Syrian Kurdish Leader Asks U.S. to Save Her People From ‘Catastrophe’

As Assad consolidates power, Kurds want autonomy in northeastern Syria.

Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, delivers a speech in Paris on Dec. 21, 2018. (Stephane De Sakuyin/AFP/Getty Images)
Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council, delivers a speech in Paris on Dec. 21, 2018. (Stephane De Sakuyin/AFP/Getty Images)

When Ilham Ahmed was 20 years old, her parents locked her at home in Afrin, Syria, to prevent her from joining the country’s budding feminist movement.

Their efforts were in vain. Ahmed “broke the siege,” as she describes it, and in the 1990s became an advocate for women’s rights at the University of Aleppo, where she studied Arabic literature.

When Ilham Ahmed was 20 years old, her parents locked her at home in Afrin, Syria, to prevent her from joining the country’s budding feminist movement.

Their efforts were in vain. Ahmed “broke the siege,” as she describes it, and in the 1990s became an advocate for women’s rights at the University of Aleppo, where she studied Arabic literature.

“They gave up,” she said in an interview in Washington, speaking through an interpreter.

These days, she’s waging a broader fight. As the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council—the political arm of the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that are responsible for liberating much of northeastern Syria from the Islamic State—Ahmed is today one of the most powerful women in Syria. She is currently in Washington to lobby U.S. lawmakers and administration officials—including the president himself—for a coordinated withdrawal from the country that would secure the fate of the besieged Syrian Kurds.

At stake is not just the future of the Kurds but all Syrians, as President Bashar al-Assad stamps out the vestiges of an eight-year rebellion and attempts to restore his absolute power across the country. Assad, who slaughtered thousands of his own people, is expected to let Tehran cement its foothold in Syria, where conservative hard-liners are already quietly exerting influence—replacing local Sunni mosques with new Shiite religious centers and shrines and offering young, unemployed residents competitive salaries to join the Iranian militia.

“It is catastrophe,” Ahmed said.

Even before President Donald Trump announced in December 2018 that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria, the Syrian Kurds were already facing an existential crisis. Turkey, which views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists, has repeatedly threatened to launch a full-scale military offensive. Meanwhile, the Assad regime, which has largely defeated the rebel uprising that launched the 2011 civil war, is trying to wrest back control of northeastern Syria, where the SDF, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, has been fighting the Islamic State. The force is also constantly fending off attacks by Iran and Iranian proxy forces.

Then came Trump’s abrupt announcement, which prompted the resignation of two of the Kurds’ biggest allies in Washington: Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the coalition to defeat the Islamic State. The decision caught the Kurds by surprise and undermined their attempts to broker a favorable political solution with the Assad regime for control over northeastern Syria, Ahmed said.

“Of course this changed the political process,” Ahmed said. Sensing weakness, the group’s many adversaries have seized the opportunity to escalate their threats, she said.

“This is why we always say it is very important to reach a political deal before the United States completely withdraws.”

Ultimately, the Kurds are striving for an outcome to the civil war that would allow them to remain part of Syria but not under Assad’s control—“self-administration,” Ahmed said. The group wants the Assad regime to both acknowledge the administration of northeastern Syria and make fundamental changes to the Syrian Constitution, including establishing a parliamentary system where local governments are represented. The new constitution must also include gender equality; religious, ethnic, and cultural freedom; and “the right to be different,” Ahmed said.

“We refuse being under Assad if they keep the same state,” she stressed.

Ahmed called on the United States to secure a “safe zone” for the Kurds before fully withdrawing but flatly rejected a proposed plan for Turkey to enforce the zone. The idea of a buffer zone stretching 20 miles from the Turkish border into northeastern Syria was first floated by Trump in a Jan. 13 tweet, in which he also threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked the Kurds.

Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, noted that the Syrian Kurds have a unique style of governance predicated on gender equality. At the local level, each male leader must have a female counterpart. He said the Syrian regime had “a different way of doing business.”

However, Stein cautioned that “democracy gets thrown around a lot. … Just because they have male and female co-chairs doesn’t make them small-d democratic in the way we would think about it.”

Dana Stroul, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted that the Kurdish group, which is affiliated with the U.S.-designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has faced accusations of not governing “inclusively” in some liberated areas, for example alienating the Sunni Arab population. She also pointed out allegations of human rights violations in the refugee camps the group manages.

Stein noted that the group is pushing its own agenda: convincing the United States to stay in Syria.

“They don’t like rivals, and they are intent on ensuring that their vision is the dominant one in areas that they control,” Stein said. Ahmed is “quite cleverly trying to use issues that do matter to them but also matter to a Western audience to try and convince the Americans to stay.”

Ahmed fears that Turkish control of the border would lead Kurdish border communities such as Kobani to suffer the same fate as her hometown, Afrin, which last year was plundered by Turkish-backed troops. The Turkish occupation allowed jihadis to take control of the town, requiring women to cover their hair and imposing other restrictions. Ahmed said the residents and relief organizations are prevented from reaching the area. Meanwhile, the Assad regime is conscripting refugees against their will into the Syrian army.

“This is an example of a Turkish ‘safe zone,’” she said.

Another option is for the Assad regime to enforce the safe zone, but Ahmed said the Kurds would agree to that proposal only if there were a satisfactory “political agreement” in place.

Ideally, the United States or an international coalition would enforce the buffer zone, Ahmed said, but she is not overly optimistic for this outcome. The Trump administration is reportedly trying to assemble a coalition of Western nations, including the United Kingdom, France, and Australia, to do the job, but not a single country has yet agreed to the proposal.

One incentive for Western nations to help establish the safe zone, Ahmed said, is that Syrian refugees, many of whom have fled to Europe and other parts of the Middle East, could then safely return home.

During her trip to Washington, Ahmed said she met with senior leaders at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Defense Department, and on Capitol Hill. While “we have a little bit of hope,” there are still many issues to work through, she noted. She declined to provide details of the discussions.

The SDF is also trying to figure out what to do with the more than 800 foreign Islamic State fighters whom it is holding from dozens of countries around the world. Ahmed said the prisoners are treated humanely and are even allowed lawyer visits, but so far there are no signs their countries of origin will take them back.

“Nobody is asking about them, even their family members,” she said.

Robert Palladino, the State Department’s deputy spokesman, on Monday commended the SDF’s continued efforts to return the foreign fighters to their countries of origin and called on these nations to repatriate and prosecute their citizens.

“Despite the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIS remains a significant terrorist threat, and collective action is imperative to address this shared international security challenge,” Palladino said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Update, Feb. 5, 2019: This story has been updated to include additional analyst comment. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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