By Joseph Daher

March 26, 2016

On March 17, 2016, the “federal democratic system of Rojava – Northern Syria” in areas controlled by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was officially established following a meeting of more than 150 representatives of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian parties in the city of  Rmeilan in northeastern Syria.   Participants voted in favour of the union of three “cantons”  (Afrin, Kobanî, Jazireh) which are mostly populated by Kurds.

The Assad regime and the Syrian National Coalition have both stated their opposition to this announcement, while Washington(despite its support for the PYD) and Turkey have both declared they would not recognize this federal entity. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said that “the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic warns anyone tempted to undermine the unity of the land and the people of Syria,” and added 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” The Syrian National Coalition called the PYD initiative “illegitimate” and “unacceptable.”   Sixty nine armed groups, including the Army of Islam, Islamist and FSA (Free Syrian Army) forces  also signed a statement opposing the Kurdish federalist project dominated by the PYD.

Although the demand for a federal system in Syria is a demand of the majority of Kurdish parties in the country, other Kurdish parties gathered around the Kurdish National Congress have opposed this announcement.  They argue that such a federalist system has to be established following discussions with and explanations to the actors of the Syrian Arab opposition.  The majority of the Syrian Arab forces opposed to the Assad regime see federalism as a step toward separatism and division.  This view was expressed on many placards in demonstrations on Friday, March 18 in various liberated areas of Syria such as Aleppo, Douma or Dael.

In addition, no participation from below of the local populations was organized to know their opinions and what they expected of the federal system. It was a decision primarily taken from above, mainly by the  PYD, with no democratic dynamics, while other Kurdish parties(which continue to be repressed in many ways)  in the Rojava region, as well as other opposition groups from throughout Syria were excluded.  

Furthermore, the policies of the PYD towards the Assad regime, which includes maintaining communication channels open since the uprising began in 2011, cohabiting with regime forces in the cities of Qamishli and Hassake, (despite occasional confrontations) and numerous abuses and violations of  the human rights of  Syrian Arab civilians in areas dominated by the military forces of PYD, raise suspicion and arouse the opposition of a part of the Arab population of Syria. The founding document of the announcement of the “federal democratic system of Rojava – Northern Syria” did not even mention the ongoing Syrian revolutionary process, while it only talks about war and Islamic fundamentalist forces backed by regional powers.

We also have to understand that the demand for a federal system by the Syrian Kurdish political parties is rooted in decades of state oppression on a national basis (policies of colonization in the framework of the “Arab belt” and cultural repression) and on a  socio-economic level as well. The most impoverished areas of the country such as the Jazireh were the areas mostly populated by Kurds.   The Jazireh is the region with the highest level of poverty and illiteracy.  It hosted 58% of the country’s poor population before the occurrence of the 2004 drought.  According to the de Schutter Report,  in 2010, poverty increased considerably and reached 80 per cent of the Jazireh inhabitants.   In addition to this, the Jazireh region for example produced two thirds of the country’s grains (70 percent of wheat) and three quarters of its hydrocarbons.  Despite the industrial underdevelopment of the Jazireh, and the scarcity of industrial installations in the region which  comprised only 7% of the overall sector,  the region was nevertheless important.   For example,  69 per cent of Syria’s cotton was produced in the region, but only 10 per cent of cotton threads were spun there.  Of course, all ethnic groups in the region,  Arabs, Assyrians, and Kurds, suffered from the  lack of state services and from poverty.

I believe we must provide unconditional support  for the self-determination of the Kurdish people in Syria and elsewhere, without being uncritical of the policies of the leadership of the PYD or any other Kurdish political party.  We need to state very clearly that it is the unity of the Syrian people, including Arabs and Kurds, on the basis of a democratic and inclusive program that will allow their liberation and emancipation from the counter-revolutionary forces of the Assad regime and Islamic fundamentalist forces.