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Can the Autonomous Administration solve its tribal problem in northeast Syria?

Recent moves by the Autonomous Administration to placate Arab tribes are a positive step for stability in northeast Syria–but will it be enough?

25 October 2020

AMMAN – This month, the Kurdish-dominated Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA) issued two general amnesties. The first allowed for the release of petty criminals, as well as halved existing sentences for criminals not guilty of “serious crimes,” while the second will release almost all of the 25,000 Syrians currently residing in al-Hol camp, which includes families of members and suspected members of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS), in addition to individuals who were previously living under the terrorist group’s rule.

Both the prisoner amnesty and release of Syrians from al-Hol will help alleviate pressure on the AA, which spends significant amounts of money to run prisons and camps. There are periodic riots in the prisons that house suspected ISIS fighters and constant escape attempts from al-Hol camp. 

Al-Hol, a detention camp near the Iraqi border that holds 65,000 individuals, has long been a key grievance of Arab tribes living in the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir e-Zor. 

The timing of the AA announcement comes after a particularly tense summer between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Arab tribes, particularly in Deir e-Zor. After several assassinations of tribal leaders this summer, a tribe in Deir e-Zor—the Aqidat—issued an ultimatum for the SDF and AA to devolve power in Deir e-Zor to Arab tribes or face open conflict. 

One of the six demands issued by the tribe was the release of the “oppressed” detainees in AA prisons, as well as the women and children in al-Hol camp.

A little over a month after the ultimatum was released, the AA launched a series of community-based forums that it called “national symposiums.” The forums are meetings of community members, leaders and civil society activists with the leadership of the AA. Members of the community have expressed grievances with the AA, as well as suggested ideas for future political projects. 

Though the scope of the meetings are expansive, a key focus has been tribal grievances with AA rule and officials have been careful to reassure attendees of the AA’s commitment to pluralism. In the tenth and latest meeting, Ali Rahmoun, a member of SDF’s political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) presidential council, assured participants that the AA “does not exclude anyone [or] differentiate between its components [ethnic groups].”

Both the AA and its foreign backers, namely the US, have vested interests in a more inclusive form of governance in northeast Syria. Though the AA is careful to emphasize its inclusive nature, both towards women and ethnic groups, through its co-chair system, the seat of power has always belonged to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). 

The Arab population’s buy-in into the AA is key to the security of the region, as Deir e-Zor is a current hotbed of ISIS activity. In August, there were 43 ISIS attacks in the province, compared to one in Raqqa and seven in Hasakah province, according to a report by the Qamishli-based Rojava Information Center. 

The risk of a continued ISIS insurgency has the potential to increase with the release of the Syrian occupants of al-Hol camp and the AA prisons. Though the majority of the occupants of al-Hol were merely living under ISIS rule rather than active members of the organization, it is impossible to separate between the two since many of the camp’s residents were “victims in some ways and perpetrators in others,” according to a recent report by the United States Institute of Peace. 

The reintegration of these releasees and ensuring those who were active members of ISIS do not return to the organization will be difficult due to the stigma they face and the poor economic and living conditions in Deir e-Zor. Cooperation between the SDF and the Arab tribes thus will be key in controlling the area’s security situation.

In addition to internal threats, proper inclusion of Arabs into AA rule is seen as a way of preventing further Turkish operations against the nascent political authority in northeastern Syria.

The Turkish authority has long viewed the presence of Kurdish militias, principally the PYD’s armed wing—the People’s Protection Units (YPG)—which makes up the biggest proportion of the SDF, as unacceptable. All three of Turkey’s operations—Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016, Operation Olive Branch in January 2018, and Operation Peace Spring in October 2019  into northeast Syria were justified by Turkey as addressing a security concern on its southern borders. 

If the PYD-led AA is able to broaden its ruling coalition to genuinely include its Arab components, Turkey will have a less credible pretext for which to conduct further offensives into northeast Syria. Both the AA and its quasi-patron, the United States, would loathe to see another Turkish operation into northeast Syria as it would destabilize the area and disrupt the ongoing fight against ISIS in the northeast. 

Further, satisfying the demands of the Arabs in AA territories will make an alliance with the Assad regime or Iranian-backed militias less appealing to those components. In recent months, the Assad regime has actively exploited divisions in the AA in order to weaken the AA, both territorially and in the negotiations between the AA and the regime.

A positive step in this direction could be the inclusion of Arab representatives in the ongoing intra-Kurdish talks between the PYD and the Kurdish National Congress (KNC), the latter of which is a coalition of 13 Kurdish political parties aligned with the Iraqi Kurdistan government and is the PYD’s main Kurdish political rival. Though the talks are primarily between the Kurds, its results will have large repercussions for the AA and all of its ethnic constituents. 

Whether the AA’s recent overtures to the Arab members of northeast Syria will be accepted remains to be seen; however, its success is critical to the future of the young autonomous region of Syria.

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