After Pushing ISIS Out Of Town, Can U.S.-Backed Forces Govern It?
On the street outside the northeastern Syrian town of Shadadi, Adnan Sleiman, a tall, thin man with a gray beard, is happily smoking a cigarette.
"I'm 60 years old and I feel like I'm 20," he says.
ISIS once put Sleiman in prison for possession of cigarettes. Now he's selling a tower of packs by the side of the road.
There are still ISIS signs spray-painted on the metal shopfronts in this small town, which American-backed forces retook from ISIS about two weeks ago. A poster urges modest dress for women. A sign stands outside a bookshop that only sold Qurans.
Two women sitting outside in colorful clothes and loose headscarves say they stayed the whole two years the extremists were here.
"We went to sleep, and the next day ISIS was in control," one says.
The ISIS fighters killed and arrested the rebel forces that controlled the town. They imposed their own brutal rule, executing and beheading their enemies and leaving the bodies out for days.
"They were far from Islam," spits one woman.
Though the people of Shadadi may be breathing more freely for now, their rural town is about to become part of another group's controversial experiment in governance in Syria.
The U.S.-backed group that took Shadadi, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is dominated by a Kurdish faction, which this week presided over the announcement of a plan to build a federal region in the north and east of Syria.
During the five years of Syria's civil war, the ethnic Kurdish party known by its acronym, PYD, has quietly become this area's dominant force.
The party set up governance and security structures. Usually, they do not directly challenge the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but rather work alongside it in uneasy parallel. This results in, for example, the regime's traffic police manning one intersection in the city of Qamishli, and PYD cops on patrol a few hundred yards down the road.
The PYD's military wing also fights ISIS.
The U.S. and anti-ISIS coalition encouraged the Kurdish faction to join forces with Arabs and minorities to form the Syrian Democratic Forces in October last year. Then, the Americans enthusiastically supported those forces with airstrikes and even American advisers on the ground.
The group's military advances are creeping closer to the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, and saw Shadadi, this small but strategic town, retaken earlier this month.
In Shadadi's dusty streets, men pull up plastic chairs to talk about the new forces in town. ISIS told them the Syrian Democratic Forces were criminals.
"They'd give us all the possible ways that our women would be violated and our houses would be looted," says Asaad Abdullah.
But this propaganda was wrong, he says. "That was proven to us later, when they arrived in Shadadi," he says.
Amid fears of ISIS infiltration, only a trickle of people are being allowed back into town, but he says there has been no looting or targeting of civilians.
Abdullah, like most everyone else in Shadadi and the tiny mud-walled villages around it, is an Arab. And the soldiers manning the checkpoints outside the town are mostly Kurds. Some do not speak Arabic, and they fly the flag of their Kurdish faction — not that of the Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Arab residents seem for the moment sanguine about Kurdish control of their town. They don't want ISIS or Assad's forces to come back — and point out that the Kurds' Arab and Assyrian allies were here during the battle.
But Arab leaders and Kurdish politicians say they fear people in Arab areas could resist control by the Kurdish-led forces, and have even fought back against them in some places.
In the town of Rumeilan, Mansur Haj Mansur, a Kurdish politician, says the area around Shadadi is the first wholly Arab area to be incorporated into the PYD's federalist project.
"We know that it's a big challenge," he says, "and all the eyes of the outside will be focused on this area."
He outlines what he calls a brotherhood project, whereby prominent local leaders will be formed into councils to run the affairs of their areas. The PYD will be ultimately in control, he says. But "we don't have any problem if all the councils are Arabs, if that is what the people want."
A suggestion to Assad's officials that the regime-run schools and hospitals while the PYD takes care of everything else has not yet received a response, says Haj Mansur.
The council declaring this week's plan for a federalist project prominently featured Arabs and minorities, as well as Kurds, and the PYD's governance structure makes a point of appointing Arabs to senior positions.
But decades of rhetoric about a Kurdish homeland by the PYD — and the PKK guerrilla group to which it has close ties — means the calls for federalism are widely perceived as steps toward Kurdish independence, and partition of Syria.
The Syrian government has condemned moves toward federalism as illegal. And the main Syrian opposition group said the shape of the Syrian state "cannot be determined unilaterally by a single faction."
Although the U.S. supports the Kurds and their allies militarily, a State Department spokesman said the U.S. will not recognize a semi-autonomous zone in Syria.
"We've been very clear that we won't recognize any kind of self-autonomous — or self-rule, semi-autonomous zones in Syria," Mark Toner said Wednesday.
Kurdish leaders say they are happy to accept military support, but do not rely entirely on their backers. They insist they will continue to pursue their own goals.
"The Kurds are now doing military things for themselves, and political things for themselves," says Amina Osse, a PYD political official. "They are open to any support, but they are pursuing their own goals."
In Shadadi, the voice of resident Ahmed Hammoud al-Abayed quavers as he says they need a "good man, an intelligent man" to govern this town, now under its fourth leadership in five years: regime, rebels, ISIS and now Kurdish-led forces.
When the new governor comes, he says, "We will see if he's good or not."
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