Should Syria Decentralize?

A more federal system of governance could help the state's many regions and peoples live under one roof.

A quick glimpse at the state of the Syrian conflict that has dragged on for twenty-eight months illustrates how rapidly things have developed. Despite the fact that the international stalemate remains, events on the ground are changing the reality of the power struggle day by day. June’s battle of Qusayr is just the latest example.

The country has become extremely fragmented. Today, Syria’s regions can be divided into four categories: the regions that are contested between the opposition and the regime, the coastal region, the Kurdish region in the northeast, and the regime-held areas throughout the country. A flying visit—if you could take one safely—to each of these different regions would make you think you are visiting different countries.

Syrians never trusted each other; they didn’t really even know each other well enough to do so. The ongoing conflict has further deepened that rift—not only between the two main factions (Sunnis and Alawites) but also amongst those who have remained on the sidelines, including Druze and Christians. Hence, voices from different communities are increasingly calling for a new power-sharing deal. A deal that would allow them to avoid pushing the nation into a more unpredictable chaos. A social contract needs to be redefined to make this happen; and Syria is experiencing the exact type of circumstance where social contracts can and need to be rewritten. A new social contract can help resolve the tensions.

Decentralization is not a new idea that has emerged with the Syrian revolution. It is as old as the modern Syrian state. During the last years of French colonization of Syria, there was talk of splitting Syria into small states. The leaders of the different communities rejected this proposal because they believed that a united Syria would be better able to withstand external threats. The period following independence was marked by impressive political and economic achievements for all Syrians, thanks to a pluralistic system of governance in which all citizens truly participated in national politics. But as Syria started to become battered and bruised by a series of military coups, the public perception of a nation gradually changed. Residents and local movements began calling for greater assurances that their interests would be shielded from the political turbulence that racked Syria for nearly two decades, including a short-lived union with Egypt from 1958 until 1961.

Decentralization is a popular concept among Syria’s Kurds. This most likely is because of their overt advocacy of decentralization as the sole solution to their ethnic plight and to the existential challenges faced by the Syrian state.

Political decentralization is a pillar of the Syrian Kurdish position, but can vary, and many oppositionists, whether liberal or conservative, reject this idea altogether. Many groups within Syria’s opposition think it’s a step away from partition. But the Kurds have not been clear enough in defining their goal when advocating political decentralization to the opposition. The Kurds constantly reaffirm that a centralized form of government has always proven to be unworkable for Syria’s extremely diverse population. For the Kurds, decentralization boosts Syria’s national unity by establishing an authentic basis for citizenship. Decentralization requires designing a set of specific rules that will not only deal with the governance structure, but will also bolster individual relationships. The Kurds, however, provide a simplified interpretation of decentralization consisting of a stronger role for local authorities, giving more power to local populations to run their affairs in accordance with their religious and ethnic identities, distributing wealth in a fair manner, and leaving foreign policy and defense the remit of a central government in Damascus.

This notion is not exclusive to politicians. Academics, too, are trying to convey to the Kurdish and the Syrian public how decentralization would work and how it would benefit the country in the long run. Professor Kurd Zana, a member of the Syrian-Kurdish Economists Association, writes in a recently published piece that “adopting the federal principle in financial resources distribution will contribute to alleviating political, ethnic and sectarian tensions in Syria.” Prof. Zana believes that “it will also pave the way for establishing the principle of justice and enhancing a healthy competition between different regions.”

But there remains obvious fragmentation among the Kurdish political parties when it comes to providing a concrete definition of a decentralized governance structure in Syria. Yekiti, a leading Kurdish party with no regional affiliation, clearly stated in its last convention in late March that political decentralization was the key to resolving the greatest challenges that have emerged in Syria since the Baathists took power. The aforementioned party used “federalism” as a motto during their convention, which received a large attention from the Kurdish population. Yekiti bases its philosophy on the fact that the majority of population centers in Syria are extremely diverse. Therefore, it argues, people within different community groups across the country should be self-governing.

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