MESOP : APO’S OWN ENTITY ROJAVA – Syrian Kurdish regions should get a ‘special status’: EU think-tank “ / PAPER BY “EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS”

13 Sept 2016 – BRUSSELS,— Syria should adopt a decentralised political system based on the transfer of power away from Damascus and towards the governorate and district levels. Kurdish regions should get a special status with enhanced powers, as part of asymmetric decentralisation, a report titled “No going back: Why decentralisation is the future for Syria” by the European Council on Foreign Relations said.

The author Jihad Yazigi argues that Political and economic decentralisation, including a special status for Kurdish areas, is fast becoming a necessary condition for solving the conflict. For this to become a reality, there needs to be a formal devolution process, fairer allocation of resources – particularly oil revenues -, and efforts to reduce disparities in economic development.

Syria is now divided into four main zones, one controlled by the damascus, another by the Islamic State (IS), a third by the Kurdish PYD in Syrian Kurdistan, and a fourth by various opposition groups including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

The European Council on Foreign Relations’ report says that “No Kurdish political group calls for any form of partition, however, and all claim that they want to remain within the Syrian state framework.”

In this context, this paper will argue that some form of political decentralisation, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration, is a necessary condition for finding a solution to the current conflict, as well as beginning to rebuild the country.

The report called on European actors to recognize this reality and push a decentralization agenda as one of the conditions for Syria negotiations going forward.

“In most opposition areas, children know of the Syrian state only through the barrel bombs falling from the sky, while in Kurdish areas the youngest are taught only Kurdish and do not speak Arabic, the country’s only official language.” the report said.

The report further stressed that Syria’s official name should not longer contain the word Arab, and the state should teach all children from minority groups in their mother tongue, with Kurdish areas in the northeast and Kurdish-majority districts of Damascus and Aleppo having the opportunity to teach in Kurdish as well as Arabic.

Although the Syrian opposition’s transition plan said the Kurdish cause should be considered a national cause, and their ethnic, cultural, linguistic rights should be considered in the Syrian constitution, many Kurds were angered by the fact that it did not recognize federalism and continues to refer to Syria as an Arabic country.

“The Syria opposition won’t guarantee the Kurdish rights through such a plan,” Dr. Welid Shekho, an independent Kurdish politician, said. “Our basic demand is federalism,” he said, calling on the KNC to leave the Syrian opposition.

“The best step for our rights is to build the unity of Kurds and have a road map for a solution for West-Kurdistan and the rest of Syria, because Syria is at the moment divided in three parts: regime-areas, opposition areas, and Kurdish areas,” he said. “We are not part of the regime or opposition areas.”

The report said “Kurdish party the PYD has established an autonomous region in Syrian Kurdistan, the northeast of the country, around the city of Qamishlo and in a pocket northwest of Aleppo, which it calls Rojava, or “western Kurdistan”. This Democratic Autonomous Administration (DAA) is divided into three districts, or cantons (Jazireh, Kobani, and Afrin), each of which has its own unelected legislative council and executive arm. While in theory the control of some of this area is shared with the regime, in practice it is the PYD that sets the rules of the game – with the exception of Qamishli Airport, which is still under government control. By the end of August 2016, the PYD had also taken full control of the city of Hassaka.

Since early 2014, the DAA has approved dozens of laws, including a quasi-constitution called “Rojava’s social contract”. New bodies have been established to license business investments, schools, and media outlets, among others, while a communal system for sharing economic resources within the community is being tested. In October 2015, the region’s first university was established in the Afrin district, west of Aleppo, with 180 students. And, in March 2016, the PYD announced a plan to establish a central bank that would be independent of the Syrian Central Bank, although it is still unclear how it would function or whether it plans to issue its own currency.

An entirely Kurdish school curriculum for the first three years of schooling was introduced in September 2015. Children are not taught Arabic at all, raising a barrier between them and all other Syrians, and making it more difficult in the long term for Kurds to gain employment with Syrian state institutions or to relocate to other parts of the country.

Rojava has seen the establishment of various institutions with numerous stakeholders, as well as the emergence of new political leaders who have gained power and visibility, and a broad network of non-governmental associations and military leaders – although most of the leaders of the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, are believed to be Turkish nationals. The PYD has also established offices in various capitals abroad, including Moscow, Berlin, Stockholm, and Paris, helping to create direct links between PYD leaders and foreign officials.

The reasons for the PYD’s success include its de-facto agreement to avoid confrontation with the regime, its independent sources of revenues from oil extraction – output is estimated at around 40,000 barrels per day, which are used both for local consumption and exported through Iraq’s Kurdistan – and its disciplined and well-structured organisation. The PYD also derives legitimacy from its role as standard bearer of the autonomy for which Kurds have been fighting for decades. Besides oil, Rojava’s economy mostly relies on agricultural production and on international aid, which has been increasing of late; private investment and employment remain limited.

Despite growing autonomy, however, the Syrian state continues to play an important role in Rojava, granting all civil record documents (such as birth, marriage, and death certificates) and paying salaries to civil servants. The fact that the government continues to provide services suits both the regime, as the management of state institutions and the provision of services are an important source of legitimacy, and the PYD, as establishing an alternative administration would have been burdensome. The regime also maintains control of Qamishli Airport, the most significant infrastructure in the area and the only permanent passage in and out; borders with neighbouring states and entities are permanently or often closed, including with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. The Syrian regime, and by extension the central government, therefore, still has a number of important means to exercise leverage in its relation to the PYD. Tensions also exist in Rojava between the YPG and regime forces, between Kurds and other ethnic groups, and between different Kurdish groups: the PYD on the one hand, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which groups several Kurdish parties close to the National Coalition, on the other.

In September 2015, the Jazireh legislative council passed the Law for the Management and Protection of the Assets of the Refugees and the Absentees, which, in effect, authorises the confiscation of all assets of people who have left the region. Representatives of Christian Assyrians in the Council refused to vote on the text, and the community as a whole felt targeted by the measure. While the law does not explicitly single out any ethnic group, the number of Christians who fled the region is much higher than other groups and they are believed to be better off, so would be more affected by asset seizures than other communities. In a bid to appease the Christian community, but also probably to avoid a backlash with foreign backers – who are very sensitive to the plight of Christians – the PYD eventually backtracked and agreed to hand over any assets seized from Christians to the Church.

Competition with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government led by Massoud Barzani, who supports the KNC, has also resulted in tensions, including the regular closure of the Simalka border crossing into the KRG, the only land gateway outside Rojava, leading to regular bouts of shortages and price inflation of goods.”