Interview with Meghan Bodette, Researcher on North and East Syria

This interview was published by Syrian Democratic Times on 4 November, 2021

Meghan Bodette

Meghan Bodette is an independent researcher focused on Kurdish issues, North and East Syria, Turkish politics, the Syrian civil conflict, and other Middle East issues. She visited North and East Syria in September and October 2021, and shared her insights with the Syrian Democratic Times upon her return.

Bodette discusses her observations of a people seeking self-determination, the democratic spirit and values that are visible everywhere in the region, her take on the women’s revolution in North and East Syria, and her recommendations on US policy toward the region going forward. She recalls walking into the Raqqa Civil Council building and “seeing women everywhere” in public life, in the city where ISIS was in power half a decade ago. She shares her observations on Turkish aggression and the Turkish occupation of North and East Syria. She recommends that the US draw closer to North and East Syria, promote negotiations between Turkey and Kurdish groups to resolve the Kurdish question, and “end its support for Turkey’s efforts to seek a military solution.” She encourages others to deepen their awareness of the region, saying, “Their fight is not over. And because their fight is not over, ours isn’t either. Anyone with any interest whatsoever in peace and democracy must continue to talk about North and East Syria.”

Syrian Democratic Times: So you’ve just returned from North and East Syria, could you share with us some of your observations?

Meghan Bodette: Well, where to start? Really, if you want to understand this place, you need to go there yourself. I understand that that’s inaccessible for most people, so failing that, read as much as you can and talk to people over there as much as you can. 

To put it as simply as I can: this is a place that’s at the center of every major issue in world politics — terrorism, great power competition, climate change, poverty, nationalism and sectarianism — all of the social, economic, and political challenges that any society, any people in the international system can face. 

And despite being here, at the center of every problem there is in international politics, these people have done something miraculous. As we all know, in 2011 and 2012, the people  in Kurdish-majority cities along the border began to create a new political system and their own defense forces following a third path — siding neither with the government nor with the opposition as conflict between those two sides escalated. And when ISIS attacked in 2014, it was only these small Kurdish-majority areas of northern Syria that were able to resist. When the armed forces of regional states were losing battles against ISIS and sometimes abandoning territory to ISIS altogether, it was the YPG and YPJ that fought back. We all know how this story ends — five years later, by 2019, they achieved the territorial defeat of ISIS.

And that entire time while fighting this existential war for survival against one of the most brutal terrorist organizations in history, they built a political system that is quite unlike anything else you can see in any other country in the world. They have focused on pluralism, on including all of the people who live there. It’s a very diverse place and it always has been. One thing that struck me to see in person was really that commitment to that diversity. Seeing all three official languages on street signs and government buildings, being able to go to women’s institutions and listen to women from every community talk about the shared problems that all Syrian women face, regardless of what language they speak and what religion they practice. Seeing institutes set up to preserve minority religions and minority cultures and ensure they are promoted. And simply, the fact that, everyone that I talked to — whether they were Kurdish, Arab, Syriac, Yazidi — everyone stressed to me that this was a common homeland for many peoples who wanted to continue to live there together. 

We’ve all heard about the YPJ. We all know about the women there and the leadership roles that they have achieved, politically, and militarily, but seeing that on the ground at every level, from the lowest levels of government and upward — women’s liberation there is very real. They have done a lot to both challenge the patriarchal, conservative attitudes in the society and change laws and institutions to ensure formal protection for women’s rights and representation. This social and political struggle, and of course the military struggle of the women in the YPJ and SDF, has created an environment where women’s liberation is at the center of almost every decision made there. 

The first city where I spent a few consecutive days was Raqqa. I’ll never forget walking into the Raqqa Civil Council building and seeing women everywhere — leading meetings, having discussions with men as equals, some with their young children with them, wearing bright colors. The atmosphere there was more energetic and excited than anything I’ve seen in a city hall or a federal government building in this country. And I thought to myself, this is a place where ISIS was in power, less than half a decade ago. ISIS enslaved women here. Women couldn’t leave their houses, little girls couldn’t go to school. And now, thanks to the AANES and SDF, women of all backgrounds are working to participate in government and build a better future for the next generation of girls. It’s really something amazing — they say that “society can never be free without women’s liberation,” and they’re fighting for that principle in cities that were once controlled by jihadists. 

