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  • noahchonlee

What I Learned in Syria and Why I Believe In D/acc

Updated: Jun 3


Hanging out with random kids we met in the park


In November of 2023, I and my filmmaker friend Rachel Shu traveled through the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).


There, we met the women who are leading a revolution for democracy, feminism, and ethnic and religious pluralism. They face the threat of assassination on a daily basis, yet continue their work. This is the story of how a group of activists in Syria grew a parallel society to 5 million people, fought ISIS and won, and became the most stable and wealthy place in Syria that more of the population is trying to move into. This is also a story of why "d/acc" or "decentralization accelerated" matters.


Origins of the Rojava Revolution


During the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, countries across the Middle East and North Africa had uprisings in favor of democracy that often resulteed in zero sum struggles to overthrow the existing central government and replace it with a new group that was just as bad as the last one. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries in the primarily Kurdish region of northeastern Syria tried something else. A few decades prior, a man named Abdullah Öcalan led a Kurdish nationalist political party and fought against the Turks for the mission of forming an independent state of Kurdistan. In 1999, he was captured in Nairobi by a joint operation by the Turkish National Intelligence Agency and the CIA. Turkey imprisoned him on Imrali island where he was the sole prisoner with over one hundred guards. They dedicated an entire island to imprison this man, and he remains there today (though with more prisoners.) Why? Because the Kurds are split between eastern Turkey (Bakur), western Iraq (Rojhilat), western Iran (Basur), and Syria (Rojava, which means "west" in the Kurdish language). Arab, Turkish, and Persian nationalist governments of all four states violently repress the Kurds in fear of separatists gaining recognition and breaking away and taking the oil in their land with them.



Images on the wall of the house we stayed in where they receive diplomats


In prison, Öcalan read Murray Bookchin's writings on Libertarian Municipalism and incorporated aspects of that and his prior Marxist beliefs to form the ideology of democratic confederalism. Libertarian municipalism empowers cities to make their own operational decisions instead of being coerced by a central government.

In other words, it was a merger of libertarian (individual liberty) and socialist (egalitarianism) ideals by bringing power away from either the libertarian individual power or socialist central planning and instead placed authority into the hands of local communities. Öcalan shifted his call to the Kurdish people and the world to focus on building their own local institutions instead of trying to fight violently for control of the state. Or as the motto of the Startup Societies Network states, "don't argue, build." Or in this case, "don't wage war, care for your neighbors." A major focus in his writing focused on the empowerment of women and the inclusion of all ethnicities and religions in participatory governance.


Inspired by his writing, groups in Syria organized underground meetings for a decade planning out how to implement this social revolution. Many were imprisoned and tortured by the Assad regime, but the women's organization of "Kongra Star" continued to successfully grow as they planned out a restructuring of society.


Meet the leaders of Kongra Star who organized those underground meetings


So in 2010-2012 when the Arab Spring broke out, they were ready. While the world around them exploded into violent revolution, they implemented their plan to start a social revolution.


This parallel society grew as more people opted into this system as it became the wealthiest and most stable region despite being surrounded by oppressive nationalist regimes. If more of these parallel societies grew within existing nation states, perhaps it can be additive rather than zero sum because it does not struggle to control a single government. Instead, it could make governance easier for the central government which does not have the resources to deal with so many local nuances.

First Days

At the invite of Nourshan Husein the spokeswoman of the Civil Diplomacy Center of North and East Syria, I and Rachel crossed the border at Iraqi Kurdistan and arrived in the city of Qamishli which has become a de facto capital for the movement.

Nourshan, Rachel, and I at the Civil Diplomacy Center


In the Civil Diplomacy Center office I showed the staff how to embed writings of Öcalan into an AI chatbot and prompt engineer it to speak like him and respond in any language. It was an intriguing idea to use this as a whatsapp bot that people in Turkey and Syria could converse with so they have a different source of information than Turkish propaganda which paints AANES as a bunch of terrorists.



We stayed in Amouda, a town next to Qamishli. Guards were stationed by our house at all times for protection for whenever we were there but we wandered around freely. On an evening run we met some kids in the neighborhood who invited us to drink some tea with their families.



And here is the view and a puppy we found on top of a restaurant.


