By Daryous Darwish. Originally published in the e-book Inside Wars: Local Dynamics of Conflicts in Syria and Libya.
If some parts of the Kurdish community were involved in the Syrian revolution at its beginning in 2011, the disengagement of the Syrian army from the Kurdish areas in the mid of 2012 and the gradual takeover of these areas by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) put an end to the protestations against the Syrian regime. Then the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM, which is a coalition of civil organizations and political parties, but in fact strictly controlled by the PYD) began to impose Kurdish rule over the Kurdish regions. On 12 July 2012, TEV-DEM and its affiliates reached an agreement with the Kurdish National Council (KNC) to establish the Kurdish Supreme Committee. This took responsibility for several aspects of administration, including establishing the Asayish (local police forces) and the YPG (local military), in addition to supporting locals with humanitarian aid. The Kurdish Supreme Committee did not last for long as the KNC withdrew from it in August 2013. Therefore, TEV-DEM took full control of the committee, to later abandon it and establish the Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA), which is continued to the present day and lately started preparing itself to establish a federal system exclusively in the areas under the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), while avoiding declaring itself as an independent state or as a federal state.
Nowadays, the DAA rules most of the regions where Kurds have a significant presence in the northern and north-eastern parts of Syria which were always governed by non-Kurdish actors. These regions now are named Rojava. This chapter will analyse the local governance of the DAA, particularly in Qamishli and Jazeera Canton. It aims to explain how and to what extent the DAA has succeeded in imposing Kurdish control over the Kurdish areas. This process has been largely determined by the competition within the Kurdish arena, by the intervention of regional and international actors, and by the relationship of the new Kurdish administration with the multi-ethnic local community.
Understanding the project of the DAA and the dynamics of its local governance structures in Rojava will help in understanding one of several administrations ruling in Syria, it may also help in determining the sustainability of this project inside Rojava (which is not only affected by the success or failure of the administration itself, but by the international and local powers agreements) and the ability of copying this project outside Rojava as the last statement of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) says.
The Structure of the Democratic Autonomous Administration
Benefiting from the security vacuum created in Syria after the outbreak of the civil war and responding to Kurdish demands for autonomy, the Democratic Autonomous Administration was officially established on 21 January 2014. This was a single effort by TEV-DEM, which is an umbrella organization grouping the PYD and other organizations focused on issues such as civil society, gender, youth and creating a parliament (Western Kurdistan People’s Council).
The establishment of the DAA took place in very complicated circumstances and resulted from a very strong desire of TEV-DEM to seize power alone. Once it fully controlled the Kurdish Supreme Committee after the KNC had withdrawn from it in August 2013 due to disagreements mainly about the killing of demonstrators in Amuda in June 2013, TEV-DEM continued to evade partnership with the KNC. However, in the second Erbil agreement in December 2013, the KNC and the People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (a TEV-DEM affiliate) agreed to run the Simalka border crossing jointly. Later, in February 2014, the KNC staff in Simalka stopped working because TEV-DEM made them choose between agreeing to work as DAA employees or leave their posts.
As it passed through these events, the administration in the Kurdish region slowly built up its structure. It had basically started as an administration concerned with security and mainly focused on possible political competition and protection of the Kurdish regions from attacks by Islamic forces. Later, by the time the DAA was announced, its structure as a government was roughly complete. It had its own legislative council, executive council and presidency, and its own judicial power (people’s courts). Moreover, the YPG and Asayish changed allegiance from the Kurdish Supreme Committee to the DAA.
One of the key institutions of the DAA is the commune, whose role is to deliver humanitarian aid to the residents in their neighbourhoods. Although these communes did not previously have a notable role, later they started distributing consumable items which were in short supply in Jazeera canton. They have recently started distributing sugar, which was unavailable in the markets, and are covering shortages of cooking gas cylinders and other materials.
This system of aid delivered via the communes has received criticism from local observers. A Kurdish activist and journalist who refused to give his name claims that the aid delivered through the commune system is not provided exclusively by the DAA but mostly by local NGOs, which are obliged to go through the commune system (or other DAA institutions) to be able to work in these regions. He adds that the authorities impose distribution lists on the NGOs according to the wishes of influential officials, and that “the NGOs face frequent obstruction of their distribution plans for months until a compromise is reached, which encourages corruption and favouritism in the DAA, as much of this aid (basically food baskets) is given as bribes to facilitate its work.”
