Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Major New Developments in Syria--For Once, Not Entirely Bad

There's been big news on the Syria Front, and it could have significant implications for the fledgling peace process that is currently underway.

Syrian Kurds Poised to Declare Autonomous Region
Up first, the Syrian Kurds are planning to declare an autonomous, federal region within the areas of northern Syria that they already control. The formal declaration hadn't occurred at the time of this writing, but it appears it will fall short of declaring outright independence from Syria proper. On the contrary, the Syrian Kurds are suggesting this federalized model could be extended as a model for a Syria.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, it might be useful to clarify what precisely "federal" means in this context. In the US, the term "federal" has a confusing connotation to it. After all, in US history, it was the Federalist Papers that ultimately convinced the newly freed colonies to ratify the US Constitution which created a much stronger central government than before. Similarly, given how large and wide-reaching the US government is today, you could be forgiven for thinking of federal as short-hand for a powerful central government.

In its more native usage, however, it really means the opposite. A federalized system is one in which the central government typically has relatively little authority and leaves a lot of the decisions up to the various underlying subregions (states, provinces, cantons, etc.). That's what the Syrian Kurds are hoping for as the eventual outcome of the Syrian War.

And as models go, you could do a lot worse. From an economics standpoint, federalized systems are appealing for two key reasons. First, they offer the opportunity for experimentation with different policies, and would potentially allow citizens to more readily move to a region that fits their political or economic preferences. For instance, it's easier for me to move from Oregon to New Hampshire in the US, than it is for me to move from Oregon to, say, Switzerland. Ultimately, the federal system can allow subregions to compete against each other to lure people and businesses to their area. Over time, we would expect this to produce better policies than a governing system that is more monolithic.

In the context of an ongoing civil war, another aspect of federalism might be even more valuable. It virtually goes without saying that there is a lot of deep mistrust and resentment on all sides of the Syrian conflict. Given this, how likely is it that they are going to be able to agree on what the new government will look like? Will there be free and fair elections? Even if there are, will all sides really accept the outcome as final or just resume fighting if they don't get what they want? It's tough to see how this all ends well. But one thing that could be helpful is to lower the stakes. If a more federalized model is embraced, the central government is weakened and it matters less which people and parties get to lead it.

While, on the surface, the Kurdish proposal seems reasonable enough, it does not look like it is going to be well-received by many of the players in the peace process. The ruling Syrian government opposes it, the US opposes it, and Turkey is probably plotting more shelling or airstrikes against the Syrian Kurds as a response (unfortunately, that's not hyperbole). The US apparently rests its opposition to the move on the idea that the US will only accept a federalized solution if it emerges through the peace process. But this is obviously a bit ironic since the Syrian Kurds in question were excluded from said peace process (most likely at Turkey's behest). Indeed, their exclusion is what appears to have prompted this announcement in the first place.

As a clarification here, we should point out that we're not suggesting the US take any particular stance on the Kurdish announcement. We have previously argued, on the related question of outright Kurdish independence, that this is a very volatile and complicated issue that the US best avoid taking sides in. From the standpoint of the American people, that seems to remain the most sensible policy today as well.

But if the US is going to be sitting at the negotiating table, we'd probably prefer they were supporting a federal option instead of just reiterating the untenable demand that Assad must go. The former has at least some chance of since; the latter just ensures the war will continue.

Russian Force Withdrawal
The other big news story this week is that Russia announced they will begin removing most of their forces in Syria this week, having achieved their objectives. This development is important, and positive, for several key reasons:

First and foremost, it should reduce tensions between the US and Russia over time. One of the US government's key talking points on Russia has been the idea that they were somehow hellbent on rekindling a world empire after their actions in Crimea and Syria. This never made much sense, but that didn't stop it from gaining wide currency in the US media. At its most hysterical pitch, the reliable Senator McCain could be found blaming Obama's weakness for allowing Russia to reinsert itself in the Middle East. Given how well it's worked out for the US, it's not altogether clear why this was supposed to be a bad thing, even if it were true--the most likely answer being that John McCain is fascinated by the game of Risk and desperately wanted to live it out in real life. In any case, however, it turns out that wasn't true. Or if it was, Russia's new Middle Eastern empire was the shortest in history.

Second, a reduced Russian presence should translate into fewer airstrikes occurring in Syria, and along with that, fewer civilian casualties.

And finally, the removal of Russia's significant military aid to Syria may make Assad more eager to negotiate a peaceful settlement quickly. The Syrian military made significant gains with Russia's help. It is not immediately clear whether those gains would be reversed when the support is removed, but it is a real possibility. Thus, Assad has a clear incentive to negotiate a settlement while he is in relatively good shape and avoid the potential erosion of his position in the future.

Finally, for more commentary and analysis on the Russian withdrawal, we recommend a new piece by Ray McGovern at If podcasts are more your thing, you can also check out Ray's interview on the Scott Horton Show, which addresses this same topic. (Note: it's part of the 3/16 show if you go that route.)

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