Syrian Kurds are preparing a plan to declare a federal region in the area they control across northern Syria, saying Wednesday it is a model for a more decentralized government in which all ethnic groups would be represented.
Although the idea might seem like a way forward after five years of civil war, it faces big obstacles: It was promptly dismissed by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the rebels who oppose him, both fearing it would lead to a partition of the country.
Turkey also opposes it, wary of the growing Kurdish influence in the border region of northern Syria and its effect on its own Kurdish minority.
But Ahmad Araj, a Kurdish official in northern Syria, insisted that a federal system containing such a region, which would effectively combine three Kurdish-led autonomous areas, is in fact meant to preserve national unity and prevent Syria from breaking up along sectarian lines.
"After all the blood that has been spilled, Syrians will not accept anything less than decentralization," Araj said.
By making the announcement as U.N.-sponsored peace negotiations take place in Geneva, Syria's main Kurdish faction was trying to become a major player in whatever central government emerges from the war. The faction has been excluded from the talks.
The idea of a federal region appears to have gained some traction lately as world and regional powers grapple with ways to end the conflict. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov this week said such a federal system is one possible option if the Syrian people agree to it. The U.S. also has been an ardent supporter of the Kurds in the region, helping them in navigating the delicate rivalries in Iraq after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that the U.S. opposes declarations of autonomous federal zones prior to a negotiated political resolution in Syria.
"We're focused on advancing a negotiated political transition toward an inclusive government that is capable of serving the interests of all the Syrian people," Toner said. "We've also been very clear that we're committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Syria."
However, if a resolution is reached by the Syrian people and their representative, and if it includes a federal system that allows for limited or semi-autonomy for different regions, Toner said Washington would not oppose it.
The Kurdish declaration is expected to be made at the end of a conference that began Wednesday in the town of Rmeilan, in Syria's northern Hassakeh province, and may last several days.
The plan could make sense in a country that has a multitude of sectarian and ethnic minorities for whom it would be difficult to share a unifying national sentiment.
The government, dominated by Assad's Alawite sect of Shiite Islam, controls Damascus, the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast, and other cities and connecting corridors in between. The Kurds run their own affairs in the northeast.
The militants of the Islamic State group control much of the Sunni heartland in the east. Other Sunni rebels control pockets in the north and south. The Druze remain loyal but are starting to talk about autonomy in their southern areas as well.
Any move to carve up the country could risk yet more violence, including ethnic or sectarian cleansing.
Joshua Landis, director of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the federalist project has logic to it, but is doomed to fail under current conditions.
"The federal system would be the way forward if people would accept it," Landis said, "But they won't because they don't like each other."
Assad's multi-religious base and the largely secular Kurds distrust the Islamist-dominated opposition, and the opposition will not tolerate the continuation of Assad rule in any part of Syria, either in Damascus at the head of a federal government, or in the coastal region, where his Alawite supporters predominate.
In these conditions, it would be difficult for federalism to take root.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 per cent of the prewar population of 23 million. They control an area along the Turkish border stretching from eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border, to Afrin in the west, interrupted only by a stretch of territory controlled by the Islamic State group.
The Kurds declared their own civil administration in three distinct enclaves, or cantons, under their control: Jazira, Kobani and Afrin, in 2013.
Federalism could be a first step toward creating an autonomous region similar to the one operated by the Kurds in Iraq, where their territory is virtually a separate country.
The main Syrian Kurdish group — the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG) — have been excluded from the Geneva talks so as not to anger Turkey, despite Russia's insistence they participate. Ankara views the group as a terrorist organization.
Nawaf Khalil of the PYD told The Associated Press by phone from Germany, where he is based, that his party is not lobbying for a Kurdish region but an all-inclusive area with representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria.
Salih Muslim, the co-president of the PYD, told the AP in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, that the decision to declare a federal region was not yet official, but any such announcement would be a positive step to help keep Syria together.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official said his country rejects any moves that would compromise Syria's national unity, adding that "unilateral moves carry no validity."
It's up to the Syrian people to "decide on the executive and administrative structure of Syria in line with the new constitution which will be formulated through the political transition process," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of government practice.
Turkey views the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has renewed a decades-old insurgency since peace talks collapsed last year. The U.S. also considers the PKK a terrorist group, but both Washington and Moscow support the YPG, which has been among the most effective forces against the Islamic State group.
Both the Syrian government and the opposition, at least in theory, reject any form of partition of Syria.
Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, who also heads the government team in Geneva, said the talks are meant to discuss preserving Syria's territorial integrity.
"Betting on creating any kind of divisions among the Syrians will be a total failure," Ja'afari said.
Added Riad Naasan Agha, a member of the Saudi-backed Syrian opposition: "What someone declares on their own, far away from the Syrian people, is unacceptable."
The PYD's Khalil distinguished between autonomous rule over Kurdish areas — which has been in effect in Syria since 2013 — and the federalism project, which he said was ethnically inclusive.
"The federalism project is a model for all Syria," he said.
The Kurdish plan comes at a critical juncture in the conflict. A 2-week-old Russian and U.S.-engineered partial cease-fire is holding, the peace talks have resumed, and Moscow on Tuesday began withdrawing most of its troops from Syria after a 5 1/2-month campaign of airstrikes supporting Assad, its longtime ally.
That has raised hopes for more meaningful discussions in Geneva, where U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura is shuttling between delegations from the Syrian government and the moderate, Western-backed opposition.