Most of the current institutions of the DAA were previously partisan organizations affiliated with TEV-DEM. Some of them are still under the direct control of TEV-DEM, which still has the power to assign the key leaders. The DAA Legislative Council, which replaced the former People’s Council of Western Kurdistan, is one example of this, as it lacks any pretence of an opposition and only consists of parties affiliated, directly or indirectly, with TEV-DEM.
This is also the case of the YPG. The Social Contract of Rojava, which serves as a constitution, does not make it clear how the leaders of the YPG should be appointed and neither does it clarify to which constitutional institution it is affiliated, which leaves the door wide open for TEV-DEM, as the founder of the YPG, to exert direct control in appointing the entire command structure of the YPG, also giving it direct control of the YPG’s political positions.
Other institutions act as strong arms of TEV-DEM but under the guise of the DAA. Foremost of these is the Committee of Martyr’s Families. Even though it is a committee within the executive council of the DAA, it has much unconstitutional influence over the Asayish and the People’s Courts. It has deported a journalist working with Rudaw, Peshewa Bahlawi, to Iraqi Kurdistan and forced several political activists to leave Rojava with threats, while the DAA closed its eyes to these unconstitutional acts.
The commune system is also playing a significant role in empowering TEV-DEM’s control over DAA, as Majid Mohammad, a Kurdish journalist and activist, says:
“The role assigned to communes can be summarized in the aim of the DAA, and consequently TEV-DEM, to establish popular support for their project. As a greater role for the communes is at the expense of DAA’s institutions, and it is an attempt to ideologically attach locals to the DAA and TEV-DEM, as well as to amplify its regulatory systems to cover the daily life of the locals, it is a clear violation of the concepts of administration and the mechanisms of delivering services of the existing authorities.”
Financially, in its 2014 public budget the DAA declared expenditures for that year of about 2.7 billion SYP (7.7 million USD), and indicated that it was aiming to reach revenues of 5.6 billion SYP (16 million USD) for 2015. The DAA depends on oil and gas production to cover its expenses, and according to a report issued by Jihad Yazigi in 2015,1 this source provides it with revenues reaching 10 million USD per month.
Most of this money is being spent on the military operations of the YPG, so the DAA has increased its dependency on taxes collected by the general directorate of customs, and while there is no accurate information on the amount of this revenue, intense complaints about this issue can be found published in media outlets, including ones close to the DAA. Moreover, the sharing of revenue produced by running the Simalka border crossing together with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has been a major point of contention between TEV-DEM and the KNC.
The Democratic Autonomous Administration Project
As mentioned before, the DAA project was created and implemented by TEV-DEM, and the project as it was declared became the constitution of Rojava. Even though the content of this constitution includes the main principals of human rights, civil peace, coexistence and gender equality alongside more problematic issues related to the DAA’s institutions, it is clear that the goals of the project go beyond the simple content, and probably can be summarized as the following:
- To represent the very core of Kurdish demands for autonomy after decades of ethnic persecution in Syria for being Kurds.
- To achieve a victory in the internal Kurdish power struggle at the Kurdish national level.
Kurd demands for autonomy in Syria were not created by TEV-DEM’s DAA project but have always been a main goal of the Kurdish people since the beginnings of the Kurdish political movement in 1957. Federalism is still the major demand of the KNC, which represents the traditional Kurdish parties.
However, although the mainstream ideology of TEV-DEM is not a matter of disagreement with the KNC, as the latter has always tried to participate in this administration under the condition of having a ‘just’ share, the DAA is continually distancing the KNC from participation in the administration by flooding almost every one of its institutions with ideological symbols and icons which are, by themselves, the most problematic issue between the two groups. This is in addition to TEV-DEM’s continual refusal to hold elections for the legislative and local councils, and its repeated breaking of all its agreements with the KNC.
