No going back: Why decentralisation is the future for Syria

In the News | 07-09-2016

The following text is a paper written by Jihad Yazigi, our editor-in-chief, for the European Council on Foreign Relations, on the need to push for a decentralisation agenda in Syria.


Five years of war have fuelled deep divisions in Syria, in particular along ethno-sectarian lines, but also along sharp geographic lines. Economic links and interdependency persists between various parts of the country despite the country fragmenting into competing centres of power over which Damascus will struggle to ever reassert control. This fragmentation extends to government-held areas where local power brokers are also asserting independence. Political and economic decentralisation, including a special status for Kurdish areas, is fast becoming a necessary condition for solving the conflict.

For this to become a reality, there needs to be formal devolution of power away from the centre, fairer allocation of resources - particularly oil revenues -, and efforts to reduce disparities in economic development. European actors should recognise the reality on the ground and shift their focus away from achieving a centralised power-sharing agreement towards negotiations based on devolution. A decentralised model will be difficult to implement, but ironically may offer one of the few means of holding the country together.


  • Syria should adopt a decentralised political system based on the transfer of power away from Damascus and towards the governorate and district levels. Kurdish regions should get a special status with enhanced powers, as part of asymmetric decentralisation.
  • While decentralisation is implemented and communities are recognised as political actors, the central state should retain a monopoly on a number of key sovereign attributes including defence, foreign affairs, and the printing of money.
  • Syria’s official name should no longer contain the word “Arab”. This symbolic move would be in line with the overwhelming number of Arabic countries, including Iraq and Lebanon, and would send a positive signal to non-Arab Syrians.
  • The state should teach all children from minority groups in their mother tongue. In Kurdish areas in the northeast, and Kurdish-majority districts of Damascus and Aleppo, schools should teach in Kurdish as well as Arabic.
  • The state should ensure that it uses its available tools to limit geographic disparities in economic development. For instance, access to employment in each governorate should be based on its share of the country’s total population. Where possible, the same rule should apply to public investments.
  • Oil export revenue should be reallocated, guaranteeing a proportion equal to each province’s population, on the principle that oil resources are equally owned by the entire country.
  • Sectarian and ethnic communities should get some form of political representation at the central level. A bicameral system could be a solution. However, the Russian proposal to appoint government members on the basis of their religious or ethnic affiliation would go too far in terms of institutionalising these divisions, and would be a recipe for gridlock. Instead, community representation should be pushed at the legislative level, in an upper house tasked with monitoring and control and with preventing discrimination. At the executive level, there should be no appointments or allocation of official positions based on sectarian or ethnic affiliations.

For the full text go to No going back: Why decentralisation is the future for Syria

For the PDF version of the full text go to here

Written by: The Syria Report
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