What would official recognition of the Kurdish autonomous region mean for northeast Syria?
On Sunday night, officials of the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) called for the UN to recognise the nascent political body as an autonomous political entity.
Elham Ahmad, the president of the executive council of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) which governs the AANES, asked that the AANES be included “in all dialogue regarding the country’s political future.”
Activists also launched an online campaign on social media in support of the AANES’s call for recognition under the hashtag “#Status4NorthAndEastSyria.”
On the anniversary of the declaration of what would become the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, we call for official political recognition and inclusion in all dialogue regarding the country's future.— Elham Ahmad (@ElhamAhmadSDC) July 18, 2021
The call for international recognition came as the AANES celebrated the 9th anniversary of what it calls the “Rojava Revolution,” when the Syrian Kurds formed what would soon become the Autonomous Administration.
The AANES, despite not enjoying any official status in the international community, plays an important role in Syria and within geopolitical calculations in the region.
The political body controls about a third of Syria’s territory, in which over 70 percent of Syria’s wheat crops are grown and the vast majority of the country’s oil is concentrated. The AANES, through its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), also led the charge to retake northeast Syria from the Islamic State (IS), and continues to conduct anti-IS raids alongside the US-led anti-IS Coalition.
Still, the lack of official recognition of the AANES creates considerable challenges for the authority. Chief among them is the lack of ability to repatriate or try the some 43,000 foreign former members of IS and their family members who are languishing in camps and prisons across northeast Syria.
"Officials of the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria have called for the UN to recognise the nascent political body as an autonomous political entity"
The detention of these tens of thousands of individuals is not only a human rights concern due to the dire living conditions of the camps they are held in, but also a huge financial burden on the increasingly cash-strapped political authority.
The AANES has called for these foreigners to be repatriated by their home countries, but with few exceptions, states have mostly refused repatriation requests. Several of these states have justified the lack of repatriation with the explanation that they do not have official relations with the AANES and that if their citizens seek repatriation, they will have to file for it in the nearest embassy, which is in Iraq.
The AANES has called for an international tribunal to try former IS fighters - both foreign and local - to no avail. One of the chief obstacles to a future tribunal is the fact that the AANES is a non-state actor. Any such court taking place on Syrian territory would need the permission of Damascus - which is unlikely to cooperate without significant concessions from the international community.
Equally important to the impact official recognition will have on the AANES’s relations with external actors is how it will affect its relations with other Syrian revolutionary actors and Damascus itself.
The AANES and all of its affiliated political bodies were noticeably excluded from the UN constitutional committee, which is a series of dialogues between the Syrian opposition and regime meant to produce a new constitution.
The constitutional committee, though now mostly seen as dead on arrival after five inconclusive rounds of discussion, is in theory the foundation to any political solution of the Syrian civil war under UN security resolution 2254.
The exclusion of the Kurdish-led political authority is primarily due to two factors.
The first is the bad blood between the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and the AANES.
The former sees the Kurdish-led political authority as compromising the revolutionary aims of the Syrian opposition to ensure its own autonomy, while the AANES view the Syrian opposition as cooperating with Turkey to weaken the authority. The AANES also view much of the opposition as being infiltrated by radical Islamic groups, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
The second factor is the Turkish objection to the AANES’ inclusion in the UN dialogue process. Ankara views the AANES as being dominated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an on-and-off again separatist war with Turkey over the last 40 years. Much of the National Coalition is based in Turkey, and thus toes Ankara’s line when it comes to the AANES and SDF.
In both scenarios, an official political recognition of the AANES makes their inclusion in future talks of the constitutional committee more likely.
Recognition of the authority would also “certainly put the Autonomous Administration in a stronger position in its negotiations with the regime,” Bazad Amou, an employee of the SDC media office, told The New Arab.
"There have long been tensions between the AANES and the tribal, and mostly Arab, populations of northeast Syria"
The AANES is currently negotiating with Damascus to secure its autonomous status within Syria, though negotiations have not substantially progressed since renewed efforts in fall 2019 following the Turkish Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria.
“The regime sees the solution as reconciliation and acceptance of its conditions without conceding to any of the demands of the Syrian people,” Amou explained. “International recognition prevents the regime from overreaching and fulfilling its military ambition to retake control [in northeast Syria].”
Is the AANES representative of northeast Syria?
Though activists and officials campaigning for the recognition of the AANES as a political entity sang its praises as a democratic and multi-ethnic political authority which respected the rights of the various ethnic and religious populations living under its control, the call for recognition did not come without its controversy.
“The SDF is controlled by Kurds without any real participation by other communities, and until now, most of the service projects in the area were implemented by NGOs, not by the [AANES],” Hussam Hammoud, a journalist and activist from Raqqa, told The New Arab.
The AANES administers northeast Syria through a network of local governance councils and ministries. At each level of governance, political bodies must adhere to the “co-chair” system, where leadership is made up of one Arab and one Kurd.
According to Hammoud, much of the Arab leadership in the AANES are “fronts hired to fabricate Arab participation in AANES,” when in fact “they have nothing to do with decision-making.” He pointed to an investigation he conducted, which alleges the PKK and SDF control key parts of Raqqa’s civic and political life by appointing Arabs as the fronts of civic and political bodies while they still run the show behind the scenes.
There have long been tensions between the AANES and the tribal, and mostly Arab, populations of northeast Syria.
In the summer of 2020, this conflict erupted into the open after a number of tribal sheikhs in Deir az-Zour province were assassinated. The affected tribe, the Aqidat, threatened an open war on the SDF if it did not withdraw from the eastern province.
To alleviate these tensions, the AANES has held a series of consultations with tribal elements throughout the territory, which culminated in a list of reforms. In addition, it promised some form of political autonomy for Deir az-Zour, though it remains unclear what this decentralization in practice.
Though the AANES and its supporters picture it as “safeguarding" the rights and ensuring equality of all the constituents in northeastern Syria, as Amou said, its critics would loathe for it to become the internationally recognized authority of the region.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou