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The war over AANES municipal elections in northeastern Syria

After facing major local, regional and international pushback—including a Turkish threat to invade northeastern Syria—the AANES postponed municipal elections scheduled for this week until August, citing “internal” reasons and "the demands of the political parties and alliances participating."

11 June 2024

HASAKAH — Polling stations across northeastern Syria received no voters on Tuesday, the day controversial municipal elections called by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) had been set to get underway. Last week, the AANES announced it would postpone the elections until August, after plans for the vote met with extensive local, regional and international pushback—including a Turkish invasion threat, United States skepticism and a local boycott. 

According to the official AANES narrative, this week’s elections were postponed “in response to the demands of the political parties and alliances participating in the electoral process, and to ensure the electoral process is implemented in a democratic manner.” The AANES previously postponed the elections from May to June, citing “insufficient” time to prepare.

Hamdan al-Abd, Deputy Co-Chair of the Executive Council of the AANES, denied the elections were postponed as a result of “regional or international pressures.” The delay was due to “the parties not being fully prepared to promote their electoral project,” he told Syria Direct.

Rokam Mulla Ibrahim, Co-Chair of the AANES’ High Electoral Commission, referred to “internal” reasons for the postponement, citing a “failure to deliver electoral cards to all the region’s residents, who are currently busy with the harvest.” She also referred to “the request of political parties and alliances,” denying any link between Turkish threats and the decision to delay the elections. 

Turkish media had linked the postponement to Ankara’s warnings that it would “not allow the establishment of a terrorist state in the region.”

The now-postponed municipal elections were planned after the AANES ratified a new Social Contract—a provisional constitution regulating the administration of areas under its control—in December 2023. The updated document changed the structure of AANES institutions, including municipalities. 

A Federation of Municipalities in Northeastern Syria was created in April under Law No. 4 of 2024 to act as a regional municipal body. The 62-article law defines the duties and authorities of municipalities, including services and legal affairs. 

Under the AANES’ Municipal Elections Law, voters in the upcoming elections will choose the co-chairs and members of municipal councils in 134 municipalities across seven cantons: Jazira, Deir e-Zor, Euphrates, Tabqa, Afrin and Manbij. These administrative designations differ from those used by the Damascus government.

The law states that “every individual who is a resident of the DAANES areas, as well as those who are either undocumented [maktoumeen] or stateless if they meet the legal and eligibility conditions, are eligible to vote.”

Some 5,336 candidates are running for election, including 270 independent candidates, according to figures provided to Syria Direct by the High Electoral Commission, a 20-member body with representatives from all cantons. More than 2,000 polling stations have been designated, and electoral cards have so far been distributed to more than 80 percent of eligible voters.

Parties are running in the elections as part of alliances or independently. The “Alliance of Peoples and Women for Freedom” includes 22 parties, movements and women’s organizations, while the “Together for Better Services” list includes five parties, Ibrahim explained. Five parties are participating independently. 

Ibrahim estimated the number of eligible voters in northeastern Syria at between 2 million and 2.5 million people, noting that the precise number can only be determined once all electoral cards are distributed. 

Local pushback

Efforts to hold municipal elections in the northeast have faced significant criticism from internal and external parties, including the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC). The party announced it would boycott the elections, saying in a May 27 statement that they were being held “in an environment that is not neutral, [in which] the results are predetermined and lack legitimacy.”

Ismail Rashid, a member of the political committee of the KNC-aligned Yekiti Kurdistan Party, warned against the AANES moving forward with the elections without accounting for the positions of those opposed. “Catastrophic situations and dangerous repercussions await our areas” if the elections are held, especially since “the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its connection to the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK gives Turkey a pretext to invade,” he said.

Among the reasons for the KNC boycotting the elections is “the PYD’s exclusive decision making and monopoly on political life through the de facto authority,” alongside “the lack of a suitable environment for elections and stability,” Rashid told Syria Direct. “Half our people are displaced, and there is no political agreement on the Syrian track, which is in violation of United Nations resolutions, especially 2254.” 

UN Security Council Resolution 2254 lays out a roadmap for a political transition in Syria to end the conflict, including the drafting of a new constitution and holding UN-supervised elections. 

The KNC taking part in the elections is contingent on “the PYD stopping the burning of the council’s headquarters, ceasing the arrests and starvation of the people, and not holding a monopoly on the fate of our people through the PKK cadres controlling the levers of the region,” Rashid said. 

KNC offices in northeastern Syria have been targeted by arson on multiple occasions. Despite the AANES condemning these incidents and stressing the need to hold the perpetrators accountable, the KNC accuses the AANES of responsibility. 

Commenting on the KNC rejecting the elections, al-Abd of the Executive Council said “the KNC is not free in its decision, which is what prevents it from participating.” He alluded to pressure on the KNC from Ankara and the Syrian opposition, because the party is part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC)—the largest opposition political body—which is based in Turkey. 

The SNC issued a statement on June 1 stressing the “illegality of the elections” and describing them as an attempt to “blow up the UN-sponsored political process, aimed at circumventing the Security Council resolutions related to Syria.” 

“The elections are being held outside UN Resolution 2254, and contradict it,” Abdulhakim Bachar, Vice President of the SNC and a member of the KNC, told Syria Direct. “The resolution stipulates that elections will come at a later stage, preceded by a political agreement, a comprehensive non-sectarian government and a new constitution.” 

Bachar contended the elections are not related to services, but rather aim to “give a false image that the residents east of the Euphrates are managing themselves,” while “everybody knows PKK cadres run the area behind the curtains and control all decisions.” 

