On February 10, Russia’s ambassador to Syria, Alexander Kinshak, accused the U.S. of setting up governmental councils in Syria in order to secure a military presence in that country and overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The ambassador called such actions “cynical blackmail.”
The U.S. military presence in Syria is almost exclusively located in the territory known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, which was established by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its allies. This organization has established local governmental structures in territories it recaptured from the Islamic State, such as Manbij.
The PYD first began setting up governmental councils in 2012, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war. When that war broke out, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad withdrew most of its military forces from the northern part of the country, which has a large Kurdish population. Responsibility for security in several towns fell to Kurdish militias controlled by already-existing political parties like the PYD, giving the region de facto autonomy.The PYD and its allies capitalized on the opportunity.
In 2013, the PYD established a coalition in the areas under its control known as the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), which governs on the basis of grassroots political organizations and general assemblies made up of the region’s various ethnic and religious groups. In 2014, the three autonomous “cantons” under control of the Kurdish forces declared autonomy as the territory of “Rojava,” which means “West” in Kurdish. Rojava adopted its own constitution that same year. In December 2015, the various factions of Rojava formed the Syrian Democratic Council and, in March 2016, Rojava became officially known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Part of the reason for the name change was the increasingly non-Kurdish, mostly Arab population that came under the Kurdish forces’ control as the Islamic State was pushed back towards its capital of Raqqa.
None of the Kurdish forces’ activities was instigated or directed by the United States. The Obama administration first approved the use of ground troops, specifically special forces, in Syria only in November 2015. By that time, the de facto authorities in the territory in question had long since formed their own governmental councils. The PYD in particular claims to follow a political ideology known as democratic confederalism, which is a rejection of the nation-state governance – rooted instead grassroots politics including direct democracy and local councils. Longstanding U.S. policy in Syria has been to support regime change in Damascus.The Trump administration seemed to flirt with changing that policy last year, but backed off after a chemical attack in April. Still, it is not credible to claim that the Kurdish political organizing, which has been going on since 2012, is a U.S. plot aimed at unseating President Bashar al-Assad.
What is more, Russia itself has indicated it views Kurdish desires for autonomy positively. In January 2017, Russia’s delegation to Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, proposed a new draft constitution for the country that included autonomy for Syria’s Kurds. As recently as last year, Russia had military observers among the Kurdish YPG militias in Afrin. Russia removed those observers in January 2018, just ahead of Turkey’s military offensive in the region.
Other councils were set up in Syria long before the U.S. established a military presence in the country. The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces was founded in November 2012. The Assyrian Democratic Organization predates the Syrian civil war by decades and joined the aforementioned National Coalition in 2011, at the start of the anti-Assad uprising.