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Are We Losing a Valuable Feminist Project in the Middle East?

ICSVE Panel Discussion featuring

Ambassador Peter Galbraith

Sinam Mohamad, Syrian Democratic Council Representative to the United States

Amy Austin Holmes

Meghan Bodette

Anne Speckhard, Director ICSVE

11:00 AM EST

November 10th, 2020 

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria [AANES] established a secular, democratic, and egalitarian-led government in Rojava, wherein women occupy key roles and are co-chairs with men in all important positions, but these largely unseen strides for women in the heart of the Middle East may be slipping away. The AANES is the only opposition group in Syria with a commitment to equal rights, and the Assad regime government also features very little female participation outside of traditional roles. Turkish-backed rebels, who now occupy land captured from the AANES, have engaged in many acts of gender-based violence as women’s freedoms and opportunities in these areas have quickly deteriorated. In August 2020 alone, 11 women were kidnapped by armed groups in occupied Afrin, four of whom were allegedly tortured while in custody. Two women in Afrin were reportedly murdered by their husbands in August as well.

What can be done? Can the AANES be used as a model of a secular, egalitarian state in the Middle East, or will it be lost to authoritarianism and violence? ICSVE’s tenth Zoom conference covered the successes of the AANES feminist style of governance as well as human rights abuses targeting women in Turkish-occupied areas in the aftermath of Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring. The panelists discussed the gap in women’s rights, equality, and representation between AANES-controlled areas of Syria and Turkish-controlled areas of Syria and discussed how to nurture a very valuable feminist project, unheard of in the Middle East with the exception perhaps of Israel. 

Ambassador Peter Galbraith is an author, academic, commentator, politician, policy advisor, and former United States diplomat. From 1993 to 1998, he served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, where he was co-mediator of the 1995 Erdut Agreement that ended the Croatian War of Independence. He was a cabinet member in East Timor’s first transitional government, successfully negotiating the Timor Sea Treaty. In 2009, Ambassador Galbraith was an Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations serving as Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan. Ambassador Galbraith served two terms as a Vermont State Senator from Windham County from 2011 to 2015, and was a candidate for Governor of Vermont in 2016. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books on the Iraq War, including the bestselling The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Ambassador Galbraith argues that Iraq has broken up into three parts, allowing for Kurdistan’s independence. In the 1980s, Galbraith uncovered the beginnings of the Anfal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds and, in 1988, documented the use of chemical weapons, leading the US Senate to pass comprehensive sanctions legislation (“The Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988”) authored by Galbraith. He was in Kurdistan during the 1991 uprising and his reports–including video footage of the uprising’s collapse – contributed to the US decision to create a safe area. Beginning in 2003, Ambassador Galbraith was an informal advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, supporting the Kurdistan delegation in the drafting process of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. He is on the Board of Directors of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the research arm of the Council for a Livable World.

Sinam Mohamad was the Co-President of the People’s Council of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), the supreme political body of the liberated areas of Northern and Northeastern Syria. The People’s Council was founded in 2011 during the Syrian revolution. The government of Rojava, more formally known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), is known as the Democratic Self-Ruled Administration. Sinam Mohamad also serves as the Democratic Self-Rule Administration’s Representative Abroad. She is a leadership member of The Star Congress, a movement that advocates for women’s rights. She was nominated for the Syrian Parliament twice during the Assad regime, in 2003 and 2007, but because of her Kurdish identity she could not win. Sinam Mohamad was born in Damascus, Syria. She received a degree in English Literature from the University of Aleppo in 1981. She is married with four children.

Amy Austin Holmes a Visiting Scholar at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard University and a fellow at the Wilson Center, while on leave from her tenured position at the American University in Cairo. She has a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University. A former Fulbright scholar in Germany, she is the author of Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi (Oxford University Press 2019) and Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945(Cambridge University Press 2014). Having spent a decade living in the Middle East through the period known as the Arab Spring, she has published numerous articles on Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain. Professor Holmes is the first person to have conducted a field survey of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) based on numerous trips to all six provinces of Northeast Syria between 2015-2019. Her current research is about governance challenges of the semi-autonomous Kurdish-led region of northern Syria. This includes a focus on the protection of minority groups as well as the dilemma of ISIS detainees who are currently held at Al Hol Camp. 

