Syria’s three Kurdish-controlled autonomousnorthern regions voted to approve the establishment of an autonomous federal system on Thursday, enraging both the Damascus government and neighboring power Turkey with a move that could thwart the new U.N.-backed peace talks.
The vote, which was held at a conference in the town of Rmeilan in north-east Syria, seems to be aimed at creating a self-run entity within Syria, a status that Kurds have enjoyed in neighboring Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish official and conference organizer, said the Kurds had been considering a new system to unify its controlled territories, and “democratic federalism” was the best one.
“We have given our blessing for the establishment of a federal system in Rojava and northern Syria,” Mr Khalil said. Rojava is the Kurdish name for north Syria.
The proclamation is nevertheless an open challenge to many of the sides in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war, as well as their international sponsors, who have mainly been battling for control of what they say must remain a unified state.
The United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is convening the peace talks in Geneva, suggested last week that a federal model for Syria could be discussed during negotiations.
“All Syrians have rejected division (of Syria) and federalism can be discussed at the negotiations,” he told Al Jazeera television.
The Syrian Government immediately denounced the declaration, saying it had no legal or political impact.
The opposition National Coalition meanwhile warned against “any attempt to form entities, regions, or administrations that usurp the will of the Syrian people”.
The Kurds, who enjoy U.S. military support, have beaten back ISIS fighters to control strips of northern Syria, but the main Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, has so far been excluded from peace talks that began this week in Geneva.
Although Washington has supported the Kurds militarily, the State Department said it refused to recognize “self-ruled, semi-autonomous zones in Syria”, although it might accept a federal structure if that were the choice of the Syrian people.
“Any such announcement has no legal value and will not have any legal, political, social or economic impact as long as it does not reflect the will of the entire Syrian people,” state news agency SANA cited a foreign ministry source as saying.
The PYD has consistently said it wants a model of decentralized government for Syria, not partition. The document agreed on Thursday stressed that the federal system would “guarantee the unity of Syrian territory”.
An official in Turkey said: “Syria must remain as one without being weakened and the Syrian people must decide on its future in agreement and with a constitution. Every unilateral initiative will harm Syria’s unity.”
Turkey fears growing Kurdish sway in Syria is fueling separatism among its own minority Kurds, and considers the main Syrian Kurdish militia to be an ally of the PKK, which has fought an insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey.
Nawaf Khalil, a former PYD official, played down parallels between Kurdish aspirations in Syria and Iraq, saying Thursday’s announcement was a joint move taken together with the region’s other communities.
“The experience resulted from discussions with Arabs and Assyrians, Chechens, Armenians, Turkmen. There is a special case in Rojava, it is not like the path taken in Iraq,” he said.
Voting on the federal model had been expected on Wednesday but was delayed by one day, in part because of demands from Arab and Assyrian communities for reassurances that it would not mean separation from Syria, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.