Culture


You could see the multi-ethnic and religious pluralism even on the license plates which have three languages: Aramaic/Syriac (the language that Jesus/Yeshua spoke), Arabic, and Kurdish



We also participated in a march protesting violence against women. They shouted in a way that sounds similar to some Native American war cries. That undulating cry is a way of expressing emotion, oftentimes mourning loved ones who have been martyred. A common chant is "Jin, Jiyan, Azadi" meaning "women, life, freedom" which has also become a rallying motto for the women's rights movement in Iran in Farsi as "Zan, Zendegi, Azadi"



Economy


We found that exchanges for local currencies and USD were plentiful and inflation is insane. I wondered if we could teach the exchanges to accept crypto and hand people cash in order to make international transfers easier. Sanctions prevent businesses from conducting commerce with people in Syria and the unfriendly governments surrounding them including the Syrian, Turkish, and Iraqi governments make physical trade extremely difficult. However, there are opportunities for online work. My first time ever using crypto was to send USDT to my virtual assistant in a Turkish occupied region in Syria because it was the only way I had to pay him and later the only way to support his family after they lost their home in the earthquakes. Syria seems like a place that needs crypto because it epitomizes exactly why it was created: centralized institutions should not be able to restrict the right of individuals and businesses to conduct commerce. This is why decentralization in finance matters.



Despite being the wealthiest area in Syria with wages of $70-$80 per month (2x the usual wage in the regions controlled by the Assad regime), people can generally only afford to eat meat once a week and we saw families and young kids living in half built or half destroyed concrete structures.



Much of the wealth comes from the autonomous administration redistributing revenue from oil drilling. I wonder if this is sustainable or if the leaders of the moment in the administration happen to be trustworthy rather than corrupt. I wonder if the administration's bottom up approach of representation is an inherently well designed system in terms of incentives and accountability or if this mainly the result of the cultural ethos and values of the movement.



The wealth is disbursed through distribution of bread and fuel for heating for all commune members and through the administration employing a significant portion of the population as teachers, Kongra star accountants, filmmakers, doctors, etc. Reliable data is incredibly difficult to find but colloquially people told us that most families have someone employed by the administration. The wages do vary and doctors will make more such as $300 per month. We met a doctor who works usual hours in the morning in his administration job at a public hospital and later in the day also works his own private practice.


The population is largely agricultural and pastoral. On our drive from Qamishli to Raqqa we stopped by this convenience store with people herding their goats passing by.



Despite relying heavily on oil revenue and sanctions preventing many other industries to grow, I was surprised to see many solar arrays on the drives between towns. In the midst of all the chaos, the NES considers climate to be a priority and has also been leading a massive program planting trees.




Raqqa


Back in 2014 as the Syrian Civil War escalated, ISIS took over the city of Raqqa in northeastern Syria and declared it the capital of their caliphate. As we drove by a roundabout downtown, one of our interpretors told us about how she would see heads mounted on the spiked ends of the fence surrounding the roundabout. You can still see bullet holes and destroyed buildings everywhere.



As the world looked on in terror, the people in Rojava gathered in their local communities and assembled militias of men and women to fight for their freedom. They became the most successful force in the world at combatting ISIS and through brutal years of bloodshed they liberated Raqqa on October 17, 2017.



Having expanded to primarily Arab regions around Raqqa, the leaders of the Rojava revolution wished to find a more inclusive terminology rather than using the Kurdish word "Rojava."


On Sep 6, 2018 they declared the entire region to be named the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.


They are rebuilding incredibly fast and even founded a new university in Raqqa which now has 340 students.


With the co-chairs of Al-Sharq University


The co-chairs informed us of how difficult it is to even obtain basic items like books through the borders. Despite this, they have grown the university. On my visit, I taught an introductory class on AI tools to a hall full of around 100 staff and students.


Everyone was incredibly nice and the students kept asking to take selfies with us for some reason. Talking with the CS students who could be making websites for people around the world, it made me think again of the need for over the counter crypto to cash exchanges. Despite crypto being illegal in the eyes of the Assad regime, that's the least of their concerns and they do not have the strength to invade AANES and risk intervention from the Americans.

With some of the students of Al-Sharq University


One evening we went down to the banks of the Euphrates river. The riverside was covered with heaps of rubble removed from the city for as far as the eye could see.



A local friend played some Kurdish and Arabic songs from a bluetooth speaker and invited us to dance. We held hands as a group and laughed together as we learned the steps to traditional dances. We sang classic American songs as we drove out.


The Democratic Confederalist Model



Back in Qamishlo, we were honored to meet with Perwin Youssef who has supported the movement since the beginning in a variety of roles:

The movement began with encouraging neighbors to assemble into communes. She helped establish many of the first ones. Each commune elects co-chairs, one of whom is a man and one of whom is a woman. Each co-chair has a deputy assisting them. There is a focus on having the co-chairs and deputies be of different ethnicities and religions.


The communes would also elect members to 10 committees:

Local administration

Interior

Social affairs and labor

Women

Education

Economy and Agriculture

Finance

Culture and Art

Health and Environment

Youth and Sport


It was impossible to find clear numbers on communes, but we asked various individuals about their own such as the co-chair of Al-sharq whose commune consists of 180 families and meets around once a month. Members will generally consist of neighbors who live on the same street or neighborhood.


As the movement grew, concentric levels were established representing more people.


Commune co-chairs attend meetings of the city council City council co-chairs attend the meetings of the canton council Canton co-chairs join in meetings of the regional administration


Every level also has committees (or "commissions" at the regional level) which are often the same ten and thus the structure at each level reflects how the commune of neighbors is organized.


I wish I knew the average size of each commune and demographics in terms of age, the average attendance of the commune meetings, and how many communes are within a city and how many cities within a canton, but I only have anecdotes and was unable to find reliable stats.

There are 7 cantons, though Afrin is occupied in its entirety by Turkey.



In her career, Ms. Perwin was:

Co-chair of the council of Derik city Member of the preparatory committee drafting up the Social Contract (the constitution) of Rojava in 2013 Legislative council of Jazeera canton Social affairs commission of Qamishli city Co-chair of Qamishli city Now organizing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which is the leading political party in the region


The City Council


We also interviewed Hori Shamdeen, the current co-chair of Qamishli.



Ms. Shamdeen is co-chair of the largest city in the Jazeera canton which contains five city councils.


Though Ms. Shamdeen holds an extremely high level position, she still participates in the proceedings of her own local commune as an attendee without any particular role other than member. She told us this is common. She told us that co-chairs and committee members at the highest levels stay involved with their local commune though they do not participate in the middle layers due to time constraints.


Though someone will not be a co-chair of multiple levels at once, for committee members of higher levels they will continue to simultaneously hold their position in the same committee of their local commune in order to not lose sight of what the experience is like at a local level.


She also informed us that a committee of 156 members representing many civil, political, and humanitarian groups and experts in law are working on ratifying a new draft of the social contract. They were in process of traveling across NES conducting 300 meetings with committee members and various groups explaining the articles and listening to feedback. They use the phrase "social contract" rather than "constitution" because the objective is that everyone is a participant in ratifying this. She told us that "we could establish a state government in ten days if we wanted, but we want all people and components to participate rather than a top down government."



The Commune Assembly


Next, we attended a commune assembly. There, I met Bilal Mohammad who works in the public service committee. His daughter Emina was killed in a suicide bombing while working in a local council office and the commune is named after her. He told me that he continues in his role in the commune as a volunteer because it is continuing her work.



This commune meets every month and anyone may attend as each committee reads a report of their activities and then hands the report to the co-chairs. There is a time to hear questions, concerns, and suggestions from the people present.


Here you can see Mr. Bilal reading his report. Every commission report ended by the speaker saying, "we wish for freedom for Öcalan and remember the martyrs."


The meeting took place between 1040am to 1108am

As well as the commune assembly, they also hold a monthly meeting for leaders of the committees to coordinate and each committee will have its own meetings for its team members.


After the meeting, Mr. Bilal took his seat to distribute vouchers for fuel and bread.


For the distribution of diesel for heat and cooking gas, he registers names of people living in the neighborhood then takes this list to the department of fuel. The department informs the city council who sends the vouchers to him. Every family has a card with a qr code. When the drivers arrive to distribute the fuel they check the QR code (there is no ID check) and hand the fuel allocation to the household.



Washokani Refugee Camp

One of the most remarkable experiences for me was visiting the Washokani refugee camp (or "internally displaced" camp) where residents continue to practice their system of communes and localized participatory governance. After losing everything, mostly due to Turkey invading and occupying Afrin, they did not give up.


The camp is run by the refugees themselves.


Here is one of the classrooms



My circus background returned to me as we made some balloon animals and juggled :)




One of the greatest examples to me of the spirit of the area was talking with Baghdad, a young lady learning English, and her inviting me to meet her family who offered me tea and food. Her father explained, "as Arabs, this is our culture. We welcome guests and provide for them." I am still in contact with Baghdad on Whatsapp and if anyone would like to message with her let me know as I imagine she would love the opportunity to practice English.




Conclusion


Though assassinations and bombings by ISIS sleeper cells are becoming less frequent, the people of North and East Syria now face different threats. This pluralist, egalitarian movement is surrounded by governments controlled by "strongman" dictators with very different values.



Outspoken leaders in the movement are targeted by Turkish drone strikes which use advanced recognition systems to target specific individuals. One of our meetings with Kongra Star to discuss the classes they taught on preventing violence against women was cancelled when someone was killed by a drone strike as they were driving to a nearby town.