The fact that they’ve done all of this while fighting first against ISIS and now against Turkey and Turkish-backed extremists makes the system that they’ve been able to create, I think, even more impressive. Are they perfect? No. Are they aware of their faults? Yes. Do they want to improve? Also yes — and that was something incredible to see as well. Right now they’re working on rewriting their Social Contract through a participatory process that started with consultations held by the Syrian Democratic Council with people across the region. Those efforts led to the creation of a committee which is now working to create a new Social Contract for the whole region, and which I was told is representative of local demographics and has equal representation for women. So all the while, under all of these threats, they are developing and moving forward without asking any outside power for permission and without needing representation in the existing political processes. Moreover, they’re very willing to criticize themselves and make their project better based on past successes and mistakes. So really, there’s nothing like it, what they’ve done under the conditions that they have to do it is incredible. 

SDT: So, one of the things that you’ve just described, runs a little counter to how we envision the region in the West, it’s often referred to as the “Syrian Kurds,” and we focus very much on the Kurdish element of society, but what you’re describing is much more multi-ethnic and diverse. What are some expressions of that diversity that you saw?

MB: Well it’d be hard to go there and not see it. When you go to any government building, or you see any official document, it’s in official languages — Kurdish, Arabic, and Aramaic. Everything is written in at least two, if not all three, and with some other minority languages also included depending on where you are. They have included all of their existing social contracts so far, and as I understand, will include as they go forward, the principle that freedom of religion, language rights, and cultural freedom are an integral part of their system. 

You also see their commitment to pluralism reflected in their commitment to women’s freedom. When I would speak with Arab women in cities like Raqqa or Manbij that were under ISIS occupation for a very long time, where women suffered greatly, I would always ask what they thought about North and East Syria’s ideas about women’s freedom. People in Washington, as you know, like to say that these ideas only apply to the Kurdish community, or that even the Kurdish community itself doesn’t accept them. But on the ground in the region, these women  were in some ways shocked that a person could claim these ideas only belong to one community. What they told me was, very simply, that they believe that all Syrian women should have the opportunities to be empowered and to participate in politics and society that the AANES provides. They said that they wanted to expand what they’ve done in North and East Syria for women of all communities and, hopefully, to see these changes adopted across all of Syria as part of a political settlement. They want any woman in any Syrian city, whatever language she may speak, whatever religion she might practice, to have the kind of opportunities women in the northeast now do. So seeing that, across different communities and in different places — really, I think, that spoke to the universality of these ideas and the pluralism of the system.

Another thing I heard again and again from people in the region was that religious and nationalist conflict  is something that has been forced on Syrians by powerful actors — states, armed groups, and others with nationalist and religious extremist prejudices. As a society, they told me, they believe that they have lived together for a long time, and that in the future they want to continue to live together. North and East Syria is a place that, for a very long time, has been home to many different groups of people. You can’t separate any one community out of it. 

I think that we shouldn’t be so reductionist in our view of the region to assume that just because it is a project where Kurds have found self-determination, it can’t also be a project of self-determination for the other peoples who live there. There are challenges — there always will be in any society that has faced war and dictatorship. But the people of North and East Syria are adamant that they can create a society that reflects the diversity of the region and allows it to flourish. 

SDT: You have been a researcher developing expertise on the region for quite a while now, and have worked extensively on North and East Syria and regional issues. You have been the lead on the Missing Afrin Women project. I know that you visited a lot of the women’s shelters and other women’s offices. What did you see there among everyday women?

MB: The advances for women aren’t confined to the women at the top. Regular women are very involved in every level of the system. I met women of all ages, some married and some single, some with children and some without, participating in all different institutions in the capacities that worked best for them. 

For one example, I had the chance to meet the founders of the Qamishlo Women’s House — both of whom organized in secret before the war to help victims of gender-based violence, and took that organizing out into the open after the revolution. In the Women’s Houses, older women who are known and respected in their communities tend to be active, because they have experience and relationships that allow them to do this work effectively. 

Their strategy for advancing women’s rights is also based on bottom-up social change, rather than strict top-down enforcement. This is sounds counterproductive at first, but it seems to be working on the ground. For example, in some areas liberated from ISIS by the SDF, they couldn’t implement their prohibition on polygamy at first, because society was very conservative, there were a lot of existing polygamous marriages, and they weren’t at a place where such a ban could feasibly be enforced. But I was told now that, several years after liberation, polygamy cases are being sent to courts in these cities, because social organizing has gotten to a point where women want stronger protections.

So this strategy is paying off, and women now — including women who were originally suspicious of it, who didn’t see reasons why entrenched patriarchal customs should change — are changing their minds and becoming politically active. 

From this, it’s clear to me that the AANES focus on women’s liberation exists at the grassroots level just as much as it exists in the legal system, in the leadership of the political system, and in the leadership of the military structures as well, where the women of the YPJ played key roles in commanding important battles against ISIS. There’s no part of society where this isn’t a priority. It’s everywhere, it is a social revolution just as much as it is a political and military revolution. And all the data that we have, all the research that exists, shows that societies where women’s rights are protected, and where women enjoy more freedoms and political and social participation, are more peaceful internationally, are more democratic, more stable. So this transformation in the status of women and the ambition that they have to bring this to all of Syria is a good step for the future of that country and the region as a whole. 

