Currently, North and East Syria (NES) faces enormous economic difficulties: rampant inflation, a partial embargo, war and the draining of resources by occupying Turkish forces in Sere Kaniye, Tel Abyad and Afrin. In this crisis context, NES is developing an economic model which aims at self-sufficiency and sustainability. The economic program of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) presents itself as an alternative to capitalist economies. Its aim is to establish a democratic social economy, based on cooperatives, which moves society towards a more communal economy.

What defines a cooperative, as compared to a privately owned business, is that it is owned by those who work in it. Cooperatives seek profit, but distribute it among the members (as they are, ideally, the owners) or use it to invest in future activities. In the case of NES, cooperatives also directly cover the needs of the local population, without commercializing their produce, and support civil organizations.

Women are the leaders of the construction of a society-focused economy, they build up the cooperatives. Cooperatives are, alongside communes, seen as the second pillar of the democratic Administration.

Karker, co-chair of the Cooperatives Bureau of Heseke

When regions of what is now NES gained autonomy from the Assad government in 2012, it inherited an economy built on agricultural monocultures. Wheat fields dominated the eastern Jazira region, and olive trees the western region of Afrin. The Assad government put little effort into developing any industry in NES – not even mills to grind the wheat – as the only economic role given to NES was to provide raw materials to the rest of the country. A majority of the cultivated land was owned by the Syrian government, and then taken over by the autonomous governing structures now known as the AANES. According to the grassroots democratic principles of the AANES, parts of this arable land was handed over to local communes who were in charge of setting up cooperatives in order to cultivate the land, diversify crops and produce, and prioritize new forms of production in order to cover the needs of the local population. This economic legacy allowed the development of agricultural cooperatives, which today make up the bulk of NES’ cooperatives. But cooperatives have also developed in other economic spheres: mostly bakeries but also textiles, dairy production, small manufacturing, and even a salt mine.

In accordance with the leading role of the women’s liberation struggle in the political project of AANES, women’s cooperatives are promoted by the cooperative bureaus which exist in every region. They are also promoted by Aboriya Jin, the economy branch of Kongra Star, the umbrella organization of the women’s movement in NES. These cooperatives are founded to create employment opportunities for women and to support their economic independence, in the framework of collective economy.

The diverse landscape of cooperatives in NES

Cooperatives in NES vary in terms of size and field of activity, but also by type. Some are worker cooperatives, which produce a good or provide a service and gain a profit to be distributed among members. Others are service cooperatives, which are a special type of consumption cooperative: financial capital is gathered by members in order to set up a service for the community, which is directly provided without being commercialized. This is most commonly done in order to purchase a diesel-powered electricity generator for a neighborhood or village, which can provide electricity when the general electricity is out.

Due to the decentralized political system of the AANES, conducting a comprehensive assessment of the existing cooperatives in NES is challenging. No central body collects information on all the types of cooperative across all of NES. Cooperatives are developed on the most local level, the communes, with the support of different bodies: the Cooperatives Bureau of each canton or region, the economy committees of local Women’s Councils, and Aboriya Jin. Furthermore, military incursions and attacks by the Turkish state keep overrunning a system that is still in its very infancy. The territory between Sere Kaniye and Tal Abyad was some of NES’ richest arable land, and also housed the region’s highest concentration of agricultural cooperatives. Over 12,000 hectares were in use by agricultural cooperatives, with other cooperatives developing related to their activities. Most of these cooperatives have been destroyed, abandoned or looted after the invasion and occupation in October 2019 (described in more detail below).

Nonetheless, by looking on the regional level and at the work of the women’s economy bodies, we can get a picture of the extent of the cooperative economy in NES. The Jazira region – one of the seven official regions of NES – is home to the greatest number and variety of cooperatives in AANES in 2020. This is due to the fact that the AANES system has been established in Jazira for longer than in other regions of NES, and that large swathes of Jazira are arable land.

Cooperative Bureaus in Jazira support around 40 worker’s cooperatives across both of the region’s cantons, Qamishlo and Heseke. One cooperative typically incorporates between 5 and 10 families. 23 are located in Qamishlo Canton, out of which 13 are agricultural cooperatives, cultivating 874 hectares of land. The other cooperatives primarily work in manufacturing and produce clothes or offer sewing services. The situation varies strongly from region to region: the Euphrates region, for example, has far less cooperatives than Jaziria.

