What is the future for the democratic revolution trying to unfold in North and East Syria?
“In the Name of the General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces and on behalf of all our allies who fought with us in the same trenches, we announce today the destruction of the so-called Islamic State Organization and the end of its ground control in its last pocket in Baguoz region.”
Isis defeated, militarily at least. Turkey’s threats ongoing. And U.S. confusion deepening; what is the future for the democratic revolution trying to unfold in North and East Syria?
On Saturday (March 23), the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces announced the end of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate, declared across large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq in 2014.
The SDF in the statement they released said:
“This victory was extremely expensive, as more than 11 thousand of our forces, leaders and fighters, were martyred as well as civilian victims who were the target of ISIS and more than 21 thousand fighters were seriously injured.”
Likewise the International Coalition, headed by the U.S., in their statement added:
“’The end of the so called physical caliphate is a historic military accomplishment that brought together the largest Coalition in history, but the fight against Daesh and violent extremism is far from over,’ said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera, Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve commanding general.
“’It is important for us to remember all those who died during the fight against Daesh. During this four-year campaign, thousands of Syrian Democratic Forces and Iraqi Security Forces did not return to their families. I pray for your losses, and for a speedy recovery of your wounded,’ said LaCamera. ‘We also cannot forget our Coalition members who saw their last full measure of devotion in the pursuit of defeating Daesh. These Coalition and partner force fighters put their nation’s needs before their own and defended the world against the threat of Daesh. They represented the best of their country. We must never forget their courage, dedication, and sacrifice.’
“LaCamera continued, ‘The 74 nation and five international organization Coalition will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization.’”
And so ends, for the moment, the jihadist attack on the ‘apostate’ Kurds (and Christians and Yazidis, etc.) which began to unfold in the Kurdish city of Kobane, in late 2014, a struggle which also marched hand in hand with the development of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) / Rojava.
“It is worth mentioning that the battle for Kobani became the symbol of the global resistance against terrorism and the turning point in the defeat of ISIS. Now, after five years of fighting, we stand here to declare the physical defeat of ISIS and the end of its public challenge against all human beings.” SDF Press
The defeat of ISIS/Daesh does not however mean the end of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s problems… rather it has resulted in the fledgling revolution being caught in a vice-like grip between the machinations of the regional power brokers (Russia, Turkey, the U.S and Iran) while being militarily threatened on an ongoing basis and from each direction respectively by Erdoğan’s Turkey and “the Assad dynasty” in Damascus.
Turkey’s threats ongoing
Having launched two invasions into Syrian Kurdish territory (Operation Euphrates and the recent assault on Afrin, given the green light by the Russians) President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made repeated threats to attack the Syrian autonomous regions both in the northwestern Arab city of Manbij and east of the Euphrates River, massing his army on the borders with Rojava; his most recent threats cynically made in the run up to the recent local elections in Turkey.
However Turkey is limited in its capacity by Russia “who has has told the SDF that if the US withdraws its troops from Manbij it will immediately dispatch forces to deter any Turkish attack on the city”, unlike its attitude to the assault on Afrin, where instead Turkey was given the green-light for an aerial bombardment that guaranteed the loss of the region to the Autonomous Administration as well as countless dead and injured and over 150,000 refugees surviving with little international support.
Likewise, the recent announcement by the Americans that they will maintain a reduced US troop presence east of the Euphrates is likely to deter the Turkish forces from launching their threatened offensive. Likely. Not guaranteed.
Earlier in the year, the SDF announced that after the defeat of ISIS it would seek to liberate Afrin from Turkish occupation as well as facilitating the return of the Afrin refugees currently surviving in the IDP camps in Shehba Canton.
“We are preparing and making arrangements in order to liberate Afrin … Because this is a military matter, everyone should know that when the time is suitable, the liberation phase will begin,” Ferhat Abdi Sahin, who is known by his nom de guerre “Mazloum Kobane” said in an interview with the Kurdish Sterk TV.” (Mazloum Kobane , General Commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces)
The General Command of the Syrian Democratic Forces also said:
“We also call on Turkey to stop interfering in Syrian internal affairs and to stop its constant threat to its security and to immediately exit from Syrian territory, especially Afrin, and to adopt dialogue as a way to resolve outstanding problems in the region based on mutual respect and good neighborly relations.”
