The Future Perspective of Kurds Sovereignty Over Northeastern of Syria

Flag of Syria
The flag of Syria (Credits: Foto di engin akyurt su Unsplash)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 42 Issue 2
Author: Maryam Fattahi Manesh

The Kurdish issue has long overshadowed the Middle East region and reflects the region’s complex ethnic conflicts. Academic studies related to this issue, in the past, have focused more on historical, ethnic and international relations aspects. But with the rapid growth of the idea and movement of the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan and the autonomy of the Kurds in north-eastern Syria in recent years, this issue was recognised as the main variable influencing the evolution of the regional power structure.

The instability caused by the civil war enabled the Kurdish military and political actors to take control of parts of the northern and north-eastern regions of Syria. Previously, Western Kurdistan was a vague concept that was rarely used by most Kurds, although even now this new political structure is fragile and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, it has become one of the important features of the geopolitical landscape of Syria and the Middle East. This region and the Kurdish population living in are a key factor for stability in the future of this war-torn country.

This region, which is administered by the “Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria” (AANES) and under the rule of the Kurds, was established in the third conference of the “Syrian Democratic Council” on July 16th, 2018, in the city of Tabqa. Its highest political assembly is the “Syrian Democratic Council” and its integrated military force is the “Syrian Democratic Forces”. AANES has a regional administrative structure named Jazeera, Afrin, Euphrates, Manbij, Taqa, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. These areas are marked on the map below.

Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria
The map of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (Credits: Syrian Democratic Council U.S. Mission)

In this writing, after a brief review of the geopolitics and demographics of this region, we are trying to examine its future prospects.

Geopolitics and The Importance of The North-eastern Region of Syria

The north-eastern region and parts of eastern Syria under the jurisdiction of the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria extend from the Iraqi border to Hatay province in Turkey. It is bordered by Iraqi Kurdistan from the east, Northern Kurdistan (Bakur) from the north, Hatay from the west, and the rest of Syria from the south. However, due to occasional conflicts, the political boundaries are not precise.

The strategic importance of this region arises from its role as the junction of three countries: Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. This point of intersection has opened the way for them to communicate with the Kurds living in these countries.

On the other hand, there are several Syrian border crossings in these areas, some of which have been closed due to the war. In general, the crossings of “Qamishli, Ain Divar, Ras al-Ain, Tal Abyad, Kobani, Jarablus, Bab al-Salama, Bab al-Hava and Kasab” are located on the common borders with Turkey. Also, the border crossings of “Al-Tanf, Al-Bukamal and Yarobiyeh ” are located on the common borders of Syria and Iraq.The border crossings of ” Yarobiyeh, Ain Dewar, Simalka, Ras al-Ain, Qamishli, Kobani” in northeastern and northern Syria are under the control of Kurdish forces.

The areas under the control of the Kurdish forces are of great economic importance for Syria. The importance of this issue holds great significance for the preservation of underground oil and gas resources, as well as water resources. Agriculture and arable land are also important for the Syrian government.

Bread is the main food item in the diet of Syrians, and al-Hasaka province in the northeast is still considered as the main reservoir of wheat production in this country. This province plays an important role in Syrian agriculture due to its favourable climate and water reserves. It is considered the “Syria’s strategic material reservoir” and accounts for 36% of wheat production in the country.

This area is also important due to the existence of a part of historical and cultural heritage. The Ain Divar arch bridge in the northeast corner of Syria was built by the Romans in the 2nd century. The “Lady of the Syrians” church in the north of the city dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD. The Dome of the Jews is almost 2000 years old and is the burial place of  the rabbi “Yehuda ben Bathyra of Nisibis”. Also, there are stunning historical sights in the north of the city of Tirbespi and in the Yazidi village of Otelce. In addition, the historical place of Orkash, which is also known as “Tel Mozen”, dates back to the fourth millennium BC.

Population and Ethnics

According to USAID, about 4 million people live in the areas governed by AANES. Although there is an absolute majority of Kurds in areas such as Qamishli, Tel Ubaid and Ras al-Ain, the total population of Arabs is greater than the number of Kurds. According to the “Congressional Research Service” Center’s estimate, in 2019, Syrian Kurds make up 9% of the country’s population and are 1.5 million people.

Some sources such as USAID have estimated their number up to 2 million people. This number mainly lives in three Kurdish regions in northern Syria adjacent to Turkey. Many Kurds also live in the big cities and metropolises of the country, for example, in Rukn al-Din neighborhood in Damascus, which used to be known as Hay al-Akrad and Al-Ashrafieh and Sheikh Maqsood neighborhoods in Aleppo.

The map below is taken from the French Umap website. In this map, the villages and towns of this region are colored according to the ethnic groups living in that region. The purple of the Arabs, the yellow of the Kurds, the green of the Assyrians, the blue of the Turkmen and the pink show a combination of different ethnics.

