Thousands of Arabs excluded from elections in Syria’s Kurdish-majority north

Residents of Syria’s Kurdish-majority northern territories will go to the polls in September for the first-ever local elections of their year-old federal system. Not all citizens, however, are permitted to participate fully in the three-round electoral process.

Thousands of Arabs are barred from voting in the third round for representatives to the region’s highest office: the People’s Democratic Council, which is the federal parliament of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

In the 1970s, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad relocated thousands of Arabs from Raqqa province to Al-Hasakah province in advance of the creation of the Euphrates Dam, which would go on to cause the surrounding water levels to rise and eventually submerge their villages. Decades later, local Kurdish officials continue to view the al-Ghamar Arabs—“the Arabs of the Flood”—as foreign occupants of the northern Syrian territories.

The arrival of the al-Ghamar Arabs to Al-Hasakah province “was a racist and unfair policy against the Kurds,” says Fouzah Youssef, co-president of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Executive Committee and currently one of the highest-ranking officials in the Self-Administration’s interim government.

 Syrian Kurds mark the 13th anniversary of the 2004 Qamishli riots in March. Photo courtesy of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The al-Ghamar Arabs are “not being excluded” from the election process, but rather they “will have limited participation due to their special status,” she tells Syria Direct’s Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

The decision to sideline thousands of local residents in the upcoming elections underscores the already existing tensions in the nascent, Kurdish-led federalism project in northern Syria. Opponents of the federal system fear that it will lead to a Kurdish-dominated state in a diverse ethno-religious region, Syria Direct reported after the initial announcement of the new political system last March.

Q: The Kurdish-led Self-Administration purports to support democracy, but at the same time you are denying thousands of al-Ghamar Arabs the right to vote. How do you reconcile this?

These Arabs came to the Jazirah Canton [which encompasses Al-Hasakah province] as a result of a political decision made in the last century. That decision was a wound to this area and the people. Kurdish people had their land taken and forcibly handed over to the Arabs. It was a racist and unfair policy against the Kurds.

The issue [of the al-Ghamar Arabs’ right to vote] has been discussed at length with the Federal Founding Council so that the al-Ghamar Arabs are not entirely excluded from the election process.

[Ed.: The council is the interim political administration of the Kurdish Self-Administration, which will be replaced by the People’s Democratic Council following the upcoming elections],

It has been agreed that they will participate in local elections for their respective communes and towns. This decision was made so that [the al-Ghamar Arabs] can get their administrative affairs and local services in order in advance of an ultimate political settlement on this issue. This also means that they are not being excluded from [the election process]. Rather, they will have limited participation due to their special status.

[Ed.: The upcoming elections are divided into three rounds. The first round of voting, on September 22, will be for the leaders of all local communes. The second round, on November 3, will be for representatives to the town, city and regional councils. The third and final round, on January 19, will be for the People’s Democratic Council. Al-Ghamar Arabs are barred from the third round of voting.]

Q: Could you talk about the importance of female representation in local Kurdish elections? Do you have a quota system in place?

Within our federal system, female representation is 50 percent. And election law relies on the principle of representation in our social contract, the constitution of the federal system of northern Syria. Therefore, this principle will be taken into account in every round of voting.

 The Self-Administration discusses election law in April. Photo courtesy of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

Q: The Kurdish-led Self-Administration oversees councils in Manbij and Raqqa, and, yet, these two areas will be excluded from the September elections. Why is that?

Manbij was just recently liberated, and Raqqa has not yet been liberated. In order for these two areas to join the [Self-Administration’s] federal areas, their local societies must first be further developed. Simply imposing such an order would not be fair. If you look at other liberated areas, this topic was extensively discussed and the local society was prepared to participate in the process.

If the [Manbij and Raqqa] councils decide to [become part of the electoral process] in the future, then the People’s Democratic Council will decide whether or not they are adequately prepared to do so.

[Ed.: Rojava residents will vote for representatives to the People’s Democratic Council, which is the Self-Administration’s federal parliament, in upcoming elections. This new entity will replace the Federal Founding Council.]

Q: A crucial feature of these elections—the first local elections in the area since the start of the war—is that you will be redrawing the administrative lines of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. Rather than three cantons, there will now be six cantons, falling under three broader regions: al-Jazirah, Euphrates and Afrin. What was the rationale here, and what will the new divisions look like?

The goal is to implement democracy based on the system of the Self-Administration. This will cut down on the bureaucracy instituted by the centralized [Assad] regime.

The administrative units that are being created will plan and execute special development strategies for their local communities. At all levels, these administrative units will have direct responsibility over the issues that affect residents within their communities: economic matters, cultural affairs and the provision of local services. Herein the goal is to both distribute responsibilities and to put power back into the hands of the people.

Q: Will you bring in outside monitors for your elections?

We have nothing to conceal, and so we have a vision to call on international monitors for the regional elections and the election of the People’s Democratic Council. If there are any organizations or international entities out there that would like to follow the elections starting with those of the local communes, then we have no issues at all.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.