A new federalism: Making it official in Syria's north

In a meeting last Thursday in the Al-Hasakah oil town of Rumeilan, 200 representatives of Kurdish-controlled territories voted to form a federal system in northern Syria.  

Thursday’s vote united the three Kurdish Self Administration-controlled cantons of Jazirah, Afrin and Kobani under a single “Federal Democratic System of Rojava – Northern Syria.” Other northern Syrian territories controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces also fall within the new federal system.

This is not strictly a Kurdish state, according to a statement released after the meeting. The federal system “encapsulates all social components and guarantees that a future Syria will be for all Syrians.”

Less than a day later, the denunciations of the PYD-led plan rolled in. The Syrian National Coalition opposition-in-exile called the announcement an attempt to “usurp the will of the Syrian people.”

“Announcing federalism all of a sudden, lacking the urgently needed debate and democratic participation to possibly come to that decision, is just another form of dictatorship,” Kamiran Hajo, an official with the PYD-opposed Kurdish National Council (KNC) said Saturday in a statement to ARA News.

What might federalism mean for those living within it? Three journalists and activists with varying perspectives for and against federalism make their cases to Syria Direct’s Mohammed Al-Haj Ali and Muhammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim.

Mustafa Ebdi, Kurdish journalist living in Kobani, supports federalism

Q: What does the newly announced federalism in northern Syria mean?

There is confusion and ignorance about what the federalism announced in Rojava and northern Syria means. It is not nationalist federalism [for Kurds alone], but rather federalism for all the components. It is not only the Kurds who announced it, they did so alongside most groups in northern Syria: Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Chechens, et cetera.

Thursday’s conference was attended by 200 national figures [representatives], most of them rebels and opponents to the Bashar al-Assad regime. The document that came out of that conference expressed their intent to establish a decentralized, federal Syria. The implementation will be over six months.

Q: Some say that the implementation of federalism in the north will be the beginning of the partition of Syria into a number of states (Alawite, Kurdish, Druze, et cetera).

Federalism does not mean partition, but rather the reunification of Syria. Syria today is divided between areas controlled by different military factions, each ruling its city or area according to its own laws. Federalism in the north means the unification of the north within an administration made up of different [ethno-religious] components.

These accusations of partition, predictions and analyses also came up when the Kurdistan Region in Iraq was initially announced. Today, that region remains within Iraq, and most of its leadership is adamant about unity.

Whatever the case, Kurds are Syrians, and they have the right to come to an agreement with the other parties in their area to administer their own affairs.

Q: How might implementing federalism impact the ongoing war in Syria?

Federalism has been in place in Rojava since 2012, even if the announcement was delayed until today. Or rather, let us say that the application of federalism was expanded and organized following the liberation of most areas in the north from control of the Islamic State.

The war in Syria is not being waged in a single direction, but rather in several. The war which the Syrian Democratic Forces are carrying out, which protects federalism, is against IS in the Aleppo and A-Raqqa countrysides. That war will not be impacted by the announcement given that the SDF forces are participating in federalism and the FSA component of the SDF [Jabhat Thuwar a-Raqqa] gave its blessing to federalism on Friday.

There is no friction with [non-SDF opposition factions] on the fronts, even if they continue politically targeting and attempting to hinder federalism.

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Sipan Seyda, Kurdish political activist from Qamishli, opposes the federal system declared Thursday

Q: What is your opinion of the federalist system in northern Syria?

Many Arab and Islamic countries have adopted a federalist political system, but its establishment requires three conditions: a democratic system, a comprehensive national agreement and constitutional verification. Not the form that the PYD has suggested it.

Q: Why do you refuse this form of federalism?

It is a provocation, and will widen the rift between Kurds and other Syrians, especially in light of the presence of the dictatorial regime.

More than it is realistic, this is federalism for the media, to reinforce the [PYD] after its exclusion from the Riyadh and Geneva meetings.

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Abu Omar al-Hasakawi, Arab member of the Al-Hasakah Youth Union, opposes federalism

Q: Why do you oppose the idea of federalism?

It is an attempt to impose a fait accompli. If we were to recognize the PYD’s federalism, it should be noted that they were preceded by [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi who announced his [Islamic State] caliphate.

We refuse any division of Syria on any national or ethnic basis. Northern Syria is not solely Kurdish, as even some Syrians suppose. Arabs make up the majority, and the Kurdish majority is limited to some cities. Then there is Kobani and Afrin, but their surroundings to the east and west are Arabs.

Who has the right to divide, for example, Arab-majority Tal Abyad, from A-Raqqa under an administrative system such as that an Arab [from the latter] might need a sponsor to enter Tal Abyad? I think that even most Kurds would oppose such a thing.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.