AMMAN: Participants in a demonstration in a northern Al-Hasakah town in support of federalism say that decentralizing Syria will “guard against the strife of partition and the total erasure of the country,” a Kurdish journalist in the town told Syria Direct on Monday.

Sunday’s demonstration was organized and attended by leadership of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties that is opposed to the Syrian regime and aligned with Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq.

The KNC is the main political rival of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) which leads the Self Administration governing a swathe of de facto autonomous Kurdish-held territories along Syria’s northern border with Turkey known as Rojava.

Women, men and children standing in a sunny Amouda street are seen carrying the red, white and green tricolor flag of Kurdistan. They carried signs bearing an array of slogans including “we want a federalist, pluralistic, democratic Syria” and “federalism is and will remain our demand,” in images posted online by activists and Arabic-language media on Sunday.

“They are calling for a federalist system like the [United Arab] Emirates, Switzerland or Belgium,” characterized by decentralized authority within administrative cantons or states while preserving Syrian national unity, Baz Bakari, an Amouda-based Kurdish journalist told Syria Direct on Monday.

“We want a federalist, democratic, pluralistic Syria.” Photo courtesy of Îbo Can Sadê.

To keep Syria from fracturing along sectarian and ethnic lines, federalism is “the best proposal at the moment to guard against the strife of partition and the total erasure of Syria,” Bakari said.

The KNC has called for federalism in Syria since at least 2011. While the KNC is politically at odds with the dominant PYD party, both groups previously voiced support for federalism, and Sunday’s demonstration in Amouda did not directly conflict PYD policy.

Ardelan Osman, a member of the liberal Kurdish Future Movement party affiliated with the KNC currently in Europe, supports federalism for Syria, describing it as a pragmatic political response to difficult realities on the ground in a country fragmented by war.

“Facts on the ground show that Syria is divided,” says Osman. “The regime, the Islamic State, Jabhat a-Nusra, the PYD and other factions have divided it, with each controlling a piece of Syria.”

“We want to unite these areas through federalism,” he said. “Not for Syrian Kurdistan only, but for all of Syria.”

Whose federalism is it, anyway?

Demonstrators’ call for a federalist political solution comes just ahead of a new round of Geneva peace talks slated to begin this coming Thursday. Members of the Kurdish coalition are among the opposition delegation that will participate in Thursday’s renewed talks in Geneva.

The demonstration also comes against a backdrop of international statements in support of federalism.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov did not rule out a federal model in Syriain a press conference last week.

Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq issued a statement in support of federalism “for lasting stability” last Thursday.

Akram Hesso, a Self-Administration official with ties to the PYD in northern Al-Hasakah also called for a federal state in an interview with Al-Monitor earlier this month.

But heading into the Geneva talks, the issue of federalism remains unresolved within the Syrian opposition. The KNC is a member of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which is participating in the negotiations.

The KNC joined the SNC in 2012 “on the basis that it would adopt the issue of federalism,” KNC member Osman, currently in Europe, told Syria Direct.

However, the two political blocs do not agree on what federalism means. “We want political decentralization while the [National] Coalition insists on administrative decentralization alone,” Younis Asaad, president of the KNC local council in Amouda told pro-opposition Al-Aan on Sunday.

“We have not reached an understanding,” said Osman, “but discussions and dialogue are ongoing.”