Federalism in Syria: Cons and Pros

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Mohammad Khajouei
Senior Middle East Analyst

A proposal for the establishment of federalism as the final solution to the ongoing crisis in Syria has been raised recently and promoted through various podiums.

The proponents of this proposal believe that the Syrian crisis has entered its sixth year leaving behind tens of thousands of people killed while displacing millions of other both within and without the country, and the only solution to this crisis is dividing geographical expanse of the country along the lines of major ethnic groups and sects living there, including Kurds, Sunnis and Alawites.

But is federalism, as its proponents argue, a silver bullet for the Syria crisis, or will it give rise to new problems and crises? The following five points are noteworthy in this regard:

1. In general, most countries that are currently run by a federal system are countries where some sort of inclination toward self-rule and autonomy has existed in various regions of those countries and, in other words, there has been some sort of basic federalism indigenized in those countries. The proposal for establishment of federalism in Syria has been offered at a time that no such demand has been ever raised in the Syrian society during the past years and decades. Therefore, there are concerns that such plans, which are mostly offered by actors outside the country, will fail to bear fruit due to their incompatibility with the people’s demands and conditions in the country, and can only cause more problems.

The first wrong step for drawing artificial border lines in the region was taken many decades ago and following the fall of the Ottoman Empire through intervention of foreign countries; does that mistake has to be repeated again?

2. Establishment of federalism in a country like Syria, which has had a central government since its inception, will be a beginning for the domino-like disintegration of the country, because more than being based on convergence among various components of a political entity, it is more of a divergent and centrifugal measure, which can finally end in total division of the country. Putting together a number of federal regions, whose separation has taken place on the basis of war and belligerence, will not bring about peace and stability to Syria.

3. The premise used by those supporting federalism in Syria is that the crisis in the Arab country has ethnic roots. Of course it cannot be denied that a large part of the Syrian society is against the country’s incumbent government, but saying that the country’s crisis is basically rooted in ethnic and sectarian issues is totally mistaken and will only serve to divert attention away from understanding the real situation in this country. At present, more than being affected by internal factors and variables, the critical situation in Syria is a function of external variable. For example, two main and powerful groups that are now fighting against the government in Syria include Daesh and al-Nusra Front, both of which have their origins out of Syria and even the majority of their forces comes from non-Syrian nationalities. Therefore, under conditions when the main part of conflicts in Syria is being masterminded and managed by foreign and non-Syrian actors, nobody can easily offer such proposals as federalism for Syria, because this plan must arise from the will of the country’s people and be rooted in domestic considerations of the country.

4. In addition to the fact that opposition to federalism in Syria from important regional powers such as Iran and Turkey – on the basis of security concerns – is one of the most important obstacles to realization of this proposal, the most important impediment in this way is absence of accurate demarcations among those places where various Syrian clans and ethnic groups are settled. For example, in Damascus, which is the capital city of Syria, most people are Sunni Muslims and most of them claim to be opposed to the government. However, Damascus has seen the least protest movement and armed measures. In other words, intermingling of neighborhoods in which various clans live, and differences in their viewpoints, makes drawing exact lines among them – which is a prerequisite for the establishment of a federal system in the country – very difficult.

5. Under conditions when central government in countries with ethnic and clan diversity may move toward dictatorship and ignore the rights of some clans, the question that is raised is what solution could be there, apart from federalism, to prevent discrimination among various clans and ethnic groups? It seems that the most rational and most available proposal is a cooperative model of power structure. The cooperative system is based on division of powers, posts, positions and institutions among followers of various tribes and ethnic groups on the basis of a clear-cut and well-defined framework.

Of course, slowing down the process of decision-making and establishment of government is one of the main flaws of this method of governance, because the country would be run on the basis of convergence and overlap of all sides’ interests. However, its harm would be less than a federal system as it does not draw a wedge among various clans and ethnic groups and, as a result, does not push the country toward complete division. Under conditions when peace talks in Syria are aimed at laying out a framework for a stable and democratic future, it seems that achieving this goal would depend on maintaining national unity and territorial integrity of the country.

Key WordsFederalism, Syria, Cons, Pros, Autonomy, Artificial Border, Central Government, Daesh, Al-Nusra Front, Iran, Turkey, Security Concerns, Ethnic Diversity, National Unity, Territorial Integrity, Khajouei

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*Photo Credit: Aljazeera