Key stakeholders including opposition politicans and tribal leaders were invited, as well as members of the general public

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) has launched a series of consultations across North and East Syria. The meetings are taking place in all seven of the constituent regions of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Along with ordinary civilians then Kurdish and Arabic opposition groups, Arab tribal representatives, minority religious and ethnic groups, women and youth organizations have all been invited to share their perspectives, feedback, criticism and proposals on the political processes underway in the region, and on the internal policies of the AANES.

The short-term trigger for the meetings was local recent unrest in the troubled Deir-ez-Zor region following assassination of top Arab tribal leader and dissatisfaction over security situation; AANES service provision; and lack of professionalism in SDF’s Deir-ez-Zor Military Council.But the meetings are also being more widely framed as Syrian-Syrian dialog, and a response to ineffectual international mechanisms (Geneva, Astana) which exclude the people and political representatives of NES, don’t result in actual outcomes, and are dominated by foreign powers without Syrian people’s interests at heart.

Public meetings will continue across NES for the next month. The aim is for a final conference at the pan-NES level following all of these discussions, with the aim of reaching new common understandings between the people of the region and also making changes to SDC and AANES policy following criticism and feedback.  

RIC researchers recently attended one such public consultation in Heseke. RIC researcher Thomas McClure said:

“This was the first time we’ve seen such a broad church of pro-AANES, Kurdish opposition, Arab tribal leaders and other civil society and political actors all gathered together under one roof. Attendees noted that the atmosphere was more positive and open than in some previous bouts of dialog, with the AANES hearing a wide range of criticism and suggestions from left-wing Kurdish parties through to conservative Arab tribal leaders.

“On the administrative level, criticism focused on service provision and the security situation in Deir-ez-Zor in particular. On the political level, all parties of course seek greater representation in any political negotiations which occur. SDC reps sought to dispel rumors over ongoing Kurdish-Kurdish dialog, framed in some quarters as a conspiracy to divide Syria, pointing out that Arab communities too have the right to internal discussions and that the SDC has refused both U.S. and Russian overtures to ‘settle’ for a pro-Kurdish settlement in the region in lieu of a new political settlement.

More broadly, SDC’s position is that the best way forward is for different political and ethnic groups to set aside their differences and unite with a common voice to seek the region’s best interests. While there is a long way to go, all parties were united in a profound mistrust of Damascus and opposition to return of central Syrian control in the north-east. Damascus’ intractability means SDC can hope to win greater support among local populations for its vision of a decentralized, democratic Syria. To achieve this goal, AANES must work to resolve people’s concerns about security and service provision, particularly in Arab regions such as Deir-ez-Zor.”

The meeting was conducted in North and East Syria’s lingua franca, Arabic. What follows are notes summarizing the key speeches from the floor and from the SDC/AANES panel which hosted the discussions. The notes are not exhaustive, but cover all the key contributions and perspectives voiced by attendees.

Introductory remarks (Elham Ahmed, SDC co-chair)

  • International discussions on the Syrian crisis dominated by international powers (U.S., Russia, Turkey, Iran) are producing no results
  • Astana process has produced no positive steps forward on the ground
  • Likewise the Geneva process – though the only official route to a solution – is yet to produce positive results
  • A year went by without a meeting of the Geneva committee, and it took Astana group a year to set up a constitutional committee
  • Discussions between Syrian Government (GoS) and Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) occur because SDC has no representation in Geneva and so must approach GoS directly
  • Points to work on together were proposed, but without result. There was the proposal to set up committees to look at issues like the military and education, SDC have put forward their candidates but GoS are yet to respond with there
  • GoS wants to return to pre-2011 status quo, refuse to countenance possibility of any decentralization despite their de facto loss of power and control across much of Syria
  • With Russian mediation SDC were able to make some approaches to GoS, but this was thrown back in their face with Assad’s recent hostile remarks on Kurds not being  from Syria etc.
  • Kurdish-Kurdish dialog is normal, Arabs discuss among themselves all the time as tribes etc, Kurds have the same right
  • Turkey, Damascus try to discredit this dialog, accuse U.S. of seeking to divide Syria
  • Reality is that Turkey is an enemy of Syria and it is Turkey seeking to divide Syria
  • For all these reasons, there is the need for Syrian-Syrian internal dialog. Hence this series of meetings
  • “If we can’t reach a common understanding, foreign powers will do it for us”
  • Two sessions, one on the political process and one on internal feedback and criticism for AANES.

Case Study: Sheikh Muhammed Abdullah, from Shedadi, of the al-Egidat tribe

“The Autonomous Administration invited us to come to this conference as representatives of our tribe, so that we can discuss together more. We have attended many such meetings before, and were often dissatisfied by the results. But on the basis of today’s discussions, we saw that significant changes have been made since our previous discussions. The discussion was more open, more views were shared.This is a major step for SDC, especially with the strong and genuine incorporation of Arab representatives in the discussions.  We see this as positive and constructive.”

Criticisms and feedback on political process

  • We should accept one another, according to the Holy Quran. But GoS is not serious in its approach. We should speak rather with the Syrian opposition, and only with democratic forces, not with GoS (Female Arabic civilian from Heseke)
  • Arabs should be represented in negotiations with Damascus, not just Kurds (Arab tribal leader)
  • All sides should participate in dialog, there should not be Kurdish-Kurdish dialog (Arab tribal leader from Egidat tribe, Deir-ez-Zor)
  • How can we sit down and negotiate with the GoS, who don’t accept our existence? (Kurdish civilian from Til Temir)
  • GoS is existentially opposed to the Kurdish people, hands are bloody, impossible to deal with them. It took Europe thousands of years to reach enlightenment, here in the Middle East we are still in the Dark Ages (Kurdish civilian from Heseke)
  • GoS lies and should not be trusted. (Kurdish civilian)
  • Arab tribes also want representation in talks with Damascus. All sides have to overcome their egotism and become one (Arab tribal leader)
  • Russia are not to be trusted. They have often betrayed people in the past. We should not trust Damascus and seek our own solution as Syrians (Arab tribal leader from Shedadi, Egidat tribe)
  • Many people were arrested by Damascus, I myself spent four years in GoS jail being tortured. those who contributed to this must be held to account, this must be the first subject on the table in negotiations with Damascus (Kurdish civilian from Heseke, pro-opposition)
  • Kurds are important but Arabs must also be represented. Astana committee was supposed to reach a result, but no changes on the ground (Kurdish woman from Heseke)

Responses from Elham Ahmed

  • Clear opposition to dialog with Damascus from many speakers, but this has to be tried. SDC always wants to resolve problems with dialog, not the gun. Weapons are just to protect us
  • We can negotiate with anyone apart from those forces who behead people. It is not wrong to speak with other forces. We connect with everyone and trust no-one.
  • Russia must play a role, but we mustn’t forget that Russia let Afrin fall. When in Moscow we criticised Russia for their errors.
  • Kurdish-Kurdish negotiations: U.S. had to pressure Erbil to go ahead with talks. Better now but talks still very preliminary.
  • When negotiating with Damascus, not just Kurds. Delegation included Arabs and Christians and committees from these demographics also fed into the process
  • Like the U.S., Russia would be happy with a Kurdish-Kurdish solution but refuse wider political discussions. We don’t accept this
  • We need a united front, those who want to see a different direction in negotiations should come together with SDC and find compromise. Syrians must decide together, or decisions will continue being taken for them
Attendees voiced a range of concerns focusing on service provision, security and representation

