Syria’s Kurds to declare Federal Province

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Syria’s Kurds have decided to declare a federal province in the northeast of the country and along the northern border with Turkey.

Many Arab states are unitary rather than federal and for the most part provincial governors are appointed by the central government and the central state controls local education and other policy. The Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov recently suggested that one resolution of the Syrian civil war might be to move the country to a US- or Canada-style federal state where the provinces retain substantial powers and prerogatives.

Some pundits are interpreting the Kurdish move as a form of separatism, but so far it seems more like a demand for states’ rights, Alabama-style. The Kurds are frustrated that they have been excluded from the Geneva peace talks, and are in part making the point that with 10% of the Syrian territory in their control, they are too important to snub.

Kurds are the major non-Arabic-speaking population in Syria, accounting for roughly 2.2 million out of 22 million, though their proportion has likely increased because over 4 million people have fled the country. Most Syrians speak Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Amharic. Kurds speak an Indo-European language ultimately related to English. The Arab nationalist Baath party that took over Syria in the 1960s tended to racialize Arabness (it is a language, not a race), and the government withdrew citizenship from large numbers of Kurds, leaving them stateless. At the beginning of the 2011 Syrian youth revolt, dictator Bashar al-Assad went to the Kurdish regions and told them he would reinstate their Syrian citizenship, but that was rather late in the day.

In 2013, as the Syrian state was collapsing, the Kurds there, largely ruled by the leftist Kurdish Democratic Union Party, declared self-rule and established three cantons, Jazeera, Kobane and Afrin, strung out along the northeast portion of the border with Turkey. The military conquests of the KDUP’s paramilitary, the YPG or Self-Protection Units have allowed the Kurds to join Jazeera to Kobane, and recently they have made moves to hook up with Afrin. They call the whole proposed province “Rojava.” In 2014 the Kurdish project was threatened by the expansionist Daesh caliphate, which hates the leftist Kurds. But the YPG, with American aerial help and some help on the ground from Arab allies and from the Peshmerga paramilitary of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Turkish government of Tayyip Erdogan strenuously objects to the idea of a Kurdish province in Syria. Erdogan sees that Democratic Union Party as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a terrorist organization based in eastern Turkey and in Iraq that specializes in dirty war tactics and both attacks on Turkish troops and on civilian soft targets (the latter being terrorism). The case for the Syrian Kurds engaging in terrorism, however, is weak. In any case, Russia seems to have given the Syrian Kurds a green light, and the US Pentagon is also strongly backing them, and Turkey may just be faced with a local/ Great Power fait accompli.

The idea of Syria as a Federal state has virtues, since even once Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) has been defeated in rural Sunni provinces like al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, the Sunni populations there are not going to want to go back under Baath rule. If provinces can have their own prerogatives and are less dictated to by Damascus, it might make it easier for Syria to come back together (it will be fragile in any case).

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Related video:

CCTV: “Kurds plan to declare federal system in northern Syria”

12 Responses

  1. Is this the end of Sykes-Picot boundaries imposed on the region in the various Post-World-War I treaties?

    Ultimately, will we feel that this is something we should cheer or something we should mourn?

    As ever, it’s usually hard to declare “today is the day” as these grand historical questions roll towards a resolution, with the hub-bub of daily life going on.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve sounded off on federalism as a good thing in the region previously in this space, I’d also like to add that I’ve been on record since 1980 for an eventual world federalism, and the end of national sovereignty.

    It was a lot easier in 1980 than in 2016 to foresee a peaceful future for the working out of what I also made part of my proposal, “3 or 4 generations” of increasing education & activism towards this goal.

    Unfortunately, education has definitely under-performed over the decades, while tendentious civil wars, ruthless dictatorships, and corrupt oligarchies have over-performed compared to what I thought was possible.

    Now it seems pretty clear. We – global humanity – have maybe “one generation” of time, maybe 16 or 23 years or maybe a lot less, before climate change and stupid governments allow us to suffocate in our own waste products.

    So it all seems so much more urgent now. Will humanity prove to be smarter than rats? Will we make efforts to save our societies from becoming overloaded with our own waste products (and I definitely include the social & intellectual pollution caused by toxic, ignorant and profit-seeking media of all sorts, traditional and hi-tech, as one of our most poisonous waste products) ???

    • Do people (other than Erdogan) really think that the ME’s current boundaries were drawn by Messrs Sykes and Picot?

      • Without hitting the books, I’d have to say “yes.” There were minor adjustments, and Mosul was left undecided in the original discussions, yet overall, the current lines of Syria and Iraq reflect the maps made by Sykes and Picot in 1915-16 more than they reflect any other historical or then-current cultural/ethnic considerations.

        • a portionof that border, yes, but not a lot of that remains and many areas have shifted among nations. The falling apart of the Ottoman Empire often had ethnic underpinnings, as did the slaughters of Assyrians, Armenians, etc. Arabs often fared better. People in the region who invoke Sykes Picot often do so not for ethnic borders but for empire, as with our Neo-Ottoman friends..

  2. As I recall, partition of some sort was the original Biden plan for Iraq. It might have prevented the rise of Daesh there, and partion or federalism might work in Syria, and perhaps other middle east countries with badly drawn boundaries as well, although the African version does not seem to be working particularly well right now. Remember that European boundaries (and US) are largely the result of warfare.

  3. A US-Russia-supported Kurdish province Isolating Daesh from Turkey sounds like a step forward, especially if agreeable by Assad as a step toward federalism. This could perhaps isolate Daesh in E Syria and W Iraq, where they could become a defensive force over a generation, perhaps de-militarized by the Saudis. Let’s hope the Saudis are discussing just that in Russia.

  4. Good old Tayyip. Years of whining about “Sykes-Picot, Sykes-Picot,” and now that someone contemplates redrawing borders he has a tantrum. I suppose, tho, it’s nice to see he can multitask while being so preoocupied with slaughtering large numbers of his own citizens and declaring most of the rest “terrorists.”

  5. I would imagine how popular a federal Syria would be would depend if your self-governing province ends up with oil. How is revenue to be shared? How will the losers in a Federal Syria react?

  6. I think Assad’s opinion is somewhat subject to Putin’s here, as he wouldn’t be standing right now w/o Putin, who also sees the picture more clearly.
    I’m happy to see US/Russia cooperating on this instead of pretending Russia is trying to take over the world. We could partner on other things too if we could lose the cold war mentality. How did Obama get infected w/ that, and to believing regime change would magically work here? HRC too, after Gaddafi. One hammer in toolbox, nail everything.
    We need global partners for global problems, but still think like it’s 1950. Maddening.

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