It is time to recognize the status of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, say a chorus of voices who have supported or observed the region's progress for years. The autonomous region, sometimes abbreviated as AANES, is the same area that the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces helped liberate from ISIS and represents one of the most diverse areas of Syria, with Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Yazidis. It is an area that supporters say guarantees women's rights and minority rights and is in contrast to the authoritarian chauvinist nationalist trend in the region.
This vast area, which includes the deserts along the Euphrates as well as the old ISIS capital of Raqqa and also includes Kurdish towns and cities, was badly harmed by ISIS and then attacked by Turkey and Turkish-backed extremists in 2019 when the former US President gave Ankara the green light to attack an area where US troops were present. With a new administration in Washington and officials like Brett McGurk back involved in policy, there is hope that the US and others will make progress on including the millions of people in eastern Syria in the discussion about Syria's future.
Under the hashtag #Status4NorthandEastSyria many have been tweeting in the last several days about the need to recognize this area with some level of "status" as opposed to the way the international community has. generally sidelined and isolated the area, leading to deprivation, lack of water rights, lack of access and lack of economic progress. This has been a tragedy for the people living in eastern Syria, from Qamishli to Derik and Hasakah and Raqqa; from the towns and villages of the Khabur river to the tribes near Deir Ezzor. They suffered under ISIS occupation, including the deprivations of the foreign ISIS fighters who raped and pillaged, and now when they have found some form of breathing space, they find that they are sidelined by the international community.
The AANES represents one of the most diverse areas of Syria.
To understand how this happened is to go back many years. Eastern Syria on the eastern side of the Euphrates was traditionally neglected by the Syrian regime. The Assad regime was rooted in the communities of Damascus and Latakia and didn't care greatly about the desert or the Kurdish areas. Kurds suffered grievously, their language and culture crushed under the boots of the regime and its devotion to Arab nationalism. Many of the tribes in the Euphrates valley didn't even orient themselves to Damascus, preferring to hang photos of Saddam, the "great leader" from Iraq on their walls. When Saddam fell some of them turned to smuggling jihadists down the waterway toward Iraq. When ISIS emerged in the chaos of the Syrian conflict, it was no surprise it spread down these smuggling routes, then entered Iraq and blitzkrieged its way into Mosul in June 2014.
Meanwhile the Syrian regime had decided in 2011 and 2012 that while it was fighting Syrian rebels in Dara'a and Aleppo and Damascus, Homs and Hama, it would try to buy off the Kurdish minority to divide them from the rebels by granting stateless Kurds who had waited for decades on the Syrian government, some rights. Kurds turned to their own political parties, the ENKS which is linked to Kurdish nationalist and more centrist parties in Iraq's Kurdish region; and the PYD which is a far-left party. For fighters the Kurds turned to the People's Protection Units (YPG) which helped stop the ISIS advance in 2013-2014 and saved Yazidis who were being genocided by ISIS in Iraq. For a time this worked fine because although Turkey accused the YPG of being the Syrian version of the PKK, which Turkey and others see as a terrorist group, Ankara had a ceasefire with the PKK at the time. Then came 2015 and the breakdown of the ceasefire and then a coup attempt in Ankara and Turkey shifted its policy to trying to destroy the PKK and deciding to invade Syria to fight the Kurds. Turkey mobilized Syrian rebels in 2016 and 2017 and then unleashed them to attack the Kurdish region of Afrin in 2018. The goal of Turkey here was to force the YPG, which ran Afrin, to work with the Syrian regime and create a crises between the US-backed SDF and the regime.
The SDF had been created with US support in 2015 as an outgrowth of the YPG, an umbrella group that would be a funnel for US training and support and which would grow beyond just Kurdish fighters to include Arabs and others as it liberated the mostly Arab areas that ISIS occupied. But for Turkey the SDF was just another version of the YPG. Turkey was working with Russia and Iran and understood that its end goal was to sideline, isolate and destroy the SDF and Kurdish areas of eastern Syria. To do that Turkey worked with lobbysts in Washington, at some think tanks and media where it had inroads into the Trump administration. The lobby was mobilized to accuse the YPG of being linked to Iran and the Syrian regime and to paint the US support of the SDF as an "Obama era pro-Iran policy." McGurk, who had been the former envoy of the US-led Coalition and key to aiding the SDF, was pilloried during the Trump administration as an "Obama holdover" and eventually left his station in 2018.
