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Sleepwalking toward federalism

Just a few years ago, any talk of a multi-state solution for Syria was taboo for both those who supported the Syrian government and those who opposed it. Neither side was willing to settle for anything less than full and unconditional control of metropolitan Syria, with Damascus as its capital.

This has slowly been changing — on an unofficial level, at least — even after the Russian Air Force intervened to prop up the Syrian regime in September 2015 and changed the dynamics of the conflict.

Behind closed doors, officials in both camps admit that a full-scale military victory is impossible for either side and so is gluing together a country shattered by nearly six years of war. Decentralization is a must and so is a more judicious redistribution of the country’s wealth.

Entire regions of Syria have suffered for many years because of neglect by the central government. This has heightened separatist tendencies and weakened a sense of national identity among several Syrian communities.

Some of these territories, such as oil-rich Deir ez-Zor on the Euphra­tes river, were visited only twice by the Syrian head of state since the creation of the republic in 1932. Al­though in terms of its oil resources it is the richest of all Syria’s gov­ernorates, its people were always among the poorest in the land.

The inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa on the Euphrates and Idilb in the north-west felt forgotten and ignored by government and history alike — and sank into poverty and backwardness.

Much of this was due to the suc­cession of governments in Damas­cus that pampered only the capi­tal and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city before the war and its economic heart, because this was where the political elite and great landowners hailed from.

Today, the ambitions of both Arab and Syrian nationalists have suffered a dramatic defeat because of the war. Instead of pushing for wider Arab unity or a more cohe­sive Syrian republic, Syrians are re­verting to sub-national and ethnic loyalties, calling for separate states.

One counter-proposal would be to pursue a federal system for the shattered republic, one that maintains the country’s current borders but gives greater autonomy to its cities and towns, breaking the pow­erful grip of Damascus, which has been the focal point of centralised government since Ottoman rule ended after the first world war.

A solution being discussed en­tails breaking the country into four mini-states: Damascus and its envi­rons, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, Idlib, and the Kurdish territories. There is no mention of “federalism” be­cause this is taboo for Arab and Syr­ian nationalists.

This idea is not new. Such an ar­rangement existed a century ago. When the French took control of Syria in 1920, they divided it into six small states ruled by French ap­pointees and linked by roads, com­merce and economic interdepend­ence.

The first, État de Damas, encom­passed the ancient cities of Homs and Hama in central Syria and the Orontes River Valley with its capi­tal in Damascus. All these cities are currently held by the Russian-backed government.

The mini-state established around Aleppo, which had been the hub for regional industry under the Ottomans and was one of the larg­est cities in the entire Middle East, was created in September 1920.

Aleppo proper was a magnet for traders, merchants, pilgrims and clerics of all religions, lying as it did along the Silk Road.

This statelet included the Sanjak of Alexandretta, a narrow coastal plain backed by a mountain chain on the lower valley of the Orontes river, and reached as far as the Euphrates and Deir ez-Zor. The Sanjak’s main city was Antioch, a prosperous metropolis that Turkey annexed in 1939.

An Alawite state was also created with authority over the Mediter­ranean port cities of Latakia and Tartus and the Sanjak of Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Much of that still applies today, with modifications. The state of Damascus is still there, controlled fully by the Syrian government. If the Russian-backed state forces re­take Aleppo, then it too would be put under their control, breathing life into what people are now call­ing “Useful Syria”.

Deir ez-Zor and Idlib would re­main as elements within a new fed­eral system, one controlled by Jab­hat Fateh al-Sham (despite a July rebranding still seen as al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) and one by the Is­lamic State (ISIS), as would Raqqa, the de facto capital of the ISIS cali­phate.

The novelty in this version of fed­eralism would be Kurdish autono­my east of the Euphrates but that is something that neither Damascus, Ankara nor Moscow are prepared to accept.

What is becoming ever clearer is that all the Syrian players, wheth­er they admit it or not, have been sleepwalking towards partition or a multistate system in recent months after coming to the realisation that all of Syria — geographically, politi­cally and militarily — is too difficult for them to control.

The Arab Weekly, 6 November 2016