U.S. commission on religious freedom calls for recognition of Rojava

The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom has called on the United States to formally recognise the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), often referred to as Rojava.

In its 2021 annual report into religious freedom across the world, the commission recommends that the U.S. government “recognise the AANES as a legitimate, local government” and ensure its inclusion in international talks over Syria’s future.

The AANES emerged across northern Syria following the decline in authority of President Bashar al-Assad as the country’s civil war began to escalate from 2012 onwards.

The de-facto administration is backed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a predominantly Kurdish coalition of militias that provided the ground forces for the U.S.-led mission to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), and now controls around one third of Syria’s territory.

Despite working closely with the SDF military leadership, the United States has proven reluctant to convey the same legitimacy onto the AANES’ civilian institutions amid fierce opposition from NATO ally Turkey.

However, the commission praised the AANES for allowing “Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, and others to practice openly, express, and even change their religious identities”, despite threat of attack from Tukey, ISIS, and the Assad regime.

The AANES has sought to implement the radical political system developed by Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan known as democratic confederalism, which emphasises local democracy and respect for minorities.

Öcalan is currently imprisoned in Turkey, where the armed group he founded, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is partner to an internal conflict that has cost more than 40,000 lives since the 1980s.

Turkey has launched repeated military incursions against the AANES, most recently in October 2019 after former U.S. President Donald Trump acquiesced to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demand to end support for the SDF and withdraw U.S. troops from the region.

International and domestic outcry at the Turkish assault saw Trump reverse his decision, with U.S. forces returning to help maintain an uneasy standoff between the SDF and Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups.  

The new U.S. administration under President Joe Biden has raised hopes in the AANES that it may find more sympathy in Washington. And on April 30, a political lobbying firm registered with U.S. authorities as an agent of the “Kurdish Defense Forces/ SDF”.

In its report, the commission calls on the U.S. government to “exert pressure on and engage with Turkey to provide a timeline for its withdrawal from all territory that it occupies as a result of cross-border operations into north and east Syria”, and criticise Turkish proxy groups for their poor record on religious freedom.

Instead, the U.S. should “contribute to efforts in AANES-governed territory to fund and develop local programs to promote religious tolerance and pluralism,” the commission adds.

Meanwhile, ANNES officials continue to accuse Turkey of limiting their water supply during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local AANES representative Mazloum Omar told Arabic outlet Majalla that cities near Raqqa including al-Tabqahm had nearly “almost run out of water” due to Turkey limiting the flow of the Euphrates River. 

“(The move) is an attempt to weaken the Autonomous Administration to stir sedition and cause public pressures,” he said.