USCIRF Highlights Religious Freedom in SDF-Held Syria

By Wladimir van Wilgenburg

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released their 2024 Annual Report on May 1st, underscoring that the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), supported by its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), continues “to highlight religious freedom as a governing principle.”

This is in stark contrast to religious freedom conditions in Syria under the Syrian government, or non-state actors like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Turkish-backed armed groups, the report shows.

“While the government of President Bashar al-Assad committed a range of other human rights abuses, its violations of freedom of religion or belief were generally political and administrative in nature,” the report said.

“Nonstate entities in conflict with the Assad government, including the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and several Turkish-supported Syrian Islamist opposition groups (TSOs), were the primary drivers of severe religious freedom violations in Syria,” it said.

Furthermore, the report noted that the “SDF led missions to locate and rescue Yazidi women and girls whom ISIS kidnapped from Iraq as part of its 2014 genocide. Almost 2,700 women and girls remained missing, with an unidentified number presumed still in Syrian detainee camps and ISIS enclaves,” according to the report.

The report also called on the U.S. government to support religious freedom in Syria by fully implementing General License No. 22 in areas the AANES governs and encouraged the international inclusion of the AANES in a political solution to the Syrian conflict.

Additionally, it called for assisting the efforts of local partners to ascertain the whereabouts of “kidnapped and missing Yazidi women and girls; and taking diplomatic action in multilateral forums to facilitate the flow of humanitarian and reconstruction aid and ensure its effective disbursement to vulnerable communities, including religious minorities.”

Also this year, USCIRF for the first time recommended putting Syria on the U.S. State Department’s Special Watch List, “given that the government’s violations of religious freedom have evolved to become more political and administrative in nature in recent years.”

It also called on the US to redesignate HTS as an “entity of particular concern” and impose targeted sanctions on additional HTS principals and the leadership of Turkish-backed Syrian opposition groups for being “responsible for violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations.”

However, it did not call for sanctions on AANES or SDF leaders for violations of religious freedom.

Also in 2019, USCIRF’s Annual Report mentioned that “the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) maintained control of the rest of the northeast and continued to uphold its commitment to providing for a relatively high degree of religious freedom and other civil rights in areas under its authority.”

The latest U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2023, released in April, also mentions that the DAANES “generally controlled the political and governance landscape in the northeast while allowing for Arab and other ethnic and religious community representation in local governance councils.”

“Northeast Syria is doing well in religious freedom because it is a real secular government. There is no domination of any religious groups in society. Kurds have been persecuted by Arab rulers for decades but they still honor their duty to protect religious minorities,” Fabrice Balanche, a professor at the University of Lyon and associate researcher at the Washington Institute who has regularly traveled to northeast Syria, told The Kurdish Center for Studies.

“Areas under AANES are the only areas in Syria that have positive religious freedom conditions. The fact that parts of these areas used to be under the ISIS Caliphate just 6 years ago is what makes it especially noteworthy. Northeast Syria has such positive religious freedom conditions because they have built governance based on equality for all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. It really is stunning.”

— Nadine Maenza,
President of the International Religious Freedom Secretariat and former Chair of the USCIRF

Then USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza at a press conference in Qamishli (October 2020), where she spoke about how it was “heartbreaking” to visit with Yezidis and Christians who had formerly fled ISIS terrorism and were then forced again to flee the Turkish invasions of Afrin and Serê Kaniyê.

Maenza also mentioned that northeast Syria “is one of the few places in the region where Christian converts are welcome and treated as equal citizens.”

For instance, in April 2019, an Evangelical Christian church for Muslim converts was opened in the Syrian city of Kobanê.

Moreover, in April 2024, the AANES handed over religious facilities to the Christians in the city of Raqqa in northern Syria and the Raqqa Civil Council and the Armenian Social Council reopened the Armenian Martyrs’ Church of Raqqa in May 2022. Also in February 2024, an office of the High Committee for Real Estate was opened, whose mission is to “protect” the properties of Christian owners.

Moreover, the Social Contract of the Democratic Autonomous Administration of the North and East Syria Region (DAANES) in 2023 mentions the importance of “preserving all cultural, religious, and ideological identities.”

“In the diverse region of North and East Syria, the DAANES declares religious and ethnic minorities’ right to practice their culture and beliefs freely, openly, and autonomously to be a fundamental aspect of its political project,” Samantha Teal, a researcher from the Syria-based Rojava Information Centre (RIC), told The Kurdish Center for Studies.

“This follows both the marginalization of certain minorities—particularly Christians and Yazidis—at the hands of the Assad government, and the string of bloody atrocities ISIS conducted against members of minority religious and ethnic groups.”

Nevertheless, Teal said the DAANES’ ambitions to bring peace and stability to the region’s historically oppressed communities—as outlined in NES’ Social Contract—may only have been realized to some extent, but the efforts undertaken there stand in stark contrast to the situation in Syria’s northern Turkish-occupied regions.

“Turkiye’s 2018 and 2019 invasions into NES saw mass displacement of local Kurdish, Yazidi, and Christian residents, most of whom have not returned to their home regions that are controlled by the Syrian National Army and rife with human rights abuses,” Teal added.

“The SNA has systematically targeted religious minorities, including by destroying Yazidi monuments and cemeteries and forcing Yazidis to convert to Islam. The DAANES stands out as a leading proponent of religious freedom not just in Syria but in the wider Middle East,” Teal concluded.

Author

  • Wladimir van Wilgenburg

    Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a Dutch reporter and analyst based in Erbil who specializes in Kurdish affairs. He is a contributor to The Washington Institute’s Fikre Forum and the coauthor of the book 'The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts'.

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