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The Kurds Are Planning to Declare Their Own Autonomous Region in Syria

The Kurds have asserted de-facto control of a large swath of northern Syria amid the civil war — now they are poised to formally declare their own federal system.
Photo via EPA

The Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria are expected to declare a federal system imminently, Kurdish officials said on Wednesday. Syria's Kurdish minority already control a large swath of land in the north of the country, and Idris Nassan, a Syrian Kurdish official and former leader in the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), said the upcoming declaration would mean "widening" that "framework of self-administration."


They are meeting in Rmelan to discuss the form of federalism or maybe to declare it, too — Idriss Nassan (@NassanIdriss)March 16, 2016

The announcements comes as world powers — including Russia, the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — are holding peace talks in Geneva to try to bring an end to the five-year Syrian civil war. The Syrian Kurds, who are a major belligerent in the conflict, and considered by many to be the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State, have been excluded from the talks. Turkey, which is at war with its own Kurdish minority and has attacked Kurdish rebels in Iraq and Syria, is wary of growing Kurdish power across the Syrian border and has long insisted that the Kurds be sidelined.

As world powers meet in Geneva, Kurdish leaders are holding a conference Wedneday in the Kurdish-controlled town of Rmeilan, which had been billed as a meeting to plan for the future of a "Democratic Federal System for Rojava - Northern Syria." Rojava is the Kurdish name for the region. Since 2012, when the Syrian government effectively withdrew its forces from the north of the country, the Kurds have ruled the area and enjoyed de-facto autonomy. The Kurdish zone is now divided into three semi-autonomous cantons known as Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin.

A new federal system could mean that those three cantons are united under one federal system, that is still part of, but largely independent from the Syrian central government. Conference participants shared a document with Reuters that showed plans to create an "area of democratic self-administration" that will manage its own economic, security and defense affairs. Details of how the Kurdish zone would interact with the central government in Damascus have not yet been released.


But Kurdish officials confirmed to Reuters that a formal and more detailed declaration of autonomy was forthcoming. Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish official and one of the organizers of the conference, told Reuters he anticipated that the conference would approve of a new system of government in northern Syria, which he characterized as "democratic federalism."

Syrian Kurds effectively control an uninterrupted stretch of 250 miles along the Syrian-Turkish border from the Euphrates river to the frontier with Iraq, where Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy since the early 1990s.

Related: Syria's Kurds Have Nearly Tripled Their Territory Fighting the Islamic State in 2015

The Kurds in Syria created their own constitution in 2014, and the YPG Kurdish fighting force has become a major ally of the United States in its campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. In June, 2015, fighters with the YPG took the key Turkish border crossing of Tell Abyad from the Islamic State, strengthening Kurdish grip on the northern strip of Syria

In the end, a formal declaration of a federal system could antagonize both the Turks and the Syrian government. Turkey, whose conflict with the Kurdish PKK has escalated in recent months, has already said such moves were unacceptable. "Syria's national unity and territorial integrity is fundamental for us. Outside of this, unilateral decisions cannot have validity," a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told Reuters. On Saturday, Syria's government in Damascus ruled out the idea of a federal system for the country.


"The Syrian Kurds are an important component of the Syrian people," Syria's Ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari, said. "We are proud of them; they are proud of us. We have established our state together for centuries. So, betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure."

The US State Department released an official statement reacting to the announcement.

"We have not and will not recognize any "self-rule" semi-autonomous zone," it said. "We remain committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria."

The Russians — who have helped to prop up the beleaguered Assad regime — have signaled they are open to more Kurdish autonomy.

Reuters contributed to this report