rehabilitate offenders. Syria’s judicial system is an extremely convoluted bureaucracy while Rojava’s is extremely decentralized. Rojava uses peace and justice committees to dispense localized justice for communes. These committees do not solely consist of legal experts, as this is seen as a barrier to community justice. This does not mean more institutionalized courts do not exist, in fact for serious criminal offenses like murder these local committees cannot decide them. This all seems nice in theory, but how do the people feel about it in practice? “The high overall rate of case resolution by committees, houses and  assemblies indicates the penetration of this practice among the population.”[25] This has led to “Crime rates having dropped, especially with regard to theft, and as for crimes related to  patriarchal violence, the number of honor killings have declined noticeably in NES.”[26] Overall,  this new justice system has been widely accepted even by parties whom one could expect to take issue with it; “The committees are accepted by the society and enjoy great respect is also shown in the fact that more and more people from other ethnic groups are turning to them with their problems. It should not be forgotten that a large number of Arabs live in some cities of Rojava.”[27] We can say that Rojava does have rule of law.

Rojava Compared to Daraa

Now that we have assessed the levels of good governance in Rojava, let us compare it to the Daraa gouvernante. The Syrian government, with Russian help, took back the southern region of Syria from rebel forces in 2018. This area of Syria has seen relative peace due to the three party “de-escalation” agreement between the US, Russia, and Jordan. Russia has facilitated the Syrian government’s return to the region demanding limited interference with rebels that engaged in Russian led talks in return for surrendering to the government. This was done to appease Israel to the West, as they were concerned that the area would become a hotbed of Iranian extremism.  This area quickly devolved into chaos and the short-lived peace ended. If we use the same matrix that we did for Rojava we can clearly see why. Daraa, after returning to government hands, saw an increase from zero violent incidents to 425 between 2018 and 2020.[28] However, it is important to note that these figures are modest due to the government’s censorship. The rule of law is a joke in this area with a rubber stamp rule of law returning to the region, in the span of just one year “local organizations, including Syrians for Truth and Justice and the Office of Daraa Martyrs, have documented at least 500 arrests in these areas since August.”[29] The economy and industry has taken a huge hit in the area “poverty is soaring, basic service infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, and the social fabric is strained to the limit.”[30] The infrastructure in Daraa is completely destroyed with hospitals, factories, and roads being  unusable. At the same time inflation is spiraling out of control and unemployment is rampant.[31]

When Daraa was under rebel control there was experimentation in independent media circulation, however following the 2018 government re-control of the region it all ceased.[32] Also, it goes without saying that all other political parties and non-ba’athist civil political groups are illegal. Daraa is a failed island of peace. One could argue that the peace was hardly there to begin with. The failure of that region in their governance is indicative of the rise of de-stabilization and violence currently underway.


Seeing the relative success in Rojava amongst a region of turmoil gives one fantastical idea for the future of the region. Could this type of governance be applicable to other conflict-ridden areas of the world? There are too many factors to control to make this statement. However, what we can say is that Rojava has been a success on its own merit. Some of the principles in their governance: ethnic freedom, religious freedom, gender equality, and decentralization could serve as good foundations for new forms of states in the region. When initially drafting this paper, I could not help but think that this form of decentralization could help deal with the rampant sectarian violence in places like Yemen, but as stated above there are simply too many factors to control. Rojava can and will serve as a shining city on the hill to all of those facing conflict in the Middle East, and will no doubt serve as influence on new governments in the future.


[1] Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth

Century. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

[2] 2Ibrahim B. Anoba, May 24, 2017, “How Foreign Aid Hurts Famine Relief in Somalia,” Foundation for Economic Education,

[3] Veerle van Doeveren (2011) Rethinking Good Governance, Public Integrity, 13:4, 301-318,

[4] Veerle van Doeveren (2011) Rethinking Good Governance

[5] Schirmer, A.E., Gallemore, C., Liu, T. et al. Mapping behaviorally relevant light pollution levels to improve  urban habitat planning. Sci Rep 9, 11925 (2019),

[6] “The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons.” Personal Website of Mutlu Civiroglu, 28 Apr. 2014, constitution-of-the-rojava-cantons/.

