Perils of keeping discussions of (con)federalism on the agenda

Perils of keeping discussions of (con)federalism on the agenda

Given that Syria is now an internationalized and regionalized quagmire that has been free to evolve for more than five years, it is to be expected that any diplomatic effort to endorse peace in Syria will eventually be confronted with complications. This was recently demonstrated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) declaration of a federal system on March 17 that will combine three Kurdish-led autonomous areas of northern Syria (Jazira, Kobane and Afrin), all at a time when the newly initiated peace process on Syria hangs by a thread amid a fragile, three-week old cease-fire that was just declared in late February. The perilous point here is that the PYD/YPG’s declaration of its territories as a federal unit has the potential to undermine the ongoing Syrian peace talks in Geneva, which are already on shaky ground, as resultant border-related disputes are likely to ignite the existing conflict. 

It is for sure that in the name of achieving peace in Syria, employing a political and administrative design for Syria that takes into account the facts on the ground is essential. To this end, different options, including federalism, confederation or unification could be kept on the agenda by different international or regional actors. However, the practical implications of debating such options and Syrian parties’ unilateral promotion of these, particularly (con)federalism, should be carefully analyzed in order to prevent the ongoing peace process from being undermined.

Discussions of (con)federalism: Why are they perilous?

The intention to declare a federal system should be approached carefully as bringing discussions on (con)federal borders to the table by nature creates incentives for different parties to further incite the conflict and expand the amount of territory they control as much as they can before the final borders of a possible (con)federal map of Syria are drawn. Obviously, such a situation would in no way function to endorse the existing cease-fire and would instead undermine it. This is because such a development would drive both the regime and the opposition to engage in further military clashes with other parties, as they are definitely not content with the existing territorial status quo even if the PYD/YPG is.

In all reality, it is not hard at all to understand why the PYD/YPG is pleased with the existing territorial distribution. It has increased its territorial control form 9 to 14 percent of the entirety of Syria since the onset of the civil war. This is definitely a victory for the PYD/YPG, but not necessarily for the Bashar al-Assad regime or the opposition, as the former would like to retake the whole of the country under its control while the latter is not happy at being continuously weakened and confined to besieged areas. If a (con)federal state is ultimately decided upon in Syria, both the regime and the opposition would have aspirations to control satisfactorily wide regions that encompass their respective Alawite and Sunni Arab social bases, thus meaning that they would seek to gain control of more territory than they currently hold.

It is without a doubt that such control would not be obtained through diplomacy but at gunpoint. Such a dynamic could be likened to a struggle between, in the words of E. H. Carr, the “Haves” and “Have-nots,” as the latter will continuously attempt to challenge the former in pursuit of what they desire. In this respect, for the moment, discussions of (con)federalism do not suggest a de-escalation of the conflict, but instead its further escalation.

How feasible is a (con)federal system in the absence of homogenous ethnic and religious enclaves?

Second, it should also be noted that the PYD/YPG’s new expectations for a (con)federal system in Syria do not hold up when considering the demographic realities of the country. In Syria, the main demographic enclaves do not constitute homogenous units as religious and ethnic communities are not necessarily concentrated in specifically predetermined areas throughout the country. 

That being said, any issue raised in relation to internal borders is likely to lead to trans-border disagreements considering that any prospective political map will not reflect and correspond to the religiously and ethnically diverse and diffuse makeup of the country. This is likely to spur negative developments usually associated with irredentism. At this point, recent occurrences in Iraq should not be ignored: federal disputes evolving since 2005 between the central Baghdad government on the one hand and the Kurdistan Regional Government and Sunni minority on the other have in time rendered governance of the country dysfunctional and thus played a facilitative role in the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and rising Kurdish demands for separation after 2013.

Unilateral action in conflict with moderation and consultation

Finally, it is vital to highlight that the recent initiative led by the PYD/YPG conflicts with the spirit of a prospective peace settlement that could be agreed upon by international and Syrian actors. UNSC Resolution 2254, which was unanimously adopted in December 2015 and endorses the roadmap for the Syrian peace process, puts emphasis on the need for the peace process to be Syrian-led, stating that “the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria.” Unilateral action on the part of the PYD/YPG definitely does not conform to the expected spirit of a peace settlement that requires moderation and consultation.

In addition to the opposition and regime’s resentment of the PYD/YPG’s recent declaration, it is also questionable how this unilateral declaration of a federal unit reflects the desires of Sunni Arabs and other ethnically or religiously diverse demographic populations in northern Syria despite the PYD/YPG’s claim to represent different ethnicities and religious groups under their intended federation. Here, since the inception of the conflict, the PYD/YPG has come to establish a monopoly of sorts, proclaiming itself as the sole advocate of the Kurdish cause by intimidating or coercing other Kurdish and Arab groups through the employment of different means: by assassinating influential leaders just as the PKK has done in Turkey, by eventually silencing all oppositional voices, and by creating demographic chaos characterized by the forced displacement of thousands of Sunni Arabs residing in northern Syria.

There are arguments that the PYD/YPG’s unilateral action has come as a reaction to its exclusion from the Geneva talks, but its go-it-alone approach can definitely be read as part and parcel of an unconstructive quest for balance in a political settlement that is emboldened by its military upper hand on the ground and the international clout in its favor. For the sake of endorsing the ongoing peace process, the territorial integrity and unity of Syria should be the consensual centers of focus, as such an approach does not risk inciting border disputes which are very likely to undermine peace efforts by further igniting the conflict. In this sense, international actors should do their best to maintain their declared consensus on promoting the territorial integrity of a unified Syrian state and should not allow the parties they support on the ground to undertake unilateral actions which encroach upon the spirit of moderation and consultation that could be the only hope for the ongoing peace talks and indeed for a peaceful Syria in the future.