By Syrian Democratic Times

The Turkish occupation of North and East Syria and other regional issues were the topic of a webinar panel entitled, “Governance and Security Under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration and Turkish-Backed Groups in Syria,” hosted by the Washington Kurdish Institute on Thursday, June 11, 2020. [Watch video of panel.]

Panelists included: Dr. Najmaldin Karim, President of the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI); Michael Mulroy, Former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute; Sinam Mohamad, Co-Chief of the Syrian Democratic Council in Washington DC, and; Fabrice Balanche, Professor at Lyon University and Adjunct Fellow to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

Dr. Karim spoke of the relationship between the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), saying, “The situation today is much better today than two years ago, or even a year ago.” He emphasized the need for Kurdish unity, stating, “the Kurds have no choice… they have to be together. Our enemies always get together when ever they see any chance for the Kurds to get our rights.”

Dr. Karim stated that the US and Europe should also act to delist the PKK as a terrorist organization, saying, “PKK has always been used as a villain, because that’s what Turkey wants… The US and EU should remove PKK from the lists.”

He criticized international bodies for not finding a seat at the table for the AANES in UN-supported peace talks on Syria, calling actions by these bodies “disappointing.”

Professor Balanche warned that the AANES should be cautious because, “If you’re not invited to the table, it’s because you are the meal, you’re on the menu.” He stressed that Turkey’s actions in Syria should be viewed as strategies for territorial expansion, stating to remember that “the war is also economic.”

“The goal of Erdogan is to create the Arab Belt. He will not stop, except if the West uses its huge leverage on Turkey,” said Professor Balanche.

Professor Balanche stated that if the international community wishes to support the autonomous region, it should focus on the two areas of: 1) breaking Turkish control, and; 2) supporting development and reconstruction of the region.

“If we are a meal, we will be a very hard meal. We will not be an easy meal to digest,” said Mohamad, in response to Professor Balanche’s comments about having a seat at the UN peace talk table.

Mohamad discussed the inspiring democratic model of the AANES, detailing systems of inclusion for different ethnic groups, gender equality, decentralization, and equal participation. She discussed various challenges to the AANES, including ISIS and the detention of ISIS prisoners, the Turkish occupation and genocidal campaigns, Turkish-backed militias, the novel Coronavirus, the economic destabilization caused by the Caesar Act and new sanctions, and continued challenges related to the Assad government.

She discussed in detail the occupation of Afrin, and recent revelations about the brutality of Turkey and Turkish-backed militias against women of the region, especially Kurdish and Yezidi women.

“Women were found in the prison naked. That is humiliation. It is a sexual assault… but unfortunately everyone is turning a blind eye to that,” said Mohamad.

She also discussed religious persecution in Afrin, saying, “the freedom of religion that was in Afrin, it is not anymore. We consider it to be a human right, but it is not in existence anymore in Afrin.”

Both Mohamad and Dr. Karim also addressed recent claims by Turkish President Erdogan that SDF units were somehow behind the recent Black Lives Matters protests in the United States. Dr. Karim called the link between SDF fighters and US protesters laughable, and Mohamad stated that there is no relation.

“We are against racism, wherever it is, of course, even here in the United States we are against that,” said Mohamad, “But we don’t have any relation to what is going on in the United States. It is an internal issue… the people can solve their problems.”

Michael Mulroy, who has spent his US military and intelligence career developing partnerships between armed forces, stressed that the SDF were effective partners with a high degree of integrity.

“There was no better partner than our Kurdish partner in the YPG, which eventually became the SDF,” said Mulroy. “I think that partnership was a model in how we do these partnerships… I do think the SDF was a model, and quite frankly, the only tool in fighting ISIS.”

“Our partners fought well beyond what would have necessarily been in their immediate interest,” said Mulroy.

Mulroy added that the United States should support stabilization efforts in North and East Syria, support a seat at the table in UN-supported peace talks on Syria, and also support international aid in processing the ISIS prisoners and detainees.

All of the speakers who addressed the Caesar Act agreed that new sanctions imposed by the act would be harmful to the people of North and East Syria. Professor Balanche discussed the current situation with the Syrian pound already at a low and banks terrified to transfer money to Syria, even when it is not a violation of the sanctions. He discussed impacts ranging from farmers in North and East Syria not being able to buy seed to plant next year’s crop of wheat to NGOs in the region not being able to pay their staff.

Mohamad stressed the need for unity among all Syrians in solving the Syrian crisis, stating, “We must all together find solutions. We are ready to find solutions for all people, and stop this bloodshed.”