Kurdish-led SDF dominates political life in Eastern Euphrates
Enab Baladi – Raqqa
Under a pseudonym on Facebook, an activist criticizes some of the excesses occuring in his city, Raqqa, after it was entirely controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in late 2017.
Refusing to be named for security reasons, one Raqqa-based activist told Enab Baladi that he had to quit political activism after the Islamic State (IS) wrested control of the city in 2014. However, political activities under the power of the SDF were not welcomed either.
Although northeastern Syria appears to be governed by a multiparty democratic system, the policy of one party and one leader remains the most dominant, as the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration is persistently accused of marginalizing Arabs and trying to appease the West while limiting the other local opinion.
Multiparty system with a single voice
As the revolution expanded over larger parts of Syria, Kurdish parties found the opportunity to break loose from the controls of Syria’s ruling Baath party.
The Kurdish National Council (KNC), which was established in October 2011 and offered an umbrella to the majority of the Syrian Kurdish parties, called upon the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to consider.
The PYD is the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’Party (PPK), which founded the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and expanded in areas that include the largest proportions of Kurds in northern Syria. The PYD was at odds with the KNC, which sought relations with the Syrian opposition and good neighborly relations with Turkey.
Turkey was fighting against the YPG and affiliated groups, which are designated as “terrorist organizations” like the PPK.” Therefore, when it consolidated its hold on the region, the PYD closed KNC’s offices in a sign of disagreement with the latter’s political trends.
On 21 January 2014, the Autonomous Administration in the al-Jazirah region was formed. After the IS’s advancement into the region, and on 10 Nov 2015, the SDF was created by the alliance of Kurdish, Christian, Syriac, and Arab factions. The SDF established the YPG, its military backbone. At the same time, it announced the formation of its political branch, called the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC).
The SDF was supported internationally in its war against the IS group, and it was able to control most of northeastern Syria. Then, the SDF initiated a set of civic activities, such as launching relief campaigns and awareness campaigns of war remnants and mine risks.
On 6 September 2018, the autonomous and civil administrations in northeastern Syria unified under the name “the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” (NES).
Gradually, Raqqa became the NES’s capital; it has the key institutions of the NES’s structure and the SDC.
The NES called for various activities and held events, which promoted the participation of all groups, ethnicities, and sects in the governance of the region. However, the KNC was not invited to participate in the inclusive national dialogue except after the 2019 Turkish offensive, code-named Operation Peace Spring, that advanced into northeastern Syria.
In a 3 January interview with Ronahi TV, a Kurdish media outlet, Ilham Ahmad, President of the SDC’s Executive Committee, said that this year the NES aims to establish a joint project with the Syrian opposition and all parties to the solution of the Syrian issue.
For his part, the Raqqa-based activist said that the political and democratic life that the SDF says is pulsating in its areas of control is restricted to its political enterprise, and no activity or party outside this framework appears.
Several parties are active in northeastern Syria, such as the Future Syria Party.
Some media outlets described this party as an attempt to “Arabize” the PYD’s political and military activity.
The PYD, known for its support of the NES, is accused of separatism and seeks to promote that its goal is to participate in resolving the “Syrian crisis,” especially after Turkey initiated several military operations against it.
Northeastern Syria also hosts the Syrian National Democratic Alliance, the Kurdish Left Party, and other parties and groups. They all belong to the SDC, which considers itself the only political umbrella in the NES-held areas.
Arabs without representation?
A human rights defender from the city of Raqqa, who declined to be named for security reasons, told Enab Baladi that he received an invitation to attend one of the sessions organized by the SDF in northeastern Syria during “The National Conference for the People of al-Jazirah and the Euphrates,” in November 2020, calling on political, cultural and tribal elites to dialogue.
The human rights defender pointed to several interventions in the session that address explicitly the discrimination against Arabs, that their presence has become a formality in institutions, and that the decision-makers are either Kurdish leaders or people directly associated with them.
Even in areas where Arabs represent the majority, such as Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Manbij, and Tabqa, “discriminatory” practices are committed against them. The human rights defender argued that Arabs lack a unified and clear political ideology, as they are divided over the support of the Syrian war parties: the Syrian regime, the opposition, the IS group, the Iranian presence, and the SDF.
Northeastern Syria, including the governorates of Raqqa, al-Hasakeh, and Deir Ezzor, are characterized by a tribal structure that the “majority” of the factions and the parties that took control of the region used as a winning card in passing their projects, the human rights defender told Enab Baladi.
“Non-spontaneous” rallies and slogans
Since its inception, the NES has had the support of Western countries with its fight against the IS group, which was notorious for its brutality and threat to Western countries. The SDF sought to benefit from its victory over the IS group and the given support in establishing its projects in the region, trying to deny the accusations that have been made against it, including discriminatory practices against Arabs, terrorist activities, recruitment of children, and others.
The organizational structure of the NES consists of the General Council and the Executive Council—functions like government departments that provide services. The operation of each institution is overseen by a cadre, a Kurdish leader who must be of Syrian origin, and a member of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Withholding his name for security reasons, an employee in the Raqqa Civilian Council told Enab Baladi that he was forced to quit his job because he does not want to be “like a bridge that allow weird ideas cross to our society.”
The former employee confirmed to Enab Baladi that he was wallowing “a lot” in disappointment and dissatisfaction when working in the NES-linked institution. The SDF organized marches and demonstrations, forcing its employees to chant selective slogans that match only their thoughts and ideas, similar to what the Syrian government-run institutions do with its employees.
The “cadre,” according to the former employee, is responsible for gathering employees and directing them to participate in the marches and imbue them with slogans that often speak of hostility to Turkey and “liberating women” from “male domination.”
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