The year 2020 was marked with unique hardships for North and East Syria. A sharp economic downturn following fresh US sanctions against Syria sent more people into poverty, expanding the suffering and hunger of the Syrian people. Turkey continued its attacks on the region, violating the ceasefire agreements it had signed with the United States and Russia. The occupation of part of the region by the unscrupulous Turkish military and brutal Turkish-backed militias continues. And of course, the global pandemic raged through the region, with case numbers accelerating dangerously as the year ended.
But 2020 also saw a reduction in war and conflict in the region. The Turkish attacks were less severe than in 2018 or 2019, even as their occupation continued and displaced people remained unable to return to their homes. The threat of ISIS remained much lower than in the preceding five years, following the defeat of the ISIS “caliphate” by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the global coalition in March 2019. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) developed new ways to serve the people of the region, holding a national congress, expanding political work toward a peaceful resolution to the Syrian conflict, and delivering lifesaving services like food aid, water, and healthcare.
As 2021 dawns, the AANES remains committed to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict through dialog. It remains committed to initiatives to expand true democracy in the region — feminism, religious diversity, ethnic diversity, self-rule, and self-protection. Its governance and defense of North and East Syria remains steadfast. AANES officials call upon the international community for support in order to bring true democracy, peace, and stability to the Middle East.
Turkish Attacks and Ceasefire Violations
Bombings, Shellings, and other Turkish attacks continued through 2020, conducted by the Turkish military and by Turkish-backed militias calling themselves the Syrian National Army. Most of the attacks were centered in the areas of the October 2019 Turkish military invasion, the areas of Serêkaniyê and Girê Spî. Attacks also continued through the region of Afrin, Syria, which has been occupied by Turkey since March 2018 and is undergoing horrific forced demographic change and Turkification and human rights violations every day.
Turkey had agreed to a ceasefire in October 2019, following pressure from Russia and the United States, but they have not fulfilled their end of the deal. An analysis by Dr. Amy Austin Holmes, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, has shown that there were over 800 ceasefire violations — an average of 2.3 ceasefire violations per day — in the first year of the ceasefire agreements. Over 85 percent of the violations were categorized as armed conflict events, to include battles, armed clashes, shelling or artillery fire, drone strikes, and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. The remaining violation events included property destruction, theft, and displacement of civilians.
This Turkish aggression is under the false premise of protecting Turkey against terrorists. In reality, Turkey has been a friend to ISIS and other extremist groups. It has been involved in a campaign of genocide against the Kurdish people and people of North and East Syria, and a naked land grab to try to gain new agricultural land and strategic territory.
As 2020 ended, Turkey engaged in a new offensive against the people of Ain Issa. The Turkish military Turkish-backed militias engaged in increased shellings and bombings, starting in the first week of December 2020 and intensifying in the second week. Attacks included Turkish aerial bombs. It is estimated that about 7,000 people fled the area. The Syrian Democratic Forces came to the defense of the city, and ultimately repelled the attacks. It is widely believed that the attacks were an attempt to capture control of the strategic M4 Highway, but the attempt failed.
Afrin, Serêkaniyê, and Girê Spî Still Occupied
2020 saw the continuation of the occupations of the Afrin, Serekaniye, and Gire Spi regions of Northern Syria by the Turkish State and its jihadist proxies in the “Syrian National Army.” Likewise, the abuses in these regions continued, with major cases of infighting between the different militias, kidnappings, sex crimes, and other violations.
In September 2020, the United Nations released a detailed report on crimes committed during the Syrian conflict, with a large spotlight being shined on the cases in Turkish-occupied regions, including “prevalent and recurrent” hostage taking and extortion, gang-rape of a minor as a method of torture, “systematic” and coordinated campaigns of looting, and many other directly referenced crimes. Despite the release of this report, no action was taken by the international community, and no condemnations of the abuses taking place in Turkish-occupied areas were stated either, even by close military partners of the AANES.
The people of Afrin in particular continued to suffer, with very little progress being made on the dozens of missing Afrin women. The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights found evidence of the “al-Hamza Division” militia of the SNA operating a secret prison where many missing women of Afrin were found naked and tortured in April of 2020. Most of the women targeted in this way have been Kurdish and Yazidi women, seen as infidels by their Islamist occupiers. The lack of accountability for Turkish-backed militia members further exacerbates the issues, ensuring that the militias can continue to act like criminal gangs with impunity.