Nevertheless, while TEV-DEM has practically refused to remove its ideological symbols from the DAA institutions, it agreed to remove the name of Kurdistan from its official usage and accepted the presence of independent Arab and Assyrian military power in the region. At the same time, it refused to allow the entry of the KNC military (Peshmerga of Rojava), which has led to more alienation of the KNC but simultaneously a closer rapprochement of other ethnicities towards the DAA.
When the DAA was declared, Western countries stopped their support for civil society in the Kurdish regions and boycotted the region entirely except for some humanitarian aid delivered by the UN. This situation lasted from the beginning of 2014 until early 2015, when a little aid recommenced after the international coalition against Islamic State (IS) started supporting the YPG in its aim to liberate Kobani. Therefore, the humanitarian and civil society support continued after a gap of almost a year.
This military and civil support did not transform itself into political recognition, however. The DAA was not invited to the Geneva talks on Syria, and it was not even recognized as a legitimate power to rule Rojava. Neither has Rojava itself achieved recognition by the international community, as the French foreign ministry has recently declared that it will not recognize a DAA representative office in Paris.
Nevertheless, the international community’s support for civil society in Rojava has had a large impact on the situation there. The many media outlets started with this support have resulted in an expansion of the margins of liberty in Rojava, and many civil society organizations working for democracy and human rights have been able to take part in reducing the human rights abuses of the DAA, which were targeting political parties and civil society organizations. Especially crackdowns on the media became less severe in both quality and quantity in 2015 compared to 2014 and before.
International humanitarian support has also improved the quality of life in the region, mainly for the displaced people who came from areas under the control of IS. Most of this aid is delivered through NGOs, while other humanitarian aid offered by the DAA is delivered to internally displaced persons through its channels.
However, the international humanitarian aid is not playing a notable role in developing the region economically, “as the slow change from humanitarian support to development projects leads to the total dependency of the recipients on these aids,” according to Piroz Perik, a Kurdish journalist and activist.
As for DAA relations with regional states, its relations with Turkey are suffering an unprecedented crisis, even though TEV-DEM has made several attempts to reduce the tension politically via the PYD, and the YPG has announced several times that it wants ‘healthy’ relations with Turkey. These efforts have not borne fruit; on the contrary, relations deteriorated badly as the SDF made progress in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and they have ended up with Turkey now attacking the YPG-controlled Menagh airport and targeting the Kurdish regions of Afrin with mortars and cannons.
These bad relations with Turkey are affecting the DAA’s ability to deliver services and build a real government in Rojava in two ways. First, Turkey is a NATO member and, compared to the DAA, it has a greater influence on the policies of Western powers, although this alliance was not able to prevent the US-led international coalition from helping the YPG against IS contrary to Turkish will. Nevertheless, it is still playing a major role in excluding the DAA from the Geneva talks, and also in preventing its western allies from recognizing the DAA or the Kurdish people’s right to autonomy in Syria.
Second, Ankara has the ability to destabilize Rojava by mobilizing its Syrian Arab and Turkmen allies to attack the YPG in various regions. It did this when it helped in the formation of the Jazeera and Euphrates Front, which tried to invade Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) in Jazeera canton in November 2012. More recently, when the SDF, whose key component is the YPG, broke the Turkish red line to the west of the Euphrates to fight IS, the Turks backed the Islamic opposition forces, tried to invade Afrin, and slaughtered soldiers of the SDF.
The DAA also has tense relations with the KRG, which are running the risk of closing the only border crossing that Rojava has with the rest of the world. It is wasting an opportunity to enhance its ability to fight IS, as the KRG played a significant role in convincing the International Coalition to provide aerial support to the YPG. It is also wasting an opportunity to benefit from the experiences of the KRG in securing its regions from terrorist breaches, which frequently happen in Rojava. Most of this tension occurred after TEV-DEM’s continual failure to meet its obligations under agreements with the KNC.
