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Crafting Stable Local Democracy in North and East Syria

The Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES) has postponed planned municipal elections until August 2024 following internal criticism, Turkish threats, and U.S. pushback. This is the second time that the vote, which is slated to be the first in northeast Syria since 2017, has been delayed. Skeptics in the region and internationally speculate as to whether any elections will ever take place.

Yet despite political and security obstacles, there are reasons for pragmatic optimism. The people of northeast Syria want more representative, responsive governance. The DAANES wants to use its unique concept of democratic self-rule to respond to criticism from its constituents, promote internal security and stability, and find peaceful solutions to regional conflicts. Municipalities, with their small size and powers and responsibilities that directly impact the daily lives of residents of the region, are an ideal site for democratic experimentation and reform.

An approach to municipal elections centered on those demands and ideals could take the period of postponement as an opportunity to address local needs and international concerns alike. DAANES authorities, together with their constituents and international partners, could then plan a strong local election program that can make use of the region’s political strengths, address its weaknesses, and contribute to sustainable peace and democratic governance in Syria.

The 2024 Local Elections: Background, Actors and Interests

Elections have been on the agenda in North and East Syria since 2020. At that time, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) held a series of consultations with representatives of different communities across the region. New elections emerged as a key demand. Consultations resulting from unrest in the Arab-majority region of Deir Ezzor in late 2023 also included calls for elections.

In Kurdish regions like Kobane and Jazira, these will be the first elections since 2017, when voters elected co-chairs for neighborhood assemblies. In Arab-majority areas liberated from ISIS in 2017 and after, like Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, they will be the first elections since the Syrian war began. For all DAANES territories, these will be the first elections held under the terms of the 2023 Social Contract.

Voters will elect co-mayors and municipal councils for over 120 cities and towns. Each city and town will have one male co-mayor and one female co-mayor, as stipulated by the DAANES co-chair system. The co-mayor candidates with the highest number of votes will win the co-mayorships. Municipal councils will have between 16 and 50 members depending on the size of the municipality. Seats on municipal councils will be apportioned based on the proportion of votes won by each party and/or list within the district.

Two coalitions are running in these elections. The ‘Peoples’ and Women’s Alliance for Freedom,’ which consists of 22 parties, includes the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the all-women’s Kongra Star, and Syriac, Armenian, Arab and Yezidi parties and organizations close to the Autonomous Administration. The ‘Together for Better Services’ alliance consists of 5 parties: the Democratic Green Party, the Kurdistan Modern Movement, the Kurdish Democratic Left Party in Syria, the Kurdistan Brotherhood Party, and the Union of Workers of Kurdistan.

Other parties applied to run on their own: the Syrian Patriotic Democratic Alliance Party, Patriotic Development and Democratic Change Party, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (Yekîtî). The number of independent candidates who have applied to run is unknown. In Arab-majority regions, independent candidates are more prominent than political parties.

Some parties that participate in the Democratic Autonomous Administration and the Syrian Democratic Council have chosen not to participate in these elections.

The Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is part of the Syrian National Coalition, does not participate in the Democratic Autonomous Administration and has never taken part in elections in the region. U.S.-sponsored efforts to broker an agreement between the KNC and PYD that would bring the KNC into the administration have remained at a deadlock for years. The KNC and its supporters cite the vandalism of their offices and other violations as evidence that they cannot not participate fairly in any electoral process. Critics argue that the party’s opposition to the elections is also related to its political ties with other Syrian opposition groups and regional actors that do not want elections to take place.

Despite the large number of parties and candidates, the main issues at stake for voters are not partisan or ideological in nature. In interviews with politicians and civil society organizations in Qamishlo, the Kurdish Peace Institute found that improvements to public services and infrastructure topped agendas.

Muhiddin Sheikh Ali, Secretary General of the the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Syria (Yekîtî), told the Kurdish Peace Institute that candidates from his party will campaign on cleaning up the streets, managing sewage and wastewater, regulating construction, improving roads, and adding more green spaces to the region’s cities.

Berivan Omar, the Peoples’ and Women’s Alliance for Freedom candidate for co-mayor of Qamishlo, has a background in engineering and municipal affairs. She told the Kurdish Peace Institute that resolving the city’s water crisis would be her priority if elected. Roads and traffic, sewage, trash cleanup, and addressing the pollution of the Jaqjaq River were also important concerns.

