Washington Kurdish Institute
November 26, 2017
Since the formation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October of 2015, this multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of armed groups in northern Syria has achieved successive victories against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the terror group that, just years ago, was conquering land unchallenged and posing a major threat to international security. The establishment of the SDF occurred after the heroic resistance and ultimate victory by the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its female fighting force, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). ISIS sent waves of fighters to the Kobani front but was nonetheless ultimately repulsed and defeated and, according to some reports, they lost 25% of their fighters in this battle. Following the landmark defeat of ISIS in Kobani, the US-led coalition facilitated the establishment of the SDF. Inspired by the Kurdish people’s resistance, the SDF was initially a majority Kurdish force but, with time and successive victories, is now 60% Arab fighters along with Kurds, Christians, and Turkmens.
Over the past two years, the SDF was able to liberate thousands of square miles from ISIS including the de facto capital of ISIS territory (the so-called “caliphate”), Raqqa, and several other strategic towns and cities including Manbij, Tabqa, and al-Hawl. The support provided by the US-led coalition to the SDF was essential and, without it, ISIS would still exist and as major military power and governing entity as it did in 2014. In Operation Wrath of Euphrates, the campaign to liberate Raqqa, the SDF fought for 11 months and liberated about 4,500 square miles from the control of ISIS. In this military operation, ISIS lost 1,367 fighters, and tens of thousands of people were liberated the control of the terror group. In the campaign to liberate Manbij, the SDF eliminated over 4,000 ISIS members, captured tens of terrorists, and seized tens of car bombs and thousands of small arms. Today Manbij is part of the Northern Syrian Federation along with other Provinces and enjoys stability, where women are free and governing themselves. The concept of democratic self-governance taught and practiced by the Syrian Kurds is a significant factor that helped the SDF achieve stability in newly liberated areas following years of oppression and torture in these regions. The success of the SDF in both winning battles and protecting the peace and promoting the growth of a democratic society has given birth to the best case scenarios in Syria, a country still wracked by the most violent of civil wars – in northern Syria, one can find an example secular, decentralized self-rule free divorced from the chauvinism and brutality that is characteristic of not only ISIS, but also the murderous, Arab supremacist Assad regime and other terror groups such as al-Qaida and Ahrar al-Sham.
The Northern Syria Federation was indeed initially a project of the Kurdish people of Syria, but was designed to embrace and protect all peoples of Syria and now a number of non-Kurdish areas are included in the federal structure. Despite being established in the backdrop of the one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, this experiment with self-governance has enjoyed success due to a number of important factors:
- The Northern Syria Federation is based on a multi-ethnic society: Unlike all other governing bodies in the entire Middle East, the self-administration system of the Northern Syria Federation is not based on any concept of basic nationalism or ethnic or religious superiority. In March 2016, when the establishment of the federal system was first proclaimed, the system was officially called the “Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria – Rojava,” with Rojava meaning “West”, a reference to western Kurdistan (i.e., the portion of Kurdistan that lies within Syria’s borders). When the success of the SDF in liberating more land from the control of ISIS pushed out the borders of the federal unit to include non-Kurdish areas in the federal unit, the constituent assembly of the federal unit voted without hesitation to remove the word “Rojava” from the official name of the federation, in recognition of the increasingly multi-ethnic nature of the constituents of the federation and the ultimate goal of offering a better life for all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity, through a new federal system. For the past five years, Kurdish majority areas have hosted millions of internally displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, the overwhelming majority of whom are Arabs. Most of these IDPs are from Idlib, Aleppo, Maa’re, and the Shahba region. Despite facing their own existential threats and deadly economic blockades, the Kurds of these regions have not hesitated to host these Arab IDPs.
- Religious freedom: Within the federal system, Christianity, Islam, and other religions coexist and the expression and practice of all beliefs are protected – a stark contrast to the situation in many areas under the control of Syrian Islamic opposition parties, where indigenous Syrian Christians are intimidated, persecuted and displaced. Citizens of the federal system are free to practice their religion or embrace secularism, and there are no militant Islamic groups active within the borders of the federation, contributing greatly to the region’s stability and safety, even as the rest of Syria struggles as radical Islamic movements such as ISIS and al-Qaida enforce their oppressive rule on the local population while also fighting each other.
- Gender equality: Gender equality is a major principle underlying the federal system in northern Syria. The brave female fighters of the YPJ and SDF have captivated the world, but this is just one important demonstration of the embracement of gender equality and women’s liberation in northern Syria. Within the civilian governmental system, co-chairs – one male and one female – preside over all decision-making bodies, from the highest assembly to the local communes. It would be no exaggeration to say that northern Syria has taken more strict measures than leading western democracies to give women a voice.
- Low levels of corruption: Corruption is nearly non-existent within the federation as strict term limits are enforced on elected officials and, thus, legally mandated peaceful transfer of power is unavoidable. The transition of the power is smooth, and so far there have been no reports by any international organization concerning mismanagement and corruption. Unlike Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where bad governance is a culture and has played a major role in the rise of extremist movements and mass emigration.
At present, the Syrian Arab opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime is divided into hundreds of groups, the most effective fighting force of which is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed in January 2017 by the merger of various groups including al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafist armed groups including Ahrar al-Sham and the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement. When the US, with the urging and support of Turkey, formally assisted the supposed moderate Arab rebels in Syria with weapons and training worth approximately $500 million, there was ultimately nothing to show for such efforts – supposedly moderate fighters were defeated or defected to Salafist groups, and their weapons ended up in the hands of these radical organizations, who make no secret of their desire to establish a religious state, and already enforce draconian measures on those over whom they rule in Syria.
On the other side, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has retained his grip on power by stifling all forms of dissent and working hand in hand with Iranian-backed groups and the Russian armed forces to use extreme force against armed foes and civilians alike. While the Assad regime and one party Ba’athist state is fond of reminding the world of its supposed secularism in contrast to its Salafist foes, it offers the people of Syria no real future – the Ba’athist vision is one of Arab ethnic primacy, no freedom of speech or thought, and Assad family rule enforced by torture and a strong, pervasive network of surveillance.
The Northern Syria Federation remains deprived of any recognition by the US or the European Union (EU) despite playing a leading role in freeing Syria from the ISIS terror group and decreasing this grave security threat to Europe and the US, liberating millions of people, and establishing a region that is based on the protection of universal human rights. While the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran disagree on many issues, so far they have agreed to exclude the Kurds of Syria from talks concerning the future of the country. To date, such internationally recognized summits on Syria have never included representation from the Northern Syria Federation or the Kurdish people, and they have yet to achieve any tangible result. The eighth round of talks in Geneva peace talks scheduled, but again without representations of the Northern Syria Federation or the Kurdish people of Syria. Indeed, many fear a repeat of the scenario which recently unfolded in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the US seemingly allowed Iranian-backed elements to forcibly take control over Kurdish areas of the country.
The animosity of Iran, Iraq, the Syrian regime, and Turkey toward the Kurds is well established and has always united them against the Kurds. However, there is no reason that the US should share this view and, indeed, it is a position contrary to the protection of US interests in the region for a variety of reasons, including:
- Friendly outpost in the Middle East: Similar to Iraqi Kurdistan, the Northern Syrian Federation is friendly toward the west and the US in particular. The military assistance and cooperation, especially during Kobani attacks, has provided a strong basis for relations and mutual respect between the people of the region and the US. Together with Iraqi Kurdistan region, the US can potentially retain an area of operations and military outpost in the midst of a hostile neighborhood, in close proximity to potential threats.
- Counterweight against Iran: Iran, a well-established state sponsor of terror, has significant influence in Damascus and Baghdad. With Iranian-backed armed groups within Hashd al-Sha’bi in Iraq gaining increasing prominence and Hezbollah maintaining a strong independent militia in Lebanon, Iran is a power broker far west beyond its borders, all the way to Beirut. A strong and secure Northern Syria Federation backed by political and military aid would weaken and disrupt Iranian influence in the region.
- Turkey is a dubious ally at best: Turkey, a fellow NATO member that was generally allied with the US during the Cold War, has played a very negative role in Syria from the beginning of the current crisis, supporting terror groups, bombing the YPG and SDF, and then sanctioning the perpetuation of the Assad regime. US-Turkish relations have reached a historical low point due to policies by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an unapologetic Islamist who has increasingly established himself as an authoritarian ruler unable to be questioned within Turkey’s borders. It took Turkey more than a year to grant permission to the US allowing the US Armed Forces to use the NATO base in Incirlik to battle ISIS. As Erdogan continues to purge all pockets of potential opposition within Turkey following a failed coup that many of his supporters insist was planned and supported by the US, Turkey has banned the issuance of visas to US citizens. Separately, German troops left Turkey over disputes with Erdogan over human rights. The US must find alternatives to an increasingly hostile and unstable Turkey. Northern Syria can easily replace Turkey as a military ally in the region, and the US already has several bases and approximately 2,000 soldiers based in northern Syria.
- Countering Assad: The brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad has historically been hostile to the US – following the US-led coalition toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad assisted Ba’athist and jihadist terrorists who targeted US forces in Iraq, and the connection between Assad and Iran goes back decades. The Northern Syria Federation and US trained and equipped SDF provide a political and military alternative to the hostile Assad regime and the Syrian armed forces with their track record of war crimes and mass murder of civilians.
- Protection of US allies in the Middle East: It is no secret that the US seeks to protect certain historic allies in the Middle East including Israel and certain Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and its close allies. The northern Syrian Federation is not hostile to any of these states.
If America wants to counter extremism and dictatorship in the Middle East, the Northern Syria Federation and SDF as a military force provide a model for the region. In the absence of US support, the people of northern Syria may be forced to seek support from Russia to protect themselves. The US gained greatly in assisting the SDF in their successful battle against ISIS, and the SDF gladly accepted this assistance in facing an existential threat. However, as ISIS has been largely neutralized following the sacrifice of thousands of Kurds and their allies in northern Syria, there is certainly no guarantee that the US will continue to help the SDF. As threats from Turkey and Turkish backed forces as well as those from the Syrian regime and other groups show no sign of abating, many wonder if the US will now abandon the people of northern Syria just as they looked the other way when Iranian-backed forces seized control of Kurdish areas in Iraq.
Video: SDF rescues civilinas from ISIS