Problem of Syrian "Federalization"
The project of federalizing the Syrian Arab Republic includes a number of interrelated factors which could worsen the situation in the Middle East and have far-reaching consequences not only for the country itself but also for the countries that are directly or indirectly involved in the current settlement of the crisis.
We should emphasize that the federalization project was not discussed during initial negotiations either by Russia or the United States. The final documents prepared at the Geneva talks said nothing of federalization. Rather, they pointed to the need to preserve a united Syria. We cannot exclude the influence of certain lobby groups in the USA and Western countries that support the federalization project, but officially, no one recognizes federalization.
We can mention several aspects of this federalization:
- Geopolitically, it is associated with the reconfiguration of Syria and its neighboring countries;
- Symbolically, it has a semiotic impact and discursive nature;
- Ethno-religiously, it affects the relationships of ethnic and religious groups.
Syria is a former colony created on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement. Neocolonialism in practice was not so clearly manifested during the reign of Hafez Assad, but with the beginning of the unrest and armed conflict, the involvement of external actors in destabilizing Syria became visible. The boundaries of the current Syrian Arab Republic are a post-colonial legacy, while the governmental format of the rudiment is a part of the modern era. Neighboring countries also suffer chronic instability and lack sufficient independent resources for expansion. Therefore, a change in Syria's borders is beneficial for external actors, which tend to play on contradictions and conflicts for their advantage.
At the semiotic level, the political and administrative change of Syria can be regarded as the collapse of the old system, which includes Arab socialism, nationalism, liberation movements, and the combination of a secular regime with moderate Islam. The religious factor is also very important. The Muslim world knows very well the hadith on the role of Damascus:
أُرِيتُ أَنَّ ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلامُ يَخْرُجُ مِنْ عِنْدِ يَمْنَةِ الْمَنَارَةِ الْبَيْضَاءَ شَرْقِيَّ دِمَشْقَ وَاضِعٌ يَدَهُ عَلَى أَجْنِحَةِ الْمَلَكَيْنِ بَيْنَ رَيْطَتَيْنِ مُمَشَّقَتَيْنِ
It is also said that ad-Dajjal, for the first time rested for the journey, would appear at the gates of Damascus looking to the east... he would be sought, but would not be able to caught... Then he would be seen near the al-Kiswah river... he would be sought, but it would never be known which direction he went...
These apocalyptic visions are uniquely interpreted by Muslims in the context of the current conflict in Syria. Federalization would be perceived as the victory of ad-Dajjal and a sign of the end times, which will result in social consequences (spontaneous revolts, blaming Israel for all the issues, political apathy, etc.).
Syria is home to Arabs and various ethnic minorities such as Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmens and Cherkesses. Arabs are the majority of 93%, while the Kurds make up 5%. The remaining 2% is composed of the other ethnic groups. Almost all groups use the Arabic language. The Syrian Arabs are Western Semites, which distinguishes them from Eastern Semites like the Egyptians, Berbers, and Saudi Arabia’s tribes. We can say that the Syrian Arabs have their own identity distinct from other Arabs in the region. The fragmentation of Syria could lead to a split of the whole Syrian-Arab identity and the appearance of a postmodern sub-ethnos (with archaic elements of cultural and historical anchors).
As for religion, 80% are Sunni Muslims, after which come Alawites, Ismailis and Shiites (13%), Orthodox Christians, Chaldea and, Catholics (about 4.5%), and Druze (3%).
If the state is to be divided along ethnic and religious grounds, the issue of granting the same rights for Kurds to Christians and other groups is only logical.
But the problem is the fact that all ethnic and religious groups are mixed together. Muslims and Christians live together, and in the Kurdish regions (in northern Syria), there are Arabs and Assyrians. In addition, three Kurdish region in the north of the country are not connected to each other, hence problem of identifying administrative boundaries. The Sunnis live on the coast, where most of the population is Alawite, but the Alawties also live in the center of the country and in such cities of Hama, Aleppo and others.
Neither the Russian Federation nor the United States of America can become models for Syria. These cases are the products of historical statehood, while Syria’s federalization, on the contrary, would cause new conflicts including the displacement of ethnic groups and disputes over borders and territories. The most appropriate way in this regard is transitioning not to a federal unit, but to a total Syrian identity which can fully meet the interests of Western countries (with the concepts of rights, freedoms, and civic nationalism).
