Kurds’ ‘federal’ project in Syria raises concerns
DAMASCUS - The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) proclaimed the creation of a “federal democratic system” in northern Syria, drawing criticism at home and abroad, though the move was not a surprise.
Having its own autonomous region is a long-standing dream that Syria’s Kurdish minority has exercised de facto for three years. Supporters of the move hailed it as a step towards establishing a federal system that would preserve Syrian unity. Opponents fear it is the beginning of the country’s partitioning.
The March 17th announcement followed meetings involving members of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other communities in the region, known to Kurds as Rojava. It covers Hasakah, Kobani and Afrin, stretching over about 16% of Syria.
The United States, Russia and Turkey rejected the move but PYD political adviser Sihanouk Dibo said federalism could be the beginning for a permanent peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
“After autonomous administration in Rojava proved successful to a large extent, its officials developed the system into democratic federalism,” Dibo said.
“They considered the successful experience a pillar for a democratic federation, a political framework that will be at the same time correlated to the centre (Damascus). The move was meant to assure all parties that (the PYD) is not seeking a new system away from a united Syria.”
The Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria was announced in a two-day conference in the oil-rich town of Rimelan, which appointed Hediya Yousef, a Kurdish woman, and Mansur Selam, an Arab, as co-leaders. Both had been excluded from internationally sponsored peace talks for Syria in Geneva.
The announcement was not meant to pressure organisers of the Geneva talks to include PYD representatives in future negotiations, Dibo said. “We will do our best to propose democratic federalism as a comprehensive solution for Syria,” he said. “It should be superior to any future constitution for Syria.”
The PYD is believed to be affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
The PYD considers PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned in Turkey, as its ideological leader and declared the Kurdistan People’s Congress the supreme legislative authority of the Kurdish people. It is also a member of the United Kurdish Community in Western Kurdistan (KCK-Rojava).
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said the PYD declaration did not stem from popular will and threatened Syrian unity. “Hence, the move is invalid in form and substance and is rejected politically and legally,” he said in a statement.
Amer al-Halloush, an Arab member of the political branch of a Kurdish-Arab fighting force known as the Syrian Democratic Forces who attended the Rimelan meeting, refused to sign the final communiqué, saying, the convention, which brought 200 leaders together, “was supposed to develop self-administration, not federalism”.
Syria’s Arabs and Kurds, including Muslims and Christians, do not live in exclusive areas of the country, which makes federalism difficult, he said, adding: “The only possible system is one that guarantees joint administration and coexistence.”
An attendee of the Rimelan meeting, who requested anonymity, argued that all Syrians should endorse federalism plans in their country. “We should wait for outcomes from Geneva rounds of peace talks and an end for the Syria war,” he said, warning that the Islamic State’s control of parts of the PYD-declared entity threaten to undermine it.
Pro-regime Arab tribal leaders who met in Qamishli on March 20th rejected the PYD move. “The declaration is against the will of millions of Syrians, who back the Syrian Arab Army’s war against terrorism,” they said in a statement, referring to the regime’s armed forces.
Haytham Manna, the Paris-based co-leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, which includes the PYD, lambasted the Rimelan declaration as an attempt to “impose” federalism on the umbrella opposition group without prior consultations. In a statement, he urged the PYD to reconsider its stance.
Ibrahim al-Hassan, appointed by the Rimelan meeting as representative of Tal Abyad inside the entity, had another view: “Since the beginning of the revolution, the federation was proposed as a solution at the ‘Forum of Syria for All’, to replace the centralised state because Syria will never be as it was before.”
“Opposition leaders who rejected the declaration did so because the Kurds made the declaration unilaterally,” Hassan said, stressing that “such historic opportunities do not come often and should be seized wisely”.
“Those who [really] seek a democratic Syria should not reject such a democratic system of administration,” he said, “but people have preset positions that Kurds have always wanted independence. So let us stop judging intentions and enhance trust among Syria’s components.”