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Syria's Kurds delay controversial local elections

Thursday, 6 June, 2024 , 12:46

Qamishli, Syria, June 6, 2024 (AFP) — Syria's Kurdish authorities said Thursday they were delaying controversial municipal elections which prompted threats from arch-foe Turkey and concerns from their main ally the United States.

The elections, originally scheduled for June 11 and now postponed "until at least August", would be the first to extend to all seven regions under the semi-autonomous region's control, home to both Arabs and Kurds, since Syria's fragmentation during its civil war.

The elections commission said they delayed the vote "in response to requests from political parties and alliances" who complained the campaign period was too short.

Local officials and candidates insist the elections are crucial for local representation and will help improve public services in the region.

But their detractors have accused them of separatism and monopolising power or voiced concerns that the conditions for fair and free elections are nonexistent in Syria's Kurdish-held northeast.

Around 18 parties, including the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD), as well as independents are expected to run in the vote, PYD co-chair Saleh Muslim told AFP.

He said the elections had been delayed for "internal" reasons, but added "perhaps the elections commission also took the political circumstances into account."

Syria's Kurds, who have suffered decades of marginalisation and oppression by Syria's ruling Baath party, have come to rule about a quarter of Syria, including Arab majority areas, after government forces withdrew.

The armed wing of the PYD is the powerful People's Protection Units (YPG) that dominates the Syrian Democratic Forces -- the region's de facto army.

The Kurdish-led forces spearheaded the fight to dislodge the Islamic State group from its last Syrian territorial bastion in 2019 with American support.

But Turkey views the PYD and YPG as offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which it has outlawed as a "terrorist" group.

Ankara, which controls two border strips in Syria's north, views the upcoming polls as evidence of separatism.

Since 2016, Turkey has carried out successive ground operations to expel Kurdish forces from border areas of northern Syria, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to launch a new operation to prevent the election from taking place.

He described the vote as an "aggressive action against the territorial integrity" of Ankara and Damascus "under the pretext of an election".

On Thursday, Turkish state television TRT welcomed the decision to delay the vote, adding "Turkey's position has borne fruit".

The Kurdish polls have also drawn the ire of their main backer Washington, which counts Turkey as a key NATO ally.

"Any elections that occur in Syria should be free, fair, transparent, and inclusive," said US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel in a statement last week.

"We don't think that the conditions for such elections are in place in NE Syria," he said, adding the US had urged local authorities "not to proceed with elections".