“The name is not important,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of a forum in the Iraqi city on the future of the region. “Call it federalism. Call it autonomous.” It is impossible, however, for Syria to “go back to the old Syria,” Muslim added. “It is something to be changed,” he said.
The idea may have the backing of some key international powers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that his country would support federalism if it were supported by the Syrian people, while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has publicly said that some sort of partition of the country could be a last resort in Syria, though he later backed away from the comments. A U.N. Security Council diplomat told Reuters last week that a number of other nations have privately suggested that they would back such a plan for a federalized Syria.
Yet the Kurdish proposal has also met with swift opposition from groups within Syria.
Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed the plan, arguing that the peace talks taking place in Switzerland were designed to preserve the unity of the country. “Betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure,” Jaafari told the Associated Press.
Syrian opposition officials also reacted negatively, echoing the statements expressed by opposition leader Riyad Hijab in an interview with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week. “We support more decentralization, so local authorities have more power, but no federalism. Federalism will divide the whole area” into mini-states, Hijab told The Post.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority within Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the prewar population. Amid the civil war, they have emerged as a powerful force in the north, beating Islamic State fighters on the battlefield and setting up their own administrations in the areas they control. Kurdish forces have become some of the United States’ most useful allies in Syria, but there have been some concerns about their rising power — in October, Amnesty International suggested that an armed group linked to the PYD, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), may have committed war crimes.
Across the border in Iraq, Kurdish forces run an autonomous region that operates in all but name as a separate country, though it is a rival Syrian Kurdish group, the Kurdish National Council, that receives the backing of the Iraqi region of Kurdistan.
The question of autonomy for Syria’s Kurds brings up bigger questions across the region. Millions of Kurds live throughout the Middle East. To varying degrees in each country, Kurdish groups have pushed for their own state or, at the least, more autonomy within an existing state. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as PKK, fought a violent insurgency against the Turkish state for decades — one that appears to have been reignited over the past year, though it is unclear to what extent the PKK central leadership is involved.
Ankara views the PYD to be the Syrian branch of the PKK and has vowed to block the creation of a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. “National unity and territorial integrity is the basis” of Syria, an unnamed Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Hürriyet Daily News on Thursday, dismissing the PYD proposal as a “unilateral act” that did not have any “validity.”
As far back as 2006, U.S. analysts had suggested that Iraq could be turned into a federal state among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish lines. The problem was, most Iraqis were fiercely opposed to breaking up the country. A BBC poll from 2007 found that only 9 percent of respondents favored “a country divided into separate states.”
Many Syrians also oppose breaking up their country. A recent academic survey found that only 2 percent of respondents in one Syrian refugee camp in Turkey thought their country should be divided.
Kurdish groups may not feel the same, however. “Any kind of centralized Syria is unacceptable,” Muslim said Wednesday.
Liz Sly in Sulaymaniyah contributed to this report.