Syria: What’s in a federation?

Russia is calling for a post-Soviet-style federatsiya – not federalism – in Syria.

Local Syrian shop sell mugs with photos of Bashar al-Assad, Vladmir Putin, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nassrallah, and the national Syrian flag in the old city of Damascus, Syria [EPA]
A shop sells mugs with photos of Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus, Syria [EPA]

The idea of federation as a solution to the Syrian crisis has suddenly appeared on the negotiating table, as the warring sides and their international sponsors are to meet for a new round of talks in Geneva.

Russian diplomacy caused a sensation in February when Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov announced that federalism is a possible solution for Syria.

“If as a result of talks, consultations and discussions on Syria’s future state order … they come to an opinion that namely this [federal] model will work to serve the task of preserving Syria as a united, independent and sovereign nation, then who will object to this?” he said.

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The Russian proposal of a federated Syria gained more weight when the United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura declared on March 11, before the start of the next round of Geneva talks, that “Syrians have rejected the division [of Syria], and federalism can be discussed at the [upcoming] negotiations”.

Fears of partition

Heightened Syrian fears of partition follow announcements by US Secretary of State John Kerry about a “Plan B” in case negotiations fail. The Kurdish PYD, excluded from the current talks, is also pushing for federalism.

The Syrian opposition have categorically rejected the idea of federalism. Riyad Hijab, head of the High Negotiations Committee, the Riyadh-based representative body of the Syrian opposition, was quoted as saying: “Syria’s unity is a red line. This issue is non-negotiable and the idea of federalism is the prelude to the partitioning of Syria.”

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Interestingly, Hijab and the Syrian opposition had earlier proposed “administrative decentralisation” of Syria.

If one carefully looks at what federatsiya - the Russian word for 'federation' - means in Russia today, then it becomes clear that partition is not an imminent political threat for the peace talks.


Now, is there an agreement between the two major powers to partition Syria as the best way out of the crisis? If one carefully looks at what federatsiya – the Russian word for “federation” – means in Russia today, then it becomes clear that partition is not an imminent political threat for the peace talks.

Russia, officially the “Russian Federation”, is a federation composed of 85 subjects. It inherited its federative structure from the Soviet Union, at the time the “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” was one of 15 union republics.

Both in the Soviet experience and the present Russian political culture, “federation” has largely meant the recognition of national and cultural specificity living under an autocratic or totalitarian system.

In the early years of its formation, in the 1920s, Soviet authorities promised self-determination and federalism to the various peoples that once composed the Russian Empire.

Yet, as the Soviet authorities strengthened their grip on state power, federalism became largely an outside form decorating “socialist realism” in which power was concentrated at the top.

Yeltsin’s system

Something similar happened with Russia in 1991. Initially, Russian President Boris Yeltsin proposed a federative system to the various national republics, in order to avoid the disintegration of Russia similar to that of the USSR.

At the time, the central state was weak, and many of the republics were claiming “sovereignty”. In 1994, Moscow signed a pact with Tatarstan – a Turkic-speaking Muslim republic in the Middle Volga – in which Tatarstan dropped its quest for sovereignty in return for control over local taxes and up to a fifth of its oil exports.


Similar arrangements were reached with other national republics, with only one exception: Chechnya. There, the Yeltsin administration tried to solve the problem through a massive show of force, but the 1994-96 war ended in a disastrous Russian defeat.

The second Russian president, the hand-picked Vladimir Putin, made of Chechnya a showcase for his ambitions. Much of Putin’s political experience stems from managing the conflict in Chechnya and his success in pacifying the Caucasian republic.

The price of that success has been very high, not only because of the large number of casualties among Chechen civilians and fighters as well as Russian soldiers, but also because post-war Chechnya is ruled by the iron-fisted Kadyrov dictatorship.

Following his military victory in Chechnya, Putin reinforced the “power vertical” of the central state, making presidents of the various republics appointees of the Kremlin.

Putin and his generation of Russian leaders are obsessed with the idea of the collapse of a centralised state and the chaos that follows. These were the dark days of the Soviet collapse, and their policies are geared towards avoiding its repetition.

In the Geneva talks, many delegates might be discussing a “federal” solution, but for Russia, it is about federatsiya rather than federalism. 

Vicken Cheterian is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Geneva, and at Webster University in Geneva. He has published works on conflicts in the Middle East and post-Soviet republics in various journals and is the author of ‘War and Peace in the Caucasus, Russia’s Troubled Frontier’ (2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.