— MedyaNews (@1MedyaNews) October 27, 2023
Nadine Maenza is a distinguished advocate for international religious freedom and has served as the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2022. Recently, Ms. Maenza visited North and East Syria, a region that has been significantly impacted by recent Turkish military campaigns. She met with officials from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and has been vocal about the urgent need for international intervention. In this interview, we delved into her observations from the visit, discussed the geopolitical implications of Turkey’s actions, explored the role of the United States and the international community, and looked at what the future holds for this embattled region.
Could you elaborate on the primary objectives of your recent visit to North and East Syria, particularly in light of the latest Turkish military campaign, and share the key takeaways from your meetings with officials from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)?
I was invited to visit northeast Syria by the Future Syria Party and also thought it was a good opportunity for me to see how people were recovering from over 200 air strikes from Turkey. And it was heart-breaking to see hospitals, schools, water plants, electrical plants destroyed by the aggression from Turkey with really no international outcry against it. I was able to speak to some of the leaders and the people and there is this strong commitment to stay and continue building this society that welcomes everybody regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender. Yet there is a frustration that the international community is not supporting them.
What specific actions do you believe the US should take to halt Turkey’s attacks in northeastern Syria, and given that you’ve described these actions as war crimes under the Geneva Convention, what avenues do you recommend for holding Turkey accountable on the international stage?
Part of the problem is Turkey has been such an important NATO member with the grain deal in Ukraine and being an intermediate between Russia and it’s clear that the US and the international community doesn’t want to anger Turkey. So it’s set up this environment where they just appease Turkey, they look away and in the meantime Turkey is clearly committing what’s considered war crimes according to the Geneva Convention against civilians in northeast Syria without any outcry.
And here Erdoğan himself complains about how in Gaza they don’t have electricity or water and he even mentioned schools and hospitals that have been targeted. And yet here he is in Syria targeting the electrical, water, hospitals, schools and the international community is looking away. So it’s time that the international community stand up for human rights for all, the human dignity of all human beings whether they’re in northeast Syria or whether they’re in Israel, they’re the same. And we need to stand against terrorism and against what Erdoğan is doing.
Can you share examples of how the AANES has effectively filled governance and security voids, and given your emphasis on the importance of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious government for long-term peace and stability, how do you envision this model being replicated in other parts of Syria or the Middle East?
Part of the problem is the international community is unaware of just how remarkable this government and what the people of northeast Syria have done. And listening to the Syriac Assyrians talk about how they voted to adopt this model of governance because they saw that it actually over-represents the minorities. So all minorities—religious, ethnic—are included in every level of government. And so what you have is this pluralistic model, this place where we have Arabic, Syriac and Kurdish as the official languages, people working together to solve their own problems at every level of government. And so what’s happened is everyone has a seat at the table. So it’s eliminated those voids or “othering” people, people are pushed outside the public square, everyone’s brought into the public square and is a part of this government if they choose to be. And because of that we’re seeing the strength that’s been built.
And Erdoğan sees that and is trying to destroy that. And that is something that deserves our attention and respect. I mean, I’ve met with the different councils that are solving the problems in their own community and it’s really quite something with these co-chair systems with a man and a woman vice co-chair. They’re all different ethnicities and religions. So you have a group of people from all different parts of their own community, they’re solving their own problems. In America and around the world it’s clear that people are tired of forever wars, they’re tired of, the US is tired of sending soldiers to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. And actually it ends up worse than it began.
Yet this is actually the opposite of that. Our partners in northeast Syria have done exactly what we wish all of our military partners would do which is to build governance, to hold the ground so we don’t have to come back and fight for it again. This is how to stop a forever war. You look at the Nineveh Plains, when ISIS was defeated, the Iranian militias rose up and they filled those governance and security voids, they ran the Nineveh planes, they controlled movement, they had checkpoints everywhere and the religious minorities have paid the biggest price. In northeast Syria, instead of letting that happen, the people in northeast Syria built this government that filled these voids and so they’re the ones that won. And this is a model that could be set up in other parts of the world where there are, in even non-sovereign parts, where there’s chaos.
How to bring people together to set up their own governments, to take care of their own needs, to meet their own needs and this also fills those governance, security voids that otherwise bad guys are going to take advantage of, like gangsters, like we see in these, the Islamist militias and the places that Turkey has invaded and governs where it’s just the wild west, where crimes against everybody but particularly religious and ethnic minorities and the women in those communities. And this (AANES) has stopped that. And I think if people stopped and took a look at how spectacular this is and what the future could be here, the international community would absolutely rally around them.
What are the most pressing needs for the residents of North and East Syria at the moment, and how can the international community contribute to addressing these needs? Additionally, you’ve advocated for international support for the AANES; what specific forms should this support take and which international organisations should be actively involved?
Well, it’s really stunning to go to events in Washington or read books, I have a bookshelf full of books about Syria that don’t even mention northeast Syria. One third of Syria is being run by a government, it’s actually successful and yet so many look away because they don’t want to offend Turkey. And so what happens is there’s this, it’s like a pretend process, like UN resolution 2254 that calls for the Syrian people to solve this, to do a new constitution, a new government that represents the Syrian people. And yet Northeast Syria is excluded from that entire process. So when I was at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, they made a recommendation that they still stand by, that the US should demand the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) as part of any political solution for Syria per UN resolution 2254, be a part of the Geneva Conversations, the plans and if they don’t, they should do a parallel process that includes the Autonomous Administration.