Ethnographic Map of Syria
Ethnographic Map of Syria (Credits: Created by – Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL). Background Map
OSM-Fr map data © OpenStreetMap contributors under ODbL. Powered by Leaflet and Django, glued by uMap project version 2.2.0)

The unclear and fragile future of Kurdish rule in north-eastern Syria

This region has an ambiguous perspective due to various variables and the presence of international and regional actors in Syria. Each of these actors has specific political and military interests and strategies in this region. Potential developments in this area depend on several factors: the performance and legitimacy of AANES, its international acceptance and support, especially by the United States and Europe, the possible agreement between the Syrian regime and AANES, The re-emergence of the Islamic State and other Extremist groups; and the interests of other foreign powers, especially Turkey.

In this area, as in other parts of Syria, internal and external dynamics are deeply intertwined. Turkey, the United States, Iran, and Russia have influenced and shaped events in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Therefore, the different roles and goals of these actors must be considered when considering.

Currently, the Kurdish experience of autonomy within Syria, long facilitated by the US military presence, appears uncertain. While the United States says it has no plans to leave Syria anytime soon but  the war in Ukraine, the strategic challenge of China, and most recently Israel’s war in Gaza and the increase in Israel’s conflicts with Iran, Hezbollah and resistance groups in West Asia, Syria is no longer the main priority for them.

With the possibility of a reduced US commitment, the Kurds are playing a dangerous game by betting solely on long-term US support while their immediate neighbours are against them. In the midst of broader global challenges, the United States and its Western partners do not have the strong hand or long-term strategic interest in remaining in Syria, but they cannot withdraw without a strategy to maintain order and support the stability and security of Syria. Trump’s victory in the elections ahead of the United States can accelerate the withdrawal of the United States from Syria.

Another issue is Turkey. Ankara has long supported the opposition and anti-Assad forces in Syria and controls a large part of Syrian territory in the north. Turkey’s red line is the existence of an autonomous government bordering this country.

For the United States and European powers, Turkish-Syrian normalisation represents a dramatic shift that fundamentally changes the strategic calculations in Syria and directly threatens the position of the US-backed Syrian Kurds, and given that Ankara and Damascus want to see territorial control and self-control, Kurdish self-government limited or under the supervision of Syrian government. On the other hand, while Damascus and Moscow have concluded coexistence agreements that allow the Syrian army to enter some Kurdish areas, the Assad government is politically hardline and does not want to grant legal rights to recognize local Kurdish sovereignty.

For both Türkiye and Russia, the future of this region is closely related to the developments in north-western Syria. Therefore, the two main actors can make an agreement that equally serves the interests of both countries. If Turkey withdraws from Idlib and paves the way for the recapture of the Assad regime, Ankara can get permission from Russia in the NES in return. This will most likely lead to a confrontation between the Kurds and Assad’s forces, which could lead to their control of not only the border region, but the entire Northeast, and thus it could be the gradual end of AANES. It is clear that Iran, as an ally of Syria, supports the unified governance of Syria and the mentioned scenario.

In addition to the issue of foreign actors, the Kurds also face internal challenges. AANES is fighting the remnants of the Islamic State. Thousands of fighters, supporters and their families must be cared for, prosecuted or reintegrated into society. Many of them live in Al Hol, which hosts 62,000 of these people and is known as the largest camp in the region, while others are held in prisons as criminals and terrorists. Since most of the countries of origin refuse to take back their citizens, the self-governing administration has to deal with this security problem alone, and there is no end and no effective solution for it.

Another internal challenge is conflicts between Kurdish parties and currents. Revolts and periodic protests of the Arab tribes are also one of the most important problems of the Kurdish government. This issue became more apparent in 2023, so that as a result of armed and bloody conflicts between the parties in September, about 24 villages were removed from the control of the Kurds by the Arab tribes.

Considering all these complex issues, it must be said that it is unlikely that the Syrian Kurds will return to the stage before the start of the civil war in Syria. They now have a relatively long experience of war and self-rule and are not willing to lose it easily. At this point, the only thing that might make the Syrian Kurds safer in the long run is a political deal with both of their main opponents: the Syrian government and Turkey, if the Kurds want to survive long term. Finally, they must reach an agreement with regional powers, as Kurds did in Iraq, to ensure sustainable survival.

According to this, the main variables affecting the future perspective of the political life of AANES are the following:

  • The presence or absence of US and Western in the north and east of Syria
  • Possible agreement between Damascus and Ankara
  • Possible agreement between Russia and Türkiye
  • Activities and revival of takfiri movements such as the Islamic State
  • Internal disputes between different streams of Kurds
  • Internal challenges between Kurds and Arabs (Arab tribal revolts)


The geography and history of the Kurdish people in Syria have been directly and indirectly affected by the fate of other Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. According to historical documents, the migration of Turkish Kurds to the northern and north-eastern regions of Syria in the 20th century has led to the formation of this minority in Syria because their presence was very small before these migrations. However, even after this migration and the relative change of the population, they were a minority that was not recognised by the Syrian Baath Party and were considered a forgotten population in the Levant in the uproar Pan-Arabism of the Middle East.

The Rojava Revolution allowed them to exist culturally. Their fight against ISIS in 2014 and 2015 made them known and strengthened their steps to form an autonomous government. However, the survival of this emerging government is not possible without the support of the West, especially the United States. On the other hand, finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis without AANES and determining its mandate is unthinkable.

Read also | Escalating Tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Democratic Forces Might Further Destabilise the Region

Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.

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