Syrian civil laws are valid in the region if they do not conflict with the Constitution of the autonomous region. One example for amendment is personal status law, which in Syria is based on Sharia and applied by Sharia Courts, while the secular autonomous region proclaims absolute equality of women under the law, allowing civil marriage and banning forced marriage, polygamy and underage marriage.
A new criminal justice approach was implemented that emphasizes restoration over retribution. The death penalty was abolished. Prisons house mostly people charged with terrorist activity related to ISIL and other extremist groups. A September 2015 report of Amnesty International stated that 400 people were incarcerated by the region’s authorities and criticized deficiencies in due process of the judicial system of the region.
The justice system in the region is influenced by Abdullah Öcalan’s libertarian socialist ideology. At the local level, citizens create Peace and Consensus Committees, which make group decisions on minor criminal cases and disputes as well as in separate committees resolve issues of specific concern to women’s rights like domestic violence and marriage. At the regional level, citizens (who need not be trained jurists) are elected by the regional People’s Councils to serve on seven-member People’s Courts. At the next level are four Appeals Courts, composed of trained jurists. The court of last resort is the Regional Court, which serves the region as a whole. Separate from this system, the Constitutional Court renders decisions on compatibility of acts of government and legal proceedings with the constitution of the region (called the Social Contract).
Policing and security
Policing in the region is performed by the Asayish armed formation. Asayish was established on 25 July 2013 to fill the gap of security when the Syrian security forces withdrew. Under the Constitution of North and East Syria, policing is a competence of the regions. The Asayish forces of the regions are composed of 26 official bureaus that aim to provide security and solutions to social problems. The six main units of Asayish are Checkpoints Administration, Anti-Terror Forces Command (HAT), Intelligence Directorate, Organized Crime Directorate, Traffic Directorate and Treasury Directorate. 218 Asayish centers were established and 385 checkpoints with 10 Asayish members in each checkpoint were set up. 105 Asayish offices provide security against ISIL on the frontlines across Northern Syria. Larger cities have general directorates responsible for all aspects of security including road controls. Each region has a HAT command, and each Asayish center organizes itself autonomously.
Throughout the region, the municipal Civilian Defense Forces (HPC) and the regional Self-Defense Forces (HXP) also serve local-level security. In Jazira Region, the Asayish are further complemented by the Assyrian Sutoro police force, which is organized in every area with Assyrian population, provides security and solutions to social problems in collaboration with other Asayish units. The Khabour Guards and Nattoreh, though not police units, also have a presence in the area, providing security in towns along the Khabur River. The Bethnahrain Women’s Protection Forces also maintain a police branch. In the areas taken from ISIL during the Raqqa campaign, the Raqqa Internal Security Forces and Manbij Internal Security Forces operate as police forces. Deir ez-Zor also maintain an Internal Security Forces unit.
The main military force of the region is the Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Syrian rebel groups formed in 2015. The SDF is led by the Kurdish majority People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, YPG). The YPG was founded by the PYD after the 2004 Qamishli clashes, but was first active in the Syrian Civil War. There is also the Syriac Military Council (MFS), an Assyrian militia associated with the Syriac Union Party. There are also Free Syrian Army groups in the alliance such as Jaysh al-Thuwar and the Northern Democratic Brigade, tribal militias like the Arab Al-Sanadid Forces, and municipal military councils in the Shahba region, like the Manbij Military Council, the Al-Bab Military Council or the Jarablus Military Council.
The Self-Defence Forces (HXP) is a territorial defense militia and the only conscript armed force in the region. HXP is locally recruited to garrison their municipal area and is under the responsibility and command of the respective regions of the NES. Occasionally, HXP units have supported the YPG, and SDF in general, during combat operations against ISIL outside their own municipality and region.
In the course of the Syrian Civil War, including 2014 and 2015 reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International stated that militias associated with the autonomous region were committing war crimes, in particular members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International operate freely in the region. The reports from 2014 include reports of arbitrary arrests and torture, other reports include the use of child soldiers. In October 2015 the YPG demobilized 21 minors from the military service in its ranks. Reports have been comprehensively debated and contested by both the YPG and other human rights organizations. YPG members since September 2015 receive human rights training from Geneva Call and other international organizations.
The region’s civil government has been hailed in international media for human rights advancement in particular in the legal system, concerning women’s rights, ethnic minority rights, freedom of Speech and Press and for hosting inbound refugees. The political agenda of “trying to break the honor-based religious and tribal rules that confine women” is controversial in conservative quarters of society. Enforcing conscription into the Self-Defence Forces (HXP) has been called a human rights violation from the perspective of those who call the region’s institutions as illegitimate.
Some persistent issues under the region’s administration concern ethnic minority rights. One issue of contention is the consequence of the Baathist Syrian government’s settling of Arab tribal settlers, expropriated for the purpose from its previous Kurdish owners in 1973 and 2007, There have been calls to expel the settlers and return the land to their previous owners, which has led the political leadership of the region to press the Syrian government for a comprehensive solution.
During the ongoing Syrian Civil War, organizations such as the Turkish government, Amnesty International and the Middle East Observer have stated that SDF was forcibly displacing inhabitants of captured areas with predominantly Arab population such as Tell Abyad. These displacements were considered attempts at ethnic cleansing. Contrasting with these reports, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has rebutted reports of ethnic cleansing in Tel Abyad against the Turkmen and Arabic population and the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry also released a report that stated that the commission did not find evidence of YPG or SDF forces committing ethnic cleansing in order to change the demographic composition of territories under their control.