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First Person

North and East Syria’s Roadmap for Stability

This author’s contribution is part of the Kurdish Peace Institute’s First Person series. Through this series, the Kurdish Peace Institute publishes commentaries from relevant public figures on current events in order to advance understanding of regional issues and actors. These commentaries are intended to provide our audiences with exclusive insight into how different individuals and groups in the region understand ongoing developments.

The military defeat of the ISIS caliphate, achieved nearly five years ago as a result of the joint efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Global Coalition, has had important consequences for our region and the world. ISIS no longer holds territory and its capability to threaten the Middle East, Europe, and the United States is vastly diminished.

Here in North and East Syria, our society is working to recover from the impacts of ISIS’ oppressive rule. We have already adopted ethnic and religious pluralism as a basis for managing political and social life and strengthened the values of gender equality and women’s rights. This challenges ISIS’ ideology of hate and makes us richer both politically and culturally. Administratively,  decentralization has proven to be effective as a system that can meet the needs of a country as diverse in identity, culture, and politics as Syria is. In order to address the deficiencies that came out of our focus on existential military threats, we are also working to shift the focus of our efforts towards improvements in administration and politics on the basis of these values.

That said, we have been left with many victims and material losses. 12,000 members of our armed forces gave their lives to defeat ISIS. Our economy and infrastructure have been devastated. The societies that were subject to ISIS rule were greatly damaged intellectually, socially and otherwise. And although our people sacrificed more than any other nation to defeat ISIS, we have been left responsible for thousands of ISIS-affiliated prisoners from other countries and other regions of Syria.

Faced with this status quo, we can describe the position of the Coalition forces in Northern and Eastern Syria as one of near-stagnation. They conduct operations against ISIS cells and activities within a routine framework, but have not demonstrated a strategy or practical mechanisms for eliminating the conditions that gave rise to ISIS and allowed its ideology to spread. They also do not appear to be planning for a sustainable post-ISIS future. While we think about political and social solutions to end the century of war and state oppression that has strangled our region, they are focused on narrow military goals with no end in sight.

The impact of the war between Israel and Hamas on our region has exacerbated this problem. The war has further distracted the United States and the Coalition from the political and social roots of the security problems in North and East Syria and made military confrontation in our region more likely. This has given Turkey and other powers lurking in North and East  Syria an opportunity to strike at the gains in security, stability, and governance achieved by the blood of our people.

In the last two months, Turkey has targeted the civilian infrastructure of North and East Syria three times. Recent attacks have expanded from targeting critical public infrastructure to targeting private businesses as well. On Christmas Day, Turkey struck a publishing house printing Kurdish-language textbooks that allow our children to study in their mother tongue, an olive processing plant run by a family forced out of Afrin by Turkey’s invasion and occupation, and a wedding hall owned by one of the few remaining Christian families in the city of Amude.

These attacks have killed and injured civilians, exacerbated our region’s economic crisis, and reduced the Autonomous Administration’s capabilities to provide basic services like electricity and clean water to our people. All of these will have negative impacts on our ability to keep ISIS down, stabilize the region, and bring about an end to the war.

Despite this, there is no strong international position against Turkey’s aggression. The United States and the Coalition, the other regional and global powers concerned with the Syrian crisis, and even international human rights organizations have all remained silent and ineffective.

This has created several problems for our international partners. First, we are a democracy that is accountable to the will of our people. They may rightly ask us, one day, why we collaborate with and make concessions on behalf of any state that does not reciprocate by helping us become more prosperous or more secure. Second, if our enemies can destroy our project, our people will not be the only ones who will lose. Previous Turkish attacks have led to mass displacement, given ISIS space to thrive, and prolonged Syria’s crisis to the advantage of dictators and terrorists. With the Middle East already on the brink of a wider war, this outcome in northern Syria is even more dangerous than it was before.

It is clear that a defined political strategy to end the war in Syria and provide a blueprint for ending other conflicts in the region is not only in our interests, but is in the interests of the international community as well. I will outline our strategy and its positive impacts for the region below.

We see our future as part of a unified, democratic, multiethnic Syria achieved achieved through a process that incorporates all Syrians. When a system that represents all Syrians, without exclusion, is accepted by everyone, stability will return to Syria and the problems in our country will be diminished.

The Damascus government takes a backwards approach to our ideas, demanding instead a return to the conditions that caused the war in 2011. It refuses us our basic civil and political rights and accuses us of trying to divide the country. Let me be clear: we are not separatists. We reject the idea that decentralization and pluralism would make Syria weaker or less stable. In fact, they will make Syria stronger. Federal systems can be found in strong, secure and influential countries globally, including world powers like the United States and Russia. The continued existence of our administration proves that pluralism is a strength. Despite efforts to provoke discord and ethnic hatred, many Kurds, Arabs, and Syriac-Assyrians in North and East Syria today believe that the political system of the Autonomous Administration is their best option and that they can work together within it to resolve outstanding issues.

