Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the Middle Eastern nation has become a battleground for the proxy wars of some of the world’s biggest players, including the United States, Turkey, Russia, and Iran. However, in recent years, one region of Syria has emerged as a significant political entity, a self-determined region pursuing peace and religious freedom for a highly diverse area. Currently supported by a small detachment of US troops, the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria (AANES) faces incursions by Turkey from the north, the Ba’athist Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad from the west, and various militia groups backed by Iran or ISIS. Ultimately, the AANES is seeking international recognition as a legitimate government, but currently it is campaigning the US to lift sanctions on the AANES region. While doing so would require significant diplomatic efforts, the US should work toward restoring unsanctioned trade with the AANES.
Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), first proposed the idea of a self-autonomous administration in Syria, specifically in Kurdish territory, as an alternative to the nation-state model, which he argues does not fit Middle Eastern societies. The AANES’s autonomous administration model is a self-governed democracy bounded by a Social Contract, which outlines democratic policies for intra-ethnic relations, human rights (including for women and children), religious pluralism, and self-determination. While the large majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, a significant amount are ethnically and religiously diverse, including Arabs; Armenians; Christians, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Arameans; Kurds; Muslims; Turkmen; and Yezidis. In the AANES, all are allowed to openly practice their faith and have freedom to change their religion. A report by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlights the positive conditions for religious freedom under the AANES, despite its uncertain future.
At the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, in July 2021, Bedran Ciya Kurd and other officials from the Syrian Democratic Council—the political body of the AANES—pled for the US to lift sanctions. The AANES sits on 80 percent of Syria’s oil fields, which US forces have claimed to be defending. Noting that lifting the sanctions would cost the US nothing, Ciya Kurd emphasized how economic trade would ensure both a future existence and stability.
In the past month, border tensions with Iraq at AANES’ one commercial crossing have added to the suffocation the area was already enduring with the Syrian regime’s road closures. Hence, while exporting oil may prove difficult logistically, allowing for general US foreign investment will have a significant impact. Further, greater economic flow will create more jobs, lessening the need for unemployed young men to join militias or ISIS. (It’s worth noting that about 5,000 ISIS prisoners are held in AANES.) Instead of the type of nation-building that failed in Afghanistan, lifting sanctions would allow the US to support the self-determination of the AANES with minimal interference, no less after a US drawdown of troops in Syria under former President Donald Trump in 2018 betrayed the AANES and undermined its significant role in the defeat of ISIS under the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF).
But the AANES does not bear a perfect track record, as it grew from a bloody history. Despite Abdullah Ocalan’s recent lofty ideology, his PKK started in the 1970s as a socialist resistance group employing urban terrorist guerilla warfare against the Turkish government, which has banned many aspects of Kurdish culture, including on the Kurdish language during religious services. As a result, Turkey and many other countries, including the US, designated the PKK as a terrorist organization. Ocalan has now been imprisoned since 1999, but in recent years has changed his approach, calling for ceasefires and advocating for peaceful approaches to self-autonomy, such as the AANES.
Though the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which could be described as the Syrian equivalent of the Turkish PKK, dominates the AANES, this darker history has led to in-fighting in the AANES. In fact, intra-Kurdish disputes have greatly hindered the cause of AANES. The main political opponent comes from the Kurdish National Party (KNC), which has closer ties to the Turkish government and Iraqi Kurds.
Recent disputes include the KNC not attending French President Emmanuel Macron’s meeting to discuss international recognition of the AANES after being given only one invitation in contrast to PYD’s three invitations. Others have concerns that the AANES is not inclusive enough for Arabs, though they themselves are greatly divided over political issues in the region. Some believe that the leftist influence of the PKK has introduced ideas about women and religion that are contrary to the region’s culture. A committee to redraft the Social Contract has also faced challenges in representation and omits several rights, such as a prohibition against arbitrary detention. Humans rights abuses by the SDF have surfaced, though exponentially fewer than those done by the Syrian regime, which has tortured prisoners. Still, alleging that the divisions are stirred up by Turkey to weaken the AANES, some officials are calling for intra-Kurdish peace and resolution.
An AANES/SDC delegation recently met with US officials, and the opposition party is scheduled to have talks with US officials soon as well. Placing the option of lifting sanctions on the table could provide an incentive for limiting war crimes, including more human rights in the Social Contract, and brokering an intra-Kurdish peace deal. Though, any US officials must be well-versed or at least attentive to the cultural nuances of the arguments on both sides. Greater job opportunities would also lessen some internal pressures against the AANES caused by the severe economic conditions in some regions. (Lifting sanctions specifically on oil should be carefully negotiated to avoid selling oil to the opposition, which AANES has been doing in the past simply to survive.)
At the same time, lifting sanctions on the AANES will anger Turkey, which refuses to differentiate between the PKK and the AANES due to its roots in the PKK. Cross-border PKK terrorist activities in the past means Turkey does not want to share a border with the AANES. Recent Turkish airstrikes demonstrate its continuing animosity, and it has cut off the Euphrates River water supply, which flows from Turkey into the AANES. Still, the US could also facilitate negotiations between Turkey and the AANES by offering to lift US sanctions on both the AANES and Turkey. In return for Turkey halting airstrikes, perhaps the AANES could repatriate a number of the two million, mostly Sunni Muslim refugees in Turkey (though this would come with its own challenges as a greater influx of Sunnis would change the current demographics). It’s also possible that an intra-Kurdish resolution could set Turkey more at ease. However, such a deal is unlikely considering Turkey’s continued military aggressions in the area and continued attacks on Kurds in Turkey.
In addition to Turkey’s likely negative response to lifting sanctions on the AANES, the US should expect as backlash from Russia, which supports the Syrian Ba’athist regime in exchange for a Russian naval base on the Mediterranean, and Iran, which desires land accessibility to Israel. Iran in particular could cause harm to border crossings between the AANES and Iraq. In addition, as the only part of Syria without sanctions, a greater desire to control the AANES territory could cause increased fighting, which the SDF would have to prepare for. The US would also have to evaluate its 900-strong military presence in the region for that reason.
Still, despite the challenges, even considering lifting AANES sanctions could serve as an important bargaining chip for some of the players in Syria.