Building a Progressive Democracy in the Middle East: The Future of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria

Westminster Debate

20 February 2019

Houses of Parliament

On February 20, the Centre for Kurdish Progress hosted Ms Ilham Ahmed, Syria’s most prominent Kurdish politician. Ms Ahmed heads the executive committee of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), which forms the basis for the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (commonly referred to as Rojava) and functions as the political-wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a multi-ethnic alliance that, with the support of the international coalition, has been leading the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

Chair Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP introduced Ms Ahmed, and described the achievements of the SDC in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria as a ray of hope in the region. He commended the SDC’s work combatting Islamic State (IS) and noted that greater gender equality has been achieved in Rojava than in Britain over the past 100 years. Most importantly, he said, this has been the result of local efforts and struggles, not forced by Western intervention.

Ms Ahmed began by outlining the catastrophic losses suffered in the course of the war, with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced. In the wake of this destruction, she explained, the SDC has sought to establish a democratic polity and encourage others in the region to pursue democracy. The SDC has been working to convince the Ba’athist regime, which has long oppressed the Syrian people, that it needs to respond to the democratic needs of its people. The regime however has consistently violently put down peaceful demonstrations.

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Through its democratic self-administration project, the SDC has tried to create the circumstances to facilitate changes to the Syrian constitution. The multi-ethnic and multi-religious model, Ms Ahmed explained, includes Kurds, Arabs, Yezidis, and Christians. The freedom and leadership of women is at the forefront of the project, said Ms Ahmed. For this reason, the SDC operates a ‘co-chair’ system, whereby a male and female co-chair every administrative committee.

Ms Ahmed lamented that the SDF were not able to prevent the massacre of Yezidis in Sinjar, and the capture of Yezidi women. But, she said, they have learnt from this lesson and have been successful in protecting the capture of more women by putting women fighters on the front line against IS.

Turkey and ISIS are both attempting to destroy the SDC’s democratic project, argued Ms Ahmed, as evidenced by IS’s attack of Kobani and Turkey’s occupation of Afrin. Turkey’s occupation has destroyed Afrin’s women-led democratic system, its ecological infrastructure, and its historic sites. Peaceful co-existence has been replaced by extremist fundamentalist ideology, she said. While Turkey has been wreaking destruction in Afrin, its youth have been fighting IS in Raqqa and in Deir ez-Zor. Ms Ahmed condemned the international community’s silence on the Turkish occupation of and massacres in Afrin, while they supported the Kobani resistance. This disparity, she said, is a consequence of Turkey’s NATO membership. Weapons supplied by NATO countries to Turkey have been used against Kurds in Afrin; while Kurds have been fighting alongside coalition forces in order to protect NATO allies from IS. Ms Ahmed said she was keen to draw attention to this contradiction, and in particular to raise this with countries around the world which themselves promote democracy.

Since President Trump’s announcement of the planned US withdrawal from Syria, the situation has become yet more complicated, explained Ms Ahmed. The threat from Turkey faced by the Kurds has greatly increased. The Turkish government is proposing a safe zone along the border; were this to take place, she said, the outcome would resemble the occupation of Afrin. The SDC currently has some 800-900 IS fighters imprisoned, and 4,000 wives and children in camps. Ankara wants the IS fighters returned to Turkey, Ms Ahmed said, so they can use them to bargain with the EU.

The SDC is proud of their efficient co-ordination and good working relationship with coalition forces on the ground, said Ms Ahmed. The SDC has worked hard to establish good relations with the international community, and it is imperative that the SDC continues to receive support after the defeat of IS, to prevent their resurgence. The fundamental objective is political stability in Syria, Ms Ahmed stated. For this, international support is crucial. 

Turning to the UK’s foreign policy, Ms Ahmed said she understood Britain’s reluctance to interfere in foreign countries’ affairs and send troops abroad. However, she explained, the UK’s own security is tied to the security of the region, in particular that of Syria. The captured IS fighters hail from 46 different countries, and while the SDF has done it utmost to defeat IS militarily, the culture and mentality persists. The fight against IS does not end with the liberation of Deir ez-Zor, Ms Ahmed said, we must continue to fight against fundamentalist ideology and strive toward democratisation.

Turkey in particular has contributed to the proliferation of fundamentalism. The Turkish border has been porous - allowing jihadis to pass freely through Europe to Syria, with Ankara meanwhile claiming the Kurds fighting IS are themselves terrorists. Domestically, the Turkish government has targeted and arrested MPs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Thousands of intellectuals are imprisoned, accused of terrorism despite having never picked up a weapon, said Ms Ahmed. Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been kept in isolation for years, prohibited from receiving visits from his lawyers or family members. This, she argued, is not a terrorism issue, but a human rights issue.

Ms Ahmed highlighted the importance of Kurds being involved in negotiations toward a political settlement in Syria. The SDC, who have thus far been kept out of the Geneva talks, must be part of the political resolution and development a new Syrian constitution. While the US’ withdrawal plans are still unclear, noted Ms Ahmed, the SDC hopes that the withdrawal will be graduated. The ongoing control of airspace will be crucial to preventing airstrikes in Kurdish areas. Without this, Ms Ahmed said, the Kurds in Syria will be back to square one and all progress made thus far will be in jeopardy.



February 20, 2019 at 7pm - 9pm


Houses of Parliament

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