Does Syrian Kurdish democracy pose a threat to Turkey?

Ankara sees upcoming elections as solidifying a state, which, in its view, would pose a clear threat

People gather with the Kurdish flag during a Syrian Kurdish celebration marking Nowruz in the town of Qahtaniyah. AFP
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The world is awash in elections this summer, with recent or looming votes in India, South Africa, Mexico, Europe and the UK, plus the US’s endless campaigns. But one regional democratic process has mostly gone under the radar.

The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), often called Rojava by Kurds, is set to hold local elections next week, on June 11. About 5,000 candidates are running for key positions in more than 190 municipalities across Jazira, Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Manbij and part of Aleppo.

The region began gaining autonomy in 2012, in the early days of Syria’s civil war, before forming a military and its legislative Syrian Democratic Council a few years later. Its leadership has been criticised for forced disappearances and media censorship, but Rojava is widely seen as the most tolerant and democratic region of Syria, with a stated commitment to gender equality and religious and cultural diversity.

Despite the vote being controlled by AANES’s armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it is a hopeful moment for Syrian Kurds – though their northern neighbour takes a different view.

“Turkey will not allow the creation of a ‘terroristan’ across its southern border,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week, calling it a “pretext” of an election.

Ankara sees the SDF as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades and is designated a terrorist group by the US, EU and Turkey. The US and EU have, since 2015, been allied with the SDF, which played a key role in ISIS’s defeat in Syria and remains the main anti-ISIS fighting force there.

The region today is much more of a tinderbox. One wrong move, one minor misstep, could set it alight

From 2016 to 2020, Ankara launched three ground incursions into SDF-held regions, seeking to create a safe zone along its southern border to resettle Syrian refugees and secure against possible attacks. Turkish officials say SDF forces have plotted attacks on Turkish positions in Syria and blame a deadly 2022 Istanbul bombing on a Syrian woman sent from SDF-controlled Kobani, though the PKK and SDF denied involvement.

Earlier this year, AANES approved a constitution and formed an elections commission and constitutional court. The region previously held local elections in 2017, but one vote alone cannot prove a willingness and ability to make election-prompted leadership transitions.

Thus, Ankara sees this second vote as solidifying a Kurdish state that poses a clear threat. Turkish officials have been talking of staging another incursion into Syria for years, and already several regions of Rojava, such as Afrin, Al Bab and Jarabulus, are unable to join the vote due to Turkish occupation. The main obstacle to Turkey taking more Kurdish-controlled territory is the presence of US troops. Ankara has repeatedly urged the US to end its SDF alliance and withdraw its 1,000 troops from the area. Prominent pro-government columnists in Turkey have argued in recent days that the looming vote is part of an American plan, comparing Rojava to the territory previously held by ISIS.

With all eyes on Gaza, Iran-backed militias have in recent months increased strikes on US targets in Iraq and Syria, probably hoping to spur a US withdrawal. The US is loath to do so as it views its regional troop presence and alliances with Kurdish militias as a beachhead against Iranian influence in the region. Since last autumn, the SDF has clashed with several Arab tribes aligned with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Iran has reportedly been backing some of these tribes in an attempt to erode SDF control.

Turkey has also increased its Syria campaign. Just last week, Turkish strikes on Manbij and Ain Issa sparked fires that burnt wheat fields and another near Qamishli killed four SDF fighters and injured 11 civilians. In a region facing growing poverty, Turkish strikes have left millions without stable electricity or access to clean drinking water.

The Pentagon has expressed fears that Turkey’s strikes are driving a wedge between US troops and SDF forces, who are convinced Washington could put a stop to them. Amid these tensions, the US State Department last week urged AANES not to proceed with its vote as it views the conditions in north-east Syria as unfit for elections.

By withholding approval but not acting to stop the vote, the US seems to hope it can satisfy Turkey, its Nato ally, without betraying its anti-ISIS partner. Mr Al Assad has yet to recognise AANES and has made no comment on the planned election. But a few weeks ago, he expressed a willingness to open talks with Rojava officials, perhaps hinting at a potential peace deal after the elections.

Ankara has a lot of balls in the air along its southern border. Following Mr Erdogan’s April visit to Baghdad, Turkey is reportedly planning a military operation in northern Iraq and has been in talks with Iraqi officials to jointly crack down on PKK hideouts there. Such an operation could put Turkish troops in position to squeeze the SDF from across the Iraqi border.

In north-west Syria’s Idlib, Ankara has been working to establish a semblance of security and stability. To that end, Turkey-backed militant group Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) hopes to hold elections soon following the formation of a Supreme Elections Committee in March. The hitch is that locals have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against HTS rule, calling for major political reforms, a leadership change and an end to torture and human rights abuses.

But Rojava is the most urgent. If the elections go ahead as planned, will Turkey launch a major military operation in response? It may seem unlikely given the US presence, but it would not be unprecedented. In AANES’s first local elections, in 2017, many Arab voters were disenfranchised and a Kurdish opposition leader called the vote “a farce”.

Weeks later, Turkey launched a major assault on Afrin, delaying Rojava’s planned parliamentary elections and displacing hundreds of thousands of locals. “We did what needed to be done before,” Mr Erdogan said last week. “We will not hesitate to take action again.”

The difference is that the region today is much more of a tinderbox. One wrong move, one minor misstep, could set it alight.

Published: June 04, 2024, 4:00 AM