American secretary of state John Kerry raised the possibility of a partition in Syria on Tuesday when he told a Senate committee, “It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer.”
Kerry’s is a belated admission of reality, but there are good reasons why Western diplomats have shied away from raising the option for so long. Partition could make the violence in Syria worse before making it better.
After five years of war and nearly half a million estimated deaths, it is hard to imagine Syria being put back together again.
Strongman Bashar Assad’s strategy from the beginning of the uprising has been to divide the country. He dismissed genuine opposition to his dictatorship as terrorism and radicalized the rebellion by abetting the emergence of what is now the self-declared Islamic State and ordering Alawite hit squads to ethnically cleanse Sunni villages in the Nusayriyah Mountains that separate his tribe’s coastal heartland from the rest of Syria.
Assad’s loyalists, who include Shia militants from Iran and Lebanon, have fought only to defend those western parts of Syria that are populated by Alawites, Christians and Druze, leaving the Sunni-majority center and east to the Islamic State and the north to the Kurds.
Russia airstrikes have similarly targeted opposition groups in the west, whatever the Kremlin’s proclamations about fighting terrorism in Syria.
Assad’s protectors have no immediate interest in reunification.
Neither has a single reason to support Assad, but for Iran, the priority is maintaining access to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, while the Russians want to maintain their navy base at Tartus and stop Sunni jihadists returning home to the Caucasus.
They don’t need Assad governing more than the west of the country to be able to do so.
Indeed, both Iran and Russia may prefer a continued Islamic State presence in Syria, as it puts pressure on America’s Sunni allies in the Middle East, and Russia at least may want to see a Kurdish republic emerge on the southern border of its NATO rival Turkey, for reasons we reported earlier this month.
Turkish apprehension about Kurdish statehood argues against a formal partition of Syria, although this is starting to look more a question of when than if.
Another reason to be cautious is that partition could lead to worse ethnosectarian cleansing.
Not only Assad’s henchmen have been involved in as much; the Islamic State group will execute or expel anybody who doesn’t meet their definition of a proper Sunni Arab Muslim. They may only get more murderous once the world recognizes them as a state with its own borders.
Syria’s borders may be “artificial” but it’s hard to find “natural” borders in the Middle East that would give Shia and Sunni Muslims and Arabs and Kurds neatly-defined states of their own.
Mountainous Kurdistan may be an exception, but even it would not be ethnically nor religiously homogenous.
It shouldn’t have to be. Peace doesn’t break out when every tribe or sect finds a state of its own. It happens when different people learn to live with each other in the state they have.
It’s not just Middle Easterners who are struggling to do that, though.