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.
MOSCOW — 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.
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 — named "Rojava" — 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.