The IDPs of Afrin, who number over 140,000, continue to live in deplorable, siege-like conditions in neighboring Shehba, where an embargo by the regime and regular Turkish shelling make life difficult, dangerous, and isolated, especially in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Poverty, hunger, and economic hardship in North and East Syria have deepened in the past year. The Syrian pound collapsed, following the implementation of the US Caesar sanctions in June 2020. Workers are unable to buy bread. The majority of the people face food insecurity. Imported medicines and healthcare are unaffordable. There is widespread suffering throughout the region.
In the past year, the number of Syrians living in poverty rose to over 80 percent of the population. The number of people facing food insecurity has risen by 1.4 million people in the past year, according to the United Nations. An estimated 9.3 million people in Syria are now food insecure, facing hunger each day.
The US Caesar sanctions have been criticized by the United Nations. In a December 29, 2020 statement, the sanctions were targeted by Alena Douhan, UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. “When it announced the first sanctions under the Caesar Act in June 2020, the United States said it did not intend for them to harm the Syrian population,” she said. “Yet enforcement of the Act may worsen the existing humanitarian crisis, depriving the Syrian people of the chance to rebuild their basic infrastructure.”
For its part, the United States denied that the US Caesar sanctions brought hardship, instead indicating that the sanctions were necessary for putting pressure on the Assad government.
“I love the Caesar sanctions, as someone who is implementing them,” said Joel Rayburn, US Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, at a US Congressional hearing. “You are seeing things change on the ground. The Syrian regime did not dream that it would be at the end of 2020 and would have its currency crashing, its regime economy failing, and its resources that it uses to fund its war against the Syrian people dwindling the way it has. And I think the Caesar Act has played the fundamental, the central role in helping to bring that situation about.”
COVID Cases Accelerating
In the final days of 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases in North and East Syria was accelerating as it drew near to 8,000, and the number of deaths on record exceeded 260. The real numbers are likely much higher. A lack of testing equipment, personal protective equipment, and trained medical personnel have hampered a full count of the virus. Community spread of the virus continues in the region.
Measures to prevent COVID transmission put in place by the AANES included stay-at-home orders, public sanitization measures, border closings ad travel restrictions, and assessments for symptoms occurring at checkpoints.
Internal Displacement and Refugees
2020 remained a difficult year for the refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of North and East Syria. Around 140,000 who were displaced from Afrin during the 2018 Turkish “Operation Olive Branch” that saw the occupation of the Afrin canton remain isolated and in poor conditions in the Shehba Region of Syria. Here they have suffered from regular Turkish shelling, lack of access to healthcare resources due to a regime-imposed embargo, and the introduction of the COVID-19 virus into Syria as well.
In Northeastern Hasakah, the IDPs who largely were displaced by the Turkish operation in 2019 have continued to survive in the Washukani Camp. They have now had to contend with the COVID-19 lockdown that was imposed by the AANES in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, while also dealing with the dire conditions created by the shortages of aid, conditions worsen during winter. Many children here, largely from Serekaniye and Gire Spi, have had to resort to working every day to earn enough for their families to survive.
The bloated Al-Howl camp, notorious for housing thousands of ISIS fighters and their families, including many foreigners, saw great change in 2019. Some governments began to retrieve their citizens from these camps and return them to their countries of origin, including Germany, Italy, Uzbekistan, and others. Furthermore, due to ever-present dire conditions that include lack of aid, resources, and required personnel, the AANES administration made the decision to release certain Al-Howl inhabitants who were not guilty of violent crimes in the name of Daesh. This led to thousands of families being allowed to return to their homes and decreasing the population of the massive camp.
The displaced peoples of North and East Syria will likely continue to face hardship in 2021, as long as sanctions against Syria continue, the AANES and SDC remain excluded from talks on the future of Syria, and violence remains a constant factor in the daily lives of the people.
ISIS and Global Terror
Since the territorial defeat of the ISIS “caliphate” in March 2019, and over the past year, ISIS in Syria has continued to decline.
“ISIS is struggling to maintain operations along the Kurdish-Arab ethnic fault lines in Iraq as well as along the Euphrates River in northeast Syria. In both areas it is engaging in low-level insurgencies, with a limited ability to hold terrain or launch complex attacks,” stated James Jeffrey, the newly-retired US Special Envoy for Syria Engagement, on December 22, 2020.
