Subscribe

Would decentralizing Syria offer a path to peace?

Handing off more power to localities is popular with many Syrians. But they also want a single, unified country, and they suspect that decentralization would end up splitting the country entirely. 

  • close
    A boy rides a horse near a damaged building on the third day of Eid al-Adha in the rebel controlled city of Idlib, Syria September 14, 2016.
    Ammar Abdullah/Reuters
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption
of

With fresh fighting and air raids straining a temporary ceasefire on Saturday, a lasting peace in Syria seems a long way off. And as some Western humanitarian advocates, diplomats, and Syria-watchers see little reason for optimism over the US and Russia’s efforts to broker a truce, some analysts are beginning to elaborate ways to bring a lasting peace to Syria by divvying up power.

Back in March, an unnamed UN Security Council diplomat told Reuters that some Western officials had been considering a variation on a solution earlier floated by the Russians: a federal structure that would preserve the current boundaries in Syria but shift significant responsibility for governance onto the myriad local powers that have asserted themselves since the war’s inception.

"While insisting on retaining the territorial integrity of Syria, so continuing to keep it as a single country, of course there are all sorts of different models of a federal structure that would, in some models, have a very, very loose center and a lot of autonomy for different regions," the diplomat said then.

That may seem like a fresh alternative to the current impasse, and in opposition-held areas, local councils are already holding elections and doing the work of governance on a sometimes hyper-local scale. Meanwhile, in the Kurdish-controlled area in northern Syria known as Rojava, villages are practicing a kind of direct democracy that looks more like the collective decision-making of Occupy Wall Street than a professionalized parliament.

But the apparent differences in what each party involved means when they say “federalism” may illustrate how much diplomatic work separates the country from such a solution.

For the Russians, it would include appointing members of government based on their ethnic and religious affiliations and establishing a regional council to represent local interests – but as University of Geneva professor Vicken Cheterian noted in March, the Russian version of federatsiya would likely keep more power concentrated in the hands of a strong central state.

The Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, has rejected Russia’s proposals out of hand, considering decentralization to be totally off the table. As the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a report released earlier this month, the regime is bound partly by its “nationalist credentials,” a source of legitimacy for the Alawite minority that compose most of its ranks. And it also fears that once decentralization kicks off, the regime could eventually collapse. 

Conversely, any peace that would leave President Assad in power would surely be hard choice for much of the opposition – perhaps one that some of the estimated 1,500 rebel militias wouldn’t accept. And instituting a loose confederation, noted a March New York Times op-ed by Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, might not even actually bring an end to the war.

“It would mean acquiescing to President Bashar al-Assad’s savagery over strident opposition objections, require still more internal displacement by way of sectarian relocation, and perhaps concede territory to the Islamic State,” he wrote.

The European Council’s report cites a survey showing that a majority of Syrians living in opposition-held areas favor decentralization, and the opposition has welcomed such moves in the past. But they don’t want an outright partition, either. And as the report says, “many Syrians, across both the opposition and the regime, share the perception that any move towards decentralisation would mean the eventual partition of the country.”

The Council goes on to outline a decentralized Syria that focuses just as much on economic fairness as political representation. In the years leading up to the war, it noted, the Assad regime had pulled back from distributing services and investment across much of the country, concentrating it in the west, where it still exercises control.

Along with giving more power to local districts, it said, a decentralized Syria should distribute oil revenues, public investment and state jobs between governates according to population.

“The reality of five years of conflict has made clear, at least to some on the opposition side, that major reform of the system of governance is unavoidable.”

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome
 
 
Make a Difference
Inspired? Here are some ways to make a difference on this issue.
FREE Newsletters
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.
 

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK