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The Kurds and Federalism

By David Romano

May 6, 2016

When the Kurds of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) recently declared a "Federation of Northern Syria" that unites their three Kurdish majority cantons, a lot of criticism followed. The move was condemned by Turkey, Damascus, the Istanbul-based Syrian National Coalition, Iran and even the United States. An Assad regime official stated that the declaration “has no legal basis and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact.” Turkey announced it would never accept a “terrorist entity” on its southern border. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner announced that Washington “Won’t recognize any self-rule autonomous zones within Syria,” adding that “This is something that needs to be discussed and agreed upon by the relevant parties in Geneva and then by the Syrian people themselves.”

The Syrian Kurds were barred from the Geneva talks, of course, so for American officials to demand that they discuss federalism with other Syrian groups and Damascus held a fair bit of irony. The larger point that federations need to be consensual, however, remains accurate. Without a central federal government to associate with, there cannot really be a “Federation of Northern Syria.” As long as Damascus rejects the notion of federalism, in other words, there can be no federalism within Syria. Rojava’s people know this, of course, and their declaration probably represented a statement of intent more than anything else. The three Rojava cantons of Jazira, Kobane and Afrin were simply assuring other Syrians that they intended to remain a part of Syria, and that federalism offers a way out of the distrust and brutal civil war that continues to ravage the country.

After the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the Kurds there likewise made democracy and federalism the condition for their remaining a part of the country. Their basic narrative centered on the insistence that they would not leave Iraq unless Iraq left them – meaning that the central government in Baghdad ceased to respect democracy and federal provisions for power sharing. Following some ten years since Iraq’s new constitution of 2005 came into effect, Iraqi Kurds appear close to secession and justify their position on the basis of Baghdad’s violations of the Constitution and democratic practice.

But what is federalism, and why do Kurdish political parties appear so attracted to this form of government? Simply put, federalism is a power-sharing formula between central (federal) governments and regions. Federations can involve more or less central government power. In more centralized federal systems, the federal government controls most important fiscal matters in addition to foreign policy, security, foreign relations, immigration and similar matters. The regions generally manage their own education policies, infrastructure projects, public works, employment programs and cultural initiatives. In less centralized federal systems, regions may be more financially independent, control their own immigration policy, establish their own representation offices abroad and even manage their own security and defense forces. In both cases, however, sovereignty resides in a single state represented by the federal government (which in turn has important legislative bodies that include the regions). The division of powers between the regions (or governorates or provinces) is normally spelled out in the form of a constitution. The regions of a federation can be geographical as in the United States, ethnic enclaves as in Belgium or Switzerland, or a mix of the two as in Canada.

Confederal systems, in contrast, involve various sovereign states that choose to delegate some administrative powers and other tasks to a central decision making body, but otherwise remain independent and sovereign units. The European Union would be a good example of a confederal system, while Canada, Switzerland, Mexico, India, the United States and Belgium could serve as examples of federal systems.

Kurdish parties in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and most recently Syria have all expressed interest in federalism for fairly obvious reasons: such a system could allow Kurds more freedom and autonomy. In an international and regional system that seems very reluctant to allow the creation of new states, a federation offers the next best thing for those wanting to manage their own affairs. If a declaration of Kurdish secession from Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria risks provoking blockades, civil war or military intervention from neighbors, perhaps the establishment of a federal political system offers a safer route to realize most Kurds’ ambitions and allay their fears of remaining under the tyranny of others.

In Iraq the federal experiment seems to have failed, unfortunately. Despite a constitution that gave the regions and governorates of Iraq wide-ranging powers, the Nuri al-Maliki government of 2006-2014 sought to re-centralized as much power in Baghdad as it could. Articles of the Iraqi Constitution that allowed for the creation of new regions (in Sunni Arab areas or Basra, for instance) were blocked by Maliki, as was the establishment of a Federal Council to represent regions and governorates in legislative matters. Constitutional provisions such as Article 140 to determine the status of territories disputed between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq were never implemented. Similarly, articles of the Constitution relating to oil and gas – such as Article 111, 112 and 115 – were implausibly interpreted by Baghdad in ways that gave the central government monopoly control of these resources. From the perspective of the Kurdistan Region and Sunni Arab governorates, the same problems seem to continue now under the government of Haidar al-Abadi. The Kurds have thus begun pushing for secession from Iraq. Instead of federalism, leaders in Erbil now speak of the possibility of confederalism, which means various levels of institutionalized cooperation between a sovereign Kurdish state and what is left of Iraq.

In Syria, on the other hand, federalism remains an untried option. Although not a particularly promising path under an authoritarian regime in Damascus, a very loose federal arrangement might offer a way out of a seemingly endless civil war. Without breaking up the Syrian state, a loose federal project could allow different communities in different parts of the country to retain their fighting forces, continue paying lip service to Syrian unity, and put a ceasefire in place long enough to get used to living side-by-side peacefully. The three majority Kurdish cantons would consist of some of the federations units, while others – determined geographically, ethnically (such as Sunni Arab areas, Alawite areas and Druze areas), or via a mixture of considerations – could emerge as ceasefires and agreements allow. With time, a return of some measure of trust between various sectarian communities in Syria could allow the various components of the federation to work more closely together, to re-invest more power in Damascus, or to pursue whatever voluntary vision for the future they wish.

Given the nightmarish brutality and enduring violence of the long-running Syrian civil war, such a federated future may well look utopian to many. With neither the Assad government or various rebel groups able to defeat the other, however, people have run out of ideas to end the fighting. When the majority-Kurdish but very multicultural Democratic Union Party (PYD)-led cantons declared a federal system this year, they tried to offer the rest of the country such an idea for peace and stability. Many details and agreements regarding how such a federation might be structured would still need to be worked out, of course, but such discussions might prove more fruitful than the current fighting.


David Romano holds the Thomas G. Strong Chair in Middle East Politics at Missouri State University.  His work has appeared in journals such as International Affairs, The Oxford Journal of Refugee Studies, Third World Quarterly, International Studies Perspectives, the Middle East Journal, Middle East Policy and Ethnopolitics.  He is the author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (Cambridge University Press, 2006 -- also translated into Turkish and Persian) and the editor, along with Mehmet Gurses, of Conflict, Democratization and the Kurdish Issue in the Middle East (Palgrave Mamillan, 2014).  Dr. Romano additionally writes a weekly political column for Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish newspaper.

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