Much of the former ISIS “caliphate” that was defeated by SDF in March 2019 remains in camps and detention facilities run by the SDF, with little aid from other nations. 70,000 ISIS prisoners were initially brought to the Al-Howl camp, ISIS militants and supporters, and also their families and children.
During the summer of 2020, the SDF began releasing some of the ISIS prisoners who were not designated as militants and some family members who were not deemed a threat, including children. The SDF and AANES have called upon the international community to repatriate their citizens, to take back the ISIS detainees who came to Syria from another country. They have also called for support in giving each militant a free and fair trial. So far, however, no significant legal support has been offered by a party outside Syria.
AANES Serves The People
Politically, much of 2020 for the AANES was defined by Kurdish unity talks under the auspices of the United States, between the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The goal of Kurdish unity has been a primary point of attention f0r the AANES for many years. In the talks, parties negotiate between the two primary Kurdish factions in Syria on some of the most challenging issues, including features of the AANES governance system, the existence of the Roj Peshmerga outside of the SDF, and disagreements over education curriculum.
Much progress was made in 2020, with both sides agreeing to seek the inclusion of Syrian Kurdish rights within the constitution of a democratic, pluralistic Syria, as well as advocating for the return of displaced peoples, whether they are refugees or internally displaced persons. These negotiations culminated in September when both the PYD and KNC agreed to a US-backed proposal that would see a governing body of 40 delegates formed, with 16 each coming from the PYD and allied parties, and also for the KNC. The promotion of Kurdish unity is a continuing necessity for the Syrian Kurds, and will need to be successful in order to build a democratic, unified Syria.
In the last week of November, a massive conference was held, the “National Conference of the People of the Jazira and Euphrates Regions”, involving 300 participants from across the AANES governed areas. Participants within the conference aimed to address the different proposals and issues faced by the people of Syria, with special emphasis on the guaranteed equal rights of all communities. The final statement given at the conclusion of the conference included key agreements and points such as the necessity of the SDC’s inclusion in the entire United Nations peace talk process, preparation for local elections within a year, commitment to restructuring the institutions of the AANES in order to reduce bureaucracy and promote efficiency, combating extremism and intolerance, supporting the SDF’s ongoing war on terror, and empowering women and youth, among other points. The democratic nature of conferences such as these are inherently necessary to the inclusion of all Syrian communities within the democratic process of the AANES.
The AANES continued to take care of its people by providing services. Electricity, water, and other utilities remain difficult to provide consistently across Syria, but despite challenges such as the Alouk water station being cut off by pro-Turkish elements, the AANES continued to provide utilities that people rely on. Asayish carried out essential internal security work, in particular targeting Daesh sleeper cells. Rebuilding following the war against Daesh continued as well. In Raqqa, the Free Burma Rangers assisted in the rebuilding of the Armenian Church. Despite the economic struggles brought on by continuing war, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the economic isolation imposed upon the AANES, salaries continue to be paid, services provided, and towns rebuilt.
AANES In the World
As new realities in world affairs gradually become inevitable, many European and Western countries sent delegations to North and East Syria. The AANES hosted delegations from many European Union countries, including Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Belgium, Norway, and France. A Russian delegation visited in order to bring home children of ISIS fighters who were Russian citizens.
A top official of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Commissioner Nadine Maenza, made waves by visiting North and East Syria for several weeks with her delegation. The USCIRF is an office of the US Government, a Congressionally-mandated commission supporting religious freedom and diversity in the world. Maenza tweeted video commentary, standing at the former ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, now the local headquarters of the AANES. She has advocated for religious freedom and democracy through a wide variety of forums, interviews, and appearances. She evoked the criticism of the Assad government, with the Syrian Permanent Representative to the UN claiming that her visit was to “promote separatist militias.” North and East Syria also hosted now-former US Ambassador James Jeffrey and the current US Special Envoy for Syria Engagement Joel Rayburn.
The SDF are known throughout the international community as a reliable partner to the US military in the enduring defeat of ISIS. Speaking at a discussion on future US-Syria policy, Mike Mulroy, Former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Middle East, said that as a partner force, the SDF “has been exceptional.” Now AANES and SDC officials underscore that the partnership must be brought in a new political direction.
“We have a military partnership with the US. And for that, we ask to translate this military partnership into a political one,” said Sinam Mohamad, Co-Chair for the US Mission of the Syrian Democratic Council.
Top officials of the AANES and SDC called upon the international community at year’s end for inclusion in talks on the future of Syria — recognizing that North and East Syria are an integral part of a unified, democratic, decentralized Syria.