In addition, Omar highlighted changes in the Municipalities Law that would introduce more public accountability and transparency, including mandatory public meetings with municipal officials every three months and the publication of municipal budgets. A representative of a local civil society organization confirmed that a desire for greater transparency and accountability was among the reasons why elections were planned.

Challenges to Effective Local Elections

Turkey threatened to conduct yet another military operation against the DAANES if they held elections on June 11. This was the primary reason why the vote was postponed. The DAANES and its people cannot militarily, politically, economically or socially withstand another major Turkish ground operation. Further systematic aerial bombardment of infrastructure would also be devastating. The region is still contending with the impacts of Turkey’s last bombing campaigns, with hundreds of thousands of people deprived of clean water and electricity in scorching summer temperatures.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh off a less-than-stellar showing in his own country’s local elections, is cautious of waning public support and of losing the backing of the ultra-nationalists with whom he controls the Turkish state. The far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) began the most recent round of agitation against northeast Syria using the elections as a pretext. They falsely claim that the DAANES seeks to use local elections to divide Syria and threaten Turkey. Since abandoning peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, Erdogan has responded to electoral losses and the need to consolidate nationalist support with military operations against Kurds in Turkey and in Iraq and Syria. It is therefore reasonable to fear that his weakened position makes the threat of further escalation likely.

The DAANES’ closest partners do not support the existing election process. Responding to a reporter’s question in early June, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said that “any elections that occur in Syria should be free, fair, transparent, and inclusive, as is called for in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and we don’t think that the conditions for such elections are in place in northeast Syria in present time. And we’ve conveyed this to a range of actors in northeast Syria.”

U.S. officials have two primary fears. First, Washington is concerned that holding the elections could provoke further Turkish military aggression against the DAANES and threaten efforts to defuse tensions in the region. Second, they recognize that these first elections are the standard by which the DAANES will be judged internally and externally. It is as clear to the U.S. as it is to critics in northeast Syria that the process and conditions as they currently exist are not conducive to a secure, democratic, and internally and externally legitimate vote.

DAANES personnel do not have adequate experience with and knowledge of international election standards and procedures. Local media outlets, civil society organizations, and political parties have already noted irregularities, challenges, and oversights in the electoral process. Many believe that the elections were rushed for the sake of being able to say that elections were being held. This was reflected in the fact that the May 30th and June 11th election dates were set during the time when farmers across the largely agricultural region bring their wheat in for harvest. Holding the elections on these dates would have prevented many residents of northeast Syria from being able to vote — a serious oversight.

With less than a week remaining before elections on the day that they were last postponed, not all eligible voters had received their election cards. International observers had not been present in the lead-up to the vote and no clear plan to ensure their presence on election day appeared to exist.

Perhaps most concerningly, the DAANES and the political parties competing in the elections had not been able to effectively inform and engage the public around election procedures and the issues at stake. One neighborhood assembly member in Qamishlo told the Kurdish Peace Institute that the only people aware of the elections were those already actively organized around political parties. The NGO worker, who had worked on engaging the public around the 2017 elections, also warned that public awareness was low and official mechanisms to increase it were not in place.

The public in northeast Syria has minimal experience with and knowledge of international democratic standards and with the DAANES electoral system. The Syrian regime never held free and fair elections. Kurds were largely excluded from positions of political and administrative responsibility. Syrian Kurds who had political experience prior to 2011 were engaged with clandestine organizations working underground in highly repressive contexts. While the DAANES created opportunities for more Syrians in the northeast to participate in more diverse forms of politics and civil governance for the first time, it has not had the time, resources, or knowledge to address the gaps in their knowledge and experience. Many Syrians living in DAANES territory — even some who participate in its structures — are not aware of the structure and function of DAANES institutions, the content of its laws, the programs of political parties, and other civic information essential for effective participation.

Security and economic conditions pose systemic barriers to political and social development. These elections are not occurring in a peaceful and prosperous country. They will take place against the background of years of war against ISIS, two Turkish ground interventions, regular Turkish drone strikes against government and security officials, civilian communities, and critical infrastructure, and a deepening economic crisis. These conditions have deprived the DAANES of resources they could use to improve their political system and created a political and institutional culture designed to prioritize and handle existential security threats first and foremost. They have also forced many residents of Syria’s northeast to prioritize survival over political and social knowledge and engagement. The DAANES and the residents of northeast Syria did not choose these conditions and have little independent ability to change them.

