The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) has launched a series of consultations across North and East Syria. RIC researchers recently attended one such public consultation in Raqqa, summarized below, following on from another meeting in Heseke (you can read a summary of the Heseke discussion here.)

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 the assassination of top Arab tribal leader and dissatisfaction over the 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.  

The Raqqa meeting location was changed the day before due to a hand grenade attack at the planned site, a reminder of continued security concerns, while press were asked not to reveal location in the photos they took. One organizer told RIC that some invitees didn’t show up as they were worried about appearing on camera due to press presence, fearful of the return of the Syrian Government (GoS).

More positively, compared to the meeting in Heseke there was a notable number of women present and speaking – around 30% of speakers, impressive for a city which was ISIS’ capital just three years ago. Arab tribal sheikhs were present but considerably less vocal than at the meeting in Heseke, where sheikhs from Deir-ez-Zor and the surrounding countryside were among the most voluble participants.

In general, people were more critical on local issues concerning service provision and political participation than they were on the macro-political process, where attendees were broadly supportive of the SDC line. As in Heseke, there was wide-spread opposition even to dialog with the GoS, let alone rapprochement, though one or two attendees acknowledged the practical necessity of such negotiations.

What follows is a summary of the feedback, analysis and criticisms shared on the day.

Opening remarks – Elham Ahmed, Syrian Democratic Council co-chair

  •  “We can’t say that everyone in our regions supports the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). There are many different views. We want to understand the opposition, and reach a common understanding.”
  • Want to strengthen AANES and make it a symbol of democracy
  • Syrian-Syrian dialog must take place on the political and theoretical levels, not just military
  • To resolve these questions, need to go back to the Syrian constitution and reassess it, but GoS not ready for this
  • Wanted Russia to mediate with GoS, but GoS made very hostile statements toward Kurds this year just like before, saying they have no place in Syria, are guests here, etc.
  • AANES and SDF have repeatedly proved their commitment to Syrian integrity and protecting Syria from aggression but spokespeople for GoS continue to attack NES for supposed desire for succession
  • NES has welcomed huge numbers of IDPs from across Syria, whereas GoS has emptied its regions of civilians through its attacks
  • Discussions for eg. prisoner exchanges with GoS have not proven productive.
  • Problems are deep-rooted and based in years of neglect by GoS. eg. struggles to deliver education in Deir-ez-Zor because GoS never built schools, education now being delivered in ad-hoc and ruined classrooms
  • Geneva process: all those forces present under influence of foreign powers, no benefit for the people of Syria
  • Wanted to meet with opposition figures in Cairo and Europe but this was slowed due to coronavirus, recently met with pro-Russian politicians in Russia, also want to meet with other Syrian political forces and civilians from outside NES
  • Occupying powers in Syria want to prevent Syrian unity, thus create instability and spread misinformation
  • Eg. Kurdish-Kurdish dialog is about building unity between Syrian Kurds and has overall Syrian unity as one of its key principles, those who attend the meetings know this, but Turkey, Russia attempt to portray it as motivated by desire for secession
  • Turkey opposed these dialogs and threatened and pressured [Kurdish-nationalist opposition coalition] ENKS, tomorrow they will do the same to Arab discussions
  • Two sessions, one of feedback on SDC’s geopolitical policy, the second on local performance of AANES

Feedback on SDC political/diplomatic position

–           Male civilian; we must understand that Syrian regime is under foreign control. Likewise the official Syrian opposition is not actually connected to the situation on the ground

–           Female activist from Raqqa Women’s Council; as Arabs we are not opposed to Kurdish-Kurdish dialog, if the Kurds have problems they must resolve them. This will strengthen the region as a whole and enable us to engage better in international political processes. Kurds have been positive for our city, they are not to be looked at as dirty. Many foreign powers trying to influence Syria, those already mentioned but also Bahrain, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel. GoS did nothing for these region, we have proved that Kurds and Arabs can unite.

–           Male civilian; we need a moderate solution in the region, change but not major change.

–           Male lawyer; if Kurds are discussing together to find a solution, this is all very well; but if they want to cut Arabs out, this is problematic. People need information on political negotiations being conducted by SDC so they can decide whether to support it.

