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Why Isn’t the US Supporting Free and Fair Elections in Northeast Syria?

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The US State Department discouraged the semiautonomous administration in northeast Syria from moving forward with their elections, where scores of women will run for office. Amy Austin Holmes asks, what are the implications for the future of Syria?

If the Biden administration is truly committed to the idea that “democracy delivers,” as outlined in the National Security Strategy, then this should be true in northeast Syria, as elsewhere around the world.

On May 31, the US Department of State issued a seemingly out-of-character message. It urged local officials not to proceed with elections in northeast Syria where scores of women are running for office, appearing to contradict the US National Security Strategy intention of supporting democracy and gender inclusion. With polling stations spread across about one-third of Syria, they were set to be the largest elections outside regime control since the start of the conflict. If the US is committed to supporting free and fair elections around the world, why not in northeast Syria?   

Free and fair elections? 

Officials in the semiautonomous region known as the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAANES), announced they plan to hold municipal elections on June 11. They have since been postponed to August. According to the High Electoral Commission, some 5,366 candidates were to compete for positions in the local government, including for mayorships of major cities such as Raqqa. They had also called for international observers to monitor the elections, indicating they want the elections to be transparent.  

A range of newly formed political parties are slated to compete alongside more established parties. In an apparent effort to win votes from the multiethnic population, some election posters on display are trilingual: in Arabic, Kurdish, and Aramaic, the language spoken by the Assyrian-Syriac minority. Two major alliances are competing alongside four independent parties. However, the opposition KNC/ENKS had announced they would boycott the election, citing an unfair playing field and recent vandalism of their offices.  

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to claim that holding elections in Syria would threaten Turkey’s national security. And on May 31, Turkey launched drone strikes against a Kurdish Red Crescent ambulance, among other targets, killing four people. Earlier this year, a wave of Turkish strikes targeted oil refineries, water stations, and the power grid, leaving hundreds of villages without electricity.  In 2015, the Turkish government had invited Syrian Kurdish leaders to Ankara as part of peace talks with the PKK. However, since the collapse of peace talks, Erdogan has used the pretext of the PKK to launch three cross-border interventions into Syria, in an attempt to quash the semi-autonomous region.

The same day as the Turkish strikes, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel, posted a message on X saying, “Any elections that occur in Syria should be free, fair, transparent, and inclusive, as is called for in UNSCR 2254, and we don’t think that the conditions for such elections are in place in NE Syria at the present time.”  While the statement reiterates the US position over three administrations, this raises the question of how long Syrians in the northeast should wait before they can hold elections. More than five years have passed since the defeat of the ISIS caliphate in March of 2019.

This stands in contrast to the goals outlined in the 2022 US National Security Strategy. The Biden administration stated that they “will work to strengthen democracy around the world because democratic governance consistently outperforms authoritarianism in protecting human dignity, leads to more prosperous and resilient societies, creates stronger and more reliable economic and security partners for the United States, and encourages a peaceful world order.” 

So why has the State Department urged officials in Northeast Syria not to proceed? Is there a problem with the election procedures? Or did the State Department bow to Turkish threats?  

Northeast Syria: A gender equal system  

DAANES has become one of the most gender-inclusive political systems in the region, on par with Iceland and Sweden. While the Scandinavian countries are often praised for promoting gender equality and women in politics, Syrian women who strive for the same are blocked at every turn.  The unique governance model they have created in the northeast is not well understood.  

I hope my new book, Statelet of Survivors: The Making of a Semi-Autonomous Region in Northeast Syria, will help change that. During many trips to the region, I interviewed hundreds of women who fought on the frontlines alongside men in the Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as civilian women who helped create the autonomous administration.  

Critics have argued that promoting gender equality in Syria is ‘utopian’ or ‘radical.’ In 2018, the Women Peace and Security (WPS) Index ranked Syria, alongside Afghanistan, as the worst place in the world to be a woman. At the time, the Islamic State still controlled large chunks of Syria. Yezidi women were traded in slave markets. Muslim women were not allowed to leave their own homes unless they were accompanied by a male guardian, known as a mahram. Kurdish women, who fought against ISIS, defended non-Muslims from it, and collaborated with the US-led Global Coalition, were considered apostates by the group.   

