Syrian Kurds unilaterally declared the creation of a federal region – the «Democratic Federal System for Rojava-Northern Syria» – in northeastern Syria on March 17.
The news came at the end of a two-day meeting in the northeastern Syrian town of Rmeilan organized by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the dominant political party in the Kurdish areas of Syria. Officials said at a news conference they intended to begin preparations for a federal system, including electing a joint leadership and a 31-member organizing committee that would prepare a «legal and political vision» for the system within six months. The Kurds represent about 15 percent of Syria's population.
The federalism declaration is not intended to detach the northeastern Kurdish region from Syria, only to bring a measure of self-rule. Representatives of the Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian communities and other ethnic groups participated in the conference and commonly decided to bring the three Kurdish-led autonomous areas (Jazira, Kobani and Afrin) under the umbrella of one federal region called Rojava. According to the statement released after the conference, the federal region will be a part of Syria and an autonomous state.
PYD leader Saleh Muslim said, it is impossible to «go back to the old Syria. It is something to be changed. Any kind of centralized Syria is unacceptable».
Aided by US material support and air strikes, they are seen as a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State, but the Kurds of Syria have been frustrated, as their victories on the battlefield have not translated into political gains. Shut out of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva, they have chosen to go it alone.
At present, Syrian Kurds effectively control an uninterrupted stretch of 400 km (250 miles) along the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates River to the frontier with Iraq. They also hold a separate section of the northwestern border in the Afrin area. The areas are separated by roughly 100 km (60 miles) of territory, much of it still held by the Islamic State.
The move is likely to further complicate peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending Syria’s war. It’s mainly Ankara’s fault – Kurdish groups in Syria were excluded from the United Nations-brokered peace talks and ceasefire under pressure from Turkey. The Turkish government sees the Syrian party as a terrorist group which co-operates with the PKK (the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party) and threatens Ankara equally as the Islamic State (IS). However, the rest of the international community doesn’t see the PYD as a terrorist group. The United Nations Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who has convened the peace talks in Geneva, suggested last week that a federal model for Syria could be discussed during negotiations.
«All Syrians have rejected division (of Syria) and federalism can be discussed at the negotiations», he told Al Jazeera television.
«The second round of inter-Syrian talks is underway in Geneva, but Syrian Kurds were not invited. It means that the future of Syria and its society is decided without Kurds. In fact, we are pushed back into a conservative, old-fashioned system which does not fit well with us», said Rodi Osman, the head of Syrian Kurdistan office in Moscow.
According to him, «In light of this, we see only one solution which is to declare the creation of [Kurdish] federation. It will serve the interests of the Kurds, but also those of Arabs, Turks, Assyrians, Chechens and Turkomans – all parts of Syria's multinational society».
«Given the complicated situation in Syria, we would become an example of a system that may resolve the Syrian crisis», Osman added.
The declaration defied warnings from Turkey, the Syrian government, the Syrian armed opposition and the United States that any such move risks further destabilizing the situation.
Turkey, which is at war with its own Kurdish minority and has attacked Kurdish rebels in Iraq and Syria, is wary of growing Kurdish power across the Syrian border and has long insisted that the Kurds be sidelined.
«Unilateral moves carry no validity», the Turkish foreign ministry said, in a terse statement.
Ankara sees the PYD party is an offshoot of the militant Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara is currently battling in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq. If the Federal System of Northern Syria goes ahead, it is likely to set off alarm bells in Ankara.
Turkey has warned that a Kurdish takeover of the Azaz area would be a «red line», and it has also repeatedly said that it will not tolerate any push for autonomy by the Kurds of northern Syria, whose territories border those of Turkey’s own restive Kurds. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has warned repeatedly that Ankara would not tolerate the establishment of Kurdish self-rule in Syria and would send his army across the border to prevent it. A Turkish official told Reuters: «Syria must remain as one without being weakened and the Syrian people must decide on its future in agreement and with a constitution. Every unilateral initiative will harm Syria’s unity».
Damascus has rejected the federation project citing the necessity to preserve Syria's territorial integrity and independence. «Here we speak of how to preserve the unity of Syria and its independence and territorial integrity», said Bashar January, the head of the Syrian delegation at the Geneva talks.
«Drawing any lines between Syrians would be a great mistake», he added, stressing that the Syrian Kurds were an important part of the Syrian people. In a strongly worded statement, Syria’s government also warned that it would regard as «terrorists» any party that attempted «to undermine the territorial integrity of Syria and the unity of its people», according to the official Syrian news agency SANA.
«That includes those who gathered in Rmeilan», SANA added.
The main Western-backed opposition alliance, the National Coalition, meanwhile warned against «any attempt to form entities, regions, or administrations that usurp the will of the people».
Washington, which supported Rojava in its battle against the Islamic State, also said that it would not recognize the new federation. «We don't support self-ruled, semiautonomous zones inside Syria», said State Department spokesman John Kirby. «Whole, unified, nonsectarian Syria – that's the goal».
Sounds strange against the background of Washington’s support of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq. But the KRG enjoys good relationship with Turkey, perhaps that’s what explains this duplicitous approach.
Russia has not rejected the establishment of a federal system in Syria as an option for finding a solution to the crisis. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated on March 14 following talks with his Tunisian counterpart Khemaies Jhinaoui that Moscow is ready to support any agreement on Syria’s state system to be reached between the government and all the opposition groups. «Only the Syrian people will decide Syria’s destiny. This means that any form of government, whatever it is called – federalization, a unitary state, should be the subject of an agreement between all Syrians», Lavrov said.
The Minister added that this position follows from the agreements of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) that have been approved by the UN Security Council.
Russia firmly supports the Kurdish participation in the Geneva talks. «If the Kurds are ‘thrown out’ of the negotiations on Syria’s future, how can you expect them to want to remain within this state?» Sergey Lavrov asked on March 13 in an interview with Russian REN TV channel.
Expressing his strictly personal point of view, Russian expert Semyon Bagdasarov, the Director of the Center for the Middle East and Central Asian Studies, supported the idea of Syria’s federalization.
According to him, federalization with defense and external policy left in the hands of Damascus is the best way to preserve Syria as a single state with its multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. He referred to the United Arab Emirates as an example.
The opinions may differ, but some things are evident and certain facts are indisputable. Turkey is responsible for keeping Syrian Kurds out of the UN-brokered negotiation process to provoke unilateral actions on their part. The Turkish government has ignored the opinion of the world community, the UN and all major actors involved in the crisis management process, including Russia and the United States. Turkey has already attacked the Kurdish positions. It has threatened to cross the border and start a war on the ground. Ankara may say it does not fight Syria, but a hostile entity – the new Kurdish autonomy, which is supporting subversive activities inside the Turkish territory. This scenario may undermine the whole crisis management effort.
The creation «Democratic Federal System for Rojava-Northern Syria» should not become a provocation. It’s just a new reality to be included into the agenda of peace talks in Geneva. To do it, Syrian Kurds must be a party to the talks. This is the time to rectify the mistake, stand up to Turkey’s pressure and clear the way for peace process. All Syrians, including the Kurds, have a right to be parties to the UN-brokered talks.