Why Talk of Federalism Won’t Help Peace in Syria

The chaos in Syria is prompting some to look to federalism as a solution. But that’s a word peace negotiators have every reason to avoid.

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It was bound to happen. Within the past few days, a news agency report citing an anonymous U.N. Security Council diplomat revealed that Russia and unnamed “Western powers” have been considering “a federal structure” for a post-conflict Syria.

“Federalism” is a term that often crops up in the context of peacemaking. International negotiators and warring parties sometimes see it as the best system for integrating diverse nations, ethnic groups, or combatant parties, all of whom may have cause to fear control by an overly powerful center.

Just this week, Syrian Kurds announced a plan to transform the northern area under their control into a federal region, one that would give them considerable autonomy. Meanwhile, Russia may see a federal Syria as a way for its client, the Assad regime, to at least maintain a grip on the majority-Alawite regions, which include Moscow’s strategic assets like the Tartus naval base. To Western powers, federalization may look like the only realistic scenario for a country that has already fragmented into many regions held by various armed groups. For those who fear a complete dissolution of Syria, federalism may seem like the best solution they can hope for.

Yet it is all too easy to forget that others may see federalism in starkly different terms. Skeptics fear that granting autonomy to federal units can lead quickly to full-blown secession, hastening dissolution rather than helping put a country back together. In the case of Syria, both government and opposition negotiators have rejected federalism, associating it with a break-up of the country. Turkey, too, is likely to do everything to prevent a “federal Syria” — fearing a repetition of the experience in Iraq, a federal state, whose Kurdish region today largely governs itself. The mere mention of federalism has already created diplomatic complications.

One need look no further than Libya to see the destructive energies that the talk of federalism can unleash. After the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi, political groupings identified themselves as federalists or anti-federalists, which they considered to be incompatible positions. These divisions contributed to the outbreak of conflict. They have also made the ongoing constitution-making process unnecessarily difficult, even if on closer inspection neither side is actually proposing a genuine federal state.

Ukraine is another case that shows how emotionally charged and politically sensitive the term “federalism” can be. Given its size, Ukraine could well be governed as a federal state, but any talk of federalization is anathema to anybody in Kiev. This is especially true since Russia’s occupation of Crimea, which had enjoyed the kind of special autonomy in Ukraine that one would associate with a federal state. The fact that Russia now demands the federalization of the rest of Ukraine has discredited the idea beyond repair.

There are other reasons why the talk of federalizing Syria meets resistance. Federalizing a country involves drawing borders on the map to create federal units. Syrians fear that these borders could turn out to be the same as the ones that the fighting parties have currently carved out. Although this does not appear to be their intention, the idea of great powers like the U.S. and Russia drawing borders on a map is bound to have negative connotations in the same region where Great Britain and France drew the Sykes-Picot line in 1916, creating the new Middle East.

Equally sensitive is the perception that borders may have something to do with carving up territory along ethnic or religious lines, potentially creating the sort of sectarian state that most Syrians do not want to live in. The U.N. Security Council resolution of last December, which laid the diplomatic groundwork for the current peace negotiations in Geneva, explicitly rules out transforming Syria into a sectarian state. But drawing borders could still easily lead to a new cycle of violence. Groups desperate to avoid becoming minorities in a new federal unit may fight to defy their fate, while a dominant group may try to cleanse its area of minorities.

The problem with bringing up federalism is that, from the very beginning, it burdens negotiations with a specific concept of state organization that can call up bad associations and push negotiating parties into blocs of opponents or supporters. There is actually no need to give a name to whatever solution is being negotiated.

Several past peace processes show how negotiators should proceed. In South Africa and Spain, both countries with serious tensions between the national level and territorial units, the drafters of their democratic constitutions avoided giving labels to the territorial arrangements laid out in the texts. John Garang, who negotiated the peace deal between North and South Sudan in 2005, noted: “We have not used any formal word in the entire [peace agreement] to describe the type of governance that we have negotiated and agreed on. Perhaps we were guided by the African saying not to name a child before it is born.

A better starting point for any negotiation is to acknowledge that there are no black-and-white templates for organizing a country’s territory. There is virtually no state today that is completely centralized; there are, indeed, as many forms of decentralization as there are states. The December U.N. Security Council resolution foresees the drafting of a new constitution for Syria that will open the way to overcoming the currently centralized system.

Negotiators can use this process as a basis for asking the parties to elaborate on the specific arrangements they prefer: How many levels of government should there be? What should be their respective powers? Where should taxes be collected and distributed? Which level of government is in charge of the police, of schools and roads? Should all sub-units have the same powers, or could there be asymmetrical arrangements?

A negotiation that focuses on such concrete issues will provide more opportunities for exploring avenues for compromise than a binary choice between a federal system and some other alternative. Such an approach would also better fit the U.N. Security Council resolution, which indicates that the talks should be led and “owned” by the Syrians themselves.

Of course, negotiators will not be able to completely ignore the ethnic or religious affiliations of Syria’s various groups when exploring options for decentralizing the state, even if there is a consensus on a non-sectarian future for the country.

At the same time, any peace agreement will have to be acceptable to wide parts of the population if it is to stick. The U.N. Security Council resolution specifies that any new agreement will have to be approved by referendum. There are, therefore, very practical reasons for avoiding a term that many view as a prelude to dissolution and which may prompt many Syrians to fear being sorted into ethnic or religious groups. The remedy should be clear. Let’s encourage the parties to focus on the tangible issues, not on labels.

Photo credit: ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International. Follow him on Twitter at @meyer_resende.