[7] Klimek, Peter, et al. “Statistical Detection of Systematic Election Irregularities.” PNAS, National Academy of  Sciences, 9 Oct. 2012,

[8] “High Electoral Commission Disclosed Local Administration Elections’ Outcomes.” ANHA, 5 Dec. 2017, administration-elections-outcomes/.

[9] “High Electoral Commission Disclosed Local Administration Elections’ Outcomes.” ANHA

[10] Light Pollution Map, FFFFFFFF.

[11] “The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons.” Personal Website of Mutlu Civiroglu

[12] “Uppsala Conflict Data Program.” UCDP,

[13] Solis, J., & Waggoner, P. (2020). Measuring Media Freedom: An Item Response Theory Analysis of Existing  Indicators. British Journal of Political Science, 1-20. doi:10.1017/S0007123420000101

[14] “The Constitution of the Rojava Cantons.” Personal Website of Mutlu Civiroglu

[15] Enrico De Angelis, Yazan Badran, et al. “Journalism in Rojava (I): Media Institutions, Regulations and  organizations.” OpenDemocracy, 5 Apr. 2019, and-organisations/.

[16] “Kurdish Security Forces Detain TV Journalist in Syria.” Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 May 2017,

[17] Solis, J., & Waggoner, P. (2020). Measuring Media Freedom: An Item Response Theory Analysis of Existing  Indicators. British Journal of Political Science, 1-20. doi:10.1017/S0007123420000101

[18] Solis, J., & Waggoner, P. (2020).

[19] Solis, J., & Waggoner, P. (2020).

[20] Knapp, Michael, and Joost Jongerden. “Communal Democracy: The Social Contract and Confederalism in  Rojava.” Comparative Islamic Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 87–109., doi:10.1558/cis.29642.

[21] “KNC Leader Arrested after Increasing Tensions between Rival Kurdish Parties in Syria.” ARA News, 14 Aug. 2016, rival-kurdish-parties-syria/.

[22] “Turkey’s Syria Offensive Explained in Four Maps.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2019,

[23]  “Damning Evidence of War Crimes by Turkish Forces and Allies in Syria.” Amnesty International, 2019, by-turkish-forces-and-their-allies/.

[24] Yildiz, Guney. “The US Pushes for Kurdish Unity in Syria with Turkish Hostility and Future Syria Talks in Mind.”  Middle East Institute, 2020, future-syria-talks-mind.

[25] Cemgil, Can, and Clemens Hoffmann. “The ‘Rojava Revolution’ in Syrian Kurdistan: A Model of Development for  the Middle East?” IDS Bulletin, 2019, _for_the_Middle_East. pg. 65

[26] Kakee, Miran. “Democratic Confederalist Approaches to Addressing …” Taylor and Francis Online, 2018,, Pg 31

[27] Consensus Is Key: New Justice System in Rojava. 2017,

[28] Al-Jabassini, Abdullah. “Festering Grievances and the Return to Arms in Southern Syria.” European University  Institute , 2020, %20Arms%20in%20Southern%20Syria-final.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

[29] Syria: Detention, Harassment in Retaken Areas, 21 May 2019,

[30] “Syrians Still Living on ‘Razor Edge’ as UN Launches $8.8 Billion Dollar Appeal | | UN News.” United Nations,  United Nations, 2019,

[31] Mroue, Bassem. “Where Syria Uprising Began 10 Years Ago, Dissent Still Rife.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 17  Mar. 2021,


[32] Baladi, Enab. “Decline in Press Media in Daraa Due to Internet, Re-Control of Syrian Regime, and Coronavirus.”,  29 Aug. 2020, re-control-of-syrian-regime-and-coronavirus/.