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From Syria to Iraq: Federalize or Perish

By Norman Ricklefs and Hadi Fathallah

Federalism is the natural solution to the crisis gripping Syria and the Sunni regions of Iraq. Unfortunately, calls for federalism are often viewed in the Middle East as a conspiracy against regime stability and sovereignty and as a gateway to a new Sykes-Picot carving up national borders. But federalism can work. For instance, the United Arab Emirates is a thriving multi-cultural, religiously and ethnically tolerant federation. Historically, the various Islamic empires in the Middle East governed in a largely federal manner, as did pre-Islamic empires as far back as Alexander the Great’s successor states. In many parts of the Middle East, especially Iraq and Syria, federalism should be a key part of the solution to political, social, and economic challenges.

In March 2016, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) declared their federal status within Syria. This had been preceded in late February by Russia suggesting a federal model for Syria while Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, announced during the Geneva talks that federalism should be considered in the absence of a Plan B. Both the Syrian government and major opposition groups rejected the unilateral declaration, considering it “unacceptable,” illegal, and a step toward partition. Turkey condemned the declaration as an act of war and a step toward the creation of Greater Kurdistan. Saudi Arabia and Iran voiced their disapproval. Even the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq would not come out in support of the proposal, both from fear of losing favor with Turkey and due to competition between the Syrian YPG and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq.

And yet, Iraq, for all its problems, shows the benefits of a federal form of government. Because of the power of provincial governments, the chaos that has enveloped Baghdad and much of the area to the north and west has bypassed the south. Iraqis in southern provinces have much closer relationships with provincial authorities than with Baghdad. Empowering the administrations of liberated Sunni provinces in the north and west of the country would produce the same effect. In northern Iraq, the amalgamation of three majority Kurdish provinces into an autonomous Kurdish region has brought economic development, not least because the region’s relative stability and better governance have encouraged oil money from southern Iraq to flow into Kurdistan. However, the example of Kurdistan also demonstrates the difference between federalism and regional autonomy, since the lack of clear delineation between the powers of the regional and central governments (especially in regard to oil revenues) has been a source of political instability within Iraq and with Iraq’s neighbors. Federalism works when the respective rights and responsibilities of the province and the central government are well defined.

In the Middle East, resistance to federalism mostly stems from government opposition to political change, sharing of power, and the reality of minority rule. Since the end of the Ottoman Empire, national governments in the Middle East have attempted to maintain authority by controlling the political center, namely the capital and main metropolitan areas. Rural and peripheral areas—which contributed to national economic activity, from agriculture to resource extraction and production—were neglected, repressed, and left underdeveloped. Economic benefits from natural resources rarely flowed back to the periphery. Maintaining a central grip on the generators of economic wealth and using the development economy (infrastructure, health, education, etc.) as a means to maintain power was and is a signature feature of Middle Eastern governments.

Fear of federalism is recent. After the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, nation states arose. They were intended to follow the European model, and over the course of the 20th century were increasingly influenced by centralizing political theories such as fascism and socialism. This centralization, however, contradicts thousands of years of history. During the time of the successor states that arose from Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the various Islamic caliphates, the Middle East was a region of law, order, and commerce that was only loosely governed from the center. During the Ottoman period, the vilayat and millet systems were the only effective means to govern vast, heterogeneous populations. The frictions we see now in the nation states of the Middle East are partly due to centralizing political elites’ refusal to learn from the period of history when federal systems were the norm. The problem with Middle Eastern governance is less about the borders themselves than it is about the type of government within those borders.

Federalism is a natural political solution to the quagmires in Iraq and Syria. It would allow the power of central governments to be shared with regions and communities. Sub-national groups, who feel left out of politics and economic development, would have a stake and a voice in the nation. In Iraq, Baghdad needs to recognize that people mainly look to their provincial governments, and it should empower those governments to both provide the services their citizens need and represent those citizens in the capital (as only the three Kurdish provinces have so far done). What is needed is a federal system focused on the provinces, as is already embodied in the Iraqi Constitution and law but is often ignored in practice. We are not advocating for a Sunnistan, an idea that is increasingly discussed as a solution for the Sunni majority provinces after the elimination of the Islamic State. In theory, the provinces of Sunnistan would be combined based on the Kurdish model and granted autonomous status. This, however, is economically, demographically, and politically impractical. Iraq’s Sunnis are divided culturally and tribally between and within each province, and unlike Kurdistan with its significant oil reserves, Iraqi Sunnistan would have few natural resources. Most importantly, only Anbar province is over 90 percent Sunni Arab; the rest have substantial minorities of Arab Shiites, Kurds, Turkomen, and other groups such as Yazidis and Christians. Thus in Iraq, the devolution of power to the existing provinces is the answer, not the creation of new autonomous regions.  

In Syria, a high degree of federalism is also the only answer, with autonomous entities falling under the umbrella of a weak nation state; a transition to a federal system would recognize the status quo. As the country stabilizes, the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida could be prioritized. It’s important for de jure political systems to recognize de facto political realities. This was one of the keys to success in the Bosnia-Herzegovina political settlement: It recognized the political reality that had been created by the conflict but put a framework in place that prevented further fragmentation. Syria’s conflict was partially created by a minority-ruled, centralized state imposing its will over a multiplicity of religious, ethnic, and regional groups. The only way to prevent further fragmentation is to allow those groups a high degree of self rule, thus giving them a stake in the body politic.

With the region’s long history of federalized systems and the dramatic failure of so many centralized states, federalism is worth considering as a transformative solution to the various challenges faced by countries of the Middle East.

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Norman Ricklefs holds a PhD in History. He is currently chairman of NAMEA Group and a World Economic Forum Global Thought Leader.  He was formerly advisor to the Libyan Prime Minister and the Iraqi Minister of Interior.

Hadi Fathallah is an economist and policy adviser focused on energy, food security, and political risk in the MENA region. Hadi is a fellow of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, Cornell University and member of the Global Shapers Community, an initiative of the World Economic Forum.

The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of these institutions.

[Photo courtesy of jan Sefti]

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