The current round of the Astana peace talks for Syria, will see Kurdish delegates making strong arguments for the federalisation of Syria. Many have remarked that Syrian Kurds have actually engaged in a climb-down since the secessionist movement of Iraqi Kurds ended up being a spectacular failure which saw Iraq re-establish control over Kirkuk and other areas illegally occupied by Kurdish militants in recent years. With longtime Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani effectively falling on his sword in the aftermath of an independence referendum which saw Kurds almost lose their autonomy, Syria Kurds have decided to abandon calls for secession and instead call for the federalisation of Syria.
But while this might seem like a climb-down, this is ultimately only a half-truth. In reality, the federalisation of Syria would end up weakening a state whose greatest asset during the years of multi-front war and crippling sanctions, has been its unity.
Above all other considerations, Syria’s unity as an Arab Republic has helped Damascus win a war against regional bullies, imperialist powers and their Takrifi terrorist proxies. The conflict in Syria was always one where some of the richest and most militarily powerful countries on earth sought to rip Syria apart by pumping money, arms and foreign fighters into a largely unified and peaceful country. In this process, some Sunnis were exploited by these foreign forces and told that if they joined the jihad, they would receive more money and more power as a result. The failure of this promise to materialise, has led many of these Syrian Sunnis to rejoin the fight to unify Syria under its legitimate flag.
Throughout the conflict, Syria’s unity was truly secular and multi-ethnic. The majority Sunni Arab population, who unsurprisingly comprise most of the Syrian Arab Army, fought alongside Shi’as, Christians, and non-Arabs including Druze, Assyrians and Armenians.
It was this unity which allowed Syria to remain strong, even at the nadir of the conflict in 2015, just prior to Russia’s legal intervention at the request of the Syrian government.
The might of Syria’s allies including Russia and Iran, as well as regional volunteers from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, have scored a military victory, but politically, it is Syria’s inter-faith and inter-ethnic unity which has allowed these military victories to be meaningful.
In federalising Syria, ostensibly by placing further power in the hands of regional governors, this unity would become increasingly weakened by what can only be described as regional identity politics on a dangerous scale. If every Syrian governorate was to develop a distinct identity, this would ultimately come to encompass a unique religious and even ethnic identity, one that is ripe for exploitation by the same external forces which caused the current crisis, starting in 2011.
The last thing Syria needs is for an Alawite region to go against a Turkomen province which will then have to contend with Sunni provinces and Kurdish zones. What is the use of a Syrian victory against sectarianism, if the result is a new internal map of the country which only enforces sectarian divides that have been historically minimised by the unity based policies of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party?
When it comes to the Kurds in particular, arguing for federalisation is a clever way of escaping scrutiny for their own designs on northern Syria. Already, Kurds have been exposed as ethnically and culturally cleansing northern Syria of Arab villages where homes of Arab refugees have been stolen by Kurds and Arab place names have been illegally changed to Kurdish names.
In calling for federalisation of the entire Syrian Arab Republic, Kurdish agitators are attempting to avoid sticking out like Syria’s proverbially sore thumb. The reality is that Syria has offered to engage in dialogue with Kurds in a post-war environment, about the issue of legal Kurdish autonomy. As Syrian Kurds have historically been better off than their ethnic brethren in other states, there is a precedent for such a dialogue being successful. It is entirely possible that this dialogue could also be mediated by Russia, a state which has good relations with both Damascus and Syrian Kurds.
In calling for the full federalisation of Syria, Kurds are simply hiding their own agenda and obfuscating responsibility for their own grievances. Syria already stated that it will work with Kurds under the appropriate post-war conditions. In trying to turn Syria into an essentially balkanised federal republic, Syria Kurds want the weight of other sectarian considerations to mask their own sectarian history and intentions.
This too could backfire. If a federal subject inside a would-be federalised Syria were to develop unilaterally close ties with Turkey, something which in the case of Idlib could very much be the case, Turkey could gain a permanent foothold in Syria, over and above that which it currently has and Ankara would almost certainly use that to make life as difficult for Kurdish regions as possible.
In a unitary Syria, this would be far less likely to develop. Slick talking duplicitous Kurdish politicians may be able to make rhetorically strong arguments in Astana, but in reality, all Syrians would be far worse off in a federated nation.
One doesn’t destroy a country’s strongest asset, especially not after this asset helped fight off a regime change war from the west, something which prior to now, many thought was impossible to achieve. Syria’s unity is above all, what has kept her strong, against immeasurable odds. If it isn’t broken–do not fix it. Syria was broken, but her united culture has self-corrected a foreign problem. This is how things must remain if peace is to be fully reestablished.