Most recently, the so-called “small group” – consisting of the UK, US, France, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – adopted a declaration on the eve of talks in Geneva with UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura outlining its vision for a political solution of the Syrian crisis. The declaration proposes, among other things, decentralisation of the Syrian state as a way of achieving peace.
Every time there has been such a suggestion, it has been flatly rejected by both supporters or opponents of Bashar al-Assad. Damascus and the opposition continue to insist on a centralised government as part of any peace deal.
Nevertheless, the multiethnic and multisectarian nature of the Syrian population does not leave the country any choice: decentralisation is inevitable and it is a lesser evil. If it is not accepted, it could place the country at risk of complete disintegration.
The challenges Syrian political actors are facing today in accepting and applying the idea of decentralisation are not new and have been encountered by various nations throughout modern history.
Here, strange as it may seem, Russia’s state-building experience after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is quite relevant. Unlike the experience of the United States, where federalism grew from the grassroots and from democratically organised communities, in Russia, decentralisation was a top-down process imposed on a very diverse country which had never been governed democratically. In its diversity, lack of democratic tradition and war devastation, Russia in 1917 resembles Syria in 2018.
Federalism in post-1917 Russia
The scepticism with which most Syrians regard federalism is no different than the prevailing views in the Russian Empire on the eve of the 1917 revolution. The imperial establishment in St Petersburg outright rejected federalisation as a means of resolving its problems with rising ethnic nationalisms within its borders.
After the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907, many ethnic groups insisted on expanding self-government or even autonomy, but the tsarist regime rejected these aspirations and instead embarked on a Russification campaign.
Even democratic parties, such as the Constitutional Democrats, were not enthusiastic about decentralisation either. They feared that in a country where ethnic Russians accounted for about 50 percent of the population, national minorities would receive too many rights and this would make the country difficult to administer. The political elite at that time very much believed that the Russian empire was the state of ethnic Russians.
The Bolsheviks, who constituted the radical opposition to the tsarist regime, despite embracing ethnic diversity, were also ardent centralists; it was their view that a social revolution required concentration and not the dispersion of power.
However, by 1919, the Bolshevik leadership was forced to reconsider its views. It became convinced that the success of its political project depended on the successful application of the new system both within the centre and the multiethnic periphery of the empire.
The Bolsheviks disparaged nationalism, but the very survival of their regime depended on an effective dialogue with national elites. For that reason, federalism was necessary: it is a way to both indulge national feelings and keep them under control. Thus, in an effort to prevent the complete collapse of the multiethnic empire that they had inherited, the Bolsheviks were forced to portray themselves as ardent federalists and accept the aspirations of their non-Russian citizens.
The federalist system which was introduced in 1922 created several so-called “national republics” giving cultural and linguistic rights to their populations, as well as a number of elements of their own statehood, such as constitutions, parliaments, anthems, etc.
Having given considerable freedom to some minorities, the Bolsheviks, at the same time, maintained tight and centralised control over the country and repressed other ethnic groups who were not beneficiaries of the federalisation.
The USSR, in the end, became what American historian Terry Martin called “an affirmative action empire”.
Decentralisation in Syria
Although the USSR eventually disintegrated in 1991, its federalist system managed to keep the country together for some 80 years. While its model is far from an ideal one, it is a good example of how decentralisation can help relieve tensions in multi-ethnic societies.
In the Syrian case, the Kurds remain the only side to the conflict interested in decentralisation (or even in federalisation). Comprising 12-15 percent of the population and benefitting from the backing of the US and a number of EU countries, Kurdish armed groups led by Democratic Union Party (PYD) have expanded the territory they control by 50 percent over the past two years.
The PYD and its allies are not interested in full independence for a number of internal and external reasons. Achieving some form of self-rule under a federal system better suits their interests. This is evident in the latest agreement between the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC – led by the PYD) and the Syrian government to outline a roadmap for the creation of a decentralised democratic regime in Syria.
Opponents to this idea have argued that some of the territories under Kurdish control are predominantly Arab and that Kurdish forces have been committing ethnic cleansing. They believe that federalism would establish an “ethnic tyranny” discriminating against Arabs living in Kurdish territory.
That, however, can be prevented by including special provisions in the Syrian constitution guaranteeing the rights of all people within federal territories, regardless of sect or ethnicity.
Syria’s neighbour, Iraq, has already walked this path. Its Kurdish region has remained relatively peaceful since it acquired autonomy. Last year’s independence referendum should be seen as an attempt by its political leadership to extort concessions from a weaken central government rather than as a genuine step towards secession. What is important to note is that Erbil today has shown respect for Arab rights and in fact has been giving shelter to a lot of Arabs fleeing violence.
Decentralisation, if applied responsibly to the Syrian context, could resolve the Kurdish question and help put the country on the path to peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.