Meghan Bodette is an independent researcher studying North and East Syria, with a focus on the Kurdish women’s movement and women’s rights in the Syrian conflict. She holds a degree in international politics from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

Dr. Anne Speckhard is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years years, she has interviewed 245 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners  as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS.  Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to TerroristsBride of ISISUndercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website

Follow @AnneSpeckhard

This is the tenth discussion in this series of panels discussing ISIS Foreign Fighters and terrorist rehabilitation. The first panel, “Issues of ISIS Prisoners & Repatriations in a Time of COVID,” can be reviewed here. The second panel, “Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?” can be reviewed here and the report that was inspired by this panel can be found here. The third panel, “Can We Repatriate the ISIS Children?” can be reviewed here and the report that was inspired by this panel can be found here. The fourth panel, “Terrorist Rehabilitation in the Dutch Prison System,” can be reviewed here. The fifth panel, “Into and Back Out of ISIS: An ISIS Defector Speaks Out,” can be reviewed here. The sixth panel, “Fighting ISIS Online: An Introduction to Breaking the ISIS Brand,” can be viewed here. The seventh panel, “Talking Terrorist Propaganda with a Pro,” can be viewed here. The eighth panel, “Terrorism Prevention, Intervention, and Rehabilitation with Juveniles,” can be viewed here. The ninth panel, “Community-Focused Interventions Against Terrorism,” can be viewed here.

Chat Log

10:58:39 From Ozlem Goner : Thanks for organizing this important panel. Will it be recorded for those of us who need to leave early. I will be teaching a class and unfortunately cannot stay for the whole time.

10:59:22 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Yes, it will be recorded and posted on the ICSVE website!

10:59:32 From Ozlem Goner : Thank you!

11:01:29 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : You can watch the videos of all of our past events here:

11:02:01 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Here are links to some of Meghan’s articles:

11:03:44 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Here is the link to ICSVE’s YouTube channel, where you can see our counter narrative videos in many different languages:

11:03:52 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Here are some of our recent publications on our Facebook campaigns:

Hypertargeting Facebook Profiles Vulnerable to ISIS Recruitment with “Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Video Clips” in Multiple Facebook Campaigns

Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Facebook Campaigns in Europe

Anti-ISIS and Anti-Western: An Examination of Comments on ISIS Counter Narrative Facebook Videos

You can read more articles on our work on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram, as well as other scholarly publications here:

11:21:59 From Jens Heimann : Erdogan congratulated Joe Biden some minutes ago according to German media.

11:23:28 From Peter Galbraith : Thank you for that update about Erdogan. Still a bit late.

11:25:00 From Sinan Önal : yes, but he was so much busy with his son in law sudden resignation, as an excuse from him:))

11:38:13 From Shane Healey : Biden no longer the President – Elect because Pennsylvania and Arizona have been overturned and recounts and courts will be underway

11:52:21 From Shane Healey : Philly GOP @PhillyGOP

#fakenews CNN has just un-called

Arizona for Biden. Even CNN can’t ignore the truth. Reminder folks: fake news does not determine elections.

2:56 PM 09 Nov 20 · Twitter for iPhone

1,435 Retweets 182 Quote Tweets 4,007 Likes

11:54:46 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Hi everyone–

11:54:58 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Let’s try to keep all comments relevant to the topic of this panel!

11:54:58 From Xisco : Hi

11:57:36 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard : Questions welcome as Meghan finishes. Please put in chat if you have a question and we’ll call on you.

11:58:03 From Shane Healey : Sorry, I find it relevant as the presenters are taking it as a given that Biden is the confirmed President elect. I’m an Australian so in a domestic point I  have

11:59:46 From Shane Healey : direct effect, however the outcome and especially a drawn out legal fight in the United States will have a dramatic effect both military and financially given the possible change of political parties in the US.

12:01:37 From Niamh Haughey : question: Despite the high levels of women’s representation – a positive attribute in any functioning democracy – surely the radical aspects to NES and its opposition to the nation-state model and capitalism (a la Ocalan/Bookchin) are unlikely to curry much favour with US authorities or indeed many western states? It’s no secret that the US state doesn’t tolerate alternative forms of organisation/ideology terribly well, so how far really does the panel think the US govt can really affect or facilitate change that is in genuine keeping with the spirit of the project, outside of just women’s representation?

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Thanks Niamh.  The AANES governance is extremely democratic working from grassroots up and there is a market economy which is however strangled from all sides.

12:02:26 From Sarah Glynn : A question for speakers: How are these issues impacted by the discussions between PYD etc and KNC?

12:04:35 From jointhelp kurdistan : congratulations, you all are doing great work. I do wonder how much is theory and how much is reality. For example, Yezidi women are excluded from what the rights mentioned by Ms. Sinam and Ms. Amy. As a Yezidi women, you have no real rights but are forced to accept patriarchal and religious restrictions that force you to separate from your children or be placed under house arrest. They are even abandoned by the UN. They have been traumatized in IS captivity and now are further traumatized by captivity of a different kind at home. My question is: how can we make use of such a panel to give these women direct help and for once see these women as the powerful force that they are? We have solutions for them, but they are played with by the UN and Kurdish forces on both sides of the border.

Anne Speckhard (After the event): It’s a good suggestion to address these important issues in another panel. I think Ambassador Galbraith also did a good job addressing this.

12:05:02 From Amy Austin Holmes : These are the articles I referenced in my talk

12:05:17 From Amy Austin Holmes :

12:05:54 From Amy Austin Holmes : Interview with first Arab Female Co-Chair of Deir Ezzor Military Council

12:06:21 From Amy Austin Holmes : The United States Can Counter Putin and Assad With a Light Footprint in Syria

12:11:08 From Mehmet Ayaz : Rojava Kurds unfortunately labeled as Marxist by their adversaries with Turkey leading this accusation knowing US’ sensitivities, how much of this baseless fear of US has been decreased comparing to 5 years ago?

12:13:37 From Karin : great presentations – thank you!

12:13:43 From OMAR SHARIFF : thank you Anne and Molly / everyone – I have to leave to another intervention/ Oomar

12:13:57 From ICSVE – Molly Ellenberg : Thanks for coming, Oomar!

12:14:15 From Meghan Bodette : Here’s the data on Efrin disappearances/kidnappings.

12:14:39 From Bethany Ayers Fisher : Thank you for your presentations & work. I’m rooting for these women & women everywhere!

12:15:04 From ICSVE – Anne Speckhard : thank you so much Amy and Meghan! Your research and your presentations are excellent on behalf of women

12:15:06 From paul christian namphy : Wonderful presentations. Question to Meghan and Amy. In areas in Syria occupied by Turkey BEFORE Afrin 2018 and Sere Kaniye / Tal Abyad 10/2019. (the ones occupied in 2016-2017)… what data do we have about abuses against women, and against minorities?

12:17:26 From Niamh Haughey : btw – i’m not characterising Rojava kurds as ‘marxist’ but it’s undoubtedly a radical form of organisation and not in keeping with foreign policy aspirations of the US which leads me to have some skepticism about how invested the US really is in the project 

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Seems to me the type of governance is far less important than is if it is in the U.S. interest to support them.  If ISIS resurges as Ambassador Galbraith pointed out we need our allies to act on our behalf to fight them again with our airpower and support backing them up rather than put our own boots on the ground.

12:18:09 From Niamh Haughey : sorry – I didn’t say it was Marxist at all!!

12:18:48 From ERIC JAMES BORDENKIRCHER : Questions: 1) For Amy or Sinam: What % of the Kurdish population does the YPG represent? 2) For all of the panelists: Considering the importance of NE Syria to the future of democracy and women’s rights in Syria, would you advocate deeper Western intervention if it was threatened?  

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Amy has an excellent paper here about that

12:19:10 From paul christian namphy : Democratic Confederalism (governing ideology in Rojava / AANES) rejects the state, and thus, rejects state socialism which is the main tenet of Marxism-Leninism. The other main difference is DIRECT DEMOCRACY as a pillar of democratic confederalism (along with jineoloji and social ecology).

12:19:54 From paul christian namphy : State socialism is generally anti-democratic (dictatorship of the proletariat, etc…), so at odds with Democratic Confederalism in place in Rojava / AANES.

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Good points Paul, thank you!

12:22:04 From Peter Galbraith : Direct democracy is what we have in Vermont where everybody in a town makes decisions in town meeting. We don’t think of it as Leninist or anti state.

Anne Speckhard (After the event): And even better!

12:22:55 From Emmanuel DIDIER : I am maintaining a Bibliography on Yazidis, which contains also references to abuses against other women. write to me at

12:24:07 From Amy Austin Holmes : The AANES was the first entity in Syria to officially recognize the Yezidi religion. My report on Syrian Yezidis

12:29:29 From Peta Lowe : I’m very interested in what deeper Western intervention would look like. As someone very committed to the role women play in peacekeeping, particularly as it relates to the safety of children, I’m interested to know how external governments and organisations can support and empower women to have influence and or status in decisions?

12:30:05 From Hoger : Rojava is the only entity in middle east putting 40% for gender representation in all government departments 

12:31:32 From Hoger : Rojava is one of the very few governments that allows women to be judges in courts. 

12:31:47 From Amy Austin Holmes : To answer Peta’s question, the US and Global Coalition can support the AANES without a large military presence, I argued in this FP piece

12:32:09 From Peta Lowe : Thank you Amy

12:32:18 From Hoger : Rojava is only party in Islamic world equaling between men/women in legacy 

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Thank you Hoger for these comments from the ground!

12:32:18 From Lacy MacAuley : Thanks for this very valuable presentation!

12:32:39 From Mehmet Ayaz : Very pleasant panel! Thank you so much! 

12:32:48 From Hoger : Thank you all!!

12:32:50 From Jens Heimann : thank you so much

12:32:57 From paul christian namphy : Gelek spas

12:32:58 From Niamh Haughey : thanks everyone

12:33:01 From paul christian namphy : thank you to all

Anne Speckhard (After the event): Thanks to our panelists and their excellent presentations and to all the commentators.  Wishing the best for the women (and men) of NE Syria/Rojava.

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