In January 2014, a number of parties, social actors, and civil institutions in Northeast Syria (NES) announced that they had formed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)(AA) to fill a power vacuum in the Syrian Kurdish regions. The AA was governed by members appointed from the region’s local constituents and was based on a social contract governing the national, ethnic, and religious components of society in Rojava. The first step was the establishment of cantons in three geographically distinct Kurdish areas: the Al-Jazira region in the northwest of Syria, Kobani in the center, and Afrin in the western-most part of NES.
The AANES assumed its role within the geographically separate districts by establishing joint coordination on March 27, 2014, to provide necessary services to locals and to protect the population through security and service institutions such as councils, communes in villages, neighborhoods, and cities.
The AANES has managed to grow in terms of its institutions and their functions, despite facing various pressures mostly in the form of military operations, especially the isolated Afrin canton. The successes of the AANES in developing its administrative system raised doubts among Syrian opposition groups as well as the terrorist organization of ISIL. It wasn’t long after the establishment of the AANES that the terrorist organization launched its first major military campaign against Kobani on 13/9/2014, nine months after its formation.
ISIS’s goal was to expand its so-called state, which claimed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital, and to crush any Kurdish hopes of establishing a form of autonomous governance. ISIS aimed to stretch its control over a large geographical territory, creating an uninterrupted extension with Turkey which, according to statistics, was the main country of entry for ISIS members and a supplier of logistical support via the Tal-Abyad border crossing. Turkey closed that crossing after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), formed on 10/10/2015, managed to liberate Tal-Abyad and was tasked with the mission to liberate all ISIL-controlled areas of Al-Jazira, Raqqa, Al-Tabqa, Deir Al-Zor, and Manbij.
ISIS began to retreat in the face of SDF advances and the strikes conducted by the international coalition led by the U.S. The geographical area under the organization’s control dwindled until it gradually lost control over all the territories the SDF seized after the Battle of Al-Baghouz in March 2019.
After the SDF managed to take control over vast swathes of land following the defeat of ISIL, the need for an autonomous body that brings together all the autonomous administrations and local councils in the north and east Syria (NES) was more urgent than ever. Chief among the reasons for this was the need to provide basic life necessities for populations living within the SDF-controlled territories as well as building a political and administrative system that ensures the gains of the region are protected.
The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) came to the decision that an autonomous administration for NES should be established at the third conference in the city of Tabqa on 16/7/2018 and a preparatory committee was formed to take the necessary measures to create the AANES. The formation of the AANES General Council, consisting of 70 members, was announced at the meeting held by the preparatory committee in the town of Ain Issa on 9/6/2018 with the attendance of the heads and members of the joint seven autonomous and civil administrations.
The formation of the AANES was a unique occurrence in the Syrian conflict. It took a path fraught with risks and hardship that on more than one occasion almost led to its demise. During the battle for Kobani and Afrin in 2018, the AANES faced several challenges. The newly established entity found itself up against difficult military trials resulting from an absence of any reasonable approaches to the Kurdish cause from both sides of the conflict (regime and opposition alike).
Despite the Syrian uprising initially presenting an opportunity to unify the Syrian people on the basis of citizenship and recognition of the different components’ supra-constitutional rights, the opportunity dissipated with the militarization of anti-regime activities and the Islamization of the conflict as extremist and sectarian groups entered the conflict scene.
After the Kobani battle, the AANES witnessed a shift with the western recognition of its legitimacy and its partnership in the International Coalition to Defeat ISIL. The AANES managed to take advantage of this convergence by establishing a relatively developed political, administrative, and military system in NES. This resulted in some cooperation between the coexisting components in the region and paved the way for the AANES to emerge as an actor on the scene as well as internationally, as it worked towards achieving peace through international channels and under the umbrella of the United Nations. This forced other actors to recognize it as an equal player.