The idea that the protracted civil war in Syria might be resolved by restructuring the country into a federation has been on a lot of minds lately. At first glance, it does seem tempting to try to reconcile the warring sectors of the population and all the various factions by granting broad rights of autonomy based on ethnicity and religion.
The draft of the new constitution that was originally pitched to the Syrians by the international community was in fact premised on the idea of granting such status to the “nationalities living in the country.” That manifested itself, for example, in the proposal to establish a bicameral parliament in Syria. Only relatively recently did the Syrian Congress on National Dialogue (soon to convene) begin going by that name. Previous attempts were seen to call it the Congress of Syrian Peoples. But President Assad was firmly against that version from the very beginning. He feels that because of the nature of the local environment in the Middle East, the states there that fly the flag of federalism are inevitably forced to watch their territorial integrity and sovereignty slipping away. It seems to the president of Syria that, by touting federalization, the West is resorting to political and subversive means to achieve the goals it has been unable to attain militarily. For example, without waiting for a final resolution of the matter, the Americans have already urged the Kurds, whose cause they so champion, to unilaterally proclaim the establishment of the Federation of Northern Syria in the territories they occupy. And that’s only the beginning.
History has shown that no federation has been viable in that area and that eventual collapse is inevitable. The Syrians themselves must see a lesson in the story of their own short-lived federation with Egypt, known as the United Arab Republic.
Nor did Libya’s repeated attempts to create a federation with some of its neighbors meet with any success. The efforts to merge Ethiopia and Sudan into a federation - initially backed by the West - ultimately ended once Eritrea and South Sudan won their independence and pulled out. Baghdad’s willingness to grant Iraqi Kurdistan an even higher status than that of merely a constituent region of a federation resulted in Kurdish attempts to secede from Iraq. It took a massive military intervention to put a stop to that. And should Syria take that path, there is even less hope that it might escape such a fate.
The projects to federalize states in that region are tied to the initiatives to completely redraw the borders of those territories. The campaign to alter national boundaries in the “Greater Middle East” really picked up steam with the arrival of the Arab Spring in 2011. The new map of the Middle East that was proposed in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1992 by Bernard Lewis, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and advisor to George W. Bush, has regained its popularity. In 2006, this map was updated by the retired military-intelligence officer Ralph Peters in Armed Forces Journal.
The Lewis-Peters map
The intention of these exercises in “applied cartography” is to strengthen American positions in the region by weakening those national states. To this end, a “Balkanization” of the Middle East was planned along the fault lines of religious, ethnic, and clan divisions. And stirring up the animosities between the Shiites and Sunnis was to play a key role.
Syria at that time was not seriously viewed as a target for those efforts, as it seemed like a rock of stability amidst its restive neighbors. It took almost two years for the “ripple effect” from the Arab Spring to reach Syria. Once the Syrian conflict began, a map surfaced in the media (which let’s call “the Israeli version”) showing the potential breakup of that country once it became a federation.
It featured a powerful Druze sector that was to be carved out on the Syrian-Israeli border. Once Syria’s boundaries were redrawn this way, its Druze population - due to fears of Sunni fundamentalism - would be favorably positioned for an alliance with Tel Aviv, which would offer a permanent solution to the problem of the Golan Heights and give Israel a buffer zone that would greatly shore up its security in the north. In addition, the residents of that entire territory might want to “reunite with their compatriots” inside of Israel.
However, the war didn’t go that way. The Druze proved completely loyal to Damascus and distinguished themselves with their heroic exploits to defend Syria’s territorial integrity. Nevertheless, the flavor of Israel’s military operations near that border shows that it has not entirely abandoned those notions. Tel Aviv might try again under favorable circumstances. And one circumstance that might fit that bill would be the federalization of Syria under international control.
A “Kurdish version” of Syria’s future national and state configuration was also widely circulated.
It is not difficult to see that at that time the Kurds had not yet even started to dream of the many territories they have now seized with the Americans’ help. The biggest challenge for them was unifying all the Kurdish cantons in the north into a single zone. As a result, despite gaining control over a quarter of Syrian territory - as far west as the Euphrates - the Kurds have by no means resolved the question of their nationhood. The Kurdish-occupied Arab settlements haven’t demonstrated any particular loyalty to Rojava. And the more economically-developed Afrin canton remains cut off from the greater part of the Kurdish stronghold. Outside of Rojava there are still about 250,000 Kurds living in the city of Aleppo (primarily in the Sheikh Maqsood district), a group that includes the most prominent cultural figures and businessmen of Kurdish ethnicity in Syria. Thus the Syrian Kurds’ appetites for new territory have not yet been sated.
If you look at the map of Syria’s ethno-sectarian makeup, it becomes clear that any attempts to demarcate certain federal or administrative zones along ethnic lines can only lead to fierce new clashes in this “war of all against all.”
The main problem is that the various ethnic and sectarian factions are all sprinkled throughout Syria. It is extremely difficult to clearly demarcate their boundaries. The claims of some will collide with the ambitions of others, forming permanent flash points where they converge. Who should own the uninhabited and oil-rich Syrian desert, which makes up half the country’s territory, is a completely open question. This is in fact a much uglier and more complicated version of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. However, this is not the only problem.
Any hypothetical plan to impose a federal system on the country elicits the question: what are the criteria for identifying “the nationalities of Syria” and their right to independence? Given the plethora of sects and movements that exist in Syria, this would be an overwhelming task. For example, the West and the countries of the Persian Gulf have long dreamed of driving the Alawites, the Assad family’s tribe, into the “ghetto” of the province of Latakia. But are they not Arabs and Muslims, like their Sunni brothers? Using that approach, the country could be splintered into dozens of micro-states. Among the Sunnis in particular, one might point to the strong collective identity of the Bedouins as a reason to hand all of the desert over to them, and so on. And that might please some, but not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He has renounced ethno-sectarian discord and proposed a completely modern version of a civil Syrian nation that would respect the distinctive traits that distinguish the cultures and civilizations of all the groups living in the country. Assad believes that the problems of Syria’s national and state configuration can be resolved with the help of the ideology of pan-Arabism.
Speaking recently at a forum in Damascus attended by representatives from Arab countries, the Syrian president proclaimed that pan-Arabism is a conceptual notion of a civilization that includes “all ethnic groups, religions, and communities” and allows them to develop. And the cultural heritages of all of them have made an invaluable contribution to the historical development of pan-Arabism. According to Assad, an attempt was made during the war to impose a false choice on Syria: to either abandon its own identity and kowtow to foreign powers or to become a society of “communities in conflict.”
Paradoxically, the bulk of the opposition groups that take their cues from Riyadh fully agree with the Syrian president’s approach per se. They are also opposed to a federal system being foisted upon the country and make their arguments from a position of pan-Arabism. But Assad views this principle in a more secular light. It should be noted that under pressure from the opposition, the international mediators led by Staffan de Mistura have already altered their version of the future Syrian constitution, no longer referring to the country as the Syrian Republic, but as the Syrian Arab Republic, which still remains the state’s official name. The tensions between the opposition and Damascus have just about been reduced to one thorny issue - the continued hold of Bashar al-Assad and his entourage on the reins of power in that country. But if the pressure to federalize Syria keeps growing, then - who knows? - perhaps it might even motivate the opposition and the government to find a mutually acceptable solution to this issue as well.