As for the women’s worker cooperatives established by Aboriya Jin, there are over 50 across all of NES. 32 of them are agricultural cooperatives (18 of which are located in the Jazira region alone). The other cooperatives are bakeries, clothing shops, restaurants or workshops producing conserves. Approximately 1500 women work in these cooperatives, of whom around 1000 work in agricultural cooperatives.

Case study: Umceren cooperative, Heseke countryside

The Umceren cooperative includes 54 members from across 7 villages and 54 members. The members are Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian Christian, with equal participation of men and women. The cooperative works in several fields. It cultivates wheat and vegetables on several hectares of land, which partly belong to the AANES, and are partly the property of members of the cooperative. The produce is sold on the market. Apart from agriculture, the cooperative’s most important project is the construction of a school for the village children. Access to education is difficult for the villagers as the closest school is three to four kilometers away. In autumn and winter, when rain floods the streets with mud, driving such distances becomes complicated. With the support of the Heseke Cooperatives Bureau, the cooperative has kept construction costs low by using local materials and relying on the labor of its members. A school-bus will collect children from across eight villages to drive them to school, while the school should also host activities and education programs for adults. Another problem the cooperative wants to solve is poor electricity and water provision. Two villages have no access to electricity at all so the cooperative is gathering funds to organize a generator.

The Kelbiç bricks used for the construction of the Umceren school are made out of mud and straw and then put to dry in the sun.

How do cooperatives work in NES?

How do cooperatives get started?

To get cooperatives started, the Cooperatives Bureau and Aboriya Jin get in touch with local communes, identify the needs of the commune and introduce them to the principle of cooperatives through training sessions. The Cooperatives Bureau has started to play a more proactive role in setting up cooperatives, after recognizing that the cooperatives model was frequently used as a form of investment, rather than as a way of developing a local and communal economy. Many families would financially contribute to get a cooperative started in the first place. But rather than getting further involved with the work or development of the cooperative, they would simply collect the profits (which ended up being very small for everyone involved, since the number of “investors” was too high, meaning that in some cooperatives members only collected the equivalent of $1 or so every month).

To prevent such misuses of the cooperative model, regional Cooperatives Bureaus and Aboriya Jin now take the initiative to identify the needs of local residents and set up cooperative projects accordingly, focusing on integrating the poorest households from a commune, those wounded in the war against ISIS or Turkey, or those who have lost a family member.

The kind of support a cooperative receives to start its activity varies. They are generally provided with, or get help acquiring, the tools and products needed to begin their chosen activity. For an agricultural cooperative this could be land and seeds. The members joining the cooperative collect money to start their activity, and can receive up to 25% of the initial cost from the Cooperatives Bureau. Women’s cooperatives which start their activity with the help of Aboriya Jin have 100% of initial costs covered by Aboriya Jin, according to the needs of the project. The Cooperatives Bureaus and Aboriya Jin also offer training and provide contacts to those cooperatives who are looking for trading partners. Beyond professional skills and economic aspects of cooperatives, educations aim at transmitting the political and social values of the cooperative endeavour.

Education programs are necessary for society, in particular for our work, for cooperatives. Our society lost the strength of its social ties, and therefore it is necessary to change mentalities and to revive communal life. In cooperatives, we work together. It is a way of building up the unity of the people.

Mediya, Steering Committee of the Qamishlo Cooperatives Bureau
Mediya, Steering Committee of the Qamishlo Cooperatives Bureau

How do the cooperatives handle market competition?

When it comes to market competition, parts of the cooperatives´ activities lie per se outside of the commercial scope: this is of course the case with regards to service cooperatives, but also with agricultural cooperatives which might distribute (parts of) their produce directly to their members. Furthermore, when new cooperatives are created, their activity generally responds to local needs that the market economy did not meet up to now. To ensure that cooperatives do not compete with each other the cooperatives bureau checks that each cooperative covers different kind of needs, and complement each other in their activity:

It should not be that one cooperative is in competition with another. For example, the cooperative committee wouldn’t support two bread cooperatives in one village. They proceed according to the needs of the local communities.

