Two options for Syria: Federalization or balkanization?


February 26, 2016 Vladimir Mikheev, special to RBTH – Analyst examines two possible divergent futures for the country. (RBTH = Russia behind the headlines)

Today, the talk of the town – namely in Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo and other Syrian cities and hamlets – is focused on renewed rumors concerning the possible next step in the resolution of the civil war that has raged for more than four years now in Syria. There is a nagging suspicion hanging in the air that the fragmentation of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines leaves no other option but to introduce a federal system of government and create three autonomous regions, which would remain part of a unified Syria. How to keep Syria together:

The day after the news of the Russia-U.S. agreement on a ceasefire circulated, the Hawar News Agency, the main media outlet of the Syrian Kurds, published an interview with Ilham Ahmed.

Ahmed is a member of the Executive Council of the Democratic Society Movement (TEV-DEM) in Syrian Kurdistan, which operates out of Rojava, a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria.

How likely is Syria’s ceasefire to hold?

The key revelation amounted to an admission that there is an understanding among all stakeholders that the partitioning of Syria without actually breaking it apart is the only sensible solution. Allegedly, it is more than simply an “understanding,” but something more akin to a roadmap.

According to Ahmed, Syria would essentially consist of three entities. Northern regions would belong to the Kurds; southern regions with Damascus as its capital would accommodate Alawites, Druze, Christians and others; and the center of the country would be allocated to the Sunnis. All three would have their own parliaments.

History of fragmentation in Syria

Weighing the likelihood of a regulated federalization of Syria as a sound alternative to its chaotic “balkanization,” Grigory Kosach, an expert on the politics of the Arab world and a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, made this comment to RBTH, invoking historical precedents:

“In theory, the federalization of Syria is feasible. It has been a patchy formation from the very beginning. There is a precedent. France, granted a mandate to rule over Syria by the League of Nations, split territories along regional and ethnic lines.”

Kosach is referring to the situation in 1920 when the French, pursuing an agenda of self-interest and out of fear for the rise of Arab nationalism, applied “political fragmentation” by creating separate proto-states in Syria. Apart from the states of Aleppo and Damascus, ethnic Druze were allowed to have their own political unit under the patronage of France. Under the French, the Alawites enjoyed a special administrative regime in the mountain district behind Latakia.

“It was a tale of two cities, or rather a contest for supremacy between Aleppo and Damascus, both claiming the right to be the capital of an amalgamated Syria. Actually, the political and business elites of the two cities looked to different foreign partners and patrons. Damascus was focused on Lebanon and Arab countries to the south, while Aleppo sought benefits from dealing with Kemalist Turkey. Under certain circumstances, they could have parted ways.”

Nowadays, the fundamentals have changed drastically. For the moment, Syrian Kurds seem to accept the concept of autonomy within the Syrian state. Will President Bashar Al-Assad or his successor be happy with such an arrangement? Will it not provoke Turkey into some sort of “preventive strike” to suffocate even an embryonic statehood for the Kurds? Their fear could be the emergence of such a state on the regional political map and, even more worrisome for Ankara, is that it could be in the close vicinity of its own restive Kurdish regions in southeast Anatolia.

“The feasibility of a federal administrative alignment in Syria is conditional on the progress to be made at the inter-Syrian dialogue,” Kosach adds.

The recent inauguration of a representative bureau of Syrian Kurdistan in Moscow is a sign of a “constructive dialogue” between the two sides, said a Kurdish official in private conversation. From a legal standpoint, there are no “two sides.” It is not a diplomatic mission but the office of a “public organization.” Yet, the ball has been set into motion.

Does Moscow stand to win or lose?

If the federalization scenario unravels in the long run, Russia has nothing to lose but can count certain gains, argues Vadim Kozyulin, a senior research fellow at the PIR Center, a Moscow-based independent think tank, in a comment to RBTH.

“Although Syrian Kurds have never publicly declared their intention to strive for a separate statehood, the situation might evolve along the same route as in Iraqi Kurdistan. Formally (it might be called) autonomy, having all the attributes of a state within a state: government, legislation, military formations (”peshmerga”), viable sources for the regional budget, etc. Syrian Kurdistan could follow this example.”

In the context of Syria solidified as a unified state, just as proposed by world powers in November 2015, the relatively workable cooperation between the Alawites and Christian minorities with the Syrian Kurds can be ensured provided their willingness to compromise. Yet, it depends on whether the Kurds in the northern regions limit their ambitions to the benefits brought about by a wide or wider autonomy.

Cooperation is not guaranteed

In this respect, the cooperation of Sunni tribes and their leaders, some of whom are referred to as the “moderate opposition” with the formally “central authorities” in Damascus is far from guaranteed.

The concept of a Sunni state-like formation after the partition relates to the proposal by John R. Bolton, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006. Bolton, in an article published in November 2016 in The New York Times suggests “the best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state.”

Bolton views this scenario through the lens of “creating a credible alternative to Daesh,” (Ed.: Daesh is an acronym from the Arabic for Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which he defines as “Sunni-stan.” De facto it would mean a mono-religious entity with Shiites and Christians assigned to a subordinate status. It looks like a “Daesh-light” version, which, as Bolton phrases it, “could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and an Iran-allied Baghdad.”

The odds are not good that major regional players, now part of the conflict resolution process, would accept it. Primarily the major players include Russia, Iran, Iraq, and lest we forget, the still formally sovereign state of Syria.

Sunnis, the third pillar to a settlement

The chances of implementing another blueprint – a sustainable Sunni autonomy as part of a unified Syria – will be meager as long as Daesh or ISIS stays undefeated, remains a robust military machine and an alternative for radicalized Muslims.

However, if moderate Sunni groups, that are opposed to Daesh and are fight the jihadists on their soil, are offered a platform to set up a separate administrative unit within Syria, would it not contribute to forming a united front against the arch-enemy?

Russia would be wise to tacitly support the ambitions of moderate Sunni organizations, asserts Kozyulin while emphasizing the need for Russian diplomacy to be flexible:

“Taking into account the entrenched animosity of the Sunnis, who constitute the majority in Syria, towards Assad’s regime, Moscow would be wise not to alienate them but positively engage them.”

Most likely, a unified Syrian state is the fairest and most sustainable option. But given the accumulated wrath and the legacy of blood vendettas that are typical of every civil war, it could be too late. For the moment, the political and military pendulum in Syria is in motion. It can swing either way: either federalization or balkanization.