When James Madison and his fellow founding fathers of America came up with the idea of federalism, they did not intend it to be based on a religious or ethnic basis. American federalism was based on full citizenship and freedom, legally and culturally, regardless of race or religion.
The Syrian dilemma is that its federalism would be based on a sectarian and ethnic basis, and this can be deduced from the current battles between the conflicting powers on the ground.
Foreign Policy magazine published a report on this issue, stating that some consider federalism as a solution to the Syrian crisis. However, the negotiators in Geneva have good reason to avoid this solution.
Federalism is always seen a solution in any peace process that follows an armed conflict. Sometimes, it is put forth by international negotiators as the best ruling system to include the various ethnic groups and warring parties that may be afraid of a sole group gaining control over the whole country.
According to the Foreign Policy report, the Syrian Kurds announced a plan last week to turn the area under their control in northern Syria into a federal zone, giving them greater autonomy.
In the past few days, a source at the United Nations revealed that Russia and unidentified Western powers are considering the federal solution to the conflict in Syria. According to the magazine, Russia views federalism as a means to maintain the Al-Assad regime’s control over at least the areas inhabited by a majority of Alawites, including Russia’s strategic naval base in Tartus.
The report indicates that Western powers view federalism as the only realistic solution for a country that has been already fragmented into many areas controlled by armed groups with varying orientations. For those who fear the division of Syria, federalism seems to be the best solution they can look forward to.
However, one needs only to look to Libya to recognise how discussions of federalism led to the destruction of the country. Shortly after the fall of Gaddafi, Libyans were divided into supporters and opponents of the idea of federalism. This division has contributed to fuelling the conflict, and complicated the process of drafting the current constitution, for no justifiable reason.
The report also indicated that some believe that federalism would grant independence for the federal parties, which is more likely to rapidly lead to a complete separation, rather than uniting them together.
The report added that the negotiators from the Syrian government and opposition rejected the idea of federalism because it will lead to the division of the country. It is also likely that Turkey will do anything to prevent the federal system from being established in Syria, fearing a similar outcome in Iraq, after the Kurds gained autonomy in the northern Iraqi region. In addition, the term federalism itself has created diplomatic complications.
The negotiators do not wish to carry the burden of applying a specific form of the state, which could risk further dividing the negotiating parties into blocs of opponents or supporters. In fact, there is no need to give a name to any solution being negotiated.
There are other grounds to resist the idea of federalism in Syria. Federalism means drawing boundaries to create federal regions, and Syrians fear that these will be the same boundaries defined by the warring parties.
The drawing of new boundaries may also lead to dividing the country on ethnic or religious bases, creating a sectarian state that the Syrians reject. Although it is not clear what the international parties intend to do, allowing the great powers such as Russia or the US to draw the boundaries will have the same dire effects on the region caused by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 that led to the creation of the new Middle East.
The best starting point for any negotiations is to recognise that there is no specific template for the state. Indeed, there is no state nowadays that fully enjoys a non-centralised system. Rather, in reality there are numerous forms of decentralisation.
Moataz Bellah Abdel-Fattah is an Egyptian professor of political science. He previously served as an adviser to the prime minister of Egypt, and professor of political science at both Cairo University and Central Michigan University.