Why adept Kurdish rule in Syria's northeast worries Ankara

An Al Majalla field investigation in the autonomous parts of the country found the Kurds are capable in government – that precedent worries Ankara

Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces
Delil Souleiman
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces

Why adept Kurdish rule in Syria's northeast worries Ankara

The city of Qamishli in Syria’s northeast was on a high state of alert when Al Majalla arrived there on a recent field reporting trip.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had introduced additional security measures around the civil airport to the south and in the centre of the city, in response to a siege imposed by the Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian Army on Kurdish neighbourhoods in Aleppo.

On that same day, a Turkish drone targeted a commander from the SDF in the city of Manbij. Local citizens were alarmed at information leaked from the office of the Iran’s president, saying Tehran was actively seeking to train armed factions to launch attacks on the northeastern region of Syria.

Additionally, the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES) announced the commencement of the trial for several thousand of the most dangerous members of the Islamic State (IS), as their home countries had refused to repatriate them.

Nonetheless, daily life continued relatively undisturbed in the cities of the region, including Derik, Qamishli, Hasakah, and Raqqa. Markets were bustling. Thousands of harvesters were busy reaping wheat and barley. Commerce thrived and numerous private and public celebrations were underway.

Daily life continued relatively undisturbed in the cities of the region, including Derik, Qamishli, Hasakah, and Raqqa. Markets were bustling. Thousands of harvesters were busy reaping wheat and barley.

National competence at the border

To enter the AANES in this part of the country, travellers have one option: the Faysh Khabur border crossing, from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

It is the sole external gateway to the part of Syria here, which is outside the control of the Damascus government for the last decade.

The crossing now features a series of administrative and security measures in line with those covering entry into any typical country.

A specialised unit was responsible for verifying documents while another conducted security checks. A third unit used laser devices to examine goods.

There was a high level of official and administrative competence on display from the AANES. Uniforms and ranks among members of each department were standardised, and the administration was divided into separate units such as Passports, Security, Inspection, and Protection.

A shared electronic network helped manage the different types of entry into the area, whether personal, political, or commercial. The border personnel followed a clear set of procedures.

Once passed, travellers were provided with official documents as their sole reference for their stay, covering movement across the AANES's different areas.

Governing structure 

The way the border crossing is run offers insights into the broader power structure, general administration, and governance of the AANES in north-east Syria.

This region covers approximately 50,000 square kilometres and represents over a quarter of Syria's territory. It includes the Hasakah governorate, the northern parts of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor governorates, as well as extensive portions of the eastern and central Aleppo governorate.

It is home to over 5.5 million people and serves as a significant source of Syria's natural mineral wealth and agricultural resources. The country's northeast is also a focal point for local, regional and international conflicts, due to the intersection of ideological, geopolitical, and military trends.

The capabilities on show at the border crossing show how far the autonomous region has come. They are also emblematic of its institutions' relationships across the spheres of politics, the armed forces, and the ongoing conflict in this part of the country.

Rudy Tahlo
Directorate of Health in Qamishli


North-east Syria spans approximately 50,000 square kilometres and represents over a quarter of Syria's territory. It is home to over 5.5 million people and serves as a significant source of Syria's natural mineral wealth and agricultural resources.

Berivan Khalid is the co-chair of the AANES Executive Council in the AANES, with responsibilities similar to those of a prime minister.

In her modest office in Raqqa, she explained to Al Majalla that the administration does not want to be defined by the conflict in the region. Its primary focus is on providing essential public services to the region's residents and maintaining the cycle of life, despite the exceptional political, economic, and security conditions that have persisted for years.

The AANES was established gradually as Kurdish-majority areas in the far northeast of Syria came under the control of Kurdish military units known as the People's Protection Units (YPG) in late 2011.

Over time, alternative institutions and agencies were created to replace those of the Syrian regime. During the initial three years of the Syrian revolution, the administration took on different names and structures based on the military developments on the ground.

However, the Democratic Autonomous Administration was officially declared in the Jazira region (Hasakah province) in the first month of 2014. Subsequently, areas such as Kobani/Ayn al-Arab, Afrin, Manbij, Tabqa, Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zor were incorporated under its jurisdiction.

