This report is based on the author's trip in January 2018 to the Jazeera Canton area of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in the northeast of Syria. The visit particularly focused on the city of Qamishli on the border with Turkey. All featured photos are the author's own.
The central conflict that has defined the Syrian civil war has been the struggle between the Damascus-based government under Bashar al-Assad and the predominantly Sunni Arab insurgency. This conflict has been 'central' in that it has determined who will rule from Syria's capital and centre of government in what has essentially been a zero-sum game. Either Assad's regime would remain in power, or a new government would assume its place in Damascus, brought to the capital by the successes of the insurgency. At this point, that central conflict has effectively been resolved in favour of Assad. It is true that his government still does not exert control over many insurgent-held areas like large parts of Idlib province, the Turkish-backed 'Euphrates Shield' zone in north Aleppo countryside, the East Ghouta enclave and parts of Deraa and Quneitra countrysides. It is also true that the regime has repeatedly emphasized retaking control of the entire country.
However, with the overt Russian military intervention that began at the turn of October 2015 and the insurgency's loss of the eastern half of Aleppo city in December 2016, there is no longer a serious basis for the insurgency to push for Assad's removal, whether militarily or through some form of negotiation. Since the original goal of the revolutionary protests and insurgency was to overthrow the regime, the insurgency has lost in the bigger picture, even if fighting between it and the government continues for many years.
The rise of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the associated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) presents a different dynamic. The federation, the SDF and their predecessors represent third-way actors that first gained significant power in 2012 as the regime largely withdrew forces from predominantly Kurdish areas to prevent them from being spread too thinly across the country. The vacuum was largely filled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is the chief component of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) and is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In addition, the PYD has an armed wing in the People's Protection Units (YPG). On 21 January 2014, the 'Democratic Autonomous Administration' (al-Idarat al-Dhatiya al-Dimuqratiya) was formally declared, with three autonomous cantons in Afrin, Kobani and Jazeera.
Initially, there was no connection of contiguous territory between the cantons, but U.S. support for the YPG that was tied to the campaign against the Islamic State in light of the latter's assault on Kobani led to a significant expansion of areas under PYD and YPG control. As a result, the Kobani and Jazeera cantons have become connected. In contrast, the isolated Afrin canton is currently under assault by the Turkish army and allied Syrian rebels. In October 2015, the SDF was established with U.S. support as a broader framework to bring together the YPG and allied forces. In March 2016, a federal region was declared for northern Syria.
Of the three cantons, the Jazeera canton is the most important. It contains the most important cities within the territory of the federation (namely Qamishli and Hasakah) and has oil resources. It also has the main point of access with the outside world in the form of the Fishkhabur-Semalka border crossing with the Kurdistan region in Iraq.
This author visited the Jazeera canton in the period between 15th and 21st January 2018, focusing on Qamishli. Of particular interest to this author were issues of administration, the nature of the Syrian government's presence in Hasakah province and relations between it and the canton. These matters, are highly relevant in light of indications from the Trump administration that it plans to keep a small contingent of troops within the SDF areas for an open-ended commitment. In a speech at the Hoover Institute of Stanford University, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined a number of objectives behind continuing American engagement in Syria, including the prevention of the resurgence of the Islamic State, countering Iranian influence and bringing about a political settlement in Syria that would lead to a transition away from Assad. Therefore, the issue of how the SDF areas fit within the wider framework of Syria is crucial to analyzing the validity of the Trump administration's strategy and end-goals.