After Iraq, which is a de facto divided country, Syria is fast approaching the point of no return. Notwithstanding the partial ceasefire that seems to be holding at least in certain parts of the exhausted land, decision-makers are now talking about a ‘Plan B’ that, for all practical purposes, means Damascus will soon compete with Daraa, Deir Al Zor, Aleppo and Latakia. Is partition a viable option for Syria?
A few days ago, the United States Secretary of State, John Kerry, raised the issue as an alternative to the ceasefire deal brokered with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and that entered into effect on February 27, even though it did not include Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), as well as the Al Qaida-linked Jabhat Al Nusra. Despite violations, including those attributed to both the Syrian regime and Daesh, expectations ran high that everyone will respect the ceasefire. Time will confirm whether this is wishful thinking, even if such an outcome will enhance prospects for political negotiations and, eventually, some sort of reconciliation among warring factions.
We are not there yet because so much is at stake in the war for Syria. For starters, there are states and groups that believe they are winning, even if Syria as we knew it no longer exists and will take at least three or four generations to rebuild. Those with the abilities to remake Syria — moderate opposition forces — are at the receiving end of attacks, including from Russian jets that have yet to hit a single Daesh target. In fact, Daesh has not silenced its guns and is happy to defy foreign arrangements, oblivious to the quadrilateral alliance that emerged between Russia, Iran, the US and the Bashar Al Assad regime.
What used to be complicated gained a notch in the mind-boggling category as Kurds received assistance from both Washington and Moscow that, naturally, irritated Turkey where the fear for irredentism is all too real. This is the chief reason why Ankara is afraid of what will occur next along its long borders with Syria and Iraq and insists on a plan that will allow it to control at least a strip of buffer territory to prevent the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Few should therefore be surprised if Ankara increases its various assistance programmes to opposition groups. Moreover, Syrian Kurds — who are receiving assistance from both Moscow and Washington — will also need to worry, because such ties are driving Turks bonkers.
Regardless of these permutations, which will probably need a lot more time to unravel, a partition of Syria is far more likely than many assume because the Al Assad regime is committed to a full-fledged war and will not accept to share power.
This is where Russian President Vladimir Putin may well come to regret his conditional support because Moscow cannot tolerate a prolonged military engagement. At some point, partition will be far more cost-effective, as it will help Russia achieve two specific goals: (1) control Latakiya; and (2) limit exorbitant military expenditures.
Importantly, neither of these objectives will solve the IS problem but, notwithstanding lofty pronouncements, that was never Russia’s aim. That is why Moscow is loathe to deal with Ankara, especially after a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi bomber on November 24, 2015, an offensive step from the Russian perspective. Be that as it may, there is now a clear possibility that multi-national ground forces, which will presumably include Saudi and other Arab troops, will enter Syria to fight and destroy Daesh that, for all practical purposes, will further strengthen the partition plank, given what various actors wish to accomplish.
Consequently, no one should underestimate what Turkey will do to prevent the creation of an eventual Kurdish state, even if that means that Ankara will split from its Nato allies on this vital question. Likewise, few should have any illusions that Russia will forego Alawistan where it will retain a presence in both the Mediterranean as well as the Middle East. Finally, few should have any compunction that Israel will be unhappy with the forthcoming partition, even if the Al Assad regime proved to be a most reliable ally. In the end, partition will serve the Putin/Lavrov, Obama/Kerry, Khamanei/Rouhani and Al Assad/Netanyahu duopolies, though it will not save Syrians from long-term calamities.
For few should harbour fantasies that partition will produce stability. Truth be told, semi-independent statelets produce their share of disasters, not only in terms of more refugees and, in the case of the Daesh-controlled strip, of mutated extremism, but also as aggressive actors that upset existing balances. A Russian-backed Alawistan will most likely clash with Sunnis too, dragging Lebanon in prolonged fighting on account of Hezbollah involvements along the super-sensitive and largely unstable — and un-demarcated — frontiers. In fact, a partition of Syria will mean a more or less guaranteed split of Lebanon, with the threat of renewed civil war looming on the horizon.
Given this gloomy outlook, federation might be a better approach than partition, although that will require wise Syrians willing to embark on democratisation. Where are those Syrians?
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.