The Bosnia Solution, How Russia Plans To Split Syria In Three

Moscow is quietly working toward a federal future for war-torn Syria, with a central government but the nation divided into three different ethnic zones. It's a nod to Kurdish ambitions and lessons from the Balkans.

A Syrian Kurd family last April
A Syrian Kurd family last April
Lucia Sgueglia

MOSCOW â€" After intervening in the long-running conflict on Bashar al-Assad"s behalf, Russia is cautiously planning a federal solution for Syria. As the war sputters on during a temporary ceasefire, Russia is outflanking U.S. attempts at other solutions that don't foresee any partition of the country.

Moscow's plan is inspired by the "Bosnian solution" that arose from the 1995 Dayton Accords, which split Bosnia-Herzegovina into a federation of two ethnic states with a weak central government. "If all parties agree to a federal Syria and it guarantees the territorial unity, independence and sovereignty of the country, then who would object?" says Sergey Ryabkov, Russia's deputy foreign minister.

Russia has long avoided making a prominent push for such a solution, given its support for the centralized Syrian government. Moscow's foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova recently reasserted this principle, saying, "Any peace deal must respect Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty."

Yet the continued strength of Syria's Kurds, supported by both Moscow and Washington, has led the Kremlin to consider a far greater autonomy while rejecting their dreams of an independent "Greater Kurdistan."

Indeed, the Syrian Kurds are at the heart of Moscow's foreign policy change of heart. Syrian Kurdish leaders recently told Russian journalists about the need for "decentralization" in Syria to put an end to the internecine conflict. One day after the ceasefire began, Ilham Ahmed, a member of the executive council of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous government, revealed that there is an understanding between Russia, the U.S. and opposition forces on a proposed federal solution.

A rough outline of a federal Syria would divide the country into three autonomous entities: a Kurdish region in the north and northeast; a central and eastern region composed primarily of Sunnis; and a region covering the coast and the central spine from Aleppo to the capital Damascus, home to a mixed population of Shia Alawites, Druze, Christians, Sunnis and others.

An outline of what Russia's proposed federal solution would look like â€" Map: Wikicommons; outline: La Stampa

According to General Leonid Ivashov, head of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Russia first needs to resolve tensions between Syria's Kurds, the Assad regime and its Iranian backers.

"Syrian Kurds primarily fight terrorists, but they don't fight to keep Assad in power," he says. "The only reasonable solution is federalism because we can neither push back the Kurds nor allow them to separate from Syria, since that would set a bad precedent." In his view, a federal Syria would preclude the country's "Balkanization" into several independent statelets.

Moscow has been advocating for the Kurds' inclusion in the Geneva peace talks since early January, but the request has fallen on deaf ears. On Feb. 10, representatives of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous region â€" named "Rojava" â€" traveled to Moscow to open their first foreign office. While the office is not considered an official diplomatic mission, the Kurds clearly have thinly veiled ambitions to garner Russian support for a Kurdish autonomous state in any post-war peace solution.

Russia has long supported Kurdish regional ambitions, historically aiding the Kurdish Workers" Party (PKK) rebellion against Turkey during the Cold War. Just last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that the Syrian-Turkish border must be shut. As tensions remain high between Moscow and Ankara, the Kremlin's big plans put it at risk of colliding head-on with Turkey.

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Migrant Lives

The Other Scandal At The Poland-Belarus Border: Where's The UN?

The United Nations, UNICEF, Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations seems to be trying to reach the Polish-Belarusian border, where Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is creating a refugee crisis on purpose.

Migrants in Michalowo, Belarus, next to the border with Poland.

Wojciech Czuchnowski

WARSAW — There is no doubt that the refugees crossing the Belarusian border with Poland — and by extension reaching the European Union — were shepherded through by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. There is more than enough evidence that this is an organized action of the dictator using a network of intermediaries stretching from Africa and the Middle East. But that is not all.

The Belarusian regime has made no secret that its services are guiding refugees to the Polish border, literally pushing them onto (and often, through) the wires.

It can be seen in films made available to the media by... Belarusian border guards and Lukashenko's official information agencies.

Tactics of a strongman

Refugees are not led to the border by "pretend soldiers" in uniforms from a military collectibles store. These are regular formations commanded by state authorities. Their actions violate all rules of peaceful coexistence and humanitarianism to which Belarus has committed itself as a state.

Belarus is dismissed by the "rest of the world" as a hopeless case of a bizarre (although, in the last year, increasingly brutal) dictatorship. But it still formally belongs to a whole range of organizations whose principles it violates every day on the border with Poland.

Indeed, Belarus is a part of the United Nations (it is even listed as a founding state in its declaration), it belongs to the UNICEF, to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Photo of Polish soldiers setting up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Polish soldiers set up a barbed wire fence in the Border Zone near Krynki, Belarus

Maciej Luczniewski/ZUMA

Lukashenko would never challenge the Red Cross

Each of these entities has specialized bureaus whose task is to intervene wherever conventions and human rights are violated. Each of these organizations should have sent their observers and representatives to the conflict area long ago — and without asking Belarus for permission. They should be operating on both sides of the border, as their presence would certainly make it more difficult to break the law.

An incomprehensible absence

Neither the leader of Poland's ruling party Jaroslaw Kaczyński nor even Lukashenko would dare to keep the UN, UNICEF, OSCE or the Red Cross out of their countries.

In recent weeks, the services of one UN state (Belarus) have been regularly violating the border of another UN state (Poland). In the nearby forests, children are being pushed around and people are dying. Despite all of this, none of the international organizations seems to be trying to reach the border nor taking any kind of action required by their responsibilities.

Their absence in such a critical time and place is completely incomprehensible, and their lack of action raises questions about the use of international treaties and organizations created to protect them.

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