Rojava, officially named as Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, is a de facto autonomous region in Syria. The autonomous region consists of 4 regions: Afrin, Shahba, Kobani and Jazira. Kurdish Afrin is currently occupied by Turkey and its proxies. The status of some DFNS-controlled areas such as Raqqa, Tabqa and eastern Deir ez-Zor is unclear.
Autonomous Rojava started to take shape in 2012, as a major aspect of the progressing Kurdish struggle. Rojava’s capital is Qamîşlo (Qamishli) and largest city is Hasakah.
Although DFNS administration has some foreign relations at some level, so far no state recognized DFNS as an autonomous region.
Borders and Geography
Rojava extends from Iraqi border to Hatay Province. It borders Iraqi Kurdistan to the east, Iraq to the southeast, Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) to the north, Hatay to the west and the rest of Syria to the south.
Political borders of Rojava are not certain since the conflicts and negotiations are ongoing.
Rojava is the least mountainous part of Kurdistan. Afrin region which is under Turkish occupation has a relatively mountainous terrain named as Kurd Mountains. Other parts of Rojava have are flat except the Mount Kezwan (Mount Abdulaziz) and small western extensions of Mount Sinjar (Shingal, Iraqi Kurdistan).
Rojava has major dams along the rivers of Euphrates and Khabur.
Northern Syria has a diverse population. It is more multiethnic and multireligious in comparison to the rest of Syria. Due to the arrival of refugees & IDPs from various parts of Syria, the region’s population has reached to ca. 4.6 million (nearly doubled).
Ethnicities and Languages
Largest ethnic groups are Kurds and Arabs. There are also Turkmen, Caucasian (predominantly Chechen), Syriac-Assyrian, Armenian and Dom minorities.
According to Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research executive at the University of Lyon, Kurds make up 60% of the population in Kurdish controlled territory. The vast majority of Syrian Kurds speak Kurmanji dialect. There are also linguistically Arabized Kurds in Shahba, Idlib (Salqin for instance) and Northern Latakia countryside. In addition to Arabic speaking ones, some Kurds in North Aleppo near Turkish border speak Turkish rather than Kurdish. Specifically in the border town of al-Rai and villages such as Dudyan, Harjala, Hadabat etc. This area is the birthplace of Jabhat al Akrad (Kurdish Front), a Kurdish democratic armed group.
Arabs are the second largest ethnicity. Mansur Selum, an ethnic Arab is the co-president of DFNS alongside with alongside with his Kurdish female fellow co-chair Hediya Yousef. Arab community is builded on tribal structure. Shammar tribe which has a leading role in Jazira Region is the most crowded clan in Rojava.
Syriac-Assyrian Christians are concentrated in Jazira Region. Qamishlo and Hasakah has sizable Christian minorities. Plenty of villages along the Khabur Valley are populated by Assyrians who were resettled there by the French in 1930s.
Armenians can be found in every part of Rojava although their number is small. In addition to the Armenian and Arabic, most of the Armenians can speak Kurdish as well. Aram Tigran (1934-2009), an ethnic Armenian musician born in Qamishlo, song mostly in Kurdish and had a great contribution to Kurdish culture.
There are several Turkmen villages in Euphrates Region and a small Chechen minority in Serekaniye, Jazira.
Dom people who adopted Kurdish language spread throughout Rojava. Before Turkey’s illegal occupation, Dom minority had representatives in Afrin’s local council.
Kurdish, Arabic and Aramaic are official languages in DFNS.
Syrian Arab Republic implemented Arabization campaigns in different names. Arab Belt was a project by the Syrian Baath Regime to change the demographic balance of Northern Hasakah in favor of the Arabs.
Baath regime also commited demographic engineering under the pretext of “Land Refom”. In northern and northeastern Syria, many agricultural lands were taken from Kurdish landlords and distributed to the landless Bedouin Arabs.
Another Arabization campaign is being conducted by Turkey the neighbouring country. Turkey’s invasion of Afrin and Shahba resulted in the mass exodus of the Kurds. Emptied Kurdish towns and villages are being colonized by the Arabs from various parts of Syria and Turkmen from Homs and Tal Afar(Iraq).
Majority of the Kurds and all of Arabs are Sunni Muslims. Kurdish Muslim community is much more secular than Arabs.
In Jazira region, there are significant minorities of Armenian and Syriac-Assyrian Christians. Jazira’s Yazidi minority lives in Serekaniye and surrounding villages. Yezidi villages in this area were attacked by the FSA-ISIS coalition in 2013. The region has been safe since the Kurdish YPG expelled the jihadi forces.
Euphrates Region is religiously most homogeneous part of DFNS. It’s population is entirely Sunni Muslim except several Armenian families.
Afrin used to be religiously diverse and peaceful until Turkey’s illegal invasion. Together with the secular Muslim majority, there were Alevis, Yezidis, Christians, Zoroastrians and Druze IDPs from Idlib. In fear of persecution, large majority of Afrin’s citizens -especially religious minorities- left everything behind. Those who stayed in their homes faced atrocities at the hand of Jihadis. Beheadings, rapes, lootings, forced conversions…
Rojava’s an agriculture based economy. Major products are grain in Jazira, pistachio in Euphrates Region and olive in Afrin. Before Turkish invasion, Afrin used to export olive-products such as olive oil, soap etc.
Another income source is petroleum. DFNS controls 60% of Syria’s oil & gas reserves.
DFNS has a lot of archeological sites like Washookani, Tel Tamr, Tel Khalaf, Tabqa, Tishreen, Arpad. They are not visited although these areas are secure.
1. Ottawa Citizen
2. Fabrice Balanche, Washington Institute
3. Declaration by the Kurdish Front, YouTube
4. Middle East Eye
5. Joseph, 2000, P.201
6. HRW, October 1996, Vol. 8, No. 4 (E)
8. Washington Examiner
10. The Independent
11. Report by the Free Burma Rangers