Analysis: The latest Syrian Kurdish move toward cementing autonomy comes as no surprise – but how far will it go?
Qamishli, Syria – Hunched on a rock atop a hillside overlooking the Turkish border, a commander of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) watched over Kurdish new year celebrations last week.
The stage below the hillside where Abdul Rahman Hamo and other YPG fighters were poised was draped with a large banner, announcing: “From free Rojava towards a federal and democratic Syria”.
Nodding to the festivities, Rahman said: “We’re celebrating the declaration of our federal system and Newroz.” He smoked a cigarette from a box rationed to the dozens of fighters guarding the events against the threat of suicide and car bombings.
On March 17, four days before the Kurdish new year celebrations, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allied political groups in northern Syria voted to declare a “federal democratic system” in the predominantly Kurdish region of northern Syria.
The announcement came amid increased tensions across the region. Turkey’s audible shelling of Kurdish villages across the border, the increased threat of bombings amid Newroz celebrations, and clashes with Syrian regime forces in Qamishli all served as reminders of existential obstacles in the Kurdish region’s path to self rule.
Bavi Salar, a teacher from a village outside Qamishli, told Al Jazeera that “the federal system is very important for Kurds in Syria. The people demanded it.”
Maybe there will not be immediate support for the declaration from the international community, but we're asking for democratic change, so, step by step, we'll get the support. They'll accept it in the future.
Salar and some local government officials in Qamishli, who are optimistic for the prospects of a federal region in Syria’s north, told Al Jazeera that they nonetheless anticipated obstacles in the implementation and full functioning of the newly declared political system.
“You can see the situation for the Kurds right now,” Salar said, referring to rising tensions with Ankara and Damascus. “We don’t know what will happen next.”
Shahoz Hesen, who was recently appointed to an interim organising council, acknowledged that there would be obstacles ahead.
“Maybe there will not be immediate support for the declaration from the international community, but we’re asking for democratic change so, step by step, we’ll get the support,” Hesen told Al Jazeera. “They’ll accept it in the future.”
Akram Hasso, the Syrian Kurdish prime minister who hopes to secure a position within the newly designed federal system of governance, said that the authorities’ priorities included defining how the new federal system would function.
Aldar Khalil, a member of the executive council of the Movement for a Democratic Society who played a prominent role in the recent announcement, told Al Jazeera that the political and legal framework of the new system would be decided within six months by a 31-person organising council.
But as of today, the regions over which the parties declared a federal system are not under the full control of Kurdish forces.
“It is not a condition to wait for all areas of the region to be liberated before we announce or establish the federal system,” Khalil said, adding that representatives from regions still under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group had been included in pre-declaration discussions.
“We managed before,” Hasso said. “After the announcement of self-administration last year, the representatives of the three cantons were in touch through the internet. We’re able to provide material and monetary support to other administrations, though we are not connected by land. Since last year, the three cantons have been connected politically and administratively.
“With the help of the international coalition, we’ll connect Afrin,” he added, referring to the westernmost canton, not yet connected to Qamishli.
The declaration of a federal system, addressed to the “Syrian people and the global public”, has been broadly condemned by Turkey, the United States, the Arab League and the Syrian opposition. The Syrian regime issued a stark warning to “anyone who dares to undermine the unity of the land”.
Even Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish region, said “there must be consensus on this among the Syrians themselves. When we declared federalism in the Kurdistan region, we didn’t do it unilaterally.”
Hasso said the Syrian Kurds’ military successes against ISIL and the support they have gained from the international community will translate to political support for the establishment of the federal system. “Because ISIL are being pushed back, and it’s the goal of the international community to establish democracy in Syria, it is their duty to support Kurdish federalism,” he said.
The day before the recent announcement, street battles between Syrian regime forces and Kurdish forces broke out in Qamishli. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Kurdish forces arrested 60 members of pro-regime militias.
The Syrian regime holds strategically important positions within the city centre, including the post office and the airport on the city’s outskirts. In regime-held areas, large posters of President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags are prominent.
“Our enemy is the regime right now,” said Abdulkerim Saruhan, the local defence minister, over the muffled thunder of Turkish government shelling in the nearby Turkish village of Nusaybin. He said he believed that clashes with the regime occurred “because of the declaration”.
Khalil said the federal administration was likely to tolerate the limited presence of regime forces to ensure the functioning of regime-run public institutions. “Right now, there are regime forces controlling the airport – but our troops have encircled them,” he said.
Despite obstacles, Syrian Kurdish leaders say they are resolved to pursue federalism, with or without the support of the international community. Hasso, who says that it is a dream for Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey to have autonomy, noted: “Whether the international community supports us or not, we are establishing the federal system within our own right.”