–           Male engineer; Syrian state exerted pressure on people of the region for 70 years and made them suffer. Why should we trust the regime? Now we have refound the natural brotherhood between Kurds and Arabs. Like Mandela in South Africa, we can’t go back. We have to speak together and understand one another. Before we didn’t know that Kurds were suffering under the regime, but now we know and have the responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

–           Female Circassian activist from Ain Issa Women’s Council; we are all Syrian. ISIS killed all our children. The Syrian state oppressed minorities too, it was called the Syrian Arab Republic for a reason. We support Kurdish-Kurdish dialog as it is for the good of the region.

–           Male opposition activist; Syrian-Syrian dialog must be an opportunity to set up projects for the good of the region, to work with those resources we still have. This region is the most war-struck in the world. Many schools were destroyed. This must be our priority.

–           Male opposition activist; Ilham Ahmed travelled around Europe and Middle East, but no-one from Raqqa was with her. SDC went to Russia for a photo-opportunity with a Russian-backed Syrian politician, this is pointless, Russia cannot resolve anything. We should not have anything to do with those who support the regime. There must be changes on the ground, not just speeches for the media.

–           Female writer and intellectual; we should not be talking about ‘Kurdish-Kurdish dialog’ and ‘Syrian-Syrian dialog’ but about meeting our practical needs. We should not consider that we are Kurds, Arabs etc, have to become one. Have to build a positive mentality and education before creating democracy. When people are educated, they can solve their problems.

–           Male lawyer; the regime is ultimately responsible for present crisis. People suffered a lot. But dialog is the right path to pursue. Building connection between Kurds and Arabs is the solution.

–           Male researcher/academic; we must pay attention to Syrian identity; proposals on the political level should be drawn from the Syrian constitution, the solution lies here. Solutions must be reached that foreign states can accept and work with. As we lie between two powers ie. Russia and USA and must bear this in mind. Because what is important is securing benefits for our people.

–           Female politician from the Women’s Council of Syria’s Future Party; we see need for dialog, with all forces. So we can solve problems arising due to the Syrian crisis. But if we are honest, the public don’t believe in this dialog right now. The regime is not ready for this, and does not listen to anyone.

–           Male sheikh; regime are hard-headed, so don’t trust them in negotiations. Solution; go to other states and foreign powers and discuss with them, because one can’t trust in the regime.

–           Male civilian; pre-existing positive relations between local peoples (Arabs, Kurds), must recover this.

–           Male civilian: Assad is unconcerned with our existence, so difficult to deal with. For discussion with the opposition, this must be with the true opposition, not those who worked for Turkey, Qatar or carried out atrocities. But with those actors truly opposed to regime and for the people.

–           Female children’s doctor; dialog of all kinds should all build to international discussion for solution in Syria. But ultimately, NATO/US and other forces must leave Syria and Syrian forces must remain.

–           Male civilian; From Malta conference after WW2 until today, problems continue. Discussion is needed, but with any forces that can help find a solution. For Kurdish-Kurdish dialog, we know Kurds have their own case to consider, their own existence to fight for. Their are occupying forces who want to eradicate Kurds and end their political efforts.

–           Male health worker; how long will these discussions go on for? What are the next steps? For coronavirus, we are working hard to combat crisis etc.

–           Male civilian; discussion is key. Creates belief among the people, and thus an inner strength.

–           Sheikh: The regime is responsible for what opportunities there are in the region. Everyone agrees the regime is bad, but if we are honest we all have interests with/are reliant on the regime as well. The regime also has international law on its side. So we must deal with them.

Elham Ahmed; response to some points

–           Discussion with regime, going to Moscow; many have described regime as dictators, occupiers. But we don’t want another war to start. We know that discussion with regime is not pleasant, but we try nonetheless to avoid another war. For external meetings; we go to seek a solution for the Syrian people. International protocols discussed at the Moscow meeting indicate once again that Kurds are not seeking secession but reforms within international law.

