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U.S. Opposition to Northeast Syria’s Elections is a Strategic Mistake

To promote security and stability in northeast Syria and beyond, the United States should support the local elections that the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES) plans to hold in dozens of municipalities across the territory under its control. State Department officials and commentators in Washington have raised several objections to these elections. However, none of these objections have practical validity. All are either based on biased assumptions or can be addressed through diplomatic engagement and dialogue.

Concerns about the compatibility of the elections with U.N. Security Resolution 2254 are unfounded. UNSCR 2254 does not prohibit or discourage Syrians from holding elections prior to a political settlement. It does not prohibit or discourage the international community from supporting such elections either. Furthermore, UNSCR 2254 was passed nearly 10 years ago — and the political settlement that it envisions is nowhere in sight. More opportunities for democratic participation for Syrians under the non-regime authorities that exist today will contribute to peace and stability now and improve the quality of any future comprehensive agreement. Communities have to start somewhere to gain the skills and knowledge necessary for informed participation in democratic processes. The failure of foreign powers to agree on an end to the conflict should not hinder them.

Concerns about the territorial integrity of Syria and Turkey are even less relevant. It bears repeating that these are municipal elections. The officials that residents of northeast Syria will elect will be concerned with apolitical tasks like water management, waste disposal, and the upkeep of schools and hospitals. These essential services were being provided by municipal governments affiliated with the DAANES in northeast Syria well before Turkey began to threaten the region. They will continue to be provided by municipal governments tomorrow — regardless of whether the local leaders managing them are elected by the people or appointed without public input. Elections might improve the quality of those services by forcing parties to compete for support and giving communities greater influence over their leaders. They will not, in any way, threaten the borders of Syria or Turkey.

If anything, local elections in northeast will bolster Turkey’s security. Better governance and services for Syrians will lead to less migration, an outcome Turkish leaders ought to welcome. More bottom-up, decentralized, participatory governance may shift the Democratic Autonomous Administration’s priorities from large-scale political and ideological conflicts to material issues that impact the day-to-day lives of their constituents — also a positive outcome for Ankara. The U.S. should explain the structure and function of municipalities in northeast Syria to Turkey and demand proof of any Turkish allegations that elections or any activities related to them would threaten Turkish security and territorial integrity.

Support for elections in northeast Syria will also help the U.S. compete with Russia and Iran. Rhetorical support for future elections under Resolution 2254 does not matter. In the eyes of many in northeast Syria, the U.S. now holds the same practical position as Moscow and Tehran do: Syrians do not deserve the right to choose their leaders. The hypocrisy of this position in comparison to stated U.S. views on democracy in the Middle East can and will be exploited by U.S. adversaries to delegitimize both the U.S. position in the region and the position of those Syrians who claim that working with the U.S. can be a viable path to democracy. If the U.S. supports elections in northeast Syria, by contrast, it will show that it can offer something that Russia, Iran, Assad, Turkey, and various Islamist rebel groups cannot: a workable path to a democratic future.

If the United States has genuine concerns about whether the process will be free or fair, it should work with the DAANES, political parties, and local civil society in order to improve it. Few in the U.S. today would argue that U.S. democracy has always been perfect. Many would argue that it is imperfect now. The Biden administration’s own National Security Strategy recognizes that “democracy is always a work in progress.”  The DAANES has expressed interest in having international observers present for these local elections. Syrian Kurdish political parties and local civil society organizations have criticized the process, identifying specific shortcomings and means by which they could be addressed. In fact, these criticisms contributed in part to the delay of the vote. U.S. disapproval also played a role, showing that DAANES authorities are willing to listen to their allies as well as their constituents. To help partners make progress towards democracy, the U.S. can provide technical expertise, training, and other forms of support so that election authorities, parties and candidates, and voters will be best equipped to participate in a free and fair process. It can also offer incentives to the Kurdistan National Council (KNC) to participate and urge the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to do the same.

Ultimately, the United States must address the contradictions in its policy towards the region. If it plans to stay in northeast Syria, it should leverage its presence and partnerships towards de-escalation, economic recovery, and political and social development. Such a strategy should work with local initiatives for more democratic governance, not  against them. If it plans to leave, it should provide its partners with a timeline and a plan to ensure that a withdrawal will not lead to greater conflict — and then refrain from interference in the region’s internal political affairs.

The inconsistencies in existing U.S. policy and the lack of clarity around future strategy have created instability and uncertainty that weakens U.S. partner forces and empowers actors like ISIS and the Assad regime. Local elections in northeast Syria should be an opportunity to address these strategic gaps, not yet another juncture at which to deepen them.

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About the Author

Giran Ozcan

Executive Director

Giran Ozcan is the Executive Director of the Kurdish Peace Institute. He has previously worked with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in its overseas representative offices and was the HDP Representative to the United States of America betw…

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