By Matthew Scott Whitley
Those who have been watching the Syrian Civil War are likely to recognize the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) as a key coalition ally in the fight against ISIS. While this is certainly true, this singular focus has overshadowed the fact that there is also a profound transformation happening in civil society, one which is redressing decades of economic injustice in the minority areas (Kurdish, Assyrian, Turkmen, etc) of North and East Syria.
The people of North and East Syria have historically been subject to continuous policies of dispossession and economic underdevelopment. Following Syria’s official declaration as an Arab Republic in its 1961 constitutional referendum, a census/land reform process was undertaken that deliberately stripped large numbers of the Kurdish population of their official identification and reclassified them as either “unregistered” or “foreign” people. As well as being denied access to basic services, victims of this policy were unable to pursue a formal education, own property, obtain professional employment, or participate in politics.
Such direct forms of dispossession were further compounded by a deliberate policy of monocropping and dependence. North and East Syria was turned into a breadbasket for the rest of the country, reducing agricultural diversity and shifting to a heavy focus on barley and wheat — crops that are known to erode soil quality and yields unless the crops are rotated.
More recently, olive production in the western canton of Afrin has been another major historical crop, but with Turkish occupation, Afrin’s olive oils, famous soaps, and other products have largely been looted and re-labeled as products of Turkey — to the tune of 80 million USD lost per harvest.
The most significant resource in North and East Syria has been the oil wells, which might provide steady revenue in the context of a future, integrated economy. However, the Syrian state has deliberately kept refineries and processing equipment in the country’s interior, ensuring dependence on the Syrian government.
Faced with a war economy and massive historical obstacles, it is remarkable that the AANES has been able to create one of the most stable and self-sufficient economies in the country. Through structures like Women’s Committees and economic councils, avenues of micro-credit and vocational training have been created, allowing for the creation of many new enterprises ranging from agriculture and animal husbandry, to recycling, to wholesalers’ organizations. Academies have been formed to fill gaps in educational access, training young people in everything from agronomics to economic theory — newly available in suppressed languages and at minimal cost.
These citizen-led innovations have given many women in particular their first access to independent incomes, furthering their ability to participate in society and politics as well as democratizing the workforce. They’ve also had an important impact on sustainability, bringing products like fruit, which were traditionally not part of the dependence-based development plan, back into local agriculture. Ecology, a pillar of the AANES Social Contract, is equally central to these new enterprises, calling for the integration of staple food production with bio-dynamic recycling, waste recycling as fertilizer, and ecological farming techniques.
Many believe that one of the new initiatives, the Hevgirtin wholesalers’ cooperative, is largely to thank for undercutting speculators and keeping prices stable enough to allow young economic initiatives to flourish and to continue to provide essential goods and services.
However, local innovation can only solve so many problems. The AANES faces many challenges in the near term if the international community does not come to its aid. Turkey’s invasions have been accompanied by economic warfare, not only in the form of looting and expropriation, but also by more sinister practices like the closing of borders, the setting of fires and the manipulation of water supplies north of the border — threatening agriculture in the AANES downstream. Only smartly applied international pressure is capable of achieving goals like the opening of borders for export/import and preventing the weaponization of water.
Unfortunately, the international community’s current approach to North and East Syria is anything but “smart.” The AANES, unrecognized officially as an autonomous administration, is subject to the same sanctions as the Syrian government, despite its efforts to build a democratic alternative to President Assad’s authoritarian autocracy.
The Syrian pound has been rapidly devalued, hitting new lows in the last month. Key materials and equipment cannot be traded or shipped. Major powers, hedging their bets in the Syrian conflict, have been loath to insist on formal recognition of the AANES’s democratic project, either at peace talks or as economic actors. This recognition is vital to advancing cooperation on cross-border issues, including the production and sale of oil reserves under safe and optimal ecological conditions.
These macro-economic factors can only be addressed by the international community, starting first and foremost with the leadership of the United States. Legislation like S2641 in the Senate, one congressional variant of the “Support the Kurds Bill,” would be an excellent start. By differentiating the AANES from the Syrian government, sanctioning Turkey for its occupation and de-stabilization of the region, taking responsibility for ISIS prisoners, and extending humanitarian aid, the United States would be taking an important first step towards normalization.
Democracy, it must be remembered, will not ultimately be fostered by force of arms, but by its ability to create a thriving society in daily life. The AANES has taken many promising steps to build this democratic foundation, an accomplishment in a region long viewed in the West with suspicion and cynicism. The interests of world powers have too often obscured the real progress created on the ground by the AANES’s governance. The biggest story may yet be that, out of the tragedy of war, the seeds are planted not only for a pluralistic, feminist, and democratic economy, but also a democratic society. It would be the ultimate tragedy if this vision itself was suffocated by short-sighted policy and a lack of political will.