SDT: Could I ask you now about the US relationship with North and East Syria? So, as you travelled as a US citizen in the region, did you hear from a lot of people about the US relationship and their thoughts on that relationship? If so, what did you hear?

MB: People in North and East Syria believe very strongly that the people of the United States — and of countries all around the world — stand with them and share their values. They saw very clearly in October 2019 — when Trump allowed Erdogan to invade and occupy Serekaniye and Tel Abyad — that people across the United States, across political divides and communities, were upset. They know that such a decision wasn’t what the American people wanted. They know people here recognize that North and East Syria fought against ISIS and tried to create a more free and equal vision of society in the midst of that war. They know a phone call from the President inviting Erdogan to commit ethnic cleansing is not representative of public opinion. Based on this, they believe that building relationships with communities and civil society organizations in the US is essential. 

On the other hand — just as I am, and just as many other people in the US are — they’re quite critical of US policy. I don’t think I need to tell you how people in North and East Syria feel about Trump’s decision to allow Turkey to invade and occupy their cities. They’re very critical of the continuing instability on the frontlines, which occurs despite a US-brokered ceasefire, and of Turkish drone strikes targeting both SDF personnel and civilian politicians in airspace that is nominally under US control. These are major threats to the security and stability of the region and to people’s ability to live there — and people feel as though the US is allowing them to happen without any real action against Turkey. 

I also heard many criticisms of US sanctions on Syria. These sanctions, regardless of their intended target, are simply harming the poorest and most vulnerable Syrians — people who have already survived war and displacement. They’ve caused an economic crisis that only compounds the impact of ten years of conflict and instability. They’re making reconstruction extremely difficult. It’s patently absurd that the men and women who defeated ISIS are being relegated to economic ruin — and it’s not just the northeast, for that matter, it’s the entire country. The northeast, despite its difficulties, is actually better off than both government and opposition territory. You don’t have to support the government, the opposition, or the SDF at all to understand that the US is exacerbating an existing humanitarian crisis here, and that this — like support for Erdogan — is wrong. 

SDT: Could I ask you, what, if you could make policy recommendations to the United States, what would those recommendations be?

MB: The United States needs to end its support for Turkey’s efforts to seek a military solution to the Kurdish question, and push Turkey back to the negotiating table for a political solution instead. This is the only way to prevent another invasion and address the broader crisis of autocracy in Turkey. Turkey would not be able to target North and East Syria, or target Kurds and other minorities domestically, without US and European arms, security assistance, and diplomatic support. We saw in October 2019 — and on many other occasions — that the American public wants nothing to do with Erdogan, who is the only foreign leader in my lifetime to have had peaceful protestors attacked on US soil for the “crime” of opposing him. A pro-peace policy would be beneficial for regional stability, beneficial for human rights, and more in line with public opinion than the current pro-war policy. It would allow the US to withdraw from Syria without precipitating an immediate Turkish invasion, and contribute to efforts to seek a political settlement to the Syrian conflict overall.

In addition to supporting peace in Turkey, another diplomatic line of effort has to involve the inclusion of North and East Syria in talks to resolve the Syrian crisis itself. The region has been excluded from the Geneva process and efforts under Resolution 2254. Despite that, they exist as a fact on the ground with military, economic and political power — arguably more so than the mainstream opposition at this point. They have always kept an open door for negotiations with other parties to the conflict. They want recognition as an autonomous region within a democratic and multiethnic Syria, which is a goal that requires negotiations with the government. Their inclusion in a political settlement could make post-war Syria more democratic, more pluralist, and more inclusive of women — goals everyone should support. 

Sanctions relief is also important. It’s difficult to find people today who defend the devastating sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s. People now know that this policy harmed countless ordinary Iraqis, including the Iraqi Kurds who were most victimized by the regime, without harming the regime itself. Sanctions on Syria are the same kind of cruel humanitarian catastrophe. North and East Syria can’t succeed if its people can’t maintain a basic standard of living, and sanctions are making the possibility of economic devastation more likely. 

SDT: May I pivot now to your personal observation when it comes to your recent visit? You have been focused for years on North and East Syria and you have just visited the region for the first time. What was different about what you saw and what you expected to see?