–           Committees for negotiation; People from Heseke, Deir-ez-Zor, Manbij, Raqqa, etc. are all in our negotiating committee, even from Deir-ez-Zor and Afrin. Christians Arabs and Kurds, all ethnicities and all towns are represented. Inaccurate to say these people are not represented.

–           SDC are speaking with many forces, some publicly and some in secret, while some are not interested at all. Creation of AANES doesn’t mean ‘the Kurds’ are seceding. AANES works for everybody, all people can accept it if they wish.

–           Kurdish-Kurdish dialog is not something so major, but there were problems among Kurds that had to be resolved, division etc, as there has been between Kurds and Arabs too. Nothing secret. Separate to SDC discussions with Damascus, which aren’t even ongoing right now. If they want to restart negotiations, we are happy, as this benefits all of us.

–           Damascus shouldn’t wait for permission from Russia and Iran, what is important is that we find solution together.

Feedback on AANES

–           Male intellectual; internal feedback and overall political situation aren’t separate from one another. Kurdish-Kurdish dialog has positive and negative aspects. Regional people must determine own future. Clear regime incapable of determining future, thus foreign powers and people will decide. Can create autonomy. A system enabling all to receive their rights.

–           Male civilian; many names on the tables who haven’t shown up; we have to speak openly so people want to come and join the discussion; after those eight years of killing how can I go to sit with the regime? Perhaps necessary for the future of Syria. So all kinds of parties can be established here. We have to learn from what we’ve experienced. Situation in Syria not like Iraq or Lebanon. There is a lot happens here that isn’t known or spoken about, so I am happy to see discussions like this one today.

–           Male civilian; education is important, more importance must be given to this. Have to improve education system and facilities. NGOs have to come here and help, right they are like NGOs without human rights. What the NGOs are doing here, noone knows.

–           Female writer; if you aren’t strong, can’t participate in negotiations like ‘Syrian-Syrian dialog’ and serve your people. Have to give bread to the poor, get children in streets into shelter. Then will have more support in negotiations. Schools have to be organized and opened, teachers trained, etc. Only teachers can combat ISIS mentality among children. Those who work [for AANES] should be fitting for the task at hand. If we want AANES to work then we must have competent and reliable people working for it.

–           Male opposition activist; in 2018, AANES started working in Raqqa and established civil society organizations; AANES has genuinely worked for the people and protected their rights. Took responsibility for everything but hasn’t been able to carry out these responsibilities in all cases. Not everybody who works in AANES is competent. Some work for their personal benefits. Who is working to build up productive connections with outside? Political discussion must be built on benefits for the region and on power. When someone takes power, everyone comes and greets them and makes nice with them. People need rights, people here want to leave and live elsewhere. If Kurdish-Kurdish dialog solves social problems, this is positive and we support it. If SDC are all connected to one party, why have you all come here to discuss?

–           Female civilian; it is time for democracy and for solutions. But AANES doesn’t hear calls for their rights from the people. Don’t help the people to solve problems and this creates bad relation. Want competent people working in AANES.

–           Male civilian; 15 laborers from Raqqa went to Shengal and they were arrested by Iraqi forces and there is no information about them, this situation must be dealt with.

–           Sheikh; As you see, our city was damaged in the war. We want support especially in agriculture field, and in reconstruction. Have the possibility to do this but not being implemented.

–           Male civilian; people with diplomas and educational qualifications were not here when Raqqa was destroyed, and we – people without a good education – took responsibility for the rebuilding of our city. Easy to speak critically now about the lack of qualified people but those who remained here and took responsibility were the undereducated and the women

–           Male politician from Syria’s Future Party; We hope that there will be an international conference for the people of this region, to discuss their situation and find compromises. We hope for a constitution enshrining everyone’s rights. For AANES, we can’t just speak sweetly all the time and must take concrete steps. Major needs in agriculture field must be met, because this region depends on agriculture. Smugglers and animal-rustlers are active in our regions and this is a problem which must be dealt with. Want there to be elections, to find leaders representing the popular will.

–           Male lawyer; when people are elected and go to conduct meetings, they must be connected to and loved by the people, not just with a force legitimizing their power. In social justice, everybody must have rights and equality and laws must be just. I am not happy with situation of justice here.