But a lot has changed since 2018. The territorial caliphate has been defeated, and about a third of the country in the northeast has fiercely defended its autonomy from the regime in Damascus. The people there have used this autonomy to implement wide-ranging reforms to improve women’s status, including penalizing domestic violence, outlawing polygamy, integrating women in security forces, and establishing a co-chair system where men and women share power at all levels of government.  

 As of 2023, 97,863 people are employed by DAANES—52.6% of whom are women and 47.2% are men. But since the WPS Index looks at countries as a whole, it is not able to adequately capture this regional variation.    

Traveling to Syria year after year, I found that as the region grew geographically, so did the willingness to accept women’s engagement in the public sphere. Many Syrians are understandably proud of the role women played in defeating ISIS alongside their male counterparts. And they see the DAANES, even with its imperfections, as a better alternative to rule by the Assad regime or extremists. 

Gender Ratio of Officials in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria by Province and Institution in 2023  

Gender Ratio by Province (Statelet of Survivors, 112)

Province Total Number of Employees Female Employees (Percent of total) Male Employees (Percent of total)
Jazira 40,000 55.4% 44.6%
Euphrates 8,272 42.5% 57.7%
Deir Ezzor 15,541 80.7% 19.3%
Raqqa 11,118 41.5% 58.5%
Afrin 3,879 30.4% 69.6%
Manbij 7,769 38.9% 58.8%
Tabqa 4,391 42.7% 57.2%

Gender Ratio by Institution (Statelet of Survivors, 112)

Institution Total Number of Employees Female Employees (Percent of total) Male Employees (Percent of total)
Executive Council 5,000 40% 60%
Justice Council907 27.1% 72.9%
Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) 19960.8%43.7%
General Council14634.9%65.1%
University Coordination42334.9%58.1%
Islamic Conference21818.3%81.7%
Total (not including Internal Security)97,863 52.6%47.2%
Internal Security Forces (Police)35,000
Grand Total132.863
Women’s participation in governance   

A large body of cross-national studies show that including women in governance is beneficial—not just for women—for entire societies. Yet, critics have claimed that these findings are not universally applicable. Research on the link between women’s representation and perceptions of democratic legitimacy in advanced democracies finds that equal representation of women legitimizes decision-making. However, this relationship had not been tested in more patriarchal, less democratic settings.   

A new study addressed this gap by conducting a survey experiment in Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. The authors found that “women’s presence promotes citizens’ perceptions of the legitimacy of committee processes and outcomes and, moreover, that pro-women decisions are associated with higher levels of perceived legitimacy.”    

In short, the results of the survey experiment in Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia concur with my own research in Syria. Our work contributes to a growing body of evidence showing that women’s participation in governance advances national and human security and improves service provision. It has even been linked to preventing conflict relapse.    

Delivering democracy abroad  

The United States has a long history of supporting free and fair elections around the world, including in divided societies and countries emerging from authoritarian rule, where conditions for elections are often less than ideal. During the Cold War, the United States supported free and fair elections in West Germany, which were a key step in the transition to democracy—even as East Germany remained in the Soviet orbit. In Syria today, the regime-held parts of Syria are supported by Russia and Iran. This is all the more reason to support free and fair elections in the northeast, where the US maintains a small presence.    

Instead of postponing elections in northeast Syria indefinitely, a clear timeline should be established for holding municipal elections within two to three months. The State Department, in conjunction with the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, could provide technical assistance for the municipalities holding elections, advise women who seek to run for office, and send observers to monitor the election process.   

Finally, instead of telling Syrian women and men not to hold elections, the State Department should explain to Erdogan that elections are not a threat to Turkey. If the Biden administration is truly committed to the idea that “democracy delivers,” as outlined in the National Security Strategy, then this should be true in northeast Syria, as elsewhere around the world.  

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not express the official position of the Wilson Center.  

About the Author

Amy Austin Holmes image

Amy Austin Holmes

Public Policy Fellow;
Research Professor of International Affairs and Acting Director of the Foreign Area Officers Program, George Washington University
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