The Democratic Union Party (PYD) last week declared the creation of an autonomous federation in northern Syria. The group's latest move means many people in the Middle East, who have long believed that national borders were subject to change, will spend more time thinking about federalism - which they either like or dread.
Opponents of federalism are worried that it will further aggravate tensions between various ethnic and religious groups in an already troubled region. Noting that even the United States failed to create stable federal institutions following the 2003 invasion, they question whether Syria would fare any better under a relatively decentralized administrative system. Of course, the question is extremely relevant to the future of Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
At this point, not only DAESH terrorism but Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani's much-anticipated move to form an independent state in Northern Iraq raised questions about the country's future. To make matters worse, the PYD, citing their exclusion from the Geneva peace talks, proclaimed the Democratic Federal State of Rojava and northern Syria as a first step toward broadly defined autonomy that could pave the way for independence - even if it meant frustrating their sponsors in Washington and Moscow. Deep inside, PYD leaders believe that both Russia and the United States would be willing to support a federal solution.
Spokespeople for both governments initially came out against the PYD's latest move. "We've been very clear that we won't recognize any self-rule autonomous zones within Syria," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters last week. "This is something that needs to be discussed and agreed upon by the relevant parties in Geneva and then by the Syrian people themselves." Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, likewise, warned that "the issue of the Syrian federalization cannot be decided unilaterally by the Syrian Kurds." Many people still remember that the Kremlin has recently called for the formation of three federal entities in Syria. Meanwhile, there are mixed signals coming from Washington. According to sources, the State Department and CIA oppose a federal solution, while the Pentagon and the White House might be open to the idea. To be clear, a number of influential think tanks in Washington have been talking about a Syrian federation akin to what the Dayton Agreement created. There is a good chance that the Pentagon, which considers the PYD and People's Protection Units (YPG) a key ally in the anti-DAESH campaign, will prevail - which would mean that the United States won't be extremely troubled by the PYD's move. It would not be wrong to consider the PYD's effort as a direct result of Washington's secret deal with Moscow either.
The proclamation of a federal entity in northern Syria, meanwhile, sent shockwaves through the negotiating table. While the Assad regime stated that they considered the unilateral move a violation of international law, the moderate rebels said they were opposed to a federal solution. U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura on Friday told reporters that the regime and the opposition had agreed on the need to maintain the territorial integrity of the country and rejected a federal system.
Will the PYD's move to carve out an autonomous zone push the Assad regime and the moderate rebels closer? Or could moderates eventually warm up to the idea of consolidating their control over parts of Syria by forming federal states? What will happen if and when PYD seizes new territory in the margins of the next offensive against DAESH?
The answers to the above questions depend on the responses of regional powers with vested interests in Syria.
Turkey remains deeply concerned about the formation of a PYD-controlled federal zone in northern Syria, which has been used by the PKK to train militants and supply weapons. Iran, in turn, seems less worried, because Russia wouldn't want to lose face in Tehran despite having bowed to Israeli pressures to limit their support for Bashar Assad and Hezbollah. Willing to do anything to weaken the Assad regime and Iran, Israel openly supports a federal solution. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has little reason to reject federalism.
Long story short, regional powers might be willing to adapt as Washington and Moscow's plans for Syria become clearer. Iran and Turkey, however, are aware that shifting borders would have to mean much more than drawing lines on a map.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.