Now Turkey could mobilize to destroy eastern Syria, Ankara thought. Turkey wanted to channel the Syrian rebels it had recruited to fight Kurds so that it could divide and conquer northern Syria and distract the Syrian rebels as it sold them out to work with Russia and Iran. With McGurk out of office, Turkey began to work on the US State Department team that was doing Syria policy, including James Jeffrey and others. There were good members of that team as well, such as William Roebuck, who wanted to help the eastern Syria region out of its impasse, working with PYD and ENKS and holding talks in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
But at all junctures Turkey was there to badger the Trump administration into enabling a Turkish offensive, using Turkish-backed extremist jihadist groups, to attack the US-backed SDF. Turkey got its way in October 2019, having sold US Central Command on a plan to let it do joint patrols in part of eastern Syria so it could first scout out the invasion routes, it then got the White House to order US troops to leave. State Department members, who hated Central Command's support of the Kurdish fighters, looked on with pleasure. The dysfunctionality of the Trump administration enabled chaos to unfold, and Kurdish activists like Hevrin Khalaf, a young woman, were hunted down and murdered by Turkey's jihadists.
Then the attacks stopped as Russia brokered a deal and Turkey and Russia carved up areas the US had formerly been present in. Russia, Iran and Turkey won and what was left was a smaller area governed by the AANES. However, that area is still an important and huge part of Syria.
The AANES suffered at the hands of the former US administration because of pro-Turkey elements in the administration. Those elements wanted to view the US-backed SDF as a "temporary, tactical and transactional" group, basically hired help to be sent to die fighting ISIS and then abandoned. This partnership was not what the people in eastern Syria wanted. They thought working with the US would mean border crossings open and access to things like vaccines during the pandemic and the ability to be protected from ISIS, and they were willing to secure it themselves. However US officials aimed to isolate them in 2018-2020, excluding them from opposition meetings and Geneva meetings, preventing the one place the US had influence from even attending talks. In short, the US disenfranchised all the people it ostensibly had helped free from the control of ISIS. Rather than demand a seat at the table, the pro-Turkey elements in DC sought to sabotage eastern Syria, close its borders and hope to isolate, starve and then destroy it with the same methods in which Hevrin Khalaf had been hunted down. This was a strange time, when the US had a large region that was working with the US, but key US officials wanted to work with extremists and chauvinist religious fanatics to fight their own partners using Turkey.
This chaos ended when the US administration wrapped things up in the fall of 2020. The autonomous region, with all its alphabet soup of organizations, such as the SDC and PYD and others which make up the complex and diverse governing and political party organs, had trouble getting traction in Washington. Many officials wouldn't meet its members, even though they were US allies, claiming the US doesn't work with "sub-state entities." This was bizarre, because the US regularly meets with all sorts of groups, including parties from the Palestinian territories and groups from Idlib in Syria. There was a lobby in DC to prevent the groups from eastern Syria getting access and those groups also had no experience working with Americans prior to 2014.
The uphill struggle they have faced is immense. Having sacrificed some 11,000 fighters to defeat ISIS, and worked with Americans closely since 2015, admired by the Coalition and special forces who have served with them, administering an area where women and minorities have rights, they now want some status and recognition. Again, this is an uphill struggle because the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan and has closed many facilities in Iraq. Those like McGurk, who know the SDF, were recently in Iraq but high level meetings with AANES figures are rare. Mazloum Abdi, or Ilham Ahmed and others have not received the face time they need from officials in Washington. This new US administration of Joe Biden has many other issues on its plate.
Among the backers of the desire for status is the US Committee on International Religious Freedom and its leader Nadine Maenza. Backers of this movement argue that "the revolution of Rojava is firstly revolution of women who fight against the barbarian Islamic state. It is time to recognize the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria." They see this area as a beacon of hope in the region against totalitarianism and nationalist dictatorships. Critics will point out that eastern Syria is still run mostly as a one party state, even though it has a huge number of different groups and entities within it. That being said, the US has worked with many other regions and groups that are not carbon copies of democracy as it is practiced in Vermont, and yet the US has worked with those places. Activists argue that the international community can do the same and recognized this area and make sure it has a seat at the table.
The attempts to deny them that seat have long tradition in the US and has been made possible by a revolving door of former Trump administration officials who often served at key levels, including in the State Department, who have now gone on to think tanks where they continue to support Turkey's authoritarian regime. For groups that want women's rights and don't like Ankara's extremism, there is an uphill struggle because Ankara has deep pockets and has many friends in US official circles that have put Ankara's interests before US interests for decades. They did this even to the extent of preferring to work with a hostile Ankara than with US partners and allies in places like eastern Syria. This illustrates the struggle that the poor and vulnerable and minorities face today, whether in Syria or other places, when coming up against authoritarian regimes that are able to have strong lobbies in the West, including powerful state-run media.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.