From Afrin to Washington: Sinam Sherkany on the challenges facing Rojava

Saturday, 5 February, 2022 , 00:00 | By: Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain February 5, 2022

Washington Kurdish Institute

Sinam Sherkany Mohamad serves in a number of roles in Washington DC. From being a top diplomat for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council’s (SDC) mission. Her past roles within Rojava (Syria’s Kurdish Region) also merit mention, such as being the founding president of the People’s Council of Rojava, serving on the SDC Presidential Council, being -nominated twice to run for Parliament in Syria, and serving in the Kurdish leadership for over a decade – which included representing the AANES throughout Europe.

As a mother, grandmother, and passionate women’s rights advocate, she has had a front row seat for the rise of the Women’s Defense Units YPJ and personally experienced the injustices of ISIS and similar mercenaries when they stole her family’s home and factory in Afrin. As a result, she can provide the world insightful observations on the situation facing Kurds within Syria and the future of the Rojava Revolution there. The following interview was conducted with that belief in mind.

Q: The YPJ has become an inspiration for many women around the world; how would you describe them to an American who is not familiar with who they are?

 A: In our region, we believe in empowering women through ensuring women’s autonomy over their own affairs. This means having their own structures and institutions, including in the military. The YPJ are our military units that were established with the idea that the women of Syria should be self-sufficient in their own defense. Many Kurds joined, but so did Arab women, Syriac women, etc. The YPJ are made up exclusively of women and have participated in every major battle against ISIS since they were established, including Kobani, Manbij, Raqqa, and so on. The book Daughters of Kobani provides an intimate look into how the YPJ were established, their participation in major campaigns, their role in society, etc.

Q: How are women in Rojava and the AANES more free today than they were 10 years ago, before the Revolution took place?

A: Our Revolution that began in 2011 is a Revolution that took place within our society in Syria. It is a women’s revolution that is led by women from all over Syria, including Kobane, Hasakeh, Aleppo, Damascus, and the coastal areas as well. The goal of the revolution has been and continues to be to free our society from the old traditional ideas that were used to enslave women and keep them weak and submissive. Within our society today, women have their own responsibilities and undertake every role that men have always taken. From the military structures such as YPJ and the Asayish internal security forces, to civil structures such as the SDC, civil councils, and so on, women have equal representation to men. We also established women’s councils that specifically deal with women’s issues, such as domestic violence.

Q: Kobane has probably become the most famous Kurdish city in the West because of their victory against ISIS; can you describe the importance that the city has for people from Rojava and Kurds in general?

A: During the Battle of Kobane in 2014, our forces did not have any advanced weapons or anywhere near the number of resources we have now. In that battle, it was the willpower of the Kurdish people that allowed us to prevail. Our willpower against terrorism that was threatening our people. It was the first major battle that made the women of YPJ famous around the world. It was this willpower that allowed us to defeat ISIS. Therefore, the city became famous as a symbol of resistance of our people against terrorism. Our values of women’s equality, freedom, and democracy against terrorism. Kobane was also the beginning of our partnership with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a partnership that continues to this day, and that we hope to continue to achieve stability and reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Q: Since you are from Afrin, which has been occupied for the past 4 years by the Turkish military and their proxy forces, can you speak about how you came to lose your home there and what has happened since?

A: I am originally from Afrin, and my family was living there until the occupation. We had a very big house in a village there, and a house in the city of Afrin itself. We owned a factory there too. When the Turkish forces and their proxies attacked Afrin, they occupied my house. They occupied the olive fields we own, and none of my relatives who stayed in Afrin are allowed to go collect the harvest. They took everything from us. We cannot go back to our home because they discriminate against the Kurdish people, and it is not a safe place to return to. They have been changing the demographics of the region, forcing the Kurdish people to leave, and bringing in foreign people from other parts of Syria. Those who stayed, especially children, are being subjected to Turkification attempts, forcing them to learn Turkish, raising Turkish flags in schools, etc. Kurdish women especially have been subjected to arrest, kidnapping, sexual assault, and rape. People have been taken to be held for ransom. Almost all of Afrin’s Yazidis have been forced to leave. Afrin’s antiquities are being stolen by armed groups to be sold. Hundreds of millions of dollars of olives have been stolen by the Turkish-backed groups. I ask the international community to send an investigation committee to document what has happened in Afrin. Turkey must withdraw from the region so that Afrin’s people can return.  

Q: The Autonomous Administration in Rojava / Northeast Syria prides itself on ethnic diversity; what are some of the ways they are ensuring or encouraging participation by non-Kurds (Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians etc)?

A: Our administration inherently depends upon the participation of all components in the region, both ethnic and religious. Everyone in the region is participating in the administration, whether Arab, Kurd, Assyrian, Muslim, Yazidi, Christian, etc. The administration is not a Kurdish one, it is for all the people of the region, including Kurds. We have made Arabic, Syriac, and Kurdish official languages of the region. Our administration has councils that exist at local levels in all communities, ensuring their participation. We are currently drafting our new Social Contract, and political parties, civil society organizations, and tribal figures from all regions of North and East Syria are participating. We are specifically updating the Social Contract considering the liberation of Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor since the original contract was drafted.

Q: As the SDC’s (Syrian Democratic Council) woman in Washington DC, what kind of outreach is your office doing to lobby and win support of the US Government?

A: Our office here in Washington DC is advocating for democracy for the Syrian people. We seek to build a new and democratic Syria in which all people have equal rights. A Syria that embraces the diversity its people have. To promote this future for our country, we consistently meet and engage with members of Congress to advocate for support for our region, whether it is military or economic. Furthermore, we engage with the State Department, the White House, and Department of Defense to coordinate between our people in the region and the US government in Washington. We advocate for our region based on the shared values we have with the US, including democracy, secularism, and equality. We are advocating for our participation in the Constitutional Committee talks that have been taking place in Geneva, as our administration has so far been excluded.

Q: The Administration finds itself stuck between the strategic goals of the US and Russia in Syria; is it possible to balance both nation’s objectives and please them both?

A: Russia and the US play the main role in the Syrian issue, with Russia supporting the Syrian Regime and the US being present in our region. To solve the Syrian issue, we need to have dialogue between all the major players, with Russia and the US being the most important. Without this, there will be no political solution to the crisis. We need to have relations and discussions with both to find a solution to benefit the Syrian people, which is our primary goal.

Q: Do you believe that Assad’s Government will ever accept autonomy for Rojava and AANES and what alternatives are available if he does not? Could independence be an option if he refuses?

A: We are trying to negotiate with the Assad regime, but unfortunately the government in Damascus does not have a positive attitude. They want to control all of Syria again and they don’t consider any of the changes that have taken place within the past 11 years of conflict. The people of Syria need democracy. They need real and lasting change. This is the only solution to end this crisis, and the Autonomous Administration must be a part of it and must be accepted by the government in Damascus. It is unacceptable for us to return to the pre-2011 status quo. Our system is an autonomous, decentralized system, and this is what we seek, as a part of Syria.

Dr. Shilan Fuad Hussain is visiting fellow at the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI). Dr. Hussain is a cultural analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies and a Researcher at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. She is an interdisciplinary academic and focuses on social and political contexts in cultural production and intellectual activity from gender and anthropological perspectives. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and literary studies and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.

“Disclaimer: The views expressed here represent those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of the Washington Kurdish Institute”