by Stephen Bryen
A respected Turkish journalist, Mahmut Borzarslan has told about an important Russian initiative to broker a deal to set up an autonomous entity in Syria for the Syrian Kurds. Borzarslan’s article was translated from the Turkish and published this week (October 27th) in the blog, AL Monitor. His reports is most interesting because it tells us something about where the Russians are trying to go.
Simply put, a Russian team flew into Khmeimim Air Base, the Russian base in Syria, probably on a military transport. While the team is not precisely described, it consisted of members from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. One can be sure, therefore, that this was a fairly high level initiative. The team met with Syrian and Kurdish representatives and presented a plan to grant Syrian Kurdistan “special status” meaning, in effect, that Syrian Kurdistan would become an autonomous area while still remaining part of Syria.
The Plan itself consists of five main points. The five points are:
1. that the political and national rights of the Kurdish people in Syria would be recognized under a revised Syrian Constitution;
2. that the newly recognized Kurdish areas would be under a self-rule system and would control all nationalities within the region;
3. the Asayish (Kurdish police) would become the legitimate military forces for the autonomous areal
4. the new self-ruling Kurdish area and the Syrian government would coordinate relations between the Kurdish cantons and the central government in Damascus and
5. Syria would change its name from “Syrian Arab Republic” to Syrian Democratic Republic and form a new government that would accept the cantonal principle.
The Syrian representatives rejected this offer out of hand. They had no intention of granting anything to the Kurds. But the Kurds themselves were optimistic and positive about the proposal, which the Russians presented in a Memorandum form and expected the parties to approve. Whether the Russian delegation was surprised by the Syrian reaction, or not, is not known.
What we do know is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has, over time, argued for a resolution of the Syrian crisis on the basis of a solution that would look something like the Swiss solution. (See his interview below.)
For the record, Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons (and 3,000 communes). The oldest cantons in Switzerland (Uni and Schwyz) date back to 1291; the most recent was added in 1979 (Jura). In 1848 Switzerland became a Federal state and certain rights remained with the Federal state including national defense, foreign policy, taxation, the telephone system, railroads, the monetary system and compulsory military service. The rest is handled by the Cantons and Communes.
Certainly Syria could be modeled on a canton-based system, but there are major problems with the model that are far from sorted. Under the Swiss system, for example, there is a legislature consisting of a lower, popularly elected house and an upper house based on two representatives per canton. The problem arises with control of the legislature and whether the system functions with an elected President or Prime Minister or whether the legislature chooses the leader. Given Syria’s ethnic and religious makeup, the Alawites (the ruling party) is a distinct minority. Overall the dominant religious group in Syria is Sunni and represents around 70% of the population. The Kurds, who number between 2 and 2.5 million in Syria are around 10% of the population; Shi’a, primarily Alawite sect, are at about 13%. Clearly no one would agree to a solution that proposed a Shi’a controlled Presidency. A cantonal solution that left the Alawites in control of the Federal government, but set up cantons with significant autonomy to cover the main groups and sub-groups in the country, probably would not be acceptable. In fact, about the only deal that would work would be security for the Alawites guaranteed by the international community (a super-secure canton) but the Federal government dominated by Sunni groups and subgroups. Furthermore, any solution would have to grant protection to minorities, especially Christians.
Would the Russians be willing to sacrifice Assad and the Alawites to a solution that would see them protected but out of power in a Federal government scheme?
Another problem is the removal of all foreign elements from Syria which includes so-called foreign fighters some of whom come from Europe, others from the US and from Russia’s Chechnya. Also, Hezbollah and the Iranians have to leave for a deal to make sense. United States support for any deal would have to include sending all these foreign elements out of Syria. Leaving Iran and Hezbollah in situ would lead to a war with Israel.
There are two wild cards in finding a reasonable solution.
One is Turkey. Turkey is very hostile to any autonomy for any Kurdish group under any circumstance. This retrograde Turkish view poses a serious problem for the United States and complicates any future settlement of the Kurdish issue in Iraq and in Turkey. The Turks have constantly overplayed their hand when it comes to the Kurds (as they are also now doing when it comes to the so-called Gulenists). The thuggish approach used by Turkey is not constructive and is a road block even to the future of Turkey itself.
The other problem is the United States, which wants to protect Turkey (sometimes from itself) but also sometimes (but not always) supports Kurdish ambitions. US policy is not only confusing, but it is dissonant when it comes to working a suitable solution with the Russians. The Russians may be hard to deal with, but at least they seem to know what they want. The United States is disruptive, but not clear on its overall objectives. The US attempt to force Assad out of power failed dismally and unleashed forces that have morphed where groups such as al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and, perhaps even ISIS are surreptitiously getting American support. The Russians know this quite well and they are hammering the Obama administration over this peculiar and self-defeating policy. Perhaps a new administration will have the courage to clarify its objectives and work a deal with the Russians.
Clearly the Russians want a deal and want out of the Syrian quagmire. Keeping the area distressed and conflicted invites an even greater humanitarian disaster and a bleak future not only for Syria but the Middle East. Thus it is in the interest of the Great Powers to work a solution quickly before it is too late.