Federalism in Syria, PYD and Ambivalent Position of Iran

After the escalation of clashes between the Syrian regime and its opponents, the Assad administration withdrew its armed forces from some pre-dominantly Kurdish inhabited settlements in the north of country. Thus, the Syrian Kurds have experienced self-administration in those settlements since July 2012. Afterwards, they built ‘autonomous’ ‘canton’ administrations led by PYD (Democratic Union Party), the Syrian offshoot of PKK. In due course, the PYD has created alliances with various actors inside and outside Syria in the name of ‘fighting against ISIS’. Its armed wing, YPG consolidated its grip over the ground and expanded its sphere of control due to its partnership with the Syrian regime, and American and Russian support.  Former US Secretary of State,John Kerry told the Senate foreign relations committee  in February 2016, ‘it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria whole’ if they fail to establish a transitional administration, and he talked likelihood of ‘a plan B.’ Shortly after him, Sergei Riyabkov, Russian deputy foreign minister, said; ‘If as a result of talks, consultations and discussions on Syria's future state order ... they come to an opinion that namely this (federal) model will work ... then who will object to this?’ Stefan de Mistura, special representative of the UN Secretary General, also expressed similar views. These statements unleashed a new debate revolving around the establishment of a federal system in Syria. Both the Syrian government, and the opposition and some regional countries rejected federalism for Syria. However, PYD and its partners proclaimed the establishment of a federal region named ‘Rojava and Northern Syria United Democratic System’ on March 16, 2016, in Rimelan. Although none of the influential actors recognized the proclamation of federalism, the Assad administration, the United States and Russia have maintained their close cooperation with PYD and YPG. Moreover, this partnership was decisive to stop the march of Turkish armed forces and its allies towards Manbij, after taking control of al-Bab. These developments have led to question position of Iran, one of the most notable actors influential over the Syrian regime.

Iran has taken an ambivalent, murky standing with regard to the debates on federalism in Syria, either becauseit has different priorities, or in a conscious way. On the one hand, Iranian officials declared that federal system would not contribute to solution of the Syrian crisis, and continuously talked on preserving territorial integrity of Syria. Salih Muslim, PYD leader, also acknowledged Iran’s strong opposition to federalism. On the other hand, it remained silent onRussian bid for midwifery to deliver Kurdish federalism or autonomy, and developing close relations with PYD. Moreover, intricate relations between PYD and the Assad regime makes it harder to comprehend Iranian stance.

The ambivalent position of Iran has led two different, and contrasting assessments. First assessment suggests that Iran is in partnership with PKK with regard to regional issuesfor a while. Accordingly, having assisted by PUK that has been long time friend of Tehran, Iran brokered an agreementbetween PYD, the Syrian branch of PKK and the Assad administration. Accordingly, Assad surrendered the north of Syria to PYD in return for its promise to avoid joining the Syrian opposition,and to suppress anti-regime protests in the region.As stated by Nuri Brimo, a member of Syrian Kurdish National Council (ENKS), ‘PYD turned into gendarmerie of Assad and Iran’. That is, the declaration of autonomous or federal region by PYD is not beyond information and control of Iran. Moreover, the Assad administration and Iran have supported PYD both as part of their strategy to struggle against extremist ‘takfiri movements,’ and to prevent Turkey from mounting influence in the region.

Additionally, there is an apparent sympathy in Iranian media towards the Syrian Kurds, especially PYD. One of the reasons for that sympathy is the emergence of PYD as an ‘efficient’ actor that has been fighting against ‘takfiri terrorists’.  Second, a sense of consolidation with the Kurdsas part of ‘Irani’ peoples is prevalent in Iranian media, which boosted by ‘neo-Aryanist’ feelings. Additionally some people are advocates of building close relations with Kurdish movements in the region, for strategic reasons, in order to assure Kurdish support in future. Hence, relations between Iran and PYD/PKK are not only forced by contextual developments, but also shaped by strategic calculations.

According to the second assessment, Iran is discomforted with PYD attempts for autonomy. This view is dictated by the fear that the establishment of autonomous or federal regions will eventually lead into disintegration of Syria. With the words of Mohammad Ali Mohtadi, Iranian analyst, ‘the enemy that failed to disassociate Syria from the axis of resistance is now trying to fragment it’.  In this respect, many people draw attention to dramatic Israeli and American support for the Kurdish autonomy. Additionally, they are concerned with a potential geopolitical earthquake to be triggered by the Kurdish autonomy, which will adversely affect all countries in the region including Iran.

Iran, arguably discomforted from PYD’s desire for autonomy, has continuously called for preserving territorial integrity of Syria, and approached Turkey in order to increase their cooperation to foment Kurdish bid for federalism. Soon after the outbreak of federalism debates, Ahmet Davutoğlu, then Prime Minister, paid an official visit to Tehran on March 3-4. At that occasion, Davutoğlu called his Iranian collocutors that they ‘should not leave the fate of the region to extra-territorial powers’. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who met his Iranian counterpart M. Cevad Zarif in İstanbul on Match 19, lashed out PYD’s declaration of federal region, and said, ‘They want to divide Syria. With Iran, we support the territorial integrity of Syria’. The Euphrates Shield Operation that begun soon after mutual visits of Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers in August 2016 is viewed by many people as a reflection of cooperation between Ankara and Tehran, who are embarrassed with the Syrian Kurdish attempt for building federal region.

Iranian and Turkish search for partnership, however, did not last long. Before anything else, Iran has preserved its ambivalent stance with regard to federalism in Syria. Second, Iran severely criticized Turkish military intervention in the region. Additionally, it has maintained its ties to PKK, and has secured continuation of cooperation between the regime and PYD. For instance, Basnews reported in November 2016 that Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods Force of Iran frequently met PKK leaders. Likewise, Azad Osman, a member ofthe Rojava Independent Kurdish Union, claimed that high-level officials from the Syrian regime, together with some IRGC officers met PKK leaders in the region in Rimelan in March 2017, when they negotiated the surrender of Manbij by PYD to the Syrian army.

Iran considers it is unlikely to return status quo ante in Syria prior to 2011, that is, a central government could establish its authority over the whole country. However, it is concerned with the prospective change of borders in the region, and the emergence of new political systems without Iranian influence. That is why Iran consciously takes an ambivalent stand with regard to federalism debates in Syria. Iranian call for the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria doe not mean its opposition the Kurdish autonomy or federalism. As a matter of fact, Iran was among the few regional countries that supported the establishment of a federal system in Iraq in 2005. Then, why does it oppose the formation of an autonomous or federal Kurdish region that permits Iranian meddlingunless it remained within Syria, and did not damage territorial integrity of the country?