A Turkish airstrike hit a Kurdish Red Crescent ambulance May 31, part of a wave of bombing that killed four and injured a dozen in Kurdish-led North and East Syria. The motivation was no mystery. The bombs arrived one day after Turkish President Erdoğan vowed he “would not hesitate to take action” to prevent elections he described as “aggressive actions” aimed at establishing a “terroristan” on Turkey’s southern border. 

The secular Kurdish movement Erdoğan labels as “terrorist” is better known by the Kurdish name Rojava,  known for its leading role in the fight against ISIS and its unique model of women-led direct democracy. The elections being planned by the multiethnic Autonomous Administration (AANES) are set to take place even in former ISIS strongholds such as the caliphate’s erstwhile capital Raqqa, liberated years ago by the AANES’s Kurdish-Arab military coalition, backed by U.S. airstrikes. After multiple delays caused by Turkish airstrikes, they are now scheduled for August.

 “When we hold elections and our people vote en masse, it will demonstrate that there is now a democratic process underway where the people can exert their will,” said Loqman Ahme, a spokesperson for the AANES and a member of the region’s Green Party.

As usual, they will do so without any help from the outside world. The United States — the AANES’ nominal partner and former ally in the fight against ISIS — says “the conditions are not in place” for free and fair elections and has chosen to stand aside as Turkey launches waves of devastating airstrikes against the region’s humanitarian infrastructure. 

These elections are not about a change of top-level governance, but instead offer an opportunity for minority groups to make their voices heard in local communities.

Why is the U.S. refusing to back the AANES’s determined efforts to promote a democratic culture in Syria’s ruined cities? Certainly, these elections are not a carbon copy of a Western parliamentary system. The AANES claims it wants to implement egalitarian, horizontal governance, enabling ordinary people to govern themselves at the village and community level. At the same time, the pressures of Turkey’s war of ethnic cleansing and the need to keep millions of Syrians from starvation have made central administration under the AANES a pragmatic necessity. The region’s newly updated constitution, known as its Social Contract, states that while centralized politics can create “injustice and oppression,” concrete steps must be taken to prevent the “exclusion or marginalization” of any identity.

Hence the focus on municipal elections in local communities. These elections are not about a change of top-level governance, but instead offer an opportunity for minority groups to make their voices heard in local communities. This includes the Yezidis, who endured genocide at ISIS’s hands; embattled Christian minorities; and women, who will participate in a “co-chair” system that guarantees 50 percent female representation, from local communes up to the administration’s top executive positions.

Most of all, the elections are aimed at strengthening bonds between the Kurdish and Arab communities recently riven by interethnic conflict, but who now cooperate under the AANES. Previous rounds of elections have confirmed the Kurdish movement’s mandate in the region’s Kurdish heartlands. Now they face the same challenge in Arab regions. “These elections give us a chance to elect co-chairs, and not appoint a candidate, as it was before,” says Ghada Zakaria, an independent candidate in former ISIS stronghold Deir ez-Zor. In a region where ISIS insurgents regularly assassinate Arabs who work with the AANES, her candidacy is testament to the revolutionary gains made by millions of Syrian women.

Erdogan accuses the AANES of trying to establish a Kurdish statelet. In fact, the region’s Kurdish-nationalist opposition — which wants an ethnic state similar to others throughout the Middle East — is boycotting the election. The two major Kurdish-led blocs that will actually contest the elections share the same political vision of multiethnic democracy.

The U.S. and Turkey have united to respond with hostility, indifference and airstrikes.

If the U.S. were actually serious about promoting a free and fair political culture in Syria and the Middle East, it would offer concrete support to Rojava’s positive proposal for strengthening intercommunity cooperation in the region. Instead, it refuses to engage with AANES’s representatives and bodies, and instead treats it as a military outpost to serve its own agenda in opposing Iran, while delegitimizing its efforts to establish a revolutionary, grassroots alternative.

The AANES’s electoral commission has repeatedly called for external observers to monitor the electoral process, demonstrating AANES’s continued commitment to international engagement and support. If the U.S. were concerned about electoral conditions, it could actively support the process and treat the elections as the starting point of establishing a model for a genuinely democratic alternative in Syria and the Middle East at large.

Instead, the U.S. and Turkey have united to respond with hostility, indifference and airstrikes. To independent candidate Salem Khalaf al-Hassan, the elections in his destitute, war-ravaged region are most fundamentally about “saying that we are a living people, that our voice will be heard.”

Rojava Information Center’s Marius Lopez and Sozdar Abulafia contributed reporting

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