The ‘federal’ option in Syria serves many Russian interests

Friday 08/04/2016
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L), and Staffan de Mistura, UN special envoy for Syria

Shortly after the United States and Russia agreed to push for a ceasefire in Syria, Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov called for a federal solution in the war-torn country.
From a Russian perspective, such a move serves several objectives.
First, a federal solution will keep the Alawite region where Russia has two military bases under de facto Russian control. Second, it puts serious pressure on its rival Turkey since it bolsters the Kurds’ resolve for autonomy.
On March 16th, the latter, encouraged by Ryabkov’s move, announced self-administration, putting into effect the federal solution in northern Syria. This unilateral act infuriated Turkey’s government, for which a Kurdish Syrian state is considered an existential threat. All the more so because Turkey has been the scene of terrorist attacks, mostly claimed by Kurdish separatists.
Ryabkov’s call raised concerns not only in Syria but in neighbouring Lebanon, too. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt was first to rebuke the Kurds’ claim for autonomy. Jumblatt said he considered the Kurdish call for federalism a move towards partitioning Syria. He did not give further explanation on why and how a partitioned Syria could jeopardise Lebanese security and stability or that of the Druze community.
In a letter to UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, during his recent visit to Lebanon, Lebanon’s former president Michel Suleiman was more explicit on the threats posed to his country as a result of partitioning Syria along sectarian lines.
Suleiman emphasised that a partitioned Syria may lead to the formation of a mono-ethnic bloc all across the Lebanese eastern borders — from Latakia province in Syria to Jabal El Sheikh, bordering Israel, in the south-east. Suleiman was referring to the danger underlying a Shia canton encircling Lebanon and that corresponds to the area controlled by Hezbollah since its military involvement in Syria and that could translate into an Iranian area of control on the Mediterranean.
Russia’s military involvement in Syria marked a major turning point. Arab countries did not welcome it, especially when Russian military jets, instead of bombing the Islamic State (ISIS), pummeled the Syrian mainstream opposition.
Russia’s burst onto the scene, though, was not such a bad news, at least for one reason: It broke Iran’s monopoly over the Assad regime. Arab states could leverage the discrepancies between Tehran and Moscow. They can more easily engage with Russia, with which they have no conflicting past, on the multi-century Sunni-Shia conflict in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Russia President Vladimir Putin’s move, welcomed by both the Syrian opposition and the Arab Sunni countries, proved to be a manoeuvre to boost the diplomatic track and put pressure on the embattled Syrian president, pushing him to make substantial concessions.
In fact, Syrian President Bashar Assad conceded. He accepted to sit at the same negotiation table with those he labelled terrorists. Even more, he accepted and called for early presidential elections — a move that could settle the key sticking point in the negotiation: the transitional authority.
These concessions were good news for Syrian opposition factions and their backers, namely Saudi Arabia. However, the federal solution raises more than a concern in the Sunni world. While serving Russian strategic interests, such as protecting its military bases and destabilising its main rival, Turkey, through Kurdish empowerment, a federal scheme dilutes the Sunni demography in Syria and all the Levant.
For the Syrian Sunnis — being the largest religious group in the country — a federal scheme that establishes cantons for the different ethnic and religious groups would deprive them of the majority card they could leverage in a unified Syria. Worse, it would be to the advantage to regional powers that are competing with Sunni powers in the Middle East.
In a nutshell, the Arab feeling about Russia’s increasing role in Syria is mixed. On one hand, it replaces, even though partially, Iran. On the other, the federal formula Russia is pushing constitutes a strategic threat to Arab Sunnis in the region.
A recent visit to Moscow by Lebanese Sunni leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri echoed this paradoxical stand. He openly called for a greater role of Russia in Lebanon, promising to cooperate with Moscow on different levels, economically and militarily. He said he hoped Russia would help with electing a president in Lebanon, ending the country’s constitutional vacuum.
However, after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Hariri did not miss the opportunity to call for a unified Syrian state.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah is continuing its military involvement in Syria. The Russian move did not seem to have altered its plans. Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said it clearly in a recent TV interview: “We will keep up with our involvement in Syria.” Surprisingly enough, he did not comment on the Russian federal proposal.