The real message of the Rojava Revolution which led to the autonomous administration I think is this: we do not need to wait and suffer silently as the people in power try to amass more centralized control. We can take action and build better societies right where we are that empower local communities in a decentralized ecosystem coordinating for the rights that all people ought to have.



Based on my experiences in the Amazon Jungle, there are many similarities in the democratic confederalism of AANES and the way that indigenous communities in the Americas organize. They both organize into local villages who elect presidents who continue their participation in their locality while also working their way up concentric levels of councils. In fact, the system of states for the USA is based on one of these decentralized governance systems: the Haudenosaunee (AKA "Iroquois") Confederation. The adoption of that system resulted in a wave of democracy spreading across the earth and replacing dictatorships as the new dominant form of government as of 2002 according to Our World in Data. In other words, we have an example of how democracy and decentralized, participatory governance helped transform the world in the past and continues to grow as a movement. In the tech world, I would consider this to be encapsulated in the "d/acc" movement that stands for "decentralization/democracy accelerated."


The world is making progress. However, there is a resurgence in dictatorships over the last decade. In 2022, dictatorships have once again become a more common form of government than true democracy.


I believe we need to look at viable examples of decentralized, participatory democracies to address this.

We have the Haudenosaunee system inspiring the USA as an example in the past.

We have AANES creating a better society out of a difficult struggle as an example in the present. What if we could create a forward looking example that shows the whole world that this is a viable future for humanity?


Why I Care About D/acc


This is why I care about the decentralization accelerated movement or "d/acc"


Because "strongman" leaders should not be able to abuse people without accountability


Because we need to have our own small communities where we support one another so that we are not alone in our struggles


Because smaller groups may operate like startups and adapt and iterate and improve far faster as we share learnings with one another in a network of peers. We may experiment and build better institutions, tools, lifestyles, and forms of socio-cultural organization.


Because we do not need to wait and suffer silently. We can build better lives for our communities today. Because these kids I made balloon animals with have a school to attend thanks to people in the refugee camp following this decentralized model where communities come together to take care of one another and build better institutions. This is why I now work with tech communities assembling into "pop up villages" of Dunbar sized groups (100-200 people) who colive and cowork together for 2-6 weeks as we build meaningful projects and co-create a shared schedule of classes, workshops, and social and health activities.

What Do We Do Now?

This Fall I am inviting various communities to join in a "pop up city" of multiple villages as neighbors who cross-coordinate in a confederation: The Archipelago. I intend to invite my friends leading indigenous communities in the jungle and representatives from AANES to call into this gathering so we may connect directly. My dream is that we create a mutual exchange where we learn from them as some of the most brilliant social technicians as they learn from us about digital technology.


Perhaps we will demonstrate a new model for the world that shows us a way to scale up society by building up strong local communities who we stay connected with as we grow a movement through concentric levels of democratic confederalism. I prefer this future for my loved ones rather than handing over power to abusive dictators. If you are interested to hear about the results of this, feel free to subscribe to this blog and see nsforum.org where we are welcoming people to add articles on network societies. You may also find the Civil Diplomacy Center on X and Facebook


Many thanks to Ashish Kothari of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives for helping to connect us with Nourshan and receive the border crossing permissions.


A massive thank you to our interpretors and guides (not named for their safety) and to Nourshan for all her work helping us with the entire trip from start to finish. We intend to produce videos for them using the footage we took.



2 Comments


Guest
Mar 16

Which oil are you talking about in Turkey?!!! There is no oil in Turkey LOL!

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Guest
Mar 16

I want to make a quick reminder.


Here are just two attacks claimed by the PKK [which is a terrorist organisation established by Abdullah Ocalan that killed many civilians in Turkey]: 1) a group of militants attacked the official car of Kozluk mayor (Batman province), killing 22-YEAR-OLD MUSIC TEACHER, a woman, Aybüke Şenay Yalçın, who was walking by. 2) Necmettin Yılmaz, A PRIMARY SCHOOL TEACHER, was abducted while driving his car which was found BURNED [what a cruelty] in Tunceli province. The PKK announced that Yılmaz was "penalised" for collaborating with Turkish security forces. His body was found in a nearby river on 12 July. (Source: https://webarchive.archive.unhcr.org/20191103093529/https://www.refworld.org/publisher,ICG,,,5971ab3f4,0.html) PKK has been recognized by the USA (https://tr.usembassy.gov/state-department-maintains-foreign-terrorist-organization-fto-designation-of-the-kurdistan-workers-party-pkk/) and EU (https://www.eeas.europa.eu/node/8573_en) as a terrorist organization. Here…

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