Our strategy to end the war in Syria is to communicate with the various parties to the conflict in Syria and unify the efforts of internal and external actors towards a democratic future. We believe that the political processes sponsored by the United Nations in accordance with UN Resolution 2254, as well as other political processes, should not exclude North and East Syria. We are a reality on the ground. The Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria should be recognized politically to allow us to negotiate from the best position.

We have made two recent changes to facilitate this. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) has expanded its work beyond northeast Syria. It now opens its doors to all democratic administrations and movements in Syria. We hope that everyone who shares our values and seeks democracy, coexistence, religious freedom, the equality of men and women, and an end to the war will reach out.

In December of 2023, we adopted a new Social Contract. We see this both as a necessary step to address the needs of the people of our region and as a proposal of a model for the future democratic Syria of which we hope to be a part. Our Social Contract protects the gains we have made for coexistence, religious freedom, and the rights of women. It also addresses some of our deficiencies. We plan to hold elections, starting with local and municipal elections, as soon as possible. The Social Contract also gives each town, city, and canton the ability to reject any higher-level decision by referendum if its people so decide. This will strengthen our internal cohesion and help us remain the best-functioning form of governance available in Syria.

To address the current security challenges related to ISIS, we will engage in political and social work to address the root causes of extremism and the mentality behind it. We will strive to improve our economy in regions liberated from ISIS so that the group cannot exploit poverty and the impacts of war. We will continue to work towards bringing ISIS to justice and pursuing accountability for the crimes that this group perpetrated against our people. The political exclusion practiced against our administration that I have previously described is also one of the factors impacting our ability to achieve a long-term defeat of ISIS. For example, because do not have international recognition, our efforts to put ISIS members on trial are not supported by the international community. Because of our economic exclusion, we are not able to get the resources that we need to revitalize regions destroyed by the war.

Another major security problem we face are those forces that do not accept the existence of the Kurdish people or the model of self-administration in northern Syria. These forces seek to change these realities by military means, complicating the conflict, exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in our country, and threatening the international community.

One of these powers is Turkey. Turkey continues to falsely accuse us of “terrorism” in order to justify attacks on our people. I will repeat: We are not a threat to Turkey. We do not allow our territory to be used by anyone to attack our neighbors. In fact, my colleagues have repeatedly encouraged the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In 2022, SDF Commander in Chief Mazloum Abdi wrote in the Washington Post that “we are ready to play a helpful role in restarting these talks and reaching the peace that we seek.”

Today, we stand by the call for dialogue—and for international support for it—that was made in that article. We believe that Turkey must resolve its internal problems by peaceful and democratic means. Lashing out against innocent men, women and children in North and East Syria will not resolve the deep-seated conflicts caused by decades of denial of the existence of the Kurdish people and by the destruction of democracy.

Instead of trying to crush our model of self-administration, Turkey might be better off choosing to learn from it. Our model allows all people to speak their own language, practice their own faith, and take pride in their own identity. It decentralizes power to municipalities and cantons. It is always open to change and improvement, as our new Social Contract and the process that it came out of reveal. If Turkey adopted models like these, their Kurdish problem would not exist. We truly hope that, one day, a democratic, multiethnic Syria and a democratic, multiethnic Turkey can be good neighbors and even good friends. We will continue our domestic, regional, and global political efforts until this is a reality.

We know that our greatest strength in any diplomatic process or dialogue is the alternative that we provide to ultranationalist autocrats and religious fundamentalists. Although we have faced difficulties, our regions remain the most stable and well-functioning part of Syria. Despite occupying our cities, Turkey was not able to destroy us in 2019 because our people stood together and defended their project. If our political system is weak and our people are divided, we cannot move forward. If it is strong and our people are united, we can make real change.

For this reason, we are committed to building our political institutions and advancing governance through steps like the Social Contract, addressing the root causes of ISIS to achieve a permanent defeat of the group and its ideology, and finding a political solution to end Syria’s crisis for good.

It is in the interests of the international community, particularly those countries that partner with us in northeast Syria already, to support us in making this possible. To that end, we make five recommendations:

  1. Continue the campaign to defeat ISIS and strengthen it with new mechanisms that address the group’s ideology and the root causes of its expansion.
  2. Study the new Social Contract for North and East Syria, provide assistance to implement the contract practically on the ground, and provide support for us to be able to hold elections in a safe and secure environment.
  3. Develop and promote investment in North and East Syria to address the economic crisis and enhance stability in the region.
  4. Support all dialogue between different parties and actors in Syria in order to find a Syrian-led solution that does not exclude any region or administration.
  5. Support and inclusive Syrian conference to establish a new social contract that leads to a transitional phase in Syria.

(Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

About the Author

Ilham Ahmed

First Person Commentator

Ilham Ahmed is a Syrian Kurdish politician. She previously served as the President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council. This author’s contribution is part of the Kurdish Peace Institute’s First Person series. Through t…

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