U.S. confusion deepens
Donald Trump had announced, (apparently after a telephone call with NATO ally Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) in December 2018 that he would withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Since then confusion has reigned with the major players seeking to expand their sphere of influence while the Kurds have remained relatively isolated. No friends but the mountains? And history, once more, repeating itself?
Following his announcement, Donald Trump subsequently said “the US withdrawal would be coordinated with Turkey, who would take over the reins of the war on ISIS”. Shortly after this he decided he would slow down the withdrawal. Then maybe he would to leave some troops in neighboring Iraq. Now, most recently, Mr. Trump has agreed to leave about “400 troops in Syria — 200 in a multinational force in the northeastern part of the country and another 200 at a small outpost in the southeast, where they will seek to counter Iran’s influence throughout the country.” (New York Times, February 22)
It appears now the U.S. force will be part of a proposed multinational force of between 800 and 1,500 troops from the NATO countries. “At a security conference in Munich last week, British and French officials were adamant with their American counterparts and in interviews that neither country would commit to ground troops in Syria unless the United States did so as well. They continued to balk, even after American military officials argued that London or Paris was more likely to be attacked by a resurgent Islamic State than New York or Washington.” (New York Times) Its objective being to prevent a resurgence of ISIS/Daesh as well as addressing some of Turkey’s concerns about its border with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Not that that is likely to encourage it to ease its pressure on the Syrian Kurds, let alone its own citizen-Kurds in south east Turkey (Northern Kurdistan).
Whether this signals an end to Trump’s confusion and supports developments in a post-conflict Syria we must wait and see; in particular (and to the dismay of many of the armchair leftists critical of this arrangement) by supporting the Kurds and their Christian and Muslim Arab allies in negotiations with Assad and his masters (Russia, Iran) all the while aware that Turkey is always prepared to light any available fuse in this tormented region to prolong the bloodshed and murder for its own ends.
The question now has to be: how will the situation stabilise and will the outcome of the current manoeuvers be of benefit to the single genuine democratic initiative in the region, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria / Rojava?
…Or will the allies (Russia and Iran, with its own Kurdish ‘problem’) of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad allow him to once again consign the dreams of the Kurds to mountain caves and another era of guerilla warfare?
The SDF Press Office:
“Just as the Syrian democratic forces have helped people in the liberated areas to build their administrative and security institutions, they will also contribute to the stability of the regions so that these areas can rebuild their administrative and legislative councils through democratic and transparent elections.
“In this context, we call on the central government in Damascus to choose the process of dialogue and begin the practical steps to reach a political solution based on the recognition of elected self-administrations in the north-east of Syria and acceptance of the uniqueness of the Syrian democratic forces…”
Sad to say the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad does not appear to be impressed.
The Syrian Arab Republic
The Syrian Kurds began their experiment in radical democracy in 2012 when al-Assad’s regime withdrew most of its forces from Rojava to fight the uprisings breaking out elsewhere in the country.
Having defeated the Syrian opposition groups with the help of the Russians and Iran, Assad now controls about two thirds of Syria, but the northeast remains outside of his control. He has pledged to return this area to the control of his less than popular regime.
The SDF Press Office
“The main factor in the success of the Syrian democratic forces in its war against terrorism was its adoption of the democratic approach, the principles of the democratic nation, the freedom of women, the principles of coexistence and brotherhood of peoples, which brought together Kurd, Arab, Syriac, Assyrian, Turkoman, Chechen, Circassian and international fighters under the Syrian democratic forces flag.”
And still the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is not impressed. After a recent meeting in Damascus with Iranian and Iraqi chiefs of staff, the Syrian defense minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub told reporters:
“Preserving the unity of the Syrian state geographically and human-wise is not negotiable and not up for discussion… The Syrian state will regain full control over all of its geography sooner or later, whether through reconciliation or military force. Idlib won’t be an exception at all…”
Along with the territories currently being organised by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is at present, with Turkish support, under the control of the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Currently a truce is maintained between Russia and Turkey which “has so far prevented a bloody regime offensive”.
And so, it seems, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not willing to negotiate any form of autonomy to the Kurds in Rojava and, if allowed, will use force to reclaim these areas.