MB: It’s very different, in a way that’s very hard to describe. I would once again say go there, see it for yourself. What becomes apparent on the ground is just how difficult they have it. You see the destroyed buildings in cities that were liberated from ISIS. You see the very slow pace of reconstruction — because they have limited resources, and because sanctions and conflict and hostile neighbors mean that it’s very difficult for them to get international support for rebuilding. There’s a lot of poverty, too, because of the war and the economic crisis. There are ecological problems right now — climate change is causing drought, and Turkey is using water as a weapon of war and cutting the flow of the Euphrates River. North and East Syria is an agricultural region — water is essential. Turkey weaponizing such a basic resource is something very dangerous and something that will only become more dangerous as climate change continues unabated. 

The place where it’s most apparent is when you drive on the main highway out of Qamishlo — it’s right by the border, Turkey is right there. When you look at the Turkish side of the border, all of their cities are lit up. And then there’s the wall. The wall is also lit up, with these imposing pale fluorescent lights as far as you can see. It’s very tall and covered in barbed wire. It’s so out of place that it almost looks like it’s compensating for the fact that the land on both sides looks the same and the people on both sides speak the same languages, belong to the same cultures. But anyway, it’s all lit up — then you look at the cities on the Syrian side and they’re quite dark. They don’t have 24 hours of electricity. They have to conserve their resources, because of the economic crisis and the water crisis and the impact of the war on infrastructure. Seeing that disparity, and thinking about how that much larger and much richer state is so threatened by this small region, was very striking. 

But on the other hand, despite all of that — I don’t think I have ever seen, and I don’t think that in this world there exists — a society of people more resilient and more willing to fight for their future against all odds than the society of North and East Syria. I don’t think I can even convey this properly myself. These people, who have sacrificed so much, who have been fighting for 10, 11 years of revolution and in some cases for many years before that, who have lived under ISIS, been displaced by Turkey — they’re still committed, after everything, to the idea that they can transform society. I witnessed this everywhere. Everyone I talked to, from regular people participating in their local neighborhood assemblies to the political leaders that I was fortunate enough to be able to meet — they believe that they can keep going, that they can improve, and that these past ten years are not a complete revolution but simply the beginning of one. And seeing that firsthand — you can read about it all you want, you can talk to people all you want, but until you’ve been there and seen this place and spoken to these people, and heard what they believe they can do with their project given the chance given the chance, it’s very difficult to understand. 

SDT: What were some of your experiences in how the communities and societies that may differ with those of the US?

MB: If you want to understand the revolution and their political system, you have to understand the society. And one thing that is truly beautiful about the society in North and East Syria is how communal and social it is. I was never alone the entire time I was there. I wasn’t ever left out of a conversation, despite being a bit nervous speaking Kurdish at first and being ashamed that I might slow a conversation down. Complete strangers went out of their way to include me and ensure that I felt like I was a part of their community, in a way that you don’t see in this country or in many other places. A friend told me that they wanted everything, even the most basic interactions between people, to reflect the kind of system and society their struggle envisioned — I’ll never forget that. 

This is all to say — go see it yourself! Or use virtual means to start building those connections. If you’re a researcher or journalist, if you have an institution, a community group, any kind of platform, and you want to start building those ties with people in North and East Syria — maybe you have a women’s group and you’re interested in the women’s movement there, maybe you’re interested in religious freedom and you’d like to talk to some of the religious minorities there — make those connections. If you can go to the region, I recommend that. If not, have those conversations online, educate  yourself and your community, talk to these people, read what they’re saying about the theory and practice of their movement, and build those relationships virtually. Getting to know North and East Syria better would benefit anyone who’s at all interested in any aspect of what’s going on over there. It’s also something people on the ground truly want, and one of the best ways to create lasting public support that translates to better policy. 

SDT: What are the key lessons you’d like people to take away from this?

MB: I think everyone should know that a place called North and East Syria exists, and that the people there have, for the past ten years, against all odds, been creating a new political system and a new society based on values that aren’t just Kurdish values, that aren’t just North and East Syrian values, that aren’t just Middle Eastern values, but are universal values. They believe in an idea of freedom and democracy and equality for all people, of freedom from all kinds of oppressive conditions, that has a lot of the answers to the questions people in many societies around the world today are asking. 

They don’t have all the answers — they’d be the first to tell you that no one does — but I think what you’ll see when you look at North and East Syria is a society that has accomplished a great deal under serious threats, and that insists that, if they get the chance, they’ll accomplish even more in the future. Their fight is not over. And because their fight is not over, ours isn’t either. Anyone with any interest whatsoever in peace and democracy must continue to talk about North and East Syria, to engage our communities, to keep it in the news, ensure people are writing and talking about it, and keep the message alive. We need to build relationships with people and institutions there — I think there’s a lot to gain for both sides in that. So that’s what I’m going to be focusing on and what I think people should take away as well — that this is very much not over, and that there’s a place for you to be involved in moving this forward.