A fragile flower has bloomed in the Middle East. It’s a rare specimen, requiring significant help to ensure the roots go deep and the plant survives. Miraculously, religious freedom has found fertile ground in a nation torn by war on a narrow strip of land between two enemies. The time to protect this tender shoot is now, before it falls victim to the prevailing winds so common in the region. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has been a bastion of democratic success in the midst of chaos. It has proven a safe haven for Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians alike. Additionally, it has championed gender equality in a way rarely seen in the region.

Survival in this territory is a challenge. The World Food Program claims famine is on the horizon in Syria, as the very basics of life remain difficult to access because of sanctions, economic crisis, and regional turmoil. Citizens in AANES face forced removal from their homes, the destruction of sacred sites, and even the bombing of civilian areas. AANES needs assistance from the outside in order to stimulate democratic progress and keep people alive.

Although the AANES region remains a part of Syria, it should not be understood as synonymous with the Assad regime. With its own constitution upholding freedom of religious belief and expression, the protection of property rights, and social equality, the pop-up provincial democracy of the AANES remains the best soil in the region for religious freedom to flourish. Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, and Christians have lived in affinity with representative government since 2013. The flag of religious liberty has been firmly planted in the AANES, where Christians can worship, spread the gospel, and even build churches. Other religious minorities enjoy the same liberties. Supporting the AANES is one of the best ways the U.S. can safeguard and nurture the seed of religious freedom in the Middle East. 

The United States’ actions in Syria matter. The Syrian Defense Force (SDF), the military arm of the AANES, allied with a U.S.-led collation to drive out ISIS in 2014, winning a victory for democracy and religious liberty. With the radical Islamic threat eliminated, democratic development prospered in the AANES. In 2018, Turkey and its Islamic-extremist allies began to plan their attack on the vulnerable AANES once again. An October 2019 call from Turkey’s President Erdogan to President Trump all but divulged Turkey’s intentions to engage militarily in the AANES. When President Trump agreed to pull troops from Syria, Erdogan moved in. Turkish troops invaded, raided, and plundered, leaving a swath of destruction and suffering in their wake. Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds were forced from their homes, their villages looted, women kidnapped into sex slavery, and citizens killed. Turkey has been accused of war crimes in the AANES, resulting in a massive humanitarian crisis.

Now, Northeast Syria is left to rebuild in the wake of this destruction. This region needs the opportunity to develop its economy, and that requires the U.S. taking one small step at no cost to itself. In a June hearing of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Commissioner Nadine Maenza recommended “an expansion of U.S. engagement with and assistance to the AANES, including lifting sanctions for only AANES-governed areas.” Maenza asserted, “It is also important that the new Caesar Act sanctions, passed by Congress to penalize the Assad Regime, are implemented in a way that does not negatively impact the AANES.”

U.S. sanctions against Syria should be lifted from the AANES for the sake of continued development, religious freedom, and the lives of vulnerable Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians in the area. The tender shoot of democratic development and religious liberty must be cultivated, and lifting the sanctions on the AANES is the best way to start. 

Kelsey Bohlender is an intern focusing on international religious freedom with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.