The Kurdish factor
The Kurds are currently the main force acting in favor of the federalization project.
It is no accident that the Kurdish issue was recently covered by the American press and specialized think tanks (American Enterprise Institute, Stratfor, RAND Corporation), which indicates the activation of foreign policy in this direction. The method of politically framing an act for the manipulation of public opinion and the preparation of lobby groups for decision-making is at work here.
Taking into account these statements, it can be assumed that the United States will remove the PKK from the list of terrorist organizations. Washington is interested in establishing direct diplomatic relations with the political wing of this structure, whereas US intelligence services already have contacts with the PKK’s paramilitary groups in Syria. US officials will explain the need for dialogue in order to push the PKK and their networks in other countries to the path of democratization and economic liberalism.
Michael Rubin’s report titled «Kurdistan Rising» (American Enterprise Institute) notes that the USA’s efforts to federalize Iraq have some impacts on the Kurdish region (the federal government of Iraqi Kurdistan was created under direct control of the US military and was enshrined in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution).
This model can be used for Syria and Turkey. It is obvious that the United States wants to repeat the nation-state building experience in Syria, to change the constitution and, if possible, establish military control over some parts of the territory.
In Syria, the Kurds’ position was considerably better than in Turkey and Iraq. The only “problem” for in the way of manipulating the Kurds was the use of their language as a regional one and more governmental attention devoted to Kurdish culture.
Since 2012, a Kurdish organization in Syria, the Democratic Union Party associated with the PKK has fulfilled the role of an interim government of Syrian Kurdistan. Since they were removed from the Geneva talks, the DUP distanced itself from cooperation with the Syrian government. But the United States has established close contacts with the DUP and provided them military assistance. The Kurdish Democratic Army was created on a private military base with the direct support of the United States. Two US military bases have already been in operation near Kobane. A French base is also under construction, while the establishment of German and British bases is still a matter of discussion.
In this context, it is necessary to pay attention to the Kurdish diaspora, which is active in the US, UK, France, the Netherlands, but most of all in Germany (in the west).
As their political program, Syrian Kurds are actively implementing the ideology of communitarianism, their version of which was presented by Abdullah Ocalan and copied from American libertarian ideas (Amitai Etzioni’s and those of a group of libertarians of the Obama administration). The key figure of interest to the United States now is Ilham Ahmed. This figure has attracted great attention. Meanwhile, Russia has not actively attempted to influence the policies and ideology of the Syrian Kurds.
The Threats of the Federalization Process
In fact, the idea of federalization does not resonate with the majority of Syrians as it will promote the defragmentation of the country. There are still a number of internal reasons which can pose problems for the federalization project.
Firstly, there is the struggle for resources between Kurdish clans. In Iraqi Kurdistan, there were serious problems with corruption and the oligarchs’ usurpation of power. This led to the further disintegration of society, which was not ready for a democratic system of the Western type in a post-conflict situation. According to Kurdish intellectuals from Iraq, this internal problems is a greater threat to Kurdish aspirations than Kurdistan’s external neighbors.
Secondly, ISIS and other terrorist organizations are reformatting. Terrorists and radicals can use the idea of federalization for their aspirations to gain a foothold in a particular area. After this possible reform of the terrorist organization, criminal activity will only be resumed, including organized violence.
There is also the risk that the federalization project could be supported by the non-Kurdish population of Syria. In particular, a number of Alawites in Latakia accepts this idea. The billionaire Ayman Jaber (whose income comes from essentially smuggling cigarettes and other everyday goods), who actually funds a private army (the Falcons), has supported the federalization project.
In addition, the New Syrian Army established in Jordan also threatens federalization. It seems that the main objective of this structure is to create a corridor from Jordan to North Syria, to Deir ez-Zor, near the border with Iraq. Subsequently, due to the lack of control by the legitimate government, it can be used as an argument in favor of federalization.
In terms of strategic planning, this corridor could create a new energy route from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to independent Kurdistan, then to Turkey and the EU. This has a significant impact on Russia’s interests as an oil and gas supplier to European countries.
At the same time, Russia would face serious damage to its image. The federalization of Syria, with all of its possible consequences, would be a diplomatic failure that shows that Moscow is unable to defend its interests and hold dialogue with different actors.