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.”