–           Co-chair Raqqa Civil Council; More work needs to be done for brotherhood of peoples. In this discussion, we can freely criticise one another in a respectful way. As NES we are part of Syria and so we must discuss with the rest of Syria until Syria can be united. AANES has support of people and is succeeding in this way but not successful in terms of international support/recognition. As the people, we accept to speak with US, Russians, France, Turkey, but not Kurds… why? This is wrong, we (ie. Arab population) must deal with the Kurds too, they are part of our society. If AANES want success, must discuss with its people and give them support they need. AANES has been working for three years and done many positive things, more than anyone has done here before, but AANES is not like God and cannot do everything – don’t forget that AANES have established security, oil distribution, refurbishing city, etc.

–           [Moderator; don’t worry about being respectful, what is important is to speak openly]

–           Male opposition activist; for reconstruction of Raqqa, more work is needed, also in justice field. Qualified people with diplomas should be appointed into the AANES. Basic needs still need to be met for some people in Raqqa.

–           Male intellectual; When there is feedback, must be taken into account. AANES lacks qualified people. If AANES puts a law into place and noone follows it, then no changes will occur. [eg. coronavirus masks]. Economic situation must also improve.

–           Female civilian; As an Arab, I can say that we have seen how much the Kurds have suffered and been oppressed, and had to learn the Arabic language and not their own, etc. Life is different now to under the regime, there are many more opportunities. More people can go to work.

–           Male civilian; solution via dialog is best.

–           Female activist; Education is key. Hope the private academies are shut down to provide better and more equal opportunities for all children, not just those who can afford the private sector. In Mahmoudli Camp, when IDPs go out of the camp for healthcare they aren’t given passes with enough time to get to the hospital and back, situation in camp should be reviewed.

–           Male journalist; Civil Council doesn’t work effectively, eg. if we want to make an interview with them it takes two weeks to schedule. Proposal that AANES collects private weapons, because this can lead to problems as we saw two days ago with tribal infighting. As journalists, want more support; Civil Council are unhelpful and don’t give them photos they need, etc.

–           Female gynaecologist; Medicine has become very expensive, poor people like day laborers cannot afford it. Each day many people come to us and ask for medicine then when we bring it they say they can’t afford it. There are many hospitals here, but no dedicated children’s hospital.

–           Male civilian; in 2013, when ISIS arrived, I was here. We all left at that time and ISIS alone remained, and destroyed and looted everything. It was intentional that ISIS were brought here, to give Coalition an excuse to destroy the city…

–           Male civilian; AANES should regulate the private health sector because people in this field (pharmacists, private doctors, etc.) are profiting from people’s suffering.

–           Male civilian; People who are spreading disturbances among the civilian population should be dealt with, security should be improved.

Concluding remarks from panel

–           Proposals, comments, critics will be given to AANES and discussed ahead of conference, aim is not to respond to all these points today. Aim of this criticism of course to strengthen AANES and will be taken in this positive spirit

–           These are historical steps and especially for Raqqa, and we can see this process as the birth of a new political consensus. Discussions ongoing, this is just first step. Need to ask ourselves what is needed for Raqqa. Raqqa is key to finding a solution for the Syrian conflict on many levels, we can play this role.

–           Situation in region is affected by war and ISIS occupation. City very badly damaged, when first arriving back in city after war didn’t recognize my own street. I was among the first people back in the city. We have to remember our context and what is reasonable to expect, AANES cannot do everything all at once.

–           AANES has provided concrete support for this region, financial support for many projects and now for coronavirus response, gives an account of this. Rebuilding city, cleaning up streets, etc. Restoring water and electricity. Hospitals better supplied than before. Big projects which take time. Millions of dollars in support for medical field, refurbishment of city etc., eg $30,000,000 for rebuilding, $5,000,000 for health sector, plus NGO support. Over 120,000 people in NES receive AANES salary which is much better than regime salary. Bridges in Raqqa restored. Many other examples.

–           Situation in NES regions is much better than regime regions. What AANES wants is to be given the opportunity to help the people of this region.

–           Have been in war and an existential struggle, remain in crisis situation, and it has not been possible to conduct elections to date. This is the reality.