The root cause of Syria’s conflict is the concentration of power by a minority-led Alawite administration. Decentralization can contribute to peace and political transition.
Syria’s future governance should consider constitutional arrangements, which enshrine power-sharing. There is no standard power-sharing formula. It differs from case to case. As a rule, however, constitutional power-sharing serves as the basis for the rule of law. It distributes governance responsibilities, defining the relationship of individuals and groups to one another and the state.
Constitutions allocate power horizontally and vertically. The horizontal distribution of responsibilities defines relations between the executive, legislature and judiciary. The vertical separation of powers involves national and subnational arrangements, decentralizing authority to the regions so they become stakeholders in the country’s governance. Both are a form of checks and balances.
As Syrians consider power-sharing, they should be familiar with the following terms and concepts.
- Unitary State: A unitary state is governed by a single unit, the central government, which exercises final authority. Subnational units may exist in a unitary state, but their powers are allocated by the central government. In a unitary state, subnational units are created and abolished and their powers may be amended by the central government.
- Devolution: A unitary state can delegate power through devolution to local government. However, the central government often retains the right to revoke or amend devolved powers. Devolution can be uniform between entities, or different regions may have asymmetrical powers.
- Federalism: Federalism accommodates differences among diverse peoples who enter into a common, democratic political order. Federalism is non-centralized, so units at each level can be self-governing. Sovereignty is shared between the central government and subnational units. States constituting the federation have an existence and functions that cannot be unilaterally changed by the central government.
- Asymetric Federalism: Symmetrical federalism allocates the same powers to all subnational units. In such arrangements, regions vary in their power and status. Asymmetrical arrangements take into account the differing degrees of self-government sought by the subnational unit. Regional and cultural autonomy are used to further devolve powers.
- Autonomy: Political autonomy is institutionalized through a local executive, legislature, judiciary, and mechanisms to ensure security such as the local police. Economic autonomy can encompass the development of natural resources, taxes and revenue, trade, employment, and land ownership. Cultural autonomy involves language, education, religious matters, and symbols of cultural identity.
- Confederation: A confederation is the loosest associational arrangement. Confederation is a union of autonomous or semi-autonomous political units who band together because their individual interests are enhanced through common action. Confederations are often established by treaty between confederation members with equal status. Looser confederations resemble intergovernmental organizations. More integrated confederations resemble federations.
Syrian Kurds have proposed a federal system for Rojava/Northern Syria. The proposal is ground-breaking, and can contribute constructively to Syria’s political transition.
Rojava is a de-facto autonomous region in the provinces of Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin. In Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in cooperation with other sectarian and non-Kurdish groups, has established self-rule on the principles of grass-roots democracy, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.
Both the Syrian government and High Negotiating Council reject federalism. However, federalism represents a concession on the part of Syrian Kurds and other northerners. They have already achieved a high degree of self-rule, as the Syrian state collapsed. Rojava is a reality.
Turkey is deeply concerned about federalism. It worries that federalism in Syria will give traction to demands by Kurds in Turkey for “democratic autonomy.” Turkey strongly opposes a role for the PYD, including participation in Geneva III.
The UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, acquiesced to Turkey’s demands. Engaging Damascus and the Arab opposition was already a tall order. He concluded that incorporating the demands of Syrian Kurds at this time would just complicate matters.
Substantive issues, including Syria’s new constitution, will come later. Today, the UN is focused on a cessation of hostilities, leading to a cease-fire and setting the stage for a peace agreement.
Syria’s long national nightmare will end eventually. When Syrians start negotiating substantive issues, constitutional power-sharing will prove to be a tool for conflict resolution. Syrian Kurds can point the way.
Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush, and Obama.
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