Op-Ed: The Balkanization of Syria
Since Syria’s civil war started two and a half years ago, it has destroyed the country, displaced more than a million Syrians to surrounding countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and killed more than 100,000 people. Any opportunity for a negotiated settlement between the Assad regime and the opposition, if it ever existed, is over and was never seriously pushed by the international community in any event.
The harsh reality is that the country isn’t going to become a stable, unified state again in the foreseeable future, and the possibility of a true democracy evolving from the chaos is impractical to say the least. It may be time to consider alternative solutions.
Obama administration officials continue to believe they can negotiate a settlement among the conflicting tribal interests not competing for hegemony in Syria, but the increasing number of powerful jihadist rebel factions are well-funded by the Saudis and the Gulf emirates and for them, there will be no compromise short of the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria – something the Alawites and other minorities will reject outright. As a result, neither a unified Syria nor a balkanized Syria broken up into sectarian mini-states will emerge unless and until the jihadists are decisively defeated.
Tragically, the conflict between Sunnis and Alawites (a Shiite sect of Islam) is about a thousand years old and today, it’s at a boiling point, feeding on the extreme violence perpetrated by both sides.
As a result, for much of the past two and a half years, Israel stood on the sidelines. Did it want Bashar al-Assad’s regime to survive? Did it favor military intervention to help opposition forces? And what did it think of the increasing visibility of Islamist groups in Syria?
The answer lies in the unappealing outcomes for Israel from whoever emerges triumphant. Israel stands to lose strategically if either Assad or the opposition wins decisively. That point was underlined by one Israeli official, who told the Times of London: “Better the devil we know than the demons we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there.”
What the Syrian civil war has made clear is that the 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty that led to the British and French imperial powers carving up the dying Turkish Empire based on French-British colonial interests is no longer relevant. Borders that have been recognized in the Arab world for a century no longer exist, given that Sunni and Shiite militias now move freely throughout the region (regardless of borders) and the struggle is increasingly sectarian, tribal and ideological even more so than territorial.
In fact, the only border that now remains in the region is the border that separates the Jewish state of Israel from its enemies and even that border is rejected by the Arab world. Israