Across an empty and arid plain, south of a town in eastern Syria called Tell Brak, there is a long berm marking the front line of the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. A levee of gravel about 20 feet high was raised by excavators operated by men and women who were often killed by distant Islamic State snipers. Every few hundred feet, there is a sentry point or dugout for a platoon of the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., that holds the position.
Along this stark boundary, the Kurds are there not only to fight against the Islamic State, but also to defend a precious experiment in direct democracy. In Rojava, the Kurdish name for this region of eastern Syria, a new form of self-government is being built from the ground up.
After the authority of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapsed at the start of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the Kurds took advantage of the vacuum to set up government without a state. There is no top-down authority, even within the military. One Y.P.G. commander gently corrected me when I addressed him as “general.”
“We have no ranks,” he said — and sure enough, his uniform bore no insignia of seniority. “We are a team.”
Alongside the men of the Y.P.G., fighters from the Women’s Protection Units, or Y.P.J., also fight at this front. Behind the lines, too, women are prominent in the forums in villages and towns that are part of Rojava’s democratic experiment.
Most of Syria has broken up along ethnic lines. But in Rojava, members of the Arab and Assyrian minorities are deliberately included.
This struck me when I met the leadership of one canton. Unthinkingly, I addressed the oldest, most senior-looking sheikh, a leader of a local Arab tribe. Without speaking, he turned to the young Kurdish woman beside him, and she spoke to him in Arabic — as a courtesy to him and other Arab participants.
Self-government in Rojava means that, as much as possible, decisions are made at the local, communal level. In one village, women and men sat separately, reflecting local tradition. Like most political meetings, it was lengthy and sometimes boring, with the usual long-winded speeches (but not all from men). But anyone could speak, without distinction, and young and old alike stood up to debate jobs, medical services, even the menace of kids riding their bikes too fast around the village.
For a former diplomat like me, I found it confusing: I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none; there were just groups. There was none of that stifling obedience to the party, or the obsequious deference to the “big man” — a form of government all too evident just across the borders, in Turkey to the north, and the Kurdish regional government of Iraq to the south. The confident assertiveness of young people was striking.
Vestiges of the Syrian state remain in the form of two small, isolated bases in the locality, but there are no patrols or army presence outside them. The Kurds maintain an uneasy informal truce with the Assad regime, but they emphatically want an end to the dictatorship, and believe that their form of inclusive, decentralized democracy can provide a model for the whole of Syria, and beyond.
Their democratic system is a work in progress and not without flaws. Some human rights organizations have alleged political intimidation and, in a few cases, the expulsion of Arabs suspected of collaboration with the Islamic State. A few young people I met complained about being conscripted into the Y.P.G.
But the truth is that the Kurdish forces are stretched thin. At a cemetery in Qamishli for those killed in the war, there are hundreds of graves, many freshly dug. The Y.P.G. has successfully pushed the Islamic State fighters back across a large swath of territory, from the northern border town of Kobani along a line that runs southeast until it meets the border with Iraq.
Overhead, American and coalition aircraft conduct airstrikes against Islamic State positions, but as in any war, it is foot soldiers who must take the ground — and suffer the losses. Apart from these sporadic airstrikes, the Kurds have no international support. On the contrary, their efforts are actively undermined by their neighbors, both allies of the West, to the north and south.
The Kurdish militias are critical to the fight against the Islamic State, or Daesh, as the Kurds prefer to call the jihadist movement. So it was shocking to see that front-line fighters carried only aging light weapons: Kalashnikovs and the occasional Russian-made sniper rifle. For several miles of the front, I saw very few machine guns, let alone heavier weapons like mortars, anti-tank missiles or armored vehicles — matériel that has been generously provided to the Kurdish pesh merga fighting Daesh in Iraq.
Without protest from the United States or its allies, Turkey has prohibited all movement across its border into Kurdish-controlled Syria and has effectively blocked the Y.P.G.’s advance westward by declaring a so-called safe zone west of Kobani. To the south, in Iraq, the Kurdistan regional government sees the Y.P.G. as a political rival and blocks supplies. The Y.P.G. is often forced to scavenge arms and ammunition from its defeated enemies.
Humanitarian and reconstruction supplies are severely constrained, too, despite the urgent need in the many towns that have been devastated and depopulated.
These challenges make the Kurds’ attempt to create a government of the people, by the people, in Rojava only more vital and valuable. The Mesopotamian “ziggurat” model of a centralized state has been a catastrophe for Syria and Iraq in recent decades, as one organizer explained to me.
The Kurds are alive to the paradox that this experiment in “government by the people” has become possible only amid the violent rupture of war. But there is a darker irony, too.
Democracy was supposed to be the point of Western intervention in the Middle East. But in Rojava, where it is cherished and has prospered despite the most vicious of opponents, this brave experiment is being quietly starved while the supposed champions of democracy stand by.
Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and the author of The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century, is working on a forthcoming documentary film, The Accidental Anarchist.