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The Autonomous Administration launches new reforms to placate tribal elements

Will new reforms be enough to quell discontent within the Autonomous Administration? The promised reforms include “local elections” across AA areas within a year.

29 November 2020

AMMAN — On November 25, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the governing body of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA), announced a series of reforms aimed at increasing political inclusivity and economic conditions in AA areas. 

The promised reforms include “local elections” across AA areas within a year, as well as an economic plan that includes price controls and ensures “self-management of commodities.” 

The reforms come as a response to a series of meetings held in different cities across northeast Syria, dubbed the “National Symposium,” by the SDC. SDC leadership toured various areas of northeast Syria and met with a number of civil society activists and tribal and ethnic leaders. 

The National Symposium was launched after a period of increased hostilities between the SDC’s military wing, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and Arab tribes in Deir e-Zor province. A series of assassinations targeting tribal sheikhs led a local tribe, the Aqidat, to issue an ultimatum with a series of demands to the SDF and their international partners, the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

Among the list of demands was a request for the SDC to completely devolve authority to the Arab tribal components in the province, with the threat of violence if these demands were not met. 

The prospect of local elections then is likely a move to placate the Arab and tribal components of the AA, some of whom have long-struggled with what they see as a Kurdish-dominated authority in northeast Syria. 

While local elections are a far cry from the complete devolution of power that the Aqidat tribe wanted, they are a concession nonetheless. 

In addition to political reforms, the proposed economic reforms—particularly the promise to allow “self-management of commodities”—holds a weighty political message for Arab tribes, particularly in Deir e-Zor. 

Most likely, the “commodities” that are being referred to are oil. 

Syria’s oil, while always a large source of wealth for the country, has come under intense scrutiny since US President Donald Trump pledged to “secure the oil” in the fall of 2019. After pulling out in anticipation of the Turkish incursion into northeast Syria, “Operation Peace Spring,” US troops returned to the territory and began to protect the oilfields in the area explicitly. 

The AA has since made a deal with a US company, Delta Crescent Energy, to exploit the oil fields, further solidifying its relationship with the US, as well as bringing in new sources of revenue. 

The oil fields, however, are located in the eastern province of Deir e-Zor, where the SDF has had the most trouble with Arab tribal constituents. Arab tribes have specifically protested against the oil deal, as they claim that they have been excluded from the benefits of the oilfields which lie in their land. 

Reportedly, some members of the Arab tribes thought that the spate of assassinations this summer was perpetrated by the SDF and was meant to break their resistance to the oil deal.

Though there is no evidence to corroborate this claim, it is clear that the SDC has taken the discontent seriously. The move to promote “self-management” of unnamed commodities is likely meant to alleviate the grievances of the Arab tribes of Deir e-Zor who see the oil deal as happening at their expense. 

The economic reforms, which include increased support to the agricultural sector and “facilitating” investment, are also meant to address the worsening economic conditions in northeast Syria. Like the rest of Syria, the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe depreciation of the Syrian pound has had dire consequences for the area. A series of comprehensive and partial lockdowns have been imposed on the northeast to stop the spread of COVID-19, severely crippling businesses in the area. 

The SDC further pledged to undertake further anti-corruption measures and ensure that courts operated independently within the AA. 

In tandem with the gradual release of all Syrians from al-Hol camp where the family members of ISIS fighters were being held, the promised reforms show that the AA is certainly taking the grievances raised by some of its Arab and tribal constituents seriously. 

Whether this satisfies those populations remains to be seen; however, the prospect of more stable governance is essential for the AA’s survival.

Negotiations with Damascus have yet to result in any deal that is acceptable to either side, and Damascus has not been shy in trying to exploit possible cleavages in the northeast to reduce the AA’s bargaining position. A more unified territory will strengthen the AA’s ability to maintain its independence from Damascus moving forward.

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