A Federal Syria: Kurdish Initiatives on the Rise

Photo: Syrian Kurds from the border city al-Derbasiya protest against Turkey. Reuters

On March 17, 2016, the “federal democratic system of Rojava” (a Kurdish term for northern Syria) was proclaimed officially. Some 150 representatives of Kurdish, Arab, and Assyrian (largely Christian) groups met in the city of Rmellane in north-east Syria and voted in favor of the union of three ‘cantons’ largely populated by Kurds − the cantons of Afrin, Kobani, and Jezireh.

The government as well as a major opposition coalition present in the Syria negotiations which have been going on in Geneva since the middle of March, the Syrian National Coalition, both stated their refusal of a federalist system which they saw as a first step to the breakup of Syria. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said that “Any such announcement has no legal value and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact as long as it does not reflect the will of the entire Syrian people.” There was no indication of how the “will of the entire Syrian people” was to be determined in the war-torn land.

While the Kurdish issues in Turkey have attracted international attention, and the largely autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is a major player in Iraqi politics, the Kurds in Syria have been less discussed.

The Kurds of Syria have not been as visible a factor until now as other ethnic or sectarian groups. As Michael Gunter, a specialist on the Kurdish world, writes

“On July 19, 2012, the previously almost unheard Syrian Kurds suddenly emerged as a potential game changer in the Syrian civil war and what its aftermath might hold for the future in the Middle East when in an attempt to consolidate their increasingly desperate position, government troops were abruptly pulled out of the major Kurdish areas. The Kurds in Syria had suddenly become autonomous, a situation that also gravely affected neighboring Turkey and the virtually independent Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Indeed, the precipitous rise of the Kurds in Syria bid to become a tipping point that might help change the artificial borders of the Middle East established after the First World War following the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement.” (1)

In a hope of keeping the Kurds out of the growing armed conflict, shortly after the March 15, 2011 start of the Syrian armed conflict, in April 2011, Bashaar al-Assad had granted Syrian citizenship to some 220,000 Kurds that had been long waiting to be considered as citizens or who had been stripped of their citizenship in a 1962 census.

However, armed conflict spread, and the Islamic State started to control territory near Kurdish majority areas. Some observers see the Kurds as “objective allies” of Bashaar as they have many of the same enemies.

Working with the regime has largely saved the Kurdish areas from government bombardment and allowed Kurdish leadership to build alternative forms of government. Gunter discusses in some detail the influence among some Kurdish leaders in Turkey and Syria of the writings of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) and his views of ecologically-sound autonomous governance − “democratic autonomy”. (2)

During the current “fog of war” it is difficult to see what forms of cooperation will be developed among the Kurdish areas of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and possibly Iran. There have been recent talks in Switzerland among Kurdish leaders of the four countries. There are those who see all proposals for federal-confederal forms of government in a previously highly centralized state as a step toward the breakup of the state.

However, in the first years of the French mandate of Syria after the First World War, the French had created a form of ‘federal’ administration, although the French had facilitated the creation of Lebanon which until then had been part of “Greater Syria”. It is difficult to envisage a centralized-one party state such as that under the leadership of the al-Assad – father and son – being recreated when the armed conflict stops. Although the Kurds are not present in the UN-Geneva negotiations (at the insistence of Turkey), the federal proposal is now “on the table,” and merits being watched closely.


Rene Wadlow, President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, of the Association of World Citizens.    


(1) Michael M. Gunter. Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War. (London: Hurst and Co, 2014, p.1)               

(2) Damian White. Bookchin: A Critical Appraisal (London: Pluto Press, 2008)