Opportunities Presented by Local Elections

The grievances that communities across northeastern Syria have are both legitimate and resolvable. Material demands include improvements to water, electricity, and other public infrastructure; lower prices for public goods; and improved economic opportunities. Different cities, towns, and regions have different priorities based on regional realities. For example, a developing water crisis in Qamishlo has topped the agenda for citizens and political parties alike.

As for governance, many in the region would like to see a wider segment of public opinion represented in the administration, beyond the communities already organized behind the parties that established it. They also want more of a say in the process of choosing officials and holding those whom they have chosen accountable in instances of corruption, ineffectiveness or wrongdoing. Both specific appointed leaders and the processes by which individuals are appointed to positions of responsibility in the region have come under enough public criticism to suggest that change is warranted.

These are legitimate demands with solutions that are relatively achievable for the DAANES with the support of its international partners. They are also relatively non-partisan in nature: people with a wide variety of political views share these perspectives, and implementation of these demands will by nature be less of a political issue than an administrative one. Addressing them is therefore both feasible and positive for the region’s internal and external legitimacy.

The DAANES has sincere and deep-rooted commitments to multi-ethnic, gender-equal, decentralized local democracy and believes that these ideas can help resolve local and international conflicts. The DAANES aspires to ethnic and religious pluralism, gender equality, and decentralized, bottom-up federal democracy for all of Syria. To do this, they need buy-in from a diverse group of Syrians and from the international community, particularly countries that have supported the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against ISIS. The implementation of some DAANES priorities, like gender equality and religious freedom, has been extremely successful. The implementation of others, though, has been notably weaker: the DAANES has always been far more centralized in practice than it aspires to be on paper. The administration is open to good-faith critique and adjustment, particularly when those critiques and adjustments allow them to make use of the ideas that inspire them.

At the municipal level, the interests of multiple actors align. Municipalities are the level of government with power and influence over the priority issues that have the greatest impact on the daily lives of residents of northeast Syria. They are small enough constituencies that individual citizens have a strong chance of being able to impact their neighbors and their local authorities.

Municipal governance is also ‘legible’ to diverse political traditions present in northern Syria that rarely see eye to eye on other issues. There is a long history of participatory municipal democracy in the Kurdish movement. Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed founder and leader of the PKK, writes positively of municipal democracy and cites theorists who praise it in his writings. The Syrian revolution, too, began with local democratic efforts, making this form of democracy relevant to elements of the DAANES that come from this political background — and to non-Kurdish residents of the region who may be suspicious of Kurdish partisan politics.

Moving Forward

If the DAANES and the international community fail to address the dynamics described above, the challenges impacting this election process will only become more entrenched. Even if elections are not held, these challenges will likely manifest in other areas of politics and governance. While holding elections without a plan is not a sustainable path to peace and stability in northeast Syria, neither is giving up on them altogether. Solutions exist that can satisfy the interests of all parties involved and allow a legitimate electoral process to take place. This will provide millions of Syrians with a democratic experience that will help them better participate in a political process and, in the long term, free and fair national elections under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.

Recommendations to the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria:

Understand International Standards: DAANES authorities should familiarize all personnel working on the elections, including election authorities, employees, security forces and political parties, with basic international standards for democratic election procedures and should implement these standards as they design the electoral process. This should be done through consultation with international organizations and with local civil society and through structured training programs. Accountability and response mechanisms for irregularities should be implemented; local political actors and international and local observers should be free and empowered to make use of these mechanisms.

Implement the Social Contract: The provisions of the new Social Contract related to fundamental rights and freedoms (Chapter 2), particularly those concerning political organization, thought and opinion, assembly, and the media, must be fully and impartially implemented in the context of the elections and bey. Individuals and entities found in violation of these Social Contract principles should be held accountable.

Increase Grassroots Involvement: All communities in northeast Syria should be included in the electoral process and in the day-to-day work of municipalities themselves before, during, and after any elections that may be held. To do this, the DAANES can:

  • Implement the mechanisms for public consultation and accountability identified in the Municipalities Law prior to elections. These mechanisms should strive to include communities that are not already organized and politicized and that may not have participated actively in local-level institutions before.
  • Engage with local civil society, particularly those organizations that observed elections in 2017 and those that wish to observe the 2024 elections, to understand their criticisms and suggestions for the elections and other democratic processes and their views on best practices for informing the public.
  • Assess how the public in DAANES territory consumes information about news, politics, and government and use the findings to better share information about specific election processes, overall election standards, and the parties and candidates participating in the elections.
  • Respond to urgent demands for improvements in critical services, including by working to enlist support from NGOs and international partners where local resources do not suffice.