Internal criticism and feedback for AANES

  • There are many prisoners from Shedadi [accused of ISIS membership] whose cases need to be considered and dealt with in a transparent way. Those in Shedadi who work with the AANES are paid a good wage but otherwise it is hard to find work (Arab civilian from Shedadi)
  • Electricity shortages must be dealt with. AANES should give more importance to education and open more schools (Kurdish opposition politician)
  • Education is vital, the dough from which the bread of revolution grows. We must focus on this (Kurdish woman from Heseke)
  • SDF freed Deir-ez-Zor from ISIS, Kurds and Arabs fighting together. Our martyrs’ blood was spilled as one. We are very grateful for this. But afterwards security situation remains very bad, many assassinations. There is 20KM corridor where everything is chaos, external forces create ‘fitne’ to attack the AANES and SDF. Forces here must be strengthened to deal with this. Moreover, poverty in region must be addressed. Region has great [oil] wealth but people don’t see benefit of this. Hospitals are empty of medicines. People working in local administration are not accepted by our society. (Arab tribal leader from Egidat tribe, Deir-ez-Zor)
  • AANES focuses a lot on inter-party political dialog. But practical steps on education and agriculture more important. (Kurdish doctor and civil society activist)
  • Recently AANES made several decisions then reversed them following public opposition. This is embarrassing. AANES should be more professional. (Kurdish woman from Heseke)
  • SDF pays salary to its soldiers of 200,000SYP but if they die their families receive only 20,000SYP monthly stipend. Families of the martyrs should receive more than this eg. 500,000SYP a month. Military forces also have influence on civilian affairs, this is wrong, should be a clear separation. (Arab tribal leader)
  • I recently visited Aleppo, when I came back local security forces visited me and asked why I went there. But no-one asks Elham Ahmed why she visited Damascus (Arab tribal leader) [nb: this was a joke, the point being that the sheikh’s visit was viewed suspiciously]
  • AANES changed its name from the Democratic Self Administration, this was a mistake, democracy is important. AANES should conduct more meetings in communes, we have to return to this bottom-up system which is fundamental to our political system. Kurds have the right to negotiate with Kurds, every ethnic group has this right, Arabs do the same and no-one complains (Kurdish civilian from Dirbesiye)
  • SDF should deal with smuggling on the border and corrupt elements. Those who are in prison but have not committed any crimes should be freed. Recently the SDF and Coalition took land around Tel Baidar to use for military bases, this is wrong. (Arab tribal leader)
  • AANES has to take responsibility for economic crisis, can’t just blame crash in SYP. The roads are very bad and need maintenance. AANES education system needs to be open like in Europe and accepted on the international level. (Arab civilian)
  • People are criticizing AANES but the people of NES must unite and come together and stand beside one another. We must support SDF who alone in Syrian conflict act out of humanity. (Kurdish civilian)
  • There is frequent ‘fitna’ and assassinations in Deir-ez-Zor. This must be stopped. Deir-ez-Zor Civil Council often targeted by ISIS. On the other hand, Deir-ez-Zor Military Council are not disciplined or competent and use home raids as opportunity to steal. Often people are killed right next to checkpoints in DeZ and the forces stationed there do nothing.  (Arab civilian from Deir-ez-Zor)
  • Everyone has a lot of criticism but doesn’t consider their own errors. We all have to play a role and participate in political process (Kurdish opposition politician)
  • Before we can discuss being free, we need the basic essentials. Then we can call ourselves free. Nonetheless people should compare, things are much better under AANES than under GoS. For Kurds, after study in GoS impossible to find work. Today there is major economic crisis and lack of food in GoS areas. (Kurdish civilian)
  • Often there are grammatical errors in the laws published by AANES, clear they are written by uneducated people. AANES should offer better salaries to attract educated people. (Arab civilian)
  • People go, take their salary from AANES and go home. Need committed people to work. Civil society organizations must be strong. (Arab civilian from Shedadi)

Response (from AANES spokesperson Loqman Ehme)

  • Prisoners are released at completion of sentence or earlier in many cases. Collecting names now for further releases.
  • Security situation is tough in eg. Deir-ez-Zor but much better in SDC territories than GoS territories. Example of Raqqa – security situation is much improved
  • People must consider that we are not like Europe which has seen decades of peace, we have suffered years of war and the most recent invasion was only 10 months ago
  • “We don’t want to talk much, we want you to speak and us to listen.”
  • These meetings will continue for a month all across NES, after all criticism and feedback will be consolidated and there will be a general conference which will respond to proposals made here and elsewhere.