One of America’s most important exports may not be an economic good at all, but a model of governance. In the United States both state and federal governments are sovereign over the same territory, but the Constitution reserves different responsibilities to each. This principle is known as federalism, and according to Dr. Benjamin Sovacool, “other countries continue to model American-style federalism.” He writes that, “Germany, the Republic of Austria, Russian Federation, Spain, India, and Nigeria have all based parts of their government structure on American federalism, choosing to decentralize power by adopting constitutions that are more federalist than the ones that they have replaced.”
Three leaders of Syrian civil society hope their nation will be the next on that list. On June 10th Mr. Bassam Ishak, President of the Syriac National Council of Syria, Ms. Sinem Mohammed, Member of the Kurdish High Council in Rojava, and Mr. Mouaz Moustafa, Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, met in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C. to discuss Syria’s post conflict future. This discussion was historic, because it included a representative from three of the most important factions fighting and living in Syria. The Kurds, Syriac Christians, and Arab Muslims have different agendas, interests and loyalties, which have short-circuited cooperation and eroded trust throughout most of Syria’s long civil war. The speakers believe that can and must change.
They did not ignore the reality that what Mr. Moustafa called “the beautiful mosaic that is Syria” is currently shattered by terror, repression, warfare, a refugee crisis, and competing foreign influences. Yet, Mr. Ishak summarized the theory behind the panel discussion: Without a vision to unite behind, no unity will be possible. Part of the division among opponents of ISIS and Bashar al-Assad results from a lack of vision for post conflict Syria.
Each of the panelists offered their perspective on what a federal Syria would look like. Ms. Mohammed spoke on behalf of Syrian Kurds. In March the Kurds announced the unification of their three cantons in Northern Syria. The Kurdish declaration, known as the “Third Line,” could be a model for Syria going forward. When asked whether the Kurdish policy is a prelude to secession and a divided Syria, she argued that the country is already divided and cited the United States’ unified federal system as a model. The central government should be weak, but a federal Syria would have an explicit constitutional provision guaranteeing unity, she said.
To allay concerns about Kurdish exclusivity, Bassam Ishak said relations between his people, the Syriacs, and the Kurds have been good in the Northern cantons. Mr. Ishak contrasted federalism with two other proposals: A religious state and an Arab national state. Neither of these arrangements would likely respect Christian minorities (Syriacs and Armenians), which comprise about 10% of the population. The Syriac Christians, the most ancient people in Syria, are a “litmus test” for any institutional arrangement, claimed Mr. Ishak. He feared that a constitutionally religious Syria would follow the path of Iran after its revolution, the antithesis of inclusivity. Similarly, an Arab national state risks following the path of Iraq. “We don’t want to go from an Alawite dictator to a Sunni dictator,” he said. If a plan for government allows Syriac Christians to exist with dignity, then it may be equitable enough to endure. The federal system accommodates religious and ethnic diversity by allowing somewhat different rules to govern different regions. “This is not an ingenious system we have come up with,” Mr. Ishak said, “Its logical.”
The final speaker, Mouaz Moustafa, represents a coalition of different groups fighting against Assad and ISIS. He is connected to leaders in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Although he also supports a federal solution, he says that sectarianism is an unfortunate problem plaguing opposition movements. They are united in their hatred for ISIS and Assad, but they have struggled coordinating. He shared a conversation he had with a young soldier on the front who expressed willingness to dialogue with other groups and even cede military positions to other anti-ISIS militias. He repeatedly stressed that such trust building measures are necessary if control of Syria is to be wrested from ISIS and Assad.
Federalism is no panacea. Sovacool considers Nigeria a federalist country, and as my last post outlined, the Nigerian government systematically fails to protect minorities. Russia is unlikely to acquiesce to a federal solution unless Basar al-Assad has some place in the new government. Turkey fears that strengthening the Kurds in Syria will strengthen the Kurdish PKK party in Turkey, which the U.S. and Turkey consider a terrorist organization. Finally, the mistrust and intermittent fighting between Kurdish, Syriac, and Arab opposition groups must be drastically diminished.
In order to make federalism work in Syria, America’s strong authority as a model needs to be backed up by strong involvement. America should be fostering discussion amongst the leadership of key Syrian factions and engaging in negotiations with Russia at the presidential level. The U.S. also needs to impose a no fly zone to prevent the indiscriminate destruction caused by Assad’s aerial campaigns. The panelists were not specific on what U.S presence “on the ground” would entail. On its necessity, however, they were unanimous.