Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Federalism in Syria

The declaration by Syria’s Kurds of a federal region in the north of the country has complicated the crisis, raising the spectre of a further war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

A Syrian Kurdish group linked with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) unilaterally announced the creation of a federal state in the north of the country earlier this week, in areas it controls by force of arms with the support of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

After the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the PKK, cemented its dominance over the region, it and other smaller parties declared the formation of a federal state in the north of the country, disregarding US and Russian criticisms.

The Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime, whose military forces are deployed in the areas where the party declared its federation, have also signalled their opposition. The Kurdish decision was also met with regional and international disapproval. Iran and Turkey came together to decry the federal region, fearing that the idea may spread to their own Kurdish minority communities.

The Syrian opposition put aside its differences to condemn the Kurdish move, saying that it will not allow any party to “unilaterally determine the shape of the Syrian state” without a referendum or constitutional basis, and warned that the step could be prelude to the partition of Syria.

Nearly 100 opposition factions expressed their rejection of the federal region and vowed to resist it. Some militias fighting in areas close to the would-be federal region promised to fight the PYD, just as they are currently fighting the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group.

Even other Syrian Kurdish political forces rejected the move by the PYD, warning that the party was “starting a war with all Syrians” and that it should wait to discuss political change in the country after the end of the present conflict. Non-Kurdish allies of the PYD also denounced the step and asked the party to reconsider the move.

The condemnations did not stop some Syrian Kurds from celebrating the move, and in general the mood among many Kurds in Syria has now shifted, bringing to the fore a sense of Kurdish nationalism whose force is unfamiliar to other Syrians.

Some Kurds hope to expand the Kurdish region to other parts of Syria that have never had a Kurdish presence in what has resembled a call to occupy and annex them to the federal region. Others have gone further and said that a Kurd should become the president of a future Syrian state.

The federal region was declared on the fifth anniversary of the start of the revolution and the same day that negotiations began between the Syrian opposition and the regime at the Geneva III Conference. The move has sounded the death knell of the old system of centralised governance in the country and may pave the way for other federal regions and perhaps even partition.

The area covered by the region is under the control of several PYD militias, including the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units, Kurdish Asayish and Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.

It includes three regions that together cover most of northern Syria. The area contains a significant part of the country’s resources, including nearly two-thirds of Syrian gas and oil reserves and major cotton and wheat-growing areas that are considered the pillars of the economy. It also hosts nearly two-thirds of Syrian water resources in the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, ten dams and much of the country’s livestock.

Regardless of PYD claims, the Kurds are a minority in the region. The governorate of Hasaka, the biggest part of the federal region, is home to 1,717 villages, 1,161 of them Arab and 453 Kurdish, with the rest being mixed Assyrian and Arab in population. Kurdish villages thus constitute no more than 26 per cent of the total, and the same holds true for population numbers.

The Syrian opposition is not opposed to federalism in principle, but stresses that a majority of the Syrian people must determine the future shape of the state. According to Monzer Akbik, a member of the opposition, “Any measures taken unilaterally by one party are not acceptable. They will be considered illegal, particularly if that party controls territory by force of arms and not necessarily with popular consent.”

Said Akbik, “We need to wait until the major political issues are resolved and until after the change in government and the democratic transition. At that point, forms of decentralisation sanctioned by the people can be considered.”

Kurds make up about nine per cent of the Syrian population, and suffered from marginalisation for decades before the revolution. The ruling Syrian Baath Party has long denied some Kurds Syrian citizenship, and the Kurdish language was not part of official education programmes.

The Kurds were denied their cultural rights and prohibited from forming political parties. However, such injustices were felt by nearly all Syrians and not only by Kurds. All Syrians lacked freedoms and faced discrimination after the Syrian regime made sectarianism the basis of social and state positions.

The PYD seeks to establish a federal region on the basis of a group rather than geography, which is why it insists that the Kurds constitute a majority in northern Syria. However, the ethnic and communal make-up of the region belies its claim, and numerous ethnic and other communities exist in the region that will not submit to rule based on facts on the ground.

This week’s unilateral step also promises a worrying future for all Syrian Kurds. Mansour Atassi, secretary-general of the Leftist Democracy Party, said, “No party will succeed that tries to impose its opinion on the shape of the coming Syrian regime. The Kurdish declaration of a federal region will complicate the situation and will have negative consequences in the long run, further fragmenting national unity.”

The Kurds have also benefitted from the support they have received from the Syrian regime, recently recognised by Russian political and military support. The Kurds have also benefitted from the US-led international coalition’s fight against IS, since the PYD has acted as an ally in this fight.

Since its military forces took control of part of northern Syria, the PYD has engaged in dictatorial conduct, expelling other Kurdish parties, arresting their members and displacing the residents of Arab and Assyrian villages to change the region’s demographic make-up.

It has “Kurdified” the names of towns and cities to deny their Arab identity, and it has seized the region’s oil resources. It has used the media to mobilise the Kurds behind its national project, just as the Syrian regime has recruited members of the Alawite community to back it. Many Kurds have responded to its promises and the dream of a future Kurdish state.

For the Syrian opposition, however, the only thing that can guarantee the rights of the Kurds is a common state of freedom and justice. In its policies, currently under negotiation with the Syrian regime in Geneva, it has stressed that the Kurds are a fundamental part of Syria and that they have a national identity that must be respected.

It will be difficult to make the ethnically based federal region declared by the Kurds into a reality. The opposition and the regime do not agree to it, the regional situation does not permit it, and the national and sectarian diversity of the region precludes it.

Commentators believe that if the Kurds continue with their plans, they may spark a second war and one that has the potential to be more vicious than the first between the regime and the people.

The first war is against dictatorship, sectarianism and corruption, and its aim is to achieve political transition in Syria. The second would be a war between the Kurds and the Arabs, and it would only end when one side had destroyed the other.

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