Khalid pointed out that for nearly nine years, the administration has consisted of three separate authorities: the Legislative Council (local parliament), the Council of Social Justice (judiciary), and the Executive Council (government).

They collectively manage public life in the seven internal regions mentioned earlier, following a decentralised quasi-federal approach. Each region has its own local institutions and authorities, primarily established through partnerships and agreements with local and regional entities.

The Executive Council

The Executive Council consists of 13 bodies, each of which corresponds to a specific ministry, including the interior, finance, culture, health, labour, and education. There are also specialised bodies for women and the environment.

In addition, there are offices dedicated to defence, oil, religious affairs, and planning. These sectors were not allocated separate bodies within the Executive Council.

Regarding the mechanism of forming the Executive Council and obtaining its legitimacy, Khalid explains:

"The Legislative Council is the source of legitimacy, and any member of the Executive Council must obtain the vote/approval of the Legislative Council. The Legislative Council constantly monitors and holds the Executive Council accountable. It approves its policies and budget and questions its members."

She adds: "Political parties and blocs usually nominate individuals to hold positions in the Executive Council in consultation with the Council's presidency. The names are then presented to the General Legislative Council for approval. The General Legislative Council is composed of representatives from local legislative councils, with a specific quota for political parties and forces that recognize the Autonomous Administration."

Inclusive government

Khalid denies accusations made against her administration of being a Kurdish military authority stemming from the dominance of the SDF in the region, based around the Kurdish People's Protection Units.

She emphasises the existence of a joint administration that governs the Executive Council, along with all its associated bodies and offices.

The laws and practices of the executive apparatus of the administration dictate that each unit within the entire executive, legislative, and even judicial structure must comprise individuals from a variety of national, religious, and regional backgrounds.

Furthermore, there is a requirement for a balanced representation of women in all those units and positions through the joint presidency mechanism.

There is a clear political division regarding the legitimacy of the Autonomous Administration in northeastern Syria. It is recognized by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), alongside Kurdish National Unity Parties, as well as Arab parties such as the Future Syria Party, Conservative Party, and Syriac Union Party.

Delil Souleiman
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces, east of the Euphrates

Together, they form a total of 33 parties, along with numerous tribal elders and leaders in the region.

But the Kurdish National Council refuses to recognise the Autonomous Administration, as do the parties within the Syrian Opposition Coalition, both Arab and Syrian.

A uniquely Syrian achievement

Its supporters see the AANES as a unique Syrian achievement, one that counters the totalitarianism of the Damascus regime while avoiding political Islam as an alternative, which has applied in other areas under opposition control.

They believe that regional and local recognition would enhance its internal dynamics and promote further development, showcasing a decentralised model for the future of Syria.

AANES supporters see it as a unique Syrian achievement, one that counters the totalitarianism of the Damascus regime while avoiding political Islam as an alternative. They believe that it showcases a decentralised model for the future of Syria.

The AANES's opponents argue that the administration is subservient to the will of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and lacks the democratic legitimacy bestowed by general elections.

A high-level source from the Presidency of the Social Justice Council in Northeast Syria, the region's highest judicial body, shed light on the political, security, and military challenges faced by the AANES.

The AANES itself had a crucial role in preventing general elections from being held and developing the legislative, political, and developmental framework, according to the source.

The source also pointed to the existence of 8,000 judicial cases related to terrorism involving tens of thousands of defendants who were associated with organisations such as IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Turkey-backed groups, Iran-supported groups, and the Syrian regime. These individuals have been involved in destructive and terrorist operations against the AANES over the years.

There have been numerous ways wars have been waged in the region, the source pointed out, led by countries like Turkey and Iran either directly or through proxies, as well as by organisations such as the Free Syrian Army, as well as  Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Syrian regime has also contributed to these wars and utilised them to undermine the AANES in various ways, said the source.

That is why there was a heightened state of alert in parts of the AANES territory after the siege imposed by Syrian regime forces on Kurdish neighbourhoods in Aleppo and the Shahba region to the north.

Additionally, there have been geographic, bureaucratic, and economic blockades imposed by the Syrian regime in cooperation with Turkey, alongside near-daily air strikes conducted by Turkey targeting civilian and military leadership in the area, the source said.

