Lift US Sanctions on the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria?

Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the Middle Eastern nation has become a battleground for the proxy wars of some of the world’s biggest players, including the United States, Turkey, Russia, and Iran. However, in recent years, one region of Syria has emerged as a significant political entity, a self-determined region pursuing peace and religious freedom for a highly diverse area. Currently supported by a small detachment of US troops, the Autonomous Administration for North and East Syria (AANES) faces incursions by Turkey from the north, the Ba’athist Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad from the west, and various militia groups backed by Iran or ISIS. Ultimately, the AANES is seeking international recognition as a legitimate government, but currently it is campaigning the US to lift sanctions on the AANES region. While doing so would require significant diplomatic efforts, the US should work toward restoring unsanctioned trade with the AANES.

Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), first proposed the idea of a self-autonomous administration in Syria, specifically in Kurdish territory, as an alternative to the nation-state model, which he argues does not fit Middle Eastern societies. The AANES’s autonomous administration model is a self-governed democracy bounded by a Social Contract, which outlines democratic policies for intra-ethnic relations, human rights (including for women and children), religious pluralism, and self-determination. While the large majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, a significant amount are ethnically and religiously diverse, including Arabs; Armenians; Christians, including Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Arameans; Kurds; Muslims; Turkmen; and Yezidis. In the AANES, all are allowed to openly practice their faith and have freedom to change their religion. A report by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlights the positive conditions for religious freedom under the AANES, despite its uncertain future.

At the International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington, DC, in July 2021, Bedran Ciya Kurd and other officials from the Syrian Democratic Council—the political body of the AANES—pled for the US to lift sanctions. The AANES sits on 80 percent of Syria’s oil fields, which US forces have claimed to be defending. Noting that lifting the sanctions would cost the US nothing, Ciya Kurd emphasized how economic trade would ensure both a future existence and stability. …

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