Localize the Election Process: To address local, regional, and international threats to the election process, the DAANES should use its stated commitments to federalism and municipalism to its advantage. Instead of holding region-wide elections, each of the DAANES’ seven cantons should hold town and city elections on its own. For example, Raqqa city and the affiliated towns in the canton of Raqqa might go to the polls, followed by Qamishlo, Hasakah, and the affiliated small cities and towns of Jazira Canton three to six weeks later. The process would continue until all cantons had voted.

In each election, DAANES authorities, political parties, civil society, and media would be well-positioned to highlight local issues, local candidates, and local voters and could avoid referencing larger issues of regional politics.

For communities in northeast Syria and the candidates competing to represent them, a process like this one would allow a greater focus on the specific issues that matter to them in their region, city, and town. This would make the elections more relevant to voters who have not been actively involved in the region’s system before, leading to a more participatory process.

For the DAANES, it would relieve the pressure of having to organize a region-wide election without any experience in electoral processes. A longer time frame for elections would provide opportunities to evaluate and make improvements to the process as it moved forward and allow local authorities to address issues of public concern before voters went to the polls. This would make it easier to address knowledge gaps and create conditions for widespread participation.

Canton-by-canton elections could assuage Turkish fears that the DAANES is seeking to partition Syria or establish a state on Turkey’s borders by taking the focus off  the DAANES as entity. It would be politically difficult for Turkish leaders to claim that small constituencies in individual municipalities choosing local leaders was a threat to Turkish lives or territory. In fact, U.S. leaders could even use such a process to address Turkish concerns by highlighting how elections contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes and localize and de-centralize power. Rhetoric around the election would be focused on municipal-level issues like services and democratic accountability rather than regional political issues, further depriving elements of the Turkish state that seek escalation of pretexts to pursue it.

This would increase the likelihood that the public in the DAANES and the international community will support elections. The above-described outcomes could address the primary concerns of the U.S. and other members of the Global Coalition, allowing them to actively help the DAANES hold strong local elections while preventing a new Turkish military operation.

Recommendations to the United States: 

Maintain support for existing ceasefires and opposition to any further Turkish military action. This should include the establishment of monitoring mechanisms so that claims of violations or threats by both sides, including claims related to elections, can be evaluated objectively. It should also include opposition to air and drone strikes and other forms of aggression short of ground war. Turkey’s air and drone operations are targeted specifically to degrade basic governance functionality and make civilian life precarious. In the long term, the U.S. must present a clear and workable policy outlining how Washington will work towards political resolutions to Turkey’s Kurdish conflict and to the Syrian conflict and clarify this position to all regional actors.

Highlight, in conversations with Turkish counterparts, how pluralist, decentralized, and democratic civilian governance in the DAANES will benefit Turkey’s security; including by redirecting the focus of the DAANES and SDF from security matters to internal political and administrative priorities; addressing conditions that drive migration; reducing the likelihood of an ISIS resurgence that would threaten Kurds and Turks alike; and increasing avenues for understanding and interaction between the DAANES and other Syrian and Kurdish political forces.

Encourage international organizations with experience in election observation in the region, especially those from the U.S., from European and Arab member countries of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, and from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to support and observe the election process. Where there are gaps in NGO capabilities, governments should provide training and assistance to relevant individuals and organizations in the region.

Provide dedicated stabilization assistance to address projects identified by communities and municipal leaders as most important. This should be done before, during, and after the elections, showing that there is a continuity of support for the DAANES as an institutionalized government regardless of the parties or individuals serving in leadership positions. People will be more likely to participate in an election and in other mechanisms designed to increase popular input if they believe that local governments can improve their material conditions. The U.S. recognizes the importance of stabilization and economic development to security goals like the defeat of ISIS and efforts to counter the influence of Iran-backed militias, both of which use poverty and related grievances to recruit.

About the Author

Meghan Bodette - KPI Research Associate

Meghan Bodette

Director of Research

Meghan Bodette is the Director of Research at the Kurdish Peace Institute. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, where she concentrated in international law, institutions, and ethics. Her research focu…

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