Middle East Forum: War Against ISIS and the Future of Syria: A Conversation with Sinam Mohamad

This post originally appeared at Middle East Forum

by Jonathan Spyer
Transformations 2023
May 16, 2023


A panel featuring Sinam Sherkany Mohammed, Washington Representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), in conversation with Middle East Forum research director Jonathan Spyer (video), took place at MEF’s “Transformations 2023” conference on May 16, 2023. Sinam Mohammed is a Kurdish Syrian, a veteran advocate for women’s rights and political reform in Syria, and a senior official with the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), which operates de facto control of around 30 percent of Syria. The AANES armed forces – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in turn – work closely with the U.S. in prosecuting ongoing operations against ISIS. The conversation focused on the current situation in Syria, the war against ISIS, the situation for Syria’s Kurds, and the rehabilitation of the Assad regime. The following is a summary of Sinam Mohammed’s remarks:

The Syrian crisis began in 2011, when the Syrian people began an effort to overthrow the dictatorship of the Ba’ath Party in order to establish a democratic regime. Syria is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, containing within it Kurds, Druze, Alawis, Sunnis, Christians, and others. The Ba’ath, with its Arab nationalist orientation, had long denied the rights of other peoples in Syria. Unfortunately, with time, and as a result of the interference of neighboring countries including Turkey and Iran, much of the rebellion against the regime took on an Islamist hue, with the demand for an “Islamic State” emerging to prominence. This was contrary to the original spirit of what the Syrian people had wanted.

The Syrian Democratic Council logo.

The result of these clashing visions has been the de facto division of Syria into three areas of control: the regime area; the AANES area; and an area controlled by Turkey in cooperation with a number of Islamist and jihadi groups. The Turkish occupation of the Afrin area, Sinam Mohammed’s hometown, has resulted in the displacement of three hundred thousand Kurds and the establishment of repressive rule in that region.

In the AANES area, by contrast, efforts are under way to build a system based on pluralism and diversity. The issue of women’s representation in public institutions is emphasized. Religious tolerance is also an important value, whereas “in the other region, in the green [Turkish controlled] area, you have one religion, one color. Islamic.”

Kurds have historically faced harsh discrimination in Syria. “I remember when I was kid, I was not allowed to speak in the Kurdish language. Never. Even in school, if my colleague is a Kurd, if I want to speak with her in Kurdish in the break time, my name will be taken to the manager there . . . I will be punished.”

AANES is changing this situation, through an approach based on pluralism. “In the control area of the regime, only the Arabic language is permitted. . . . In the green area controlled by Turkey, we have Turkification. Turkish language, Arabic language only. So, this is the difference. When you deny the rights of the others and you only accept your own either religion or language. This is not acceptable. We are in the twenty-first century.”

The AANES does not seek the division of Syria or the creation of a separate Kurdish state. Rather, “We need to live as a Kurdish people inside Syrian territories but in a democratic system, in which I have my rights as a Kurd: my language; my political rights; my culture.”

We need to live as a Kurdish people inside Syrian territories but in a democratic system, in which I have my rights as a Kurd: my language; my political rights; my culture.

The AANES area of control is rich in natural resources. It contains much of Syria’s best agricultural land and most of its oil resources. “Most of the oil fields in the northeast Syria were destroyed by ISIS. We started to restore it and rebuild it and get use of it. . . . We use it for local use, we don’t export it . . . it’s very difficult because there is US sanctions on Syria. Our region has been exempted from the sanctions, but oil is not exempted. So, we are not able to export it, but only to use it locally.”

Regarding the current efforts at normalization with the Assad regime, negotiations are possible, but it is vital that the pre-war status quo is not reimposed. Huge efforts were made during the period of war against the Islamic State. “Eleven thousand of our women and young men have been killed while fighting ISIS. Did we fight ISIS and defeat ISIS only for ourselves? Defending our people? No, it was also defending all of you. The whole world.” The negotiations, therefore, must seek a fair political solution. In the meantime, it is important that the nine hundred U.S. service personnel currently in the AANES area stay in place. “We don’t want you to stay forever in Syria. We know that. We are not asking you to stay forever, but we ask you to stay there until we guarantee the negotiation with the Syrian government and get something for our people’s rights. This is what we need.”

ISIS is still present. The SDF ended their direct control of territory, but the ideology remains. There are also sleeper cells organizing and looking to recommence activities; there are twelve thousand ISIS fighters currently in the custody of SDF forces. “Twelve thousand in the prison. Last January, in 2022, they tried to escape. Two hundred of them tried to escape and we got them back. So, if two hundred of the ISIS leaders escape, you may see them at the border of Mexico. Who knows? We have to be careful about that. So, who will guard them? We are guarding them. When the riots happened in the prison, we lost 124 from our forces in order to get them back in the prison, and they killed our people there in cold blood.”

It is up to us either to fight each other to the end of our life or to live together, coexist, to live together in peace for us, for our children, and for the next generation.

“We would like to see other countries repatriating their citizens. It’s not our job to guard them indefinitely. There are also twenty-five thousand children in the al-Hawl camp. They will constitute a new generation for ISIS if they remain there. So, a solution is needed.”

“Democracy means to defend my right as I defend your right. We don’t want to see more genocide now. Never again. . . . Never again to have only one party, political party, one religion, one language, that’s done. We have to accept each other. Syria is diverse. The Middle East is diverse. We have many nations. . . . Jewish, Arab, Kurd, Syriac, Christian. . . . We should accept each other. As long as you are denying me, the war will continue. And so, it is up to us either to fight each other to the end of our life or to live together, coexist, to live together in peace for us, for our children, and for the next generation coming. This is what we need, actually. This is our choice.”

Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).