Meanwhile, the SDF has, more than once, expressed “its desire to avoid potential conflict with Damascus and consistently advocated negotiations. Its two primary conditions for negotiations are legal recognition of its autonomy and the preservation of the SDF – in other words something loosely resembling the Kurdistan Region of neighboring Iraq and its Peshmerga forces.”
The Syrian Democratic Forces
Along with its willingness to negotiate with the Syrian Regime, last February the General Military Council of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced:
“The meeting considered that the liberation of Afrin and the return of its original inhabitants to their homes and stop the processes of demographic change [among] their priorities in the next stage…
“The Turkish state is the actual and direct occupation of the Syrian territories in Afrin, al-Bab, Jarablus and Idlib. The meeting affirmed its desire to solve problems with the Turkish state through dialogue and mutual respect.
“At the same time, we stressed the full readiness to protect our areas in the event of any aggression and welcome the establishment of the buffer zone under international supervision in order to establish security and peace on our northern border…”
This statement of its right to defend itself militarily is to include both Turkey and the Assad regime while calling on the Syrian regime for “the constitutional recognition of the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria.”
…The SDF stating:
“In this context, we call on the central government in Damascus to choose the process of dialogue and begin the practical steps to reach a political solution based on the recognition of elected self-administrations in the north-east of Syria and acceptance of the uniqueness of the Syrian democratic forces.”
And so, possibly, both the first genuinely democratic revolution of the 21st century, as well as the Kurds themselves, once more find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
“Dialogue is necessary, but there is a difference between the proposals that create dialogue and others which create a partition, and we should focus on the common things,” Presidents Assad is reported to have said in a February 17 statement, according to the Syrian state-run SANA.
At the same time US Army Lt. Gen. Paul LaCamera quoted above “warned that the United States will stop working with the SDF altogether if they make a deal with Assad.
“Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, [or] the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them…”
Finally, it seems that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) continues to look abroad, to the international community, seeking recognition for its existence and support for its work, at the least in guaranteeing that the militarily defeated jihadists of Daesh will be unable to launch further attacks on the region (and elsewhere), and beyond that, that the conditions that have created so much war, violence and terrorism be addressed.
Whether the work of Ilham Ahmed, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council (the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces) – “In recent months, she has traveled in the US and Europe, negotiating the future of a domain that is home to an estimated 5 to 6 million people, including a substantial portion of Syria’s 6.2 million internally displaced persons” (Debbie Bookchin) – will bear fruit, or the fruit it needs: “…self-administration…The group wants the Assad regime to both acknowledge the administration of northeastern Syria and make fundamental changes to the Syrian Constitution, including establishing a parliamentary system where local governments are represented. The new constitution must also include gender equality; religious, ethnic, and cultural freedom; and “the right to be different…” (Ilham Ahmed).
She should have history on her side:
“The Palestinian and Kurdish struggles of today are not going to disappear until there is a broad transformation in the state system in the Middle East that redresses the inequities imposed 100 years ago. Yet if the present great powers are going to continue to reject these calls, the ongoing instability is likely to produce more nefarious forces that have other ideas.” (Mark Curtis)
As Debbie Bookchin pointed out recently in the New York Review of Books:
“Since the battle of Kobane in 2014, the Kurds have relied on US and Coalition air support to beat back ISIS and stave off other hostile actors. At a cost of 11,000 lives and thousands more wounded, the SDF pushed ISIS first from Kobane, and then from town after town, across northern Syria. It’s time for the Western powers of the Coalition to repay their debt to their SDF allies in the fight against ISIS by recognizing the NES diplomatically.”
“Many of the roots—such as tribal chauvinism, religious fundamentalism, economic inequality—that fed the growth of ISIS in Iraq and parts of Syria outside of the NES region, are largely absent in Rojava, officials argue. But to ensure that those elements don’t surface, (Ilham) Ahmed said, ‘We need an organized campaign against the cult of ISIS. This will require personnel, financial and material support.’”
These are uncertain times for the Kurds and all those wishing to develop a new form of democracy in this troubled region.
Maybe someone should point out to the Western states their responsibility in creating so many of these problems – in the hope that they will wake up, “get the finger out”, and contribute to their resolution?
Image: Kurdish YPG Fighters – Efrin
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