Reversing past injustices
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Could the progressive model of Democratic Federal Northern Syria pave the way for an inclusive, pluralist Middle East?
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for Independent Media
IT IS amazing to think that in the next few weeks, Raqqa, the city which Islamic State declared as the capital of its caliphate, could be liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces. The forces claim that over the past few months they freed the villages surrounding Raqqa, and have liberated 80% of the city.
The forces comprise the Kurdish YPG fighters, the Arab army from Raqqa, and the Christian army, which have been effective in routing IS from the city. Prior to this offensive, these forces had established the Raqqa People’s Council, which is envisioned as a modern democratic ruling structure. The rationale was to ensure there would not be a power vacuum in the wake of IS’s retreat, and that progressive forces seeking pluralism and democracy would take control.
Raqqa’s emancipation represents a major victory for the forces, as IS will have lost both its strongholds – Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa. The question now is what form of governance will take hold in Syria, and the most appropriate model to pursue.
What emerges as arguably one of the most progressive models in Syria today is the Northern Syria Democratic Federal System, which was declared on December 29, 2016 by all the components of northern Syria. Having developed autonomous structures in the Kurdish areas since 2012, the Kurds convinced the others of the need for a common democratic model of self-rule.
The system has explicitly declared it is not seeking to set up a separate state, but rather to establish a democratic system in the north that could become a democratic model for a future Syria.
The fundamental principle underlying this self-rule is to ensure peaceful coexistence with other ethnicities (such as Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians, Arabs, Turkmens and Chechens) and to incorporate all different belief systems (such as Muslims, Christians, Yezidis and Alevis).
While this certainly seems a positive development, the caution would be that it must not lead to the splitting up of Syria, and the model should not be used by outside powers to push for the Balkanisation of countries in the Middle East.
One would expect that the vision of creating such a pluralist and inclusive society would be widely supported by outside forces. But to date no country has officially recognised the Democratic Federal Northern Syria. The reason is simple – this system is at odds with the centralised nation-state not only of Damascus, but also of other nation-states in the region such as Turkey and Iran, which want to ensure the survival of the ethnically based nation-state.
Damascus’s nation-state, for example, is based on the denial and marginalisation of different languages, cultures and religions of the region.
The very existence of the Democratic Federal Northern Syria is perceived by Turkey as a threat, given its ideology of being an ethnically based nation-state. The Kurdish population in Turkey is 25 million, making it the country’s largest ethnic group, which has posed the most persistent challenge to Turkish nationalism.
Any notion that the Kurds in Syria could be afforded autonomy makes Turkey panic, to the point that it has built a 510km wall along its border with Syria.
Turkey’s official policy is also based on expansionism, as it would like to reclaim territory which the Ottoman Empire lost in 1914. In a conference on security last year in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared: “The future must be planned on the basis of a profound analysis of history. Turkey will have built itself a bigger country with the help of Allah.”
Ironically, it was the British-French Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the provinces of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, and resulted in the Kurds and other ethnic groups losing their semi-autonomous status.
The 1916 agreement was a political tool devised by Britain and France as a means to implement their political and strategic interests in the Middle East. They subsequently imposed the European model of the nation-state, which ensured that most regimes in the Middle East are now dominated by a single ethnic and religious group. The policy of creating homogeneous nations sowed hatred and enmity between peoples as governments imposed policies of assimilation, and even carried out cultural genocide.
This is the legacy which the Middle East was left by the colonial powers, and we are reaping the unfortunate dividends of national policies of exclusion today.
The Democratic Federal Northern Syria may prove to be an alternative worth considering, which reverses the injustices of the past. It may assist not only in democratising Syria itself, but it could become a successful model for other countries of the Middle East.
Perhaps narrow Pan-Arabism and nationalism, which seeks to assimilate other ethnicities, could one day give way to real democracy and pluralist societies.
TASTE OF FREEDOM: Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units in Raqqa, Syria. Eighty percent of the city has been liberated.