Symptoms of Flawed Pluralism: the Debate on Federalism

10 June 2016

Jad Karim al-Jibaʿi

Jad Karim al-Jibaʿi is a Syrian intellectual. He has published several books, including "The Road to Democracy" and "The Dialectic of Knowledge and Politics".

Translated by: Lilah Khoja

The following is an attempt to understand one of the paradoxes of Syrian political discourse: the acceptance of a pluralist Syrian state and the rejection of federalism.

Federalism has been a topic of intense debate that reflects the racism and ethno-sectarianism of Syrian society, which has only increased since the start of the war. This paradox lies in the absence of the concept of a democratic secular nation-state within the current Syrian political culture.

Therefore, the contending parties are more preoccupied with symbols as opposed to planning towards a common destiny; they are more preoccupied with picking out factional banners than defining national landmarks. Take, for example, the banners of all the forces on the ground in Syria.

Nationhood, society and people are consequently defined according to the language, and this means that the Syrian advocates of federalism perceive their country as a set of "communities" and "peoples". Indeed, the main flaw of the recently announced Syrian Kurdish federal system is that it is a project based on ethnic, religious and tribal communities rather than on the equitable distribution of power and wealth and on socio-cultural development.

Nevertheless, in order to understand the federal system, we must stop associating it with partition and sectarian quotas and instead embrace it as a democratic demand that could prevent the reproduction of totalitarianism, internal conflicts, and civil wars. There must be an understanding that the structure of the nation-state is not ordained, but it is the result of a social contract enacted between the elected constituents and the government that is legal, political, and moral.

Federalism between Theory and History

Most Syrians, whether they are government loyalists or dissidents, agree on the need to decentralize the Syrian government. What they do not agree on, however, is the issue of federalism.

Actually, those opposition supporters who champion decentralization do not have a clear vision on how to concretize it. As for the Syrian government, it cites the local administrative laws as its ideal of decentralization. Lastly, the Kurds state that federalism is the best way to implement decentralization; perhaps they are right as we have noted previously that federalism is a democratic choice.

There are two main approaches to the question of federalism, the first of which is the theoretical approach, which outlines the ideal federal state. This approach is found in political treatises and dictionaries and in the legal, political, and civic philosophies. The second approach is the historical approach, which is rooted in reality.

As with the Syrian situation, it appears that the theoretical approach is not a practical option as the historical approach is the one that explores the different conditions that lead to the establishment of federalist systems. However, it should be noted that there have been some countries, such as Germany, which have embraced federalism to prevent the return of authoritarianism. Others, such as the United States, embraced federalism after a civil war.

Totalitarianism has stifled Syrian society; it has smothered Syrian culture and disrupted the growth of the Syrian economy. Totalitarianism is what crippled the Syrian national belonging and citizenship. The civil war, as it enters its sixth year, offers many reasons to favor the federal system as a means of avoiding conflict and the replication of tyranny.

Moreover, federalism is not the fragmentation of the state; rather, it is the distribution of power and wealth in order to avoid social and economic disparities. On the contrary, it is political shrewdness and ideology that incorrectly label it as division. The "federal" nature of a modern and independent state refers to its internal structure and how power is produced and distributed through its various branches. The production and distribution of power are, in turn, inseparable from the production and distribution of wealth and spirituality, just like from the human, economic, social and cultural development and the extent of its agreement with the principles of justice.

Flags VS Banners

Currently, it is the flag which represents the modern nation-state. The flag expresses unity, sovereignty and independence. It bears a message that its citizens abide by.

However, it is important to differentiate between a flag and a banner. A flag, in all modern contexts, is determined by a nation’s constitution, which dictates its colors and shapes. It is also necessary to hold a popular referendum on the constitution to accept the flag as a national symbol. Banners, however, are not the same; these are flags that do not adhere to any state or constitution but rather belie affiliations with various clubs, political parties, associations, or companies.

The flags raised in Syria today are fairly special: none are publicly mandated, including the "Syrian flag", which although was recognized before 2011 can no longer be separated from the current objection towards the 1973 and the 2012 Constitution from numerous Syrian citizens; it is no longer considered a symbol of the state but rather a symbol of a political system and power.

Regarding language, it does not have any public symbolism except for the extremists. A nation-state can have two official languages or more, as determined by the constitution which expresses the general will of the people. Unlike for flags, having more than one official language does not mean that there are more than one state project, unless it is assumed that the language is the pillar of a nation (and a state) and should be associated with historically grounded "races" or "roots". The discourse on Syrian "peoples" and "societies" with their respective languages and religious doctrines is most likely an outcome of this assumption.

Syrian Kurdish Federalism

In fact, the establishment of a federalist system was announced at a meeting on March 16-17 2016, in the city of Rumaylan (Governorate of al-Hasakah), which brought over 150 delegates and representatives of 31 different Kurdish, Syriac and Assyrian parties, as well as Arab tribes and independent figures.