Members of the Social Justice Council in northeast Syria are elected from local councils. The judiciary is divided into three specialist units covering civil, military, and terrorism cases. Women constitute at least 40% of the members in each unit, and their presence is mandatory in every judicial chamber within the body.

Rudy Tahlo
Fruit and Vegetable Store in northeastern Syria.

Judicial Authority

The judiciary in north-east Syria operates under a set of civil laws and legislations. These laws are formulated by a special committee for civil laws and subsequently presented to the General Legislative Council for approval.

Generally, laws are in line with European counterparts. Notably, there is no death penalty or any religious courts. Marriages are solely civil, and practices such as polygamy and the marriage of underage individuals are prohibited. Crimes such as honour killings, blood feuds, and tribal vendettas do not receive any reduction in punishment.

A significant bureaucratic and judicial challenge faced by the judiciary in the AANES is the refusal of the authorities in Damascus to recognise any documents issued by them.

However, the judicial and executive bodies within the AANES recognise documents issued by the Syrian government, including ownership documents and civil relationships.

The situation becomes more complex when it comes to external documents, as most countries still consider documents issued solely by the central Syrian government as valid, and they do not recognize documents issued by the AANES.


In the past year, the AANES'S public revenue reached $1.2 billion, from oil sales, crossing revenues, agricultural products, and general taxes.

In the past year, the AANES'S public revenue reached $1.2 billion, from oil sales, crossing revenues, agricultural products, and general taxes. The Defence Authority receives 55% percent of the budget, mainly used for salaries and weapon procurement.

The allocation of its spending occurs across four main areas with the approval of the Legislative Council. Roughly 30% of the budget is dedicated to supporting essential goods, particularly food and medicine, with over 40% percent of these goods being subsidised.

The Defence Authority receives 55% percent of the budget, mainly used for salaries and weapon procurement. The remaining 15% serves as an operational and investment budget for the administrative apparatus, infrastructure development, and job creation.

According to information obtained by Al Majalla, the AANES sets the minimum wage at 520,000 Syrian pounds – approximately $70 US dollars – four times higher than what workers in Damascus-controlled areas receive.

The AANES employs 139,000 civil servants. Diversity in ethnicity, religion, region, and gender equality are fully considered in public recruitment processes. Additionally, there are 33,000 police and security personnel, along with 75,000 military personnel who are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, totalling 214,000 public employees with varying monthly salaries, including the minimum wage.

Diverse and free education

Public schools in the AANES use Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac, and Armenian languages to teach, based on the ethnic distribution of the population in each region, along with one international language. These schools cater to 830,000 students in the basic educational stages. Education and services provided in these schools are completely free.

The Autonomous Administration also oversees three public universities: Rojava in Qamishli, Al-Sharq in Raqqa, and Al-Furat in Kobani/Ain al-Arab.

Comprehensive public services are also offered to over 800,000 Syrian migrants who have permanently relocated from other areas into the AANES. They are treated legally, politically, economically, and administratively the same as other citizens. They receive full healthcare coverage through 14 major public hospitals, specialised centres, and local clinics.

Endless quest for legitimacy

Despite receiving military support and political coverage from the international coalition forces in the fight against terrorism, the AANES has not achieved formal recognition of its legitimacy. Representation abroad is limited to 12 countries, none of which have granted official status.

Barbara Gibson

Read more: The Kurds of Iraq and their painstaking quest for legitimacy

Foreign political and security representatives within the administration's areas are considered special envoys rather than diplomatic envoys.

The relationship between the Autonomous Administration and the Syrian regime and government has been challenging. Despite multiple negotiation rounds facilitated by Russia and encouraged by the United States, the Syrian regime has shown indifference and accused the Autonomous Administration of promoting separatism and aligning with the US.

Discussions on critical matters such as the Kurdish issue, equitable wealth distribution, and the fate of the Syrian Democratic Forces have been neglected. The regime primarily focuses on negotiations centred around "Law 42," which pertains to the local administration.

Turkey, which also has a large Kurdish population, has raised concerns about legitimacy, in an import part of the wider diplomatic picture created by the AANES in the region.

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