Splitting of Syria will trigger a regional bloodbath
Damascus - Increasingly, it seems that Syria, once deemed one of the strongest Arab states to emerge from the collapse of the Ottoman empire almost 100 years ago, is splintering into ethnic and confessional statelets after five years of the worst war the Middle East has witnessed.
The general consensus among Syrians is that if the UN-sponsored peace efforts do manage to end the savagery and divide the country between the warring parties, it will trigger a maelstrom of new fighting between the mini-states created by the diverse religious and ethnic communities that for generations have coexisted in this ancient land.
The key statelets would be controlled by the Kurds; Sunni Muslims, who form the majority of the population; and the minority quasi-Shia Alawite sect, which dominates the Damascus regime in power since 1970. Other minorities, such as Christians, would have to fit in as best they can.
The outside powers that have been dragged into this complex, multisided war, which some claim has been brewing since Britain and France carved up the carcass of the Ottoman empire after World War I to further their strategic interests rather than the aspirations of the region’s peoples, appear to believe that partitioning Syria is the only way to end the slaughter.
“I’m having a tough time seeing it come back together,” Lieutenant- General Vincent Stewart of the US Defense Intelligence Agency admitted during a security conference in Washington in September 2015. “I can see a time in the future where Syria’s fractured into two or three parts.”
The cessation of hostilities agreed by the United States and Russia “sounds like a prelude to partitioning Syria,” warned Mahmoud al-Akkam, a member of the Syrian state delegation to the ill-fated Geneva III talks organised by the United Nations in February. “As a first step it would legitimise the de facto situation of the ground and move on to a concrete partitioning plan at a later stage.”
But many Syrians say the reality on the ground is in sharp contrast to what the outside powers claim to be seeking. Within Syria’s 185,000 square kilometres of terrain, there is not one single geographical or administrative zone that could be easily demographically divided because of the way in which the diverse religious and ethnic communities across the country coexisted for generations.
Syrians, under the secular Assad regime, have to a large extent identified themselves by nationality rather than their ethnic or confessional affiliations. The embattled government has sought to avert fragmentation, most notably through supporting Kurdish and Arab tribes in the north with weapons in an effort to dissuade dissension.
Akkam told The Arab Weekly: “The majority of Syrian citizens believe in the unity of their country and have a keen sense of belonging to a nation before their sense of belonging to a religion or an ethnicity or any other denomination.
“In all areas of Syria, there exist Muslims, Christians, Arabs, Chechens, Circassians, Turkmen and they’re part of the Syrian social fabric. They continue to interact despite the war… They don’t interact on the basis of their religions but on the basis of being Syrians first and foremost.
“This is not what the West wants,” Akkam continued. “The objective of the war on Syria is to divide Syrian society along religious and sectarian lines so as to justify the existence of the state of Israel in the region on religious basis (being a Jewish state). This cannot succeed in Syria.”
Others have warned that partition will almost certainly involve major demographic changes within Syria, which would mean violent sectarian and ethnic cleansing on a wide scale and this is already causing upheaval and tensions in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
And amid the escalating rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran — the one wanting Assad’s downfall, the other keeping him in power — the collision of these two Gulf titans in Syria will spread across a region undergoing historic and violent change, creating fissures that jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) could exploit.
Bekir Atacan, a Turkish political analyst close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), has observed that “any plan to partition Syria will not stop at Syria’s borders”. Atacan, who lived in Syria for many years, warned: “It will… reach regional countries, with the Gulf states at the forefront of the victims of the scheme.”
It is not at all clear whether the main powers involved in the Syrian conflict are aware of the potentially severe repercussions of partition on the entire region and, indeed, their own interests.
But behind the scenes, international diplomacy, particularly involving powers with a keen interest in Syria, is tilting towards that option — a grim reawakening of the infamous Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, catalyst for so many of the catastrophes the Middle East has endured since then.
So the partition option carries with it the bruising weight of history, smacking as it does of foreign powers once again carving up Arab land. Joshua Landis, an American scholar who lived in Syria for years and now heads Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, observed that the issue is heavily “freighted with notions of surrender, great power conspiracy, Sykes- Picot 2″.
Russia and Iran, Assad’s major allies, have urged him to limit regime control to what has become known as “useful Syria” — namely the north-western Latakia region on the Mediterranean, the Alawite heartland in the north-east, Damascus and its environs and a land corridor into Lebanon, a supply lifeline for Hezbollah — while ceding the rest to the rebels.
This scenario could be changing as Russia’s high-firepower intervention has won back a lot of territory for the regime since September. But, even if that is so, Assad’s military does not have the manpower to hold the entire country.
There are other partition scenarios, including splits based on ethnic and religious divisions. The general idea is that northern Syria would be allocated to the Kurds supported by the United States and, ironically, Russia. That would incense Turkey, fighting its own separatist Kurds.
The rest of Syria would be divided into two regions. One would include the governorates of Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and Tartus, along with the outlying southern governorates of Sweida and Deraa, cradle of the anti-Assad protests in March 2011. These would encompass roughly 10 million people, 65% of Syria’s population.
The other would comprise the rest of the country, including the largely desert eastern region that the regime abandoned two years ago because of its dwindling military resources. This would embrace the ancient city of Palmyra, its archaeological treasures smashed by ISIS, across Homs province to the eastern suburbs of Aleppo and to Idlib, Raqqa, Deir ez- Zor with its oil fields and southern Hasakah, a total of 6 million people.
Northern Syria could become autonomous with a population of 2.5 million, 1 million of them Kurds — although the Kurds are unlikely to get what they want in terms of independence because, ironically, the regime remains their patron.
Assad’s close adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, maintained on February 20th that “units of the Syrian army are protecting the population in the north” and that Kurdish “military units are cooperating with Syrian forces… in the northern and north-eastern regions in the war against terrorism.
“There’s no problem with the Kurds in Syria,” she insisted, echoing the regime mantra that it still has popular support. “What’s important is the unity of the land and the Syrian people.”
Maybe so. But a prominent Kurdish leader in the embattled Hasakah governorate says partition will only cause conflict and offers a chilling scenario of further massacres and misery.
“What the Syrian people made a revolution for, particularly social justice, now belongs to the past, given the scale of the current catastrophe, one that has opened deep wounds in Syrian society,” he said on condition of anonymity.
“It’s shameful to have to admit that Syria’s already divided… If the plans of the regional states financing the war are to establish miniature states and other types of entities, then all Syrians must become aware that what awaits them is more destruction and death.
“Partitioning Syria means more bloody civil wars, which will not stop even if a confederation of states is constituted… We’ll certainly have to pay double in the event of partition.”