Syrian Kurds from Kobani behind a border fence. Credit Murad Sezer/Reuters

Published by New York Times 21 March 2016

One important political outcome of the Syrian war could be a decision by Syrian Kurds to establish a semiautonomous region in the northern part of the country. The move entails risks and has been condemned by Turkey and even some Kurds, but could offer a model for decentralized governance in a federated Syria.

The Kurds have taken advantage of the five-year war to consolidate control over three noncontiguous areas in northern Syria. Last week, Kurdish parties, including the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., announced they were putting together a plan to unite areas controlled by Kurdish forces in a semiautonomous entity within a federal system.

The Kurds are an ethnic group of perhaps 35 million in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and they have long argued that they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. They have suffered persecution and had their aspirations for self-governance crushed. The American invasion of Iraq created an opportunity for Kurds living there to establish a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq, which has been reasonably successful.

The Syrian Kurds are in a stronger position to press their case for political autonomy because they have emerged as a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State. But the pro-autonomy move is anathema to Turkey, a NATO ally at war with its own Kurdish separatist groups and fearful of an expansion of Kurdish self-governance anywhere. Turkey managed to exclude the Kurds from this week’s United Nations-mediated peace talks on Syria. The Syrian Kurds’ announcement seemed timed as a reminder that they will not be ignored.

The United States has said it opposes Syrian Kurds acting now to form an autonomous self-ruled region because the long-term goal of the United Nations talks is a national unity government that does not include President Bashar al-Assad and keeps Syria united. But it has also said it would support a federal system of semiautonomous regions if that’s what the Syrian people agree to in the peace talks.

The notion of a federal system has been floated by Philip Gordon and James Dobbins, former officials in the Obama administration, and has been discussed not only among the Kurds but also in Washington as a potential solution for Syria, at least until a longer-term political solution is agreed to. Russia has also endorsed the concept.

The idea is that Syria would be divided into zones roughly corresponding to areas held by Kurdish militias, the government, the Islamic State and other insurgents. The zone held by the Islamic State would be under international administration as the United States and others worked to defeat the militants.

The Syrian Kurds say they are not seeking total independence, only a democratic region in which they, Arabs and other ethnic groups can live together. This may be an idea worth building on as part of a political solution to end the war and the slaughter of civilians.