The second birthday of the Syrian Civil War is near. The increasing material damage will make the rebuilding of Syria a monumental task; the human damage is yet further untold standing at over 150,000 killed with millions more displaced. The scars left by this war on the broken Syrian nation are increasing every day that the conflict rages on. There is no end in sight for what the UN calls “the worst crisis since Rwanda”. Yet, a solution is possible in the form of a (re)partition of Syria.
French ‘soft partition’ divided Syria into autonomous regions in the early 20th Century following the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, evolving into the “Kingdom of Syria” in 1920. It consisted of Greater Lebanon (later Lebanon), the Alawite State, the Druze state and two Sunni States. French administration proved unpopular and revolts in 1925 were fiercely crushed. Syria later united into the Syrian Republic in 1936.
This historical background is important as it is part of the reason that the the radical solution is unheard of in Syria. Another patriotic case against such a notion argues that Syria would lose it’s status as a major Middle Eastern power-broker should it be seperated; thus, the two most opposed parties to this suggestion are the Islamists who wish to extend their dominion over the largest area possible, and Assad who still hopes that with the help of Russia and Iran, his regime can hold onto and therefore reassert power.
Despite this historical and strategic opposition, partition may soon be the only viable choice for the future as Syria’s sectarian map becomes more homogenous.
The regime obviously wants continued reign by Assad, part of the minority Alawite sect. The Free Syrian Army vies for majority rule by the Sunni sect of Islam that makes up 60% of Syria’s population. Conversely, the Islamist factions want to take advantage of the chaos in Syria, seeing a chnace to establish an Islamist state on it’s remains. These three, most prominent groups get all of the attention in the media as they create an unpredictable future for Syria.
However, the interesting development is how other groups such as the Druze, Kurds, and Christians are holding their own as respective, sizable majorities. The latter groups comprise about 22% of the Syrian population and show signs of becoming more independent of the groups that have tried to coax their support. The Druze are fortifying their areas in the South and the Kurds have secured their Northern sectors, apparently even collecting taxes. The Christians are staying neutral but as the Islamist threat grows, they show signs of getting drawn into the conflict. A recent massacre of 70 Christians in the town of Qamishli could be a precursor to such an event. As the growing independence of different Syrian groups continues, one may see what could be the embryos of future states.
The Kurds are the best example of this independence. Despite their varying attitudes towards both Assad and the Rebels, having fought with both, they remain an important part of the fight against Islamism in Northern Syria, having recently won a significant battle against Jihadists in Ras al-Aina. Comprising roughly 10% of Syria’s population of 23 million, they have long been repressed by the Assad regime. With the growing threshold that they have in the North-Eastern part of the country paired with increasingly competent administration of their majority regions, a future partition would probably include an autonomous Kurdish zone.
Meanwhile the majority Sunni sect (comprising about 60% of the population) is concentrated in the center of the country, however does not have a united anti-Assad loyalty. The Sunni rebel territory is found mainly in the North of the country and is contesting the North-West with Assad. The ruling Alawite sect (making up about 12% of the population) are generally concentrated by the coast. The embattled Syria is starting to slowly piece itself together in enclaves, which could eventually lead to a stronger voice for partition as they unite under their own banners.
And so, the options. With an Assad victory, the refugee crisis would deepen in now-secure rebel areas with fear of reprisal driving more people out of their homes. If the rebels win, the Alawites would do the same and armed conflict would probably break out in Iraq and Lebanon because of divisions over it. Or, the partition option can be considered, giving the chance to the different shades of Syria to live safely and separately.
The smaller factions such as the Christians and the Druze, perhaps even the Kurds in the North could agree to fight Islamists within a common framework. This is, to an extent, akin to the ‘abna al-Iraq’ movement in Iraq which created a force out of different tribes with the goal of fighting al-Qaeda. This would also set the scene for cooperation in the event that any of these factions acquired their own states. International cooperation could facilitate secret meetings between their different leaders: one way that the US could redeem it’s lost prestige in the Syria conflict, having been seen as embarrassing itself after Russian intervention prevented an American strike and with that seemingly withdrawing from the conflict altogether.
After establishing cooperation between minority groups. It seems that, at this stage, Assad’s fall is inevitable be it within a year or ten; the question of “how long” is a painful one for any partition-based transition process. It seems extremely unlikely that Assad will be content with the formation of different states in Syria, but if enough well-negotiated pressure is put on him (ie. the end of Russian military support, the threat of NATO intervention) he may concede with the creation of an Alawite State. As Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, “Assad isn’t crazy”. Indeed, with a good enough proposal he would most likely cede power. Such a proposal would need to ensure the safety of his own sect and prevent land-grabbing between different factions, with anarchy being a main fear in a post-Assad Syria.
The land would need to be divided up into areas appropriate for every party. The Alawites and Sunnis would have their own states. The Kurdish question is a thorny one as the necessary involvement of Turkey in a partition would make the establishment of a Kurdish nation impossible. However, an autonomous zone for the Kurds in a Sunni country would be a possibility that Turkey may reluctantly agree to with growing Russian sympathy for the group. This is demonstrated by it’s recent condemnation of Turkey and America for their lack of support, and this could mean that they become an advocate Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the future.
Russia would also support an Alawite state which would be both a safe-haven for Assad’s minority sect and even Assad supporters. To quote a former Assad adviser, “…if an Alawite state is created, Russia would be it’s Godfather”. A Sunni state would be the darling of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and a Druze state would most likely be a friend of Israel and Jordan.
This solution is presented in the face of no solution at all. The prospect of a unified, tolerant country has sailed an impossible distance away from the shores of reality. The chance of any peaceful unification, regardless of who wins, is zero. That said, the establishment of new states carved out of today’s Syria achieves a marginally tolerable and stable solution that could be the best bet for all involved. It is not the best option, but considering that the worst option is many years more of sectarian violence it is by no means the worst and should therefore be considered by the International Community.