It was widely reported last week that major Western powers and Russia were discussing the possibility of a federal structure for Syria, and had passed on ideas to UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who says they form part of the agenda for the current Geneva talks.
Although no details have yet been made available, it is reportedly envisaged that Syria would remain a unitary state, but with broad autonomy to regional authorities. Though it is not the first time the idea has been floated, it is “receiving serious attention at the moment,” Reuters reported on Friday.
This is furthering debate about the pros and cons of a federal system. Those in favour point to the obvious failings of highly centralised states in the Arab world, including Syria.
This has enabled iron-fisted autocracy, endemic corruption, rampant human rights abuses and, in some cases, minority rule that is deeply resented by the majority.
Proponents of federalism say it is an acceptable, if imperfect, middle ground between centralisation and partition.
The idea is gaining traction in wartorn Libya, particularly in the east and south, whose populations complain of continued marginalisation by Tripoli.
Federalism is part of the transitional framework that was agreed upon after the revolution against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, where neither partition nor centralised government have succeeded.
Given the long and dark history of foreign meddling in the Arab world and the wider Middle East, there is widespread suspicion of federalism as a stepping stone to territorial division...
However, opponents of federalism point to its myriad shortcomings in Syria’s neighbour Iraq, saying the dismantlement of a centralised system not only failed to solve certain problems but also created and exacerbated others. The swift, chaotic nature of that dismantlement certainly contributed to its failures, but its violent repercussions have nonetheless left a deep imprint in the country and the region.
Given the long and dark history of foreign meddling in the Arab world and the wider Middle East, there is widespread suspicion of federalism as a stepping stone to territorial division – a tool by which foreign powers could more easily exert control over smaller, weaker states. Its critics point to the autonomy enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds since the early 1990s – Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, called this year and in 2014 for a referendum on independence.
The debate reflects a certain level of schizophrenia, whereby many opponents of federalism or partition also rail against the artificial borders of modern Arab states that were created and imposed by Britain and France after World War I.
In the context of Syria, suspicions are raised particularly because it is foreign powers – backers of both sides in the conflict – that are floating the idea of federalism.
The fear is that these powers, realising that no warring party is capable of outright victory, will settle for dependent fiefdoms under the guise of federalism.
Such a scenario may resemble the situation in neighbouring Lebanon, where foreign powers continue to vie for influence in a politically fractured country long after the end of the civil war there.
Federalism is on the table
That federalism is on the table in Geneva despite rejection of the idea by both the Syrian regime and the main opposition bloc is indicative of how the “peace process” is increasingly being imposed on Syrians, with or without their inclusion, and detached from the reality on the ground. It also makes the debate about federalism moot without Syrian acceptance.
“Any mention of this federalism, or something which might present a direction for dividing Syria, is not acceptable at all,” said Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab. “We have agreed we will expand non-central government in a future Syria, but not any kind of federalism or division.”
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said: “We reject talks about a federal Syria.”
This was reiterated on Tuesday by Bashar al-Jaafari, head of the regime delegation. It represents something of a U-turn by the regime, since President Bashar al-Assad said in September that he was open to the idea.
The regime line may have changed owing to renewed confidence in light of Russia’s directly military involvement. That Assad vowed last month to retake the whole country, when just last summer he acknowledged manpower shortages in his army, indicates that he now thinks federalism would blunt his ability to fulfil that vow.
The only Syrian party that currently supports federalism is the Kurds, who this week stated their intention to declare federalism in the north. This is fuelling further domestic and regional opposition because Syrian Kurds, who have recently made significant territorial gains, have twice declared autonomy since the revolution against Assad began.
The fear is that they may go the same way as Iraqi Kurds in cementing autonomy in pursuit of eventual independence.
Wary of nationalist aspirations
This is likely to have influenced the reactions of Turkey and Iran – backers of opposing sides in the conflict but both wary of nationalist aspirations among their own Kurdish populations – to the idea of federalism.
“We reached an agreement with Iranian officials during my visit to Tehran… that Syria would continue its life and presence as a powerful country,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said last week, his country since rejecting the Kurds’ federalist intentions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country “defends Syria’s unity and integrity and the control of all its territory by the government”. Iran’s state-funded Press TV published an article on its website entitled “Dividing Syria under federalism?”
Given domestic and regional reactions to Syrian federalism, fissures are likely to open between the warring parties on the ground and their foreign backers if the latter push the idea in Geneva and beyond against the wishes of most Syrian representatives.
The fact is that the country no longer exists as a unitary state, and many question whether it is possible to reconstitute it. In any case, federalism can and should only come about with the approval of the Syrian people via a referendum. If the idea is to be discussed at the negotiating table, the focus should be on organising such a vote.
Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.