Leyla Yousef, co-chair of the Cooperative Commission

Regarding competition with other private businesses, cooperatives can attract costumers with lower prices – which also aim at generally lowering market prices. The agricultural cooperative built up in the Tel Samen IDP camp, for example, sells its products directly to the camp inhabitants at half of the market price. Several cities have built, or are building up small markets which are dedicated to the cooperative economy, so that the producing cooperatives do not depend on intermediaries which would take a charge and drive the price up. Cooperatives can also offer lower prices as they privilege the use of local material, instead of importing goods. More generally, cooperatives are meant to attract members and customers alike as they represent a form of economy which strengthens community ties and increases the autonomy of the people in their day-to-day lives.

How do the cooperatives share profits?

First of all, it must be mentioned that not all kinds of cooperatives generate a profit. As mentioned earlier, service cooperatives simply provide a service, which is not commercialized. Agricultural cooperatives might distribute some or all of their production directly to their members. For those who do generate financial gains, profits are divided in four parts:

– one part is payed as a tax to the supporting body (ie. Aboriya Jin or the local Cooperatives Bureau), which is then put back into use to develop new cooperatives. Normal cooperatives pay a tax of 5% when they gain a profit. If they don’t make any profit, they don’t have to pay the tax. For agricultural cooperatives using land provided by AANES, the tax is as high as 9%, and for those who use their own land it is 5%. As for cooperatives supported by Aboriya Jin, a tax of 5% of the profit should be paid after 6 months of activity in order to finance new projects.

– one part is reinvested into the development of the cooperative in question (the guidelines for cooperatives in NES recommend 25%, but the typical amount put aside for reinvestment is rather 10%)

– one part is used for the development of local projects. Some cooperatives are connected to other institutions, for example to the Sazîya malbatên şehidan (Organisation for Families of the Martyrs). The organisation offers support the cooperative which in turn gives a share of its profits to this civil society organisation, which works with poor families, widows, the disabled, or those affected by the war. Likewise, those connected to the women’s movement Kongra-Star via Aboriya Jin provide a share of their profits to support work among women in North and East Syria. Others may also support individual local community projects (see below).

– and the remainder is distributed among the members.

Except for the taxes, the amount of all of these parts are decided upon by each cooperative.

Case study: Clothes & cosmetics cooperative, Hilleliyah, Qamishlo

The Hilleliyah neighborhood of Qamishlo is home to several cooperatives. One of them is the clothes and cosmetics cooperative Shilan. The Shilan cooperative was built up in 2016, after several neighborhood meetings which discussed the needs of the district and potential projects. A group of women eventually gathered funds to open a new shop. Its aim is to support poor households, by selling clothes and cosmetics at a lower price than usual shops and by facilitating access to these goods in a neighborhood located far from the central market. The cooperative buys clothes at wholesale price, and resells them for a lower price than common shops. As a result, the cooperative generates minimal profits. The participation of the members is mainly motivated by the idea of covering the needs of the neighborhood in a communal way. As of today, the cooperative has 22 members, and is managed by 3 women. The leadership committee does the day-to-day work without receiving money as they want to promote the project and the cooperative economy, while the other members help out when needed. They receive a modest return each month, according to the amount invested. Many members of the Shilan cooperative also participate in the nearby Nesrin cooperative which sells cleaning products, following similar principles. Their plan is to build up a sewing workshop in order to produce clothes locally and create employment in a sector easily accessible to women.

Impact of Turkey’s 2019 invasion on the cooperative economy

Shortly before the Turkish invasion of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad in October 2019, both cities and their surrounding areas were a fertile home for a high concentration of cooperatives. Around Sere Kaniye, over 12,000 hectares had been given over to agricultural cooperatives. All cooperatives coordinated their activities, with some specialized in producing, others in buying and selling. The cooperative Hevgirtin united 1250 members, cultivating barley on over 6000 hectares. The profits that the members of these agricultural cooperatives had put aside throughout 2015 and 2016 allowed them to open the cooperative Mesopotamia, a half-automated bakery. Such initiatives played a pioneering role in the cooperative economy of NES.

Turkey’s October 2019 invasion and ongoing occupation of 5000km2 in the Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad regions destroyed this developing alternative economy. Turkish-backed forces plundered and looted private and public properties, businesses and cooperatives (for more information, see RIC’s December 2019 report: Turkey’s war against civilians). The Mesopotamia Bakery has been seized by Turkish-backed factions, resulting in the loss of machinery and reserves. Co-operative agricultural associations have also been plundered, with the total loss of 800 tons of wheat plus 1500 tons of fertilizer from 6 cooperatives in the Sere Kaniye countryside. The psychological impact must be considered alongside the material damage: the experience or threat of destruction makes any attempt at building up future projects seem in vain.

