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Decentralization, Federalism, or none of the above? An analysis of possible governance options in post-conflict Syria

In March 2016, Syrian Kurds claimed the creation of a de-facto federal region in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, uniting three Kurdish-led autonomous areas (Jazira, Kobani and Afrin) under one federal region, Rojava. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and allied Arab and Assyrian groups issued a statement which emphasized that despite the federal region’s autonomy, it will remain a part of Syria. Kurdish leaders defended the declaration, saying that the communities in question have a “legitimate right” to autonomy and that the declaration is a blueprint for a future decentralized Syrian state. However, the Kurdish declaration received significant backlash from multiple sides, including the PYD’s international supporters, the Syrian government (which said the declaration had no legal basis), and the Syrian opposition. Some Syrians view federalism as a dirty word and a poor option for Syria, given the failures of the Iraqi experience. As discussions about the new constitution and governance structure progress, Syrians must decide how decentralized their state will be which will first require a better understanding of the different options.

Governance structures may range from highly centralized to highly decentralized systems. Decentralization generally refers to the transfer of authority from a central government to other entities such as provinces, municipalities, or even private institutions. A decentralized government is any government in which a state’s political, administrative, and/or fiscal actions can be made by subdivisions that exist under the central government. Successful decentralized systems tend to combine technical expertise from the central government with local-level knowledge from subdivisions in order to provide services more effectively than what one level of government could accomplish on its own.

Decentralization includes a spectrum of options. Deconcentration is the weakest form of decentralization, which involves distributing some authority and financial management duties amongst different parts of the central government. Delegation takes this further, by shifting responsibilities to semi-autonomous organizations (such as school districts or housing authorities) which can have a great deal of discretion in decision-making, but remain accountable to the central government. Devolution is further down the decentralization spectrum and occurs when governments transfer responsibilities and decision-making authority to local government, such as service delivery within a municipality. Federalism, which can be found on the more diffused part of the scale, is a tiered system of governance whereby local government subdivisions have a large amount of autonomy while maintaining some accountability to the central government. Devolution and federalism share many similarities, but in a devolved system, the central government usually exercises complete control over the extent of the powers of subdivisions while in a federal system, the central government cannot unilaterally revoke the powers of subdivisions.

Almost every modern nation has implemented decentralization, to one extent or another because  decentralization offers several advantages and is generally seen as a component of a country’s democratization process. Decentralized systems may, for example, allow smaller authorities to cater to the needs of specific communities. This can be especially helpful in large or diverse societies, such as Syria, where local governments can be better equipped to respond to their constituents. More decentralized governments may also be better at decreasing and simplifying decision-making bottlenecks which often overburden a central government’s bureaucracy. Finally, decentralization can lead to increased accountability as communities are better able to hold local decision-makers accountable and the separation between the central government and subdivisions allows for both upward and downward checks of power.

Decentralization, however, does not guarantee the resolution of all governance problems. One possible disadvantage to decentralization are higher costs due to the increased layers of complexity. And when smaller local authorities are poorly funded, ill equipped, or lack the technical expertise to perform their tasks, decentralized systems become ineffective. Another disadvantage is that highly decentralized federal systems divided according to religious and/or ethnic backgrounds sometimes leads to further fragmentation of already unstable countries. With less reliance on the central government, subdivisions may be tempted to secede. In Iraq, for example, members of the Kurdistan Regional Governorate have hinted multiple times their desire to split from Iraq and create an independent Kurdish state.

Given Iraq’s proximity to Syria, it may be prudent to examine Iraq’s experience with decentralization as a case study. Iraqi Kurdish de-facto autonomy emerged after the Gulf War due the no-fly zone over Kurdistan enacted by the U.S. and allied forces. Full autonomy came after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which paved the way for Iraqi Kurds to participate politically in the the transitional process. Despite opposition from some Iraqi Arabs, the Kurds were successful in negotiating for the right to autonomous regional governments in the provinces of Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. Although Kurdistan’s stability and economic success demonstrate some of the potential advantages of a federal structure, Kurds in Iraq have not completely dismissed the idea of Kurdish independence especially given Iraq’s increased instability in recent years.

A better understanding of the Iraq case study as well as other country examples are needed before federalism or other forms of decentralization are dismissed as viable options in Syria. While Iraq provides some evidence of the strengths and weaknesses of a federal system, it is by no means definitive; Syria faces its own unique set of challenges and circumstances. It is important to remember that decentralization offers a spectrum of options with an endless number of possibilities — no two countries have an identical system. Ultimately, the decision of how exactly to allocate power and responsibilities among government units should be left to the Syrian people as they strive to rebuild their society in post-conflict Syria.

Note: The Syria Justice and Accountability Center (SJAC) is in the process of a research report on federalism, which will use multiple examples from countries such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, South Sudan, Bosnia, and Kosovo. This blog post aims to give a brief overview of decentralization and federalism and how they may apply to Syria.

For more information and to provide feedback, please contact SJAC at [email protected].