Syria: Opinions and Attitudes on Federalism, Decentralization, and the experience of the Democratic Self-Administration

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Istanbul, Turkey – The Day After, a Syrian civil society organization, working to support a democratic transition in Syria, recently conducted a survey study on Syrian opinions and attitudes toward federalism, decentralization, and the experience of the PYD’s Democratic Self-Administration. This study provides insight for finding a solution to one of the most central issues facing the future of Syria: administering the country during the transition and beyond. The study surveys respondents in regime-held areas, opposition-held areas, and in areas under Self-Administration. It further disaggregates data according to ethnicities (Arab, Kurdish, and Assyrian), religious sects, and gender.

Since the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced the establishment of an autonomous region based on federalism in March, discussions on decentralization and federalism in Syria have taken hold in policy and decision-making circles. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, called for testing the possibility of establishing federal rule in Syria. This call came in harmony with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks about the possibility of dividing Syria, in comments made during preparations for the Geneva III peace talks. The UN-backed talks were expected to set the parameters for transition in Syria before the talks completely collapsed when regime shelling led to a total breakdown of the cessation of hostilities. While this report was being drafted, and following the support given by the international coalition and the Russian Federation to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD declared federalism in northern Syria in three regions: Al-Hassakah, Efrin, and Kobani. The unilateral announcement constituted a cornerstone for promoting a federal system in Syria. This study thus gauges the attitudes of people living in those areas towards this system of governance, as well as the overall opinions about federalism and decentralization across Syria. The study suggests that some form of decentralization is the most preferred governing system in Syria, however not to the extent of federalism.

The study reveals that respondents living in both the regime and opposition-held areas overwhelmingly reject federalism, while those living in areas under the Self-Administration overwhelmingly support federalism. A large majority of Arab respondents also reject federalism, while the majority of Kurdish respondents favor it. The results become more nuanced on the topic of decentralization. While those in the regime-held areas still express overwhelming opposition to a decentralized state, a majority of respondents in the opposition-held areas are in favor of greater decentralization. The largest concern about decentralization, among those who oppose it, is a fear of separatism, while the idea that it enhances “participation in governance” tops the list of advantages.

The study indicates a way forward for building popular support among Syrians in favor of greater decentralization as a joint path forward that wins support from all sides.


  • Respondents in both regime and opposition-held areas are united in their rejection of federalism. 44% in opposition-held areas reject it and 57% in regime-held areas.
  • 79.6% of respondents in Self-Administration areas endorse federalism, more than half strongly support it.
  • 58.5% of Non-Kurdish respondents residing in Self-Administration areas oppose or strongly oppose transforming Syria into a federal state with semi-autonomous regions
  • 55.3% of respondents in opposition-held areas support greater decentralization. 16.2% said that they want local authorities to be given greater competencies than that which they currently hold, while 30% were in favor of local authorities with broad administrative competencies. Finally, 9.1% said they want a federal state under which several regions enjoy semi-autonomous governance
  • 65.6% of respondents in regime-held areas rejected any form of decentralization, instead favoring a single government in the capital that possesses all powers
  • 72.7% of respondents in areas of the Democratic Self-Administration favor decentralization, and opted for the greatest amount of decentralization from the choices in our sample: a federal state that encompasses semi-autonomous regions
  • Over 40% of respondents in regime and opposition-held areas,  oppose the Democratic Self-Administration.
  • Respondents from all religious sects overwhelmingly oppose the Democratic Self-Administration except for Ismailis. Alawites constituted the group of respondents that opposed it the most (70.5%)
  • The most cited reason for rejecting Self-Administration in regime and opposition-controlled areas is the fear of partition
  • Kurds opposing the Democratic Self-Administration are divided into two main streams:  a private project of the PYD whom they do not find trustworthy (50%) and repressive practices (40.6%).
  • The percentage of non-Kurds who oppose federalism increases significantly when asked about the stance vis-à-vis the Democratic Self-Administration. This suggests a large polarization between the Kurds who overwhelmingly support it (69.8%) and the other social components that largely oppose it (78.1%).