When the war got closer, people were reluctant to engage in cooperative projects out of fear that the Turkish state might destroy them. What’s the point in working the soil if the enemy will come and take everything? And with the war, everything was looted and destroyed.

Ashref, former member of the Economy Bureau of Sere Kaniye

Yet cooperatives develop even among those who have fled the war. The cooperatives bureau attempt to spark the creation of new villages by giving arable land to inhabitants who are living in IDP camps. In Heseke countryside, the Kaniya Jin cooperative brings together three families who fled the invasion of Sere Kaniye. They cultivate garlic and onions on one hectare of land.

Yet motivating the displaced to settle in a new place is difficult. Those who fled from Sere Kaniye prefer to stay in the IDP camp, as they hope to return one day to their homes. In other cases, therefore, cooperatives develop directly inside the IDP camps.

Case study: Agricultural cooperative in Tel Samen IDP camp, Raqqa countryside

The Tel Samen IDP camp is a former US military base converted into an IDP camp after the October 2019 invasion, when US forces withdrew from eastern regions of NES to pave the way for the Turkish assault. The camp population of around 700 families is mostly composed of Arabic and Kurdish families, along with a significant minority of Turkmen families, all of whom fled Tel Abyad in the face of the Turkish occupation. At the beginning of 2020 the camp administration helped to gather funds to start the activity of planting diverse vegetables, with 100 families contributing financially to the project. Six hectares of land are currently being cultivated.

The camp population benefits in two ways from the cooperative. Firstly, it offers a chance for IDPs to earn a wage. Every day 15 to 20 people from different families work for the cooperative, with each individual getting paid a typical agricultural laborer’s day wage of 3000SYP. Secondly, all camp inhabitants can buy the produce from the cooperative at half of the market price, enabling them to feed their families. What is left is sold on the market in Raqqa, and the profits of the sales are shared among the 100 families who financially contributed to the cooperative. Currently, the cooperative is negotiating with the Cooperatives Bureau to expand their activity and acquire sheep and chickens.

Conclusion

As of today, the cooperative economy of NES is still in its infancy. Its development is hindered by several aspects, especially the threat of war and a low level of education and awareness among the general population. Cooperatives still represent a marginal part of the local economy when set against the overall production, consumption and needs of millions of local residents. However, cooperatives retain a special importance in NES as they represent an emergent alternative economic system which aims at addressing urgent economic and ecological needs in the region by:

– diversifying agricultural production to move away from mono-culture;

– developing ecologically sustainable construction and agricultural methods;

– promoting self-sufficiency and reducing reliance on imported goods;

– helping women gain economic independence;

– and offering an economic perspective to poor families.

Cooperatives therefore play a central role in the broader political project underway in AANES, and especially its aims to move towards food autonomy, a social and ecological economy, and gender equality.

Time and stability is needed to allow this model to develop. As the spokesperson of the Economy Bureau says:

This is all a slow, bottom-up process. In the future we will gradually move toward a cooperative economy. Of course, war is a possibility which could destroy these efforts. We hope to achieve a society with no more poor or rich people, but an equal life for everyone.

Walid, spokesperson of the NES Economy Bureau

Sources

The information presented in this article draws on interviews carried out with people responsible for the development of cooperatives in NES:

– Walid, spokesperson of the Economy Bureau, and Azad, co-chair of manufacture in the Jazira region, August 2019

– Dr Hassan Betay and Leyla Yousef, co-chairs of the Co-operative Commission, August 2019

– Armanc, coordinator with Aboriya Jin, economic branch of Kongra Star, Qamishlo, September 2020

– Firdaws, coordinator of the Cooperatives Bureau of the Canton of Qamishlo, September 2020

– Mediya, management committee of the Cooperatives Bureau of the Canton of Qamishlo, September 2020

– Karker, co-chair of the Cooperatives Bureau of Heseke, September 2020

– Ashref, former member of the Economy Bureau of Sere Kaniye, September 2020

– Newroz, co-ordinator of the Cooperatives bureau of the Canton of Heseke, October 2020