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.
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.”