In response, al-Abd stressed that the elections aim to develop services, adding that the AANES is “a community-based, democratic administration—self-government of the people by the people, the true embodiment of the concept of people choosing their representatives.” Opposition to the elections by internal and external parties is “based on their interests,” he said. 

The Damascus government, for its part, has not announced an official stance on elections. However, an article in al-Watan, a pro-regime newspaper, quoted unnamed sources as saying: “The current separatist project is categorically rejected. There is no legitimate authority for the so-called AANES to hold elections in the areas it controls. The only legitimate, recognized elections are the local administration elections held under the authority of the Syrian state.”

Al-Watan’s sources sent a veiled threat, saying the AANES conducting elections “will have consequences, politically and in the field.”

“The Syrian government fears the people of northeastern Syria’s support and acceptance of the AANES project,” al-Abd said in response. “It wants to go back to before 2011, so it rejects the elections.” 

Regional and international rejection

Taking the most severe stance against the elections, Turkey has threatened to launch a military operation against northeastern Syria if the AANES moves ahead. In late May, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said his country is “closely following the aggressive actions by the terrorist organization against the territorial integrity of our country and of Syria under the pretext of an election.”

On May 29, Turkey’s Ministry of Defense said Ankara would not allow the imposition of a fait accompli that threatens its national security and violates Syria’s territorial integrity.

Ibrahim, of the High Electoral Commission, denounced Ankara’s statements, stressing the elections “are an internal matter that does not require an international decision, and do not threaten Turkish national security.” 

“With or without holding the elections, Turkey bombs our areas,” she added.

“Ankara seeks to create justifications for invading our areas and carry out its Ottoman project, represented in the occupation of northern Syria, from Aleppo to Mosul in Iraq,” al-Abd said. “Turkish threats are not new.”

The AANES has no assurances to protect the area it controls from Turkey following through on its threats if elections are held, but “there is an American-Russian position not to allow Turkey to occupy other areas,” al-Abd said. 

However, the US position may have been a decisive factor in postponing the elections. Washington’s opinion cannot be overstepped, as an ally of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—the military wing of the AANES—and as one of the most important donors to humanitarian and service projects in the area. 

The US has not welcomed the AANES elections. Speaking at a press briefing in May, Deputy Spokesperson for the Department of State Vedant Patel said “any elections that occur in Syria should be free, fair, transparent and inclusive, as is called for in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.” Washington does not believe “the conditions for such elections are in place in northeast Syria in present time. We’ve conveyed this to a range of actors in northeast Syria,” he added. 

As al-Abd of the Executive Council sees it, Washington “does not want to take any step that could affect the presidential elections in the US, and is also trying to satisfy Turkey, given the relationship between the two countries.” The US has asked his administration to “postpone the elections, not cancel them completely,” he said. 

What do residents think? 

Municipal elections would directly impact services and living conditions for civilians in AANES areas of influence. However, given political tensions on one hand and the poor condition of services in the northeast on the other, residents who Syria Direct spoke to voiced a range of opinions on the postponed elections. 

Abeer Muhammad, who teaches at a regime-affiliated public school in Hasakah’s Qamishli city, did not care about the municipal elections. She heard about them from a neighbor, and did not bother to look into their details or find out the names of the candidates running in her area, she told Syria Direct. “I won’t participate,” she said, without explaining her reasoning further. 

Although the current municipalities “provide minimal services to the area,” Kamal Najm does intend to vote. The elections are “a right guaranteed to me by the Social Contract,” he told Syria Direct in Rumeilan, a city east of Qamishli.

Najm acknowledged the elections “won’t be a magic wand that will lead to fundamental changes in the service situation.” He feels the electoral blocs and alliances running have “greatly exaggerated their programs, portraying the elections as though they would bring the area into a new world.”

Regardless of how they impact services, Ali Habash, who is displaced from Aleppo’s Afrin region and lives in Qamishli, believes holding elections is a “necessity” to open up space for “new faces” in the municipalities. A change is particularly necessary given the “miserable” state of services including electricity, water and roads, he said. 

“I’ll participate in the elections in the hope that the situation will change for the better,” Habash told Syria Direct. At the same time, he acknowledged that improved services depend on “the budget allocated to the municipalities, and international organizations’ support.”

For Salman Ahmad (a pseudonym), in Hasakah, the “constant decline of services over the past eight years” and his negative view of “how the authorities administer the area” mean he will boycott the elections. He called them a “formality,” as “the PYD is the one that controls life in northeastern Syria.” 

“Even if a candidate from the parties not directly affiliated with AANES leadership wins, the budgets allocated to the municipalities pass through them,” Ahmad added. 

“The streets are full of potholes, and hundreds of uncovered sewage pits,” he said. “There is no water suited for drinking, and no control of prices and the markets, leading to the spread of expired goods.” 

“In Deir e-Zor, municipalities’ duties are limited to sanitation,” Ghada Zakariya, an independent candidate running for election there, said. This motivated her to run for office. If elected, “I will work to provide the people with basic services: water, sanitation, paving roads,” she told Syria Direct

In her view, the new law “gives the region’s municipalities the opportunity to take up their role and better meet people’s needs.” 

Najm doubts the ability of elected municipalities to be effective. “The dysfunction in their performance is related to a lack of allocated budgets, incompetent staff and the lack of a well-structured, smart plan to achieve parity on the principle of accomplishing what can be accomplished given the few resources,” he said. “Elections will not fill the gaps.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson. 

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