This is a model really for all of Syria, but every part of Syria could decide themselves how they’re going to self-govern. But really we may not know the answer for all of Syria yet with Assad obviously still in power with a lot more countries supporting him now but that’s kind of like a side point. What we do know is northeast Syria works and this is the way for security and peace and stability. And before Turkey invaded in 2018 and then in 2019, they (SDF) had been successful in defeating the ISIS caliphate in 2019 but all of this chaos, the constant bombings has absolutely interrupted the fight against ISIS. In fact the lead inspector general of the Department of Defense that put a big report out just a few months ago to Congress saying that Turkey had interfered with the US mission in northeast Syria and interfered with the fight against ISIS. So there’s so many different reasons to support the people of northeast Syria.
I want to just make the point that this isn’t about nation building. I think, again, the United States, the people of the United States are tired of seeing the US go do nation building, send troops, do all these things in other countries when we have so many problems in our own country. That’s what’s so beautiful about Northeast Syria, they don’t need nation building, they don’t need us to tell them how to write it, they wrote a beautiful constitution. We need to just give them the space to be able to build their own government and be able to be prosperous. We did lift sanctions on northeast Syria so businesses can come and invest. They have 80 percent of their oil in Syria, they have some of those fertile ground in the Middle East. But of course Turkey has cut the water and destroyed water plants, since the invasion in 2019, Turkey has built three dams on the Khabur river which has devastated the Syriac Assyrian farmers on the Khabur river. So what we’re seeing here is an inability for them to meet their own needs economically because of Turkey’s actions. If the US makes the cost too high for Turkey to invade again or for Turkey to continue these bombings, we give them the space to be able to build this government to be able to become prosperous, feed themselves, maybe even feed other people in Syria and have the peace and stability that we need in order to really permanently defeat ISIS.
It was frustrating yesterday to see President Erdoğan say Hamas is not a terrorist organisation and clearly show his support for them as they came in butchering civilians in the most horrific crimes in Israel. Regardless where people stand in that long-term conflict in Israel, everyone agrees Hamas is terrorist organisation and what they did was horrific. And then on the same exact day he says he is going to continue the fight, he’s going to continue to attack the people of northeast Syria, calling all the people in northeast Syria terrorists. And yet they [AANES] support religious freedom, gender equality and are working to build a stable and peaceful society. I don’t think Erdoğan should be the person deciding who a terrorist is. Clearly he’s going to use that word to benefit himself and it’s to support Hamas on one side and to destroy and kill the people of northeast Syria because he wants this land. And to suggest that all the people in northeast Syria are PKK members is ridiculous and is clearly again something he is saying to provide cover so that he can go on and commit the crimes he plans to do again.
The areas he’s invaded in northeast Syria already are places with some of the worst conditions in all of Syria. United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, they’ve all documented these horrific crimes against religious ethnic minorities, especially the women in these areas… It’s almost like he’s created the ISIS caliphate in Afrin, Serekaniye, Ras al-Ain and yet he wants to come in and do that some more. And if you look at the map on where he says he’s going to take of northeast Syria, it includes all the religious minority communities in Syria. So you’re talking about elimination of all the Yazidi villages that are left, some of the oldest Christian communities in the world. The US and the international community cannot just stand by as Turkey uses whatever terms they want to use to be able to accomplish their own goals, whether it be support Hamas on one side, or destroy the people of northeast Syria on the other side. Both of these should be unacceptable to the international community
The Autonomous Administration submitted a comprehensive report to several international bodies highlighting extensive damage and casualties caused by recent military actions of the Turkish forces. Did you have any conversation about this during your visit?
We did, I’m glad to see the Autonomous Administration standing up and making the claim that is clearly true. What Turkey is doing to the people in northeast Syria is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention. The United Nations needs to stand up and acknowledge it for what it is. They have in some of their previous reports acknowledged the crimes that Turkey’s committing in northeast Syria and they need to call them out for these air strikes and if Turkey says they’re going to come in and do them again, it’s an opportunity for the international community to stand up and say no and draw a line here. If they don’t draw a line now, Turkey is going to continue these actions, not just against the people in northeast Syria, expect to see it in all sorts of places because at some point, appeasing an aggressor like Turkey, you can’t appease them enough. And clearly it’s not benefiting the United States’ goals and missions in north Syria and in the region.
And now with this horrible war in Israel, and my heart’s going to all the civilians who’ve been killed and affected by the war, but it makes this part of Syria all the more important to block an Iranian land bridge from coming all the way from Iran through… And of course northern Iraq is another place that needs to be secured because if northern Iraq and northern Syria are secure, it really interrupts the Iranians’ goals of having this land bridge go all the way to Hezbollah, all the way to Israel. And for so many different reasons it’s in the best interest of the United States to stand with the people in northeast Syria, the government of northeast Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces who’ve been our allies. There’s never been an insider attack from the Syrian Democratic Forces against the United States. They’ve been trusted partners. We share the same values and all they want is the opportunity to build a society where every ethnicity, gender and religion has the same human dignity. This is such an amazing model for around the world of how… as religious freedom conditions continue to deteriorate around the world. What they’ve built here is so impressive for us to learn from. For us to look away and allow it to be destroyed, it’s just unacceptable and the US Congress should stand up and the US people should stand up, the international community should say “no more” and draw a line so that Turkey can no longer continue these crimes.