Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A Russian trial balloon

Russia has floated the idea of a Syrian federation, pleasing the country’s Kurds but angering the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Statements by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov about a possible Syrian federal state have provoked much controversy and second-guessing. Ryabkov, speaking on 29 February, said that Moscow “hopes that the participants in the Syrian negotiations reach the idea of establishing a federal republic.”

Some see the remarks as a Russian grenade, thrown in to disrupt the negotiations between the Syrian regime and the opposition, while others see it as a trial balloon intended to gauge the Syrian response to the shape of a future Syrian state. Still others say that it may be a Russian prelude to the possible partition of Syria.

The Syrian Kurds, who constitute some 10 per cent of the population, support the idea of a federal republic but other Syrians, including regime loyalists and opponents, Arab Muslims and Christians, and ethnic minorities like Assyrians, Armenians and Circassians, all reject it.

This is the first time that Russia has intervened to suggest a structure for a future Syrian state, saying that a federation is the only form that can preserve the territorial unity of the country.

The groundwork for the statement was laid by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who has attempted to promote the idea of a geographically based federation in previous meetings with Syrian opposition figures. His proposal was met with near unanimous rejection and calls for a centralised state.

The country’s Kurds, who now control a large section of northern Syria, have created a system of self-government, elected a parliament, appointed ministers and set up Kurdish-majority militias to protect the area.

They support the idea of a future Syrian federation, describing it as “the best state form,” because it serves the nationalist aspirations they have nursed for decades.

Haytham Manna, co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Council founded by the Kurds in cooperation with some Arab Syrians, has tried to dismiss the impact of the Russian idea. However, he supports decentralisation in principle, he said, claiming it is “the only way to rescue Syria from anarchy”.

 US Secretary of State John Kerry did not condemn the Russian proposal, but instead worked to minimise its impact. “Syria could be governed under some sort of federation. That doesn’t mean it does not have full sovereignty. It is different from partitioning the country into areas of autonomous self-rule,” he said.

 But the Russian proposal is not consistent with international resolutions issued over the past four years on the Syrian crisis, all of which say that only the Syrian people can determine the form of government they want through a transitional governing body that does not undermine the unity of Syria as a country.

This is true of the Geneva Declaration, the Vienna Declaration, UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for negotiations between the opposition and the regime based on a roadmap, and UN Security Council Resolution 2258, which imposes a ceasefire on all the warring parties in Syria.

Riyad Naasan Agha, spokesperson of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, says that Russia is contravening these resolutions. It is “testing the pulse of the Syrian people and their attitude toward the dismantling of Syria, first through the slippery slope of federation and then partition,” he said.

“This is what some pro-regime figures want in order to maintain their positions, protect them from accountability and slake their thirst for power over the people,” he added. “It looks as if the slogan of either [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad or we destroy the country has ended with the destruction of the country. Now a new slogan is being readied — either Al-Assad or we partition the country.”

But Agha did not wholly reject the idea of a federation if it does not lead to partition. “But talk of a federation is premature,” he said. “There’s no problem with furthering decentralisation or enabling local administration. These things are best left to the coming constitution.”

Syrian opposition figure Fawaz Tello said that after the fall of the regime, the Syrian people will reject any form of governance that leads to partition or governance by any one nationality or sect, including in a federation.

He said the proposals are the “product of a violent moment. There is no geographical region in Syria that is ethnically or communally cohesive. Even the Kurdish areas in northern Syria are mixed areas in which the Kurds do not constitute a majority, despite their attempts to change the demography and displace the Arab Syrian population.”

Tello continued, “The objective of the maps promoted by the pro-regime Kurdish Democratic Union Party is to pave the way for secession. But they will only produce more destruction and more wars, and the Kurds will be the biggest losers. A federation would cement partition, which is what is being promoted by the regime’s supporters.”

Before the start of the crisis in 2011, the idea of a federation was not on the table. But after the peaceful protests against the regime became armed and the opposition gained control over parts of Syria, the regime began floating the idea of partition and the creation of an Alawite state as a precautionary measure in case of its collapse.

Most Syrians rejected the idea because the majority of the population in such a state would be Sunnis, not Alawites.

The idea returned after the Kurds seized on the chaos and the weakness of the regime to take control of a large swathe of northern Syria. They declared the area to be “West Kurdistan” and part of a new state that the Kurds hope to establish with territory from Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran.

Russia then came in with its talk of a federation to support the Kurds and the regime. Many Syrians believe that partitioning the country would usher in a series of never-ending conflicts, as it is not only Turkey that would be harmed by a Kurdish federation. Iran would also be affected.

In addition, the present situation is unlike the circumstances that prevailed during the partition of the region through the Sykes-Picot Agreement drawn up during the First World War.

Today, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran would work to forestall any new partition, and they see the Russian idea as nothing more than Moscow’s attempt to provoke its Turkish opponent, which would fight a Kurdish region or federation on Turkey’s southern borders.

Suleiman Youssef, a Syrian researcher specialising in minority affairs, said that a federation would be lethal for Syria because it was politically motivated and was being discussed as the result of a war.

“Perhaps Syria needs to move towards a more democratic system that offers more effective governance and administration, and towards a system that is appropriate to the political, cultural, social and economic shifts in the country, and engage with Syria’s national, cultural, linguistic and social diversity,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“But the kind of federation now being discussed by the Kurds and the Russians is a political federation between regions and areas of a particular ethnic, sectarian and confessional composition. This kind of federation would constitute a threat to Syria’s future, especially after a bitter civil war. The ethnic, sectarian and confessional entities that would be created within a Syrian federation would be time bombs that could explode in our faces,” Youssef said.

In any case, little can be done at the present moment, with negotiations on the future of the country continuing as well as on the drafting of a new constitution and the elections that will restructure politics in the country.

The shape of the future Syrian state is not a decision that can be made in the UN or on the orders of a global or regional power. It will require a Syrian national convention to reach a consensus on the form of governance of the future country, and this will then need to be put to a public referendum.

At this point, the Russian statement on a possible Syrian federation is likely to be seen as little more than a political joke.

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