They stated that this system would apply to all parts of Syria under their control, which they call Rojava. Rojava is in Northern Syria, and includes the areas of Afrin, west of Aleppo, and Kobane (ʿAyn al-ʿArab), in Aleppo's northern countryside, in addition to the al-Hasakah Governorate in the north-east, as well as towns recently taken over by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), such as Tall Abyad, (ar-Raqqa Governorate). These areas have enjoyed institutionalised self-management since 2014.

At the meeting, the press release issued by the Foundation Board stated that “Syria’s future is for all Syrians, and this will be achieved by a federal democratic system representing all of Syria’s community components” and that “women’s freedom is the essence of the democratic federal system, where women will have the right to equal representation and participation in all aspects of political and social life.”

The communique also said that “all peoples and communities who live within the federal system can develop political and economic relations, as well as social and cultural partnerships, with whoever they see fit and like-minded on the local, regional, and international level, provided they do not conflict with the goals of the federal democratic government in Syria."

They also announced that the goal of the federal democratic system in Rojava-Northern Syria is "the development of a democratic union between all peoples living in the Middle East across all socioeconomic and political borders (...) and to live in peace and brotherhood.”

This newly announced federal system was largely met with rejection by the international community, including the United States, Turkey, Iran, and various Arab countries as well as the Syrian government and the Arab-led opposition. The Kurdish National Council (KNC), a coalition aligned with the opposition, has also rejected the declaration despite its support for federalism, claiming that this one-sided move is detrimental to the Kurdish cause.

The positions of various independent Syrian Kurdish politicians and intellectuals regarding the question of Kurdish federalism has varied greatly from their Arab colleagues, with the ultranationalists among the latter who have viewed it as a separatist attack aimed against the unity of the Syrian people and their land.

Communitarian Federalism

From an analytical perspective, the Foundation Board asserts that the federal system will be based on “all community components”, i.e., all sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and religious communities and not on the basis of the transition to democracy and the equitable distribution of power and wealth nor on the need for development culturally, socially, economically, and geographically.

That said, this federal system applies to Rojava-Northern Syria, which is currently ruled by a number of different armed groups and their parties. Rojava can shrink or grow depending on these forces, and it is safe to assume that the structure of this federalist system will change accordingly. Regardless of justifications and acceptances, rejections and dismissals, this federalist system in Rojava is a reality.

The idea of "components" traditionally comes from intellectuals and politicians who are generally at odds with the notion of Syrian citizenship and national belonging. They’ve continued to inspire a persistent disintegration of the social, political, and cultural realms with too much being invested into the tribal and religious realms, as analyzed by historian Muhammad ʿAbdul-Jabri.

Moreover, it is improbable to believe that women (and men)’s freedom, a goal stressed in the founding statement, can be achieved with the survival of these “components” and their political representation.

The same "components" are theoretically enabled to develop relations on a local and international level provided that "they do not conflict with the goals of the federal democratic government in Syria," a clause which is clearly inconsistent with "the development of a democratic union between all peoples living in the Middle East" across all borders.

Nobody knows how an “entity”, that is “peoples and communities” (i.e. clans and ethno-sectarian communities), could transcend national borders. Even if creating a transnational democratic union between all the peoples of the Middle East, including the "unspoken" Israelis, is undoubtedly a noble goal. Unfortunately, the logic of these “entities” oftentimes lies in their flags and languages, revealing their disguised bigotry and ignorance, their nationalism, in this “Democratic United Middle East” treatise.

It appears as though this push towards democratic federalism in the Middle East, and perhaps the whole world, is a way to escape from the question of democracy in Syria; it resembles the push of Arab nationalists toward the unified Arab nation, the push of Syrian communists towards proletarian internationalism, and the push of Islamists towards the Islamic state. It might be also a message to big and small nations to see them endorse a federal system. In this case, all the references to women's rights and democratic unions would be nothing more than cunning politics.

To acknowledge misunderstandings does not mean the rejection of federalist principles, the denial of Kurdish self-determination, or the right to self rule; these are issues to be determined by Kurds themselves and not by Arabs. Many have felt that the federal system was introduced unilaterally and should have been the responsibility of an elected legislative commission, but this one-sided decision might have been less costly and complicated. Perhaps if the Syrian Arabs accept federalism and recognize the Kurds' right to self-determination, they would actually prevent partition, sectarian quotas, and the consequent conflicts.

Finally, these debates regarding federalism, flags and languages, prove that Syrians are not serious about managing their common destiny and are not moving towards a viable, sustainable future that can recover from tyranny and war trauma. This is not due to Syrians or Syrian culture, but rather to the culture of tyranny that has haunted them for more than half a century. This culture of tyranny invaded the institutions and the educational system. By definition, it is one of treason and greed, exclusion and marginalization, fear and hatred, murder and destruction across all ethno-sectarian lines.

[Photo: A demonstration held in Duma against Syrian Kurdish federalism - Rif Dimashq - 1-4-2016. (Source: Duma Coordination Committee)].

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