Local Acceptance of the Democratic Autonomous Administration
Even though the DAA uses the word ‘Democratic’ in the names of almost all its institutions, it has not yet called for general elections – not even for its first legislative council, which served as the constituent assembly in which the Social Contract of Rojava was adopted. This is a total contravention of international democratic norms which expect more than one party to participate in the process of writing and adopting a constitution. Due to the lack of democratic mechanisms in Rojava, it is difficult to determine precisely the level of local acceptance of the DAA, which only leaves us with the possibility of analysing the participation of local forces in ruling Rojava.
In spite of the relatively large number of political parties participating in the DAA, it represents only one spectrum of the political life in Rojava, while the other spectrum is kept absolutely outside of the DAA’s orbit. Thus, we find that the KNC and ADO (Assyrian Democratic Organization), which are the main opposition to the DAA, are totally excluded from it, while TEV-DEM and its affiliated parties on the Kurdish side, and the Assyriac Union Party on the Assyrian side are co-founders of the DAA.
As for the Arabs of Jazeera canton, their tribes are divided between supporting the DAA and supporting the Syrian regime. Therefore, one of the most powerful Arab tribal alliances in the region (Shammar) is a co-founder of DAA and has formed a major military force which is fighting alongside the YPG, while the other powerful alliance (mainly the Tayy tribe) is supporting the Syrian regime and has formed the National Defence Forces, which is a part of the Syrian Arab Army (the regime army).
Another factor affecting the acceptance of the DAA among the people of Rojava is the activity of civil society organizations. Almost 100 organizations exist in Jazeera canton. While most of them are not active, others are actively raising awareness about issues related to human rights, democracy, gender, transitional justice etc. and according to Zuhrab Qado, who is a Kurdish activist and a cofounder of the SHAR organization, “the impact of the political disputes between TEV-DEM and the KNC casts a shadow over their (local NGOs’) activities, with some of them taking political positions supportive of one side, while the blurred approach of the DAA towards civil society organizations and the unclear laws regarding their activities are deterring them from efficiently responding to local needs.”
There is also a large gap between the DAA and the media. This started with the DAA trying to impose its own agenda and terms on the media, like labelling other military groups as terrorists, and referring to YPG deaths as martyrdoms etc., with threats to ban journalists from work, deport them to Iraqi Kurdistan, or even to burn down the offices of media outlets which do not accept such conditions. These conditions had improved by 2014 and 2015: more media outlets could work in the region and media interventions by the DAA reached a comparatively low level. Nevertheless, it still keeps its main red lines intact. For example, expressing a significantly different political view to the DAA’s still means the outlet will be banned, as happened recently with the Rudaw and Orient News TV channels, which are banned from working in Jazeera and Kobani cantons.
DAA represents a genuine need of the Kurdish people to rule themselves, but this kind of representation is most likely to be a result of the people’s emotional attachment to this decades-long ambition, since the ability of Kurds to consider that they are ‘ruling themselves’ needs the application of democratic measures, which is not happening under the current rule of the DAA. It would be more accurate to describe the current situation of DAA rule as only at least ‘non-Kurds are not ruling Kurds.’
Compared to other parts of Syria, the DAA has made much progress in terms of defusing ethnic and sectarian conflicts within the community of Rojava, and achieving the participation of almost all groups in its government, since religious considerations have been ruled out of question, and ethnic differences are neutralized in favour of increasing political acceptance.
TEV-DEM’s total control over the DAA is impeding it from progressing more effectively, despite the relationship having helped it at the very beginning of its formation. The continuation of this dependency is worsening relations with the KRG and Turkey, and creating obstacles to DAA progress.
DAA is not open to political participation and does not allow the opposition to participate in its institutions. This results in opposition to the DAA as a whole without being able to distinguish between the DAA as a Kurdish autonomous entity and TEV-DEM as the party ruling this entity.
The future of this administration and its federal system is not positive now that it is not recognised by neither the regime, the opposition, the regional powers nor the international powers.
- J. Yazigi, “Le projet autonomiste kurde est-il économiquement viable en Syrie?”, 1 November 2015.
Daryous Darwish is an independent Syrian journalist and human rights activist. He is the author of many articles in Al-Hayat, Al-Mustakbal, Al-Adab, Atlantic Council, Shar Magazine, Suwar Magazine, and other local and international media. He specializes in Kurdish issues in Syria.