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Upcoming local election in northeast Syria raises regional, international concerns

Local election ads are seen in this undated image taken in northeast Syria. Voting, planned for June 11, is raising concerns.
Local election ads are seen in this undated image taken in northeast Syria. Voting, planned for June 11, is raising concerns.

A local election in northeast Syria scheduled for next week is raising mounting concerns inside and outside the war-torn country.

The voting, planned for June 11, will be held in parts of Syria that are controlled by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The de facto autonomous region is governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.

The SDF has been a major U.S. partner in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group. The group made major military gains after the territorial defeat of IS militants in 2019 and now controls nearly one-third of Syria’s territory.

But Turkey, a NATO ally, considers the SDF and its political entities to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group labeled as terrorist by Ankara and Washington.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is threatening military action if Kurdish groups in Syria go ahead with the elections.

"We are closely following the terrorist organization's aggressive actions against the territorial integrity of our country and Syria under the pretext of an election,” Erdogan said during a public ceremony last week.

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Baghdad, Iraq, April 22, 2024.
FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to the media in Baghdad, Iraq, April 22, 2024.

“Turkey will never allow a separatist organization to establish a terrorist entity in northern Syria and Iraq. … We have done what needs to be done before in the face of fait accompli, and we will not hesitate to take action if we encounter the same situation,” the Turkish leader said, referring to Turkish military offensives against Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria.

The United States has also said the time is not right for holding any elections in Syria.

"Any elections that occur in Syria should be free, fair, transparent and inclusive, as called for in UNSCR 2254, and we don’t think that the conditions for such elections are in place in northeast Syria in present time,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a statement posted May 31 by the U.S. Embassy in Syria on social media platform X.

In 2015, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2254 to end the Syrian conflict by pursuing a political transition.

“We have conveyed this to a range of actors in northeast Syria, including the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (DAANES), and urged them not to proceed with elections at this time,” Patel said in the statement.

But Kurdish officials say holding local elections in northeast Syria doesn’t conflict with implementation of the U.N. resolution.

“The Security Council’s resolution refers to general elections in Syria. In our case, we’re only talking about municipal elections,” said Luqman Ehme, a leading member of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF.

“This election is an opportunity for people to choose their representatives who can provide essential services at the local level in northeast Syria. A political settlement for all of Syria might not be possible in the next 10 years. So, it’s not feasible to wait that long for simply holding local elections,” he told VOA.

Amy Austin Holmes, a research professor of international affairs at The George Washington University, said supporting free elections in northeast Syria is something the U.S. should do.

“The United States has a long history of supporting free and fair elections around the world — including in divided societies like West Germany during the Cold War. The U.S. supported elections in West Germany as key to transitioning to democracy, even as East Germany remained in the Soviet orbit. The regime-held parts of Syria are supported by Russia. This is all the more reason for the United States to support free and fair elections in the Northeast,” she told VOA.

Mesut Yegen, a political scientist at the Istanbul-based Reform Institute, said he didn’t expect that statements from Turkey and the U.S. could lead to a postponement of the elections in northeast Syria.

"There is very little time until June 11, and if held, I do not expect Turkey to intervene militarily,” he told VOA.

Four Kurdish parties in Syria filed a request on Tuesday asking the local election commission to delay the vote. They had previously announced their intention to participate in the election.

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition groups have also opposed the vote, calling for protests against it in areas controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian allies in northern Syria.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not publicly commented on the matter.

VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan in Diyarbakir, Turkey, and Zana Omer in Qamishli, Syria, contributed to this story, which originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.