Politics of space between revolution and war



Benas Gerdziunas

An unknown entity rose out of the war in Syria – Rojava. As the world’s attention fixated on the Kurds’ fight against ISIS, their revolution began to restructure society according to democratic confederalist ideals. The built environment, therefore, had to follow suite.

Less than five years ago, ISIS controlled around half of all Syrian territory, while horror stories of their rise and reign echoed around the world. After the defeat of ISIS in 2019 in an area of northern Syria known to Kurds as Rojava (meaning West), the territory was fully controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council.

Rojava announced its autonomy soon after the breakout of the Syrian civil war in 2011. For years, Kurds in the region have striven to implement utopian goals of direct democracy, so that the rule would lie in the hands of the citizen-led communes.

The communes that formed the backbone of the self-governing structure in Rojava in 2011 recall those of the early Soviet era in 1917 Russia, parts of 19th century Paris, or revolutionary Spanish communes in the 1930s.

The communes in most, if not all, of these historic cases attempted to usurp the power from the centrist powers at the top, and move the decision-making to the workplace, the council, and/or the citizen-delegate level, if summarised simplistically. These self-organisation structures had to become a counterweight to totalitarian regimes of any colour, and open the path to direct democracy, according to Abdullah Öcalan, Rojava’s ideologue.

Were these communes the physical manifestation of this political thinking, and to what extent did they succeed? Meanwhile, what role can physical space have in a revolutionary push to reshape society, or construct a political capital, and ultimately, a state? And finally, how can the built environment help post-traumatic healing, or help further political ideals?