Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Can Syria remain united?

The Kurds in Syria have declared self-rule, but the move may precipitate the country breakup, writes Salah Nasrawi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kurds in Syria agreed at a conference last week to establish an autonomous region in the north of the country, prompting speculation that the much-feared scenario of partitioning of the war-battered country may finally come true.

As the conflict in Syria reaches an impasse, a remarkable similarity can be discerned between Syria today and Iraq following the US-led invasion 13 years ago when Iraqi Kurds succeeded in establishing a self-ruled region which they now want to turn into a fully independent and sovereign state.

The comparison does not stop there. Like Iraq, Syria, which has been at war against the Islamic State group (IS), faces the daunting challenge of maintaining the country’s unity following the defeat of the terror group.

The decision to establish the so-called “Democratic System of Rojava and Northern Syria” in three Kurdish regions on the Turkish border was taken at a conference in the city of Rmeilan in the northern Hasaka province last week.

Delegates unveiled plans to begin preparations for an autonomous federal administration, including electing a joint leadership within six months.

They also disclosed that a 31-member organising committee would be formed to prepare a “legal and political vision” for the system, a document that will set guidelines for their administration in running the self-ruled region’s affairs.

The move to seek Kurdish autonomy in Syria, however, has long been expected since the beginning of the civil war that followed the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011.

The effort has been boosted by the lingering conflict in Syria and the prospect that the country will not again become a unified state regardless of the outcome of the on-going peace talks between the regime and its opponents.

Indeed, the declaration of Kurdish federal autonomy in northern Syria has been given a flip by the broad assessment that a peace deal between the Al-Assad regime and the opposition and a full ceasefire remain elusive.

It might also have been accelerated by Russia’s sudden decision to pull out most of its troops from Syria earlier this month and fears that a fragile ceasefire agreement brokered by Moscow and Washington may not hold.

Yet, the declaration of Syria’s Kurdish-controlled northern provinces as autonomous regions seems to be a well-calculated move, and in many respects it bears a resemblance to the efforts made by Kurds in Iraq to use the chaos produced by the US-led invasion in 2003 to create de facto self-rule in northern Iraq.

Another parallel is the rise of IS. Like many among the Kurds in Iraq, the surge of IS has reinforced the belief of the Syrian Kurds that their country is a broken state and that they are better off in their own entity.

For most of the last five years, Syria’s Kurds have had their moment of separatist enthusiasm during which they have enjoyed a high degree of self-government with administrative powers over education, health, policing and many other matters.

Even before the declaration, most of Syria’s northern provinces were ruled by Kurdish parties. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian affiliate of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, is the main group, and it has formed administrations with local Arabs, Christians and smaller Kurdish parties.

Areas that represent some 10 per cent of Syria’s most economically powerful territory have been turned into three Kurdish-controlled cantons, known as Afrin and Kobane in Aleppo province and Jazire in Hasaka.

The Kurds call these areas Rojava, meaning “West.” Some nationalist Kurds aspire to create an independent nation-state, or Greater Kurdistan, consisting of areas with Kurdish majorities in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), considered one of the most effective fighting forces in Syria, function as the regions’ army and police.

Given that the Syrian Kurds have been the victims of persistent repression and assaults on their ethnic and cultural identity and economic and political status by Damascus, the right of the Kurds to equality of citizenship and even self-determination should not be in question.

But exploiting the present turmoil to force changes in the political and geographical map of key Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, which is a cornerstone of regional stability, remains a serious national challenge, especially when efforts are being made to remap the region in the service of dubious foreign agendas.

One problem is that the declaration of autonomy for northern Syria has been taken unilaterally by a political group in collaboration with local community activists and without a referendum or even a national public debate.

The decision also pre-empts the outcome of the peace talks between Damascus and the opposition forces, which are trying to find common ground for Syria’s future.

Both the Al-Assad government and the opposition have been swift to denounce the Kurdish declaration. A statement by Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the declaration of autonomy was “unconstitutional and worthless” and warned against any attempt to “encroach upon the integrity of Syria.”

The Syrian National Coalition, one of the main opposition groups, also rejected the unilateral declaration and warned of any attempt to form autonomous regions that “confiscate the will of the Syrian people.”

Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to Kurdish separatism remains neighbouring Turkey, which has repeatedly voiced its opposition to federalism in Syria.

Ankara views the Kurdish ambition to establish a federal region in northern Syria as a threat to Turkey’s national security, and it fears that the growing Kurdish sway in Syria could fuel separatism among its own minority Kurds.

Turkey has thus been swift to denounce the declaration, with one Turkish official saying that “Syria must remain one without being weakened, and the Syrian people must decide on their future together and in a constitutional manner. Unilateral initiatives will harm Syria’s unity.”

While Iran, the other Middle Eastern power with a Kurdish minority, remains strongly opposed to Kurdish separatism, many Arab countries including Egypt have voiced concerns about Syria’s division which they see as destabilising to the region.

However, the bid for an autonomous federal region in Syria comes amid increasing speculation, mainly among Western politicians and commentators, that the failure of a political settlement could lead to Syria’s splintering along ethno-sectarian lines.

Though the United States has stated it is opposed to Kurdish self-rule and any autonomous regions in Syria, American officials have never dismissed the possibility of Syria’s disintegration.

Last month, US Secretary of State John Kerry said a “Plan B” for Syria could involve a partition of the country if a genuine shift to a transitional government did not take place in the coming months.

Coupled with the persistent propagation of the potential disintegration of Syria by US pundits and politicians, such policy statements are encouraging to the Syrian Kurds, who may still count on American and European acquiescence (or even support), as did the Iraqi Kurds earlier.

Yet, if it could somehow be made to work, a federal, or any decentralised, system should offer the best prospect for maintaining the unity of the Syrian state and for creating a stable and secure Middle East.

Unfortunately, there are many indications that the project of the “Democratic System of Rojava and Northern Syria” does not guarantee either of these objectives.

The fact that the new region has been given the name Rojava, or West Kurdistan, explicitly means that it is not a national Syrian imperative but a tactical Kurdish step to achieve the long-run strategic goal of creating a Greater Kurdistan.

The erosion of the border between Syria’s new federal regions and Iraqi Kurdistan, as this currently exists, will create a geographical extension between the two entities leading to a future united Kurdistan, notwithstanding competition between rival political parties in the two regions.  

While the declaration of federalism is meant to be an administrative arrangement for areas under Kurdish control, the undemarcated internal border is expected to be a potential source of ethnic conflicts and a threat to stability.

There have already been complaints of grabs of land owned or populated by Arabs and other minorities by the Kurdish authorities or individuals in Syria.

Another major problem is the close link between Syria’s PYD, the main political group in the federal regions and the militant PKK in Turkey. Ankara has threatened that it will not allow the creation of a Kurdish structure in Syria that has a close relationship with the PKK.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the whisper of Kurdish federalism in Syria, like in Iraq, will now turn into the loud bang of celebrations of Kurdish statehood.

Yet, the declaration of a de facto autonomous Kurdish region in Syria will certainly stoke fears about the country’s unity in an increasingly fragile Middle East.

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