NYTimes: Syrian Kurds Hope to Establish a Federal Region in Country’s North


BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian Kurdish parties are working on a plan to declare a federal region across much of northern Syria, several of their representatives said on Wednesday. They said their aim was to formalize the semiautonomous zone they have established during five years of war and to create a model for decentralized government throughout the country.

If they move ahead with the plan, they will be dipping a toe into the roiling waters of debate over two proposals to redraw the Middle East, each with major implications for Syria and its neighbors.



One is the longstanding aspiration of Kurds across the region to a state of their own or, failing that, greater autonomy in the countries where they are concentrated: Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, all of which view such prospects with varying degrees of horror.
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The other is the idea of settling the Syrian civil war by carving up the country, whether into rump states or, more likely, into some kind of federal system. The proposal for a federal system has lately been floated by former Obama administration officials and publicly considered by Secretary of State John Kerry, but rejected not only by the Syrian government but by much of the opposition as well.

What Syrian Kurdish officials described was likely to alarm many of the other Syrian combatants: a federal region on all the territory now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group supported by the United States military against the Islamic State extremist group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Some of the officials said the zone would even expand to territory the Kurds hope to capture in battle, not only from ISIS but also from other Arab insurgent groups — some of them, like the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the United States.

But Syrian Kurdish officials sought to play down the move, portraying it as nothing radical and calling it an effort to keep an already tattered and divided Syria from disintegrating further.

“Federalism is going to save the unity of a whole Syria,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., the leftist Syrian Kurdish party that plays a leading role in the Kurdish areas of Syria.

The discussion is about the possibility of a federal system not only for Kurdish-majority areas but for all of Syria, according to Mr. Ibrahim and three other officials and P.Y.D. members, who were all briefed on the talks or participated in them.

They emphasized that the entity would not be called a Kurdish region but rather a federal region of northern Syria, with equal rights for Arabs and Turkmens.

And they strongly hinted that it was not their idea, but that it was being pushed by the Americans and other powers. A former senior administration official, Philip Gordon, and others recently floated a proposal to divide Syria into zones roughly corresponding to areas now held by the government, the Islamic State, Kurdish militias and other insurgents.

The Kurdish discussions about northern Syria are becoming public just as a new round of United Nations-sponsored peace talks, heavily promoted by the United States and Russia, begins in Geneva, aiming to broker a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

The Syrian Kurdish move — still under discussion by Kurdish and other parties in the area — would fall well short of declaring independence. But it is still likely to rile the Syrian government and the main Arab-led opposition group, the High Negotiation Committee. They have both declared opposition to federalism, seeing it as a step toward a permanent division of the nation.
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It would also be likely to intensify Turkish concerns over the growing areas of Syria along its border that are controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey has declared to be terrorist. Turkey considers Kurdish groups its most dangerous enemy after years of conflict with its own Kurdish population.

But Russia has said it supports a federal system in Syria. The United States has also pushed for decentralization, and it has presided over the establishment of an autonomous regional Kurdish government in Iraq.

The two global powers have backed Kurdish aspirations. Russia has lately been advocating that Syrian Kurds have a greater role in the Geneva talks. The United States has supported Iraq’s Kurds for decades and has been arming and offering air support to Kurdish-led Syrian groups to fight against the Islamic State.

The Syrian Kurds may even be seen as too modest in their demands by their counterparts in neighboring countries.

Kurdish ambitions for a state — they say they are the world’s largest ethnic group without one — have been stoked by the America invasion of Iraq, and then the chaos of the Arab revolts and the value of Kurdish fighters to the American-led forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
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Recent Comments
Terry Goldman 3 hours ago

Shouldn’t Turkey understand that a Kurdish national government, with Syrian and Iraqi provinces that it could relatively easily obtain,…
Jesse Marioneaux 3 hours ago

Americans should have listened to the Russians from the beginning in all of this and we would not be in this mess. Arming the rebels has…
silty 3 hours ago

Not only do I think the Kurds deserve their own nation, or at least autonomous territories, I think it would aid in establishing stability…

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Some Kurds in Iraq have been agitating for a new push for statehood to coincide with the 100th anniversary in May of the Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided the Middle East among the colonial powers along often illogical boundaries.

But Syrian Kurds have always stressed that they want only the right to local autonomy in Syria. Their fragile alliance with some of the Arabs and Turkmens in Kurdish-majority areas depends on that. One Turkmen group taking part in the discussions put out a statement on Wednesday saying that it supported the federal region that would most likely be approved.

As for the rest of Syria, federalization could prove far more complicated. It is hard to conceive of any of the interested parties approving a plan that would formally establish areas still run by the Islamic State as part of a Syrian federation.

The government-held area stretches in a relatively distinct bloc from Damascus north through Homs and the coast, but only a narrow strip of territory connects it to the government-held part of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. And while most of the country’s population is there, many moved to the region to avoid airstrikes, and do not necessarily support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

The area held by insurgents apart from the Islamic State includes both Western-backed rebels and the Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, with a range of Islamist groups in between. They are tussling for control of various parts of their territory in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces.

Mr. Ibrahim, who acts as a spokesman in Europe for the P.Y.D., cautioned that the details of the federal region were still being discussed and that there was no date set for announcing them.

The zone would include all of the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group led by and largely made up of Kurdish militias, but also including Turkmen and Arab fighters, said Idris Nassan, a Kurdish politician in the Syrian town of Kobani, near the Turkish border.

Kurdish groups have made no secret of their plans to “liberate” areas in northern Syria currently held by rebel groups, the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. But any Kurdish drive to seize those areas would be certain to bring a response from Turkey, which sees a segment of insurgent-held northern Aleppo Province as a buffer zone, preventing the Kurds from unifying the two blocks of Syria they control.

A Turkish official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with protocol, did not comment about the buffer zone, but affirmed that Turkey was still in favor of a single, unified Syria and rejected any notion of a federation. He said all parts of Syrian society should decide the future structure of the country along with a new constitution as part of a political process.

Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Karam Shoumali and Ceylan Yeginsu from Istanbul, and Maher Samaan from Paris.

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