The destruction of ISIS as a territorial entity in March 2019, has allowed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella of Kurdish and Arab fighters, to control about a third of Syria’s territory where millions of Syrians reside, most of them non-Kurds. The “Autonomous Self-Administration of North and East Syria,” the civilian body governing northeast and eastern Syria, is the latest evolution of the political project of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).1 The Self-Administration has adopted a rhetoric of “brotherhood of the people,” self-governance, and has worked to promote coexistence and mutual recognition between the diverse populations inhabiting the area. At the same time, it has been loath to relinquish any significant decision-making power to both Kurdish communities and the titular political and military leadership of the Arab participants in the Self-Administration and SDF. According to locals in Arab-majority cities under SDF control, this marginalization of Arabs in the governance of their areas is breeding discontent and disengagement of educated and experienced Arabs from the management of their regions.2
The PYD was established in 2003 by Syrian members of the PKK guerilla group operating against Turkey, often launching attacks from the Qandil Mountains region of Iraq, where the group’s leadership is based. The ideology of the PKK and PYD is based on the writings of the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, which have undergone a shift over the years. His latest works rejects centralization and the notion of the nation state. Previously he supported the establishment of an independent centralized Kurdistan, and called for a devolution of power to neighborhood local councils, named communes, the building blocks of the self-administration system.
On the ground in northeastern Syria, however, communes and other elected governance units are mainly a vehicle for service distribution, information gathering, control over the population and to give the appearance of popular participation. Decision-making remains centralized in the hands of the cadres, PKK vanguards, men and women, who have been trained in Qandil Mountains and were active in the insurgency against Turkey or in mobilizing on behalf of the PKK in Europe. These individuals are mostly Syrians, but left their homes decades ago to join the PKK. Following the establishment of an autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria in 2012, as the Assad regime withdrew its forces from the region to push back against rebel advances elsewhere, these individuals “came from the [Qandil] Mountains.”3
Despite the deep ideological commitment of the PKK to the leftist feminist vision of Öcalan, the movement’s leaders have come up short in implementing it in Arab-majority areas. For instance, the curriculum developed by the Self-Administration has only been implemented in schools in Kurdish-majority areas (also known as Rojava), while in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Manbij, students continue to follow the Syrian regime’s curriculum without the Baathist ideology classes.4 In addition, family laws promulgated by the self-administration, such as the one banning bigamy, are not implemented in Arab-majority areas. Kurdish officials explained that communities outside of Kurdish-majority Rojava would require an adjustment period before such laws or drastic changes to the education system could be implemented.
Despite the cadres’ pragmatism and their willingness to customize and alter policies and approaches, they have been loath to relinquish power. Decisions, big and small, in both Kurdish-majority and Arab areas, are usually made by them. While Arabs have been appointed to leading military and civilian positions in all Arab-majority areas, the cadres, who are labeled as “advisers” to the local Arab leaders, make most decisions, at times overriding the Arabs officially in charge. An activist in Deir Ezzor describes the Kurdish cadres present across officially Arab-led bodies as “the new Alawis,” referring to the sect of the Assad family, whose members hold most of the powerful positions in Assad’s Syria. “They come down from the [Qandil] mountains and try to rule our areas, which they do not understand,” said the leader of a major tribe in Deir Ezzor.5
In one major military council in an Arab-majority city, lower-ranked Kurdish fighters mocked the co-chair of the council, an Arab man, referring to him as “Bedouin” (badu) and expressed surprise when one of the authors pointed out that the man is well-informed and provided useful information about the area where he was born and raised.6 The female co-chair of a provincial civilian council in an Arab-majority area, described an outlook common among her coworkers “we have trust in our Kurdish partner, but they do not trust us.” She added: “the cadres are always present” to keep track of the work of the Arab leaders of the council. “On top of an Arab commander there is always a Kurdish one,” she said.7 Conversations with Kurdish SDF commanders reveal perceptions of Arabs residing in eastern Syria as deeply tribal, prone to internal conflict, unprincipled and untrustworthy.8 However, this mistrust of the population manifests in Kurdish regions as well. “The party [PYD] does not trust the community because they see the population as ignorant and not versed in the ideology,” of self-administration, said a former PYD member when explaining the dysfunction of the commune system in his city, Qamislo.9
In some Arab-majority areas, the Self-Administration has chosen to work through tribal leaders (sheikhs or shuyukh), as opposed to educated professionals. Arab activists and professionals have largely refused to accept positions within the Self-Administration institutions that they see as fig leaves for the real central apparatus. They perceive the decision to work with the shuyukh as a purposeful policy intended to empower more pliable and largely non-ideological shuyukh, at the expense of more “revolutionary” educated young people who would be less amenable to transactional politics.10
According to politicians, activists, and tribal figures in Deir Ezzor, this has resulted in the disempowerment of Arabs in the province, which in turn is contributing to the alarming resurgence in ISIS sleeper-cell attacks in the region. The co-chair of a civilian council in eastern Syria warned that the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq stemmed from Sunni disenfranchisement, and the same scenario could repeat itself in eastern Syria due to disenfranchisement of Sunni Arabs.11 Locals who perceive SDF presence in the region as a foreign occupation, as opposed to a local body representative of the region’s people, are unlikely to risk retribution from ISIS to provide intelligence to the SDF to counter ISIS cells operating in the vast eastern desert. The leader of a major tribe in Deir Ezzor put it this way: “If I know that my cousin is working with ISIS, would I report him to an administration that does not represent me, going against tribal traditions, or will I keep quiet, and maybe even help him?”12
As the International Coalition combatting ISIS seeks to protect the northeast from Turkish attacks, this is an opportune moment to utilize the leverage of the Coalition and encourage the PYD to empower both Arab and Kurdish communities and allow for their true self-administration. The highly experienced cadres were instrumental in speedily setting up the governance system and fending off attacks from Syrian rebels and later from ISIS, but their continued dominance of decision-making is having a detrimental effect on the stability of the region. The end of major combat operation against ISIS provides an opportunity to reduce centralization without significant security risks. Empowerment of local communities would increase popular buy-in among members of all communities, encourage Arabs to participate in rebuilding their communities, and possibly help limit ISIS’ resurrection in Syria.
Yet, the Kurdish leadership appear to doubt the ability of Arab and Kurdish populations in northeastern Syria to govern themselves. Decades of living under oppressive Ba’ath rule that banned all civil society and independent political activism, in addition to the poor state of the region’s educational system, have surely had a detrimental effect on the capacity of local actors. However, the areas under the governance of the Self-Administration are home to capable individuals, many of them young and politically savvy, who could shepherd their communities into real self-administration. The Coalition’s leverage as the guarantor of the region’s autonomy and reduced security threats in the northeast provide an opportunity to push for true decentralization.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking focusing on Syria and Iraq. She can be followed on Twitter @Elizrael. Esam al-Hassan is a researcher based in Deir Ezzor focused on tribal politics.
The article is based on interviews the authors conducted with civilian and military leaders, activists, tribal figures, and civilians in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Amûdê, Qazlajeq, Qamislo and Manbij in April 2019 and July 2019.
1“Final statement of Autonomous Administration of North, East Syria,” Hawar News, September 7, 2018. https://hawarnews.com/en/haber/final-statement-of-autonomous-administration-of-north-east-syria-h3608.html
2Interviews with local civilian administrators, tribal leaders and activists from Manbij, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
3Interview with a long-time PKK fighter and commander from Syria who returned to Syria after over a decade in the Qandil Mountains, Qamislo, April 2019. Also see: “The PKK’s Fateful Choice in Northern Syria,” International Crisis Group, May 2017. https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/176-pkk-s-fateful-choice-northern-syria
4Interview with Samia Hajj Ali, the Co-Chair of the Education Ministry of the Self-Administration, Qamislo, April 2019.
5Interviews with local activist and tribal leader, Deir Ezzor, July 2019.
6Interview with the co-chair of a military local council in an Arab-majority city, July 2019.
7Interview with the co-chair of a civilian local council in an Arab-majority area, July 2019.
8Interviews with SDF leaders across Hassakeh province, July 2019.
9Interview with former PYD member, Qamislo, April 2019.
10Interviews with activists and educated professionals from Manbij, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
11Interview with co-chair of a civilian council in an Arab-majority area, July 2019.
12Interview with a sheikh in an Arab-majority area who is working with the SDF, countryside of Deir Ezzor, July 2019.