No going back: Why decentralisation is the future for Syria

Press release

After more than five years of conflict Syria is today fragmented into four distinct zones, with the devastating human and social toll of the war accompanied by a disintegration of the centralised order that defined the Assad regime, argues a new report from ECFR.

No Going Back: Why decentralisation is the future of Syria argues that the international community has failed to adapt the Syrian peace process to the reality of this division of power on the ground, and that the vision of a central power-sharing agreement between the regime and the opposition is now unattainable.

In its place, European governments should push a decentralisation agenda. This will inevitably need to involve the Kurds as one of the key parties on the ground. It should also be viewed as an important dimension of the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS). The prospect of enhanced local control and a fairer distribution of state resources represents an important means of trying to rally local support against the group.

Decentralisation offers one of the few ways to hold the country together, albeit in a looser form. If the international community fails to include the competing local power centres that have emerged during the course of the war, the outcome could well be the complete breakup of Syria.

Syria fragmented

Syria is now divided into four broad zones, backed by local military might and serviced by new regional administrative bodies. In government-held areas, local power brokers now assert considerable independence, challenging Damascus’s ability to hold on to power even in areas under its supposed remit.

In the north, the Kurdish PYD has established an autonomous region with its own legislative and executive bodies. An independent school curriculum was introduced in September 2015 - taught exclusively in Kurdish - and in March 2016 plans were announced to establish an independent central bank.

In the east of the country, ISIS has established a relatively effective financial administration - the Zakat Office - which levies taxes and issues an annual budget, estimated to be in the region of $2 billion, and in July 2016 had even reportedly begun to mint and circulate its own currency.

A fourth zone - itself split between various small and large pockets of territory across the country -   is under the control of various opposition groups, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front). An estimated 395 local councils were active across these territories in March 2016.

A necessary condition

Despite this daunting picture of division, Syrians continue to display a remarkable attachment to a shared sense of nationalism.  Frightened by the example of the violent disintegration of Iraq, many share a perception that any move towards decentralisation would mean the eventual partition of the country. This being said, the reality of five years of conflict has made clear, at least to some on the opposition side, that some form of devolution will be necessary, with the Kurds explicitly in favour of decentralisation.

For European states and institutions, particularly those most active in international diplomacy on Syria – the seven European members of the International Syrian Support Group: France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the EU – a recognition of the irreversibility of decentralisation should have important implications for their approach to conflict resolution.

These actors should explicitly support decentralisation as a means of holding the country together, rather than a slippery slope towards partition. Ultimately it will be up to Syrians to decide on the level of devolution that will shape the future of their country, but European states can offer political and technical support behind this approach. This report suggests a decentralised model based on the transfer of power away from Damascus towards the governorate and district levels, but with the central state retaining a monopoly on a number of key areas including defence, foreign affairs and the printing of money.

The report argues that Syria’s official name should no longer contain the word “Arab” and that Kurdish regions should get a special status with enhanced powers. Decentralisation cannot apply to ISIS-controlled territories, but the offer of enhanced local control and a fairer distribution of state resources represents an important means of trying to rally local support against the group in these areas.

While many of these recommendations may only bear fruit in the long-term, taking steps towards implementation now could play an important role in helping end the conflict, with the Kurds, for example, more likely to work towards peace if their political rights are acknowledged.


Author Jihad Yazigi said:

“In most opposition areas, children know of the Syrian state only through the barrel bombs falling from the sky. It is inconceivable that these communities, which over five years of war have developed independent systems of governance, will accept a return to the highly centralised state of the pre-uprising era.

Decentralisation, including a special status for areas of high Kurdish concentration, is a necessary condition for finding a solution to the current conflict, as well as efforts to begin rebuilding the country. While Syria may still be in the midst of an all-out war, there is no excuse not to be ready when the end finally comes.”


Notes to editors

Full recommendations:

  • Syria should adopt a decentralised political system based on the transfer of power away from Damascus and towards the governorate and district levels. Kurdish regions should get a special status with enhanced powers, as part of asymmetric decentralisation.
  • While decentralisation is implemented and communities are recognised as political actors, the central state should retain a monopoly on a number of key sovereign attributes including defence, foreign affairs, and the printing of money. 
  • Syria’s official name should no longer contain the word “Arab”. This symbolic move would be in line with the overwhelming number of Arabic countries, including Iraq and Lebanon, and would send a positive signal to non-Arab Syrians.
  • The state should teach all children from minority groups in their mother tongue. In Kurdish areas in the northeast, and Kurdish-majority districts of Damascus and Aleppo, schools should teach in Kurdish as well as Arabic.
  • The state should ensure that it uses its available tools to limit geographic disparities in economic development. For instance, access to employment in each governorate should be based on its share of the country’s total population. Where possible, the same rule should apply to public investments.
  • Oil export revenue should be reallocated, guaranteeing a proportion equal to each province’s population, on the principle that oil resources are equally owned by the entire country.
  • Sectarian and ethnic communities should get some form of political representation at the central level. A bicameral system could be a solution. However, the Russian proposal to appoint government members on the basis of their religious or ethnic affiliation would go too far in terms of institutionalising these divisions, and would be a recipe for gridlock. Instead, community representation should be pushed at the legislative level, in an upper house tasked with monitoring and control and with preventing discrimination. At the executive level, there should be no appointments or allocation of official positions based on sectarian or ethnic affiliations.

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