AANES fails to draw closer to internal Syrian sides

Residents of the town of al-Darbasiyah elect municipal council members as part of preliminary elections in the areas under the Autonomous Administration - May 2024 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Residents of the town of al-Darbasiyah elect municipal council members as part of preliminary elections in the areas under the Autonomous Administration - May 2024 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Signs of escalation appeared in northeastern Syria following the announcement by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) controlling the region of its intention to launch municipal elections in the areas under its control, a move rejected by local and international bodies.

The Autonomous Administration has postponed its elections twice in a row, while Turkey has consistently condemned the elections, viewing this step as an attempt to establish a state on its southern border within Syrian territory.

No sooner had the Autonomous Administration postponed its elections for the second time at the beginning of last June than Turkish statements began to rise again, emphasizing the need to normalize relations with the Syrian regime, which it had regarded as an enemy for 13 years, with the aim of combating the activities of organizations listed on its “terrorism” list.

Turkey considers the Autonomous Administration an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a “terrorist” organization by both Turkey and the United States, and some European countries.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced at the end of last June his intention to invite Syrian regime President Bashar al-Assad for a personal meeting in Turkey, while the Autonomous Administration viewed this step as targeted against it.

Statements and declarations from the Autonomous Administration and other parties under its umbrella and representing it followed, expressing the same concerns. Yet, they continued their attempts to unify their rhetoric towards the Syrian opposition and the residents of Turkish-influenced areas in northwestern Syria.

A proposal aimed at “scoring points”

With the increasing severity of risks targeting the Autonomous Administration project, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) attempted to court the opposition by calling for dialogue under the title “The Syrian National Project”.

In a statement, the SDC stated that attempts by the Turkish government to restore relations with Damascus “at the expense of the interests and ambitions of the Syrian people” confirm that the salvation of Syrians can only be achieved through their unity, cooperation, and overcoming differences in favor of “the inclusive Syrian national project.”

The SDC expressed its readiness for dialogue with the opposition, but the latter did not respond.

The SDC’s proposal for dialogue with the opposition preceded the rapprochement process between Turkey and the regime, but its tone changed with the emergence of this process. In a statement from its executive leadership on June 3, the SDC stated its openness to communication with all national forces in the occupied territories to end the occupation and achieve democratic transformation.

The SDC did not specify what it meant by “national forces,” but it is common to refer to northwestern Syria as the “occupied areas,” alluding to the Turkish influence there. It opposes the political and military entities prevalent in the region, using the term “mercenaries” to describe these entities.

Enab Baladi reached out to the SDC for clarifications on the entities it might engage in dialogue with but received no response. Meanwhile, a member of the Political Bureau of the Syrian National Coalition and a member of the Kurdish National Council, Abdullah Kado, said that the SDC’s proposal is not new.

Kado told Enab Baladi that the SDC’s repeated proposals for dialogue with opposition Syrian parties aim to “score points and nothing more.”

Kado sees that the SDC has repeatedly proposed dialogue even with Turkey, but at the same time asks the Kurdish National Council, directly or indirectly, during inter-party dialogues about partnership in managing the region, to withdraw from the Syrian National Coalition to finalize any agreement.

He added that the SDC and other entities in the region’s administration, such as the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which forms the backbone of the Autonomous Administration, continue to accuse the Kurdish National Council of being loyal to Turkey. According to Kado, this accusation is linked to these parties being affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Postponement by US reluctance and Turkish escalation

On June 6, the Autonomous Administration postponed its elections, stating that the decision was “in response to the demands of the political parties and alliances participating in the electoral process, and to ensure the electoral process is carried out democratically.”

Turkish media quickly picked up on the election postponement news, linking the event to recent pressures by Ankara to prevent the elections seen as a prelude to establishing a “terrorist entity” on its southern borders.

At the time, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) reported that the PKK/YPG organization, which had planned to hold local elections in Syria, was forced to postpone the elections after Turkey warned it would not allow the establishment of a “terrorist state” in the region.

Meanwhile, the Turkish opposition newspaper Sözcü quoted unnamed security sources saying the Kurdistan Workers’ Party attempted to establish “ballot boxes” in Syria as part of its plan to gain international recognition by announcing local elections.

The US stance added further pressure on the Autonomous Administration, as Washington disavowed support for its election move through a series of statements, the most recent being on July 4 when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ethan Goldrich expressed concerns about the Autonomous Administration’s intentions to conduct local elections.

In an interview with Rudaw media network, Goldrich said that the only thing troubling his country at the moment is the discussion of elections in northeastern Syria, indicating that Washington does not believe that conditions are ripe for free, fair, transparent, and inclusive elections.

Goldrich also stated, “We do not believe these conditions are available. Therefore, we do not think elections should be held in northeastern Syria.”

Turkish foreign policy and security expert Ömer Özkizilcik interpreted the US stance on the Autonomous Administration’s elections as connected to the current geostrategic interests of the United States with Turkey.

Özkizilcik told Enab Baladi that Washington wishes to maintain and improve its relationship with Ankara, and supporting the elections would create tension with Turkey, harming its strategic interests in Syria.

He added that the elections would harm Washington’s long-term goals in Syria, as they would increase the level of tensions between local actors and residents in the area, prompting it to pressure the Autonomous Administration to postpone.

AANES’ ambitions clash with Turkey

Since its establishment in 2013, the Autonomous Administration of northeastern Syria has monitored negotiations between the opposition and the regime under international sponsorship, the Arab initiative, and normalization steps with the regime. It appears clearly incapacitated to engage in any of them due to the lack of recognition from all parties, even its allies in the United States.

Despite the ongoing quest for recognition and attempts to ignore this reality, the Autonomous Administration’s projects have always clashed with these details, the most recent being the move to organize municipal elections in its controlled areas.

As soon as it announced the election date, condemnations poured in from Syrian local actors, Turkish threats, and US disavowal, forming a driving force for postponing the elections, despite the Autonomous Administration linking the postponement not to pressures but to “popular demands.”

Anas Shawakh, a researcher at the Jusoor for Studies Center, predicted that the postponed elections of the Autonomous Administration would not take place as scheduled if the political cover supporting the step remains absent, forcing the Autonomous Administration to seek a supporter for its step within the upcoming two months.

The scenarios for finding support fall under two options, according to the researcher speaking to Enab Baladi. The first is to communicate and negotiate with the United States, which might reopen the way to resuming the Kurdish-Kurdish dialogue, where elections are one of the significant axes.

The second scenario lies in the direction of the SDF negotiating with Russia and the regime during a period witnessing attempts to negotiate between the two sides.

The researcher considered that the negotiating tracks the Autonomous Administration might enter are expected to compel it to make amendments to the election law and its nature or to backtrack on the legislative and legal steps it has issued in recent months.

Under the regime’s umbrella?

With the evolving statements of the Autonomous Administration coinciding with talks about the imminent Turkish regime’s rapprochement against it, Hassan Kojar, deputy co-chairman of its Executive Council, announced AANES’ readiness to engage in talks with the Syrian regime and “liberate the occupied territories alongside the Syrian army.”

On July 3, Kojar said that Turkey wants to use all parties in Syria to achieve its agendas, so the Damascus government should not be deceived by these tricks.

He added that Turkey “derailed the Syrian revolution but could not achieve all its plans,” considering that Ankara has changed its policy by 80%, seeking to implement its projects through the Syrian regime. It aims to attract the regime by talking about Syria’s territorial integrity and fighting the Autonomous Administration.

Kojar noted that the Autonomous Administration continues its communication with Damascus to reach any agreement and solution that achieves stability for the region and the country, emphasizing the need for the regime to abandon its view of the Autonomous Administration as a threat to Syria.

“We do not constitute any threat to any party and are not enemies of any party; we seek to build Syria and maintain the sovereignty of the country’s territories, and we have always said we are ready to liberate the occupied Syrian areas in cooperation with the Syrian army.”

Samer al-Ahmed, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, sees Kojar’s statement as following the Autonomous Administration’s moves to propose a path for dialogue with the Syrian opposition, as an attempt at flattery and nothing more.

He added that it will not be beneficial as the regime looks to Russian support that will lead to improved relations with Turkey and achieve significant political and economic gains.

Al-Ahmed stated that it is impossible for the regime to sacrifice all potential gains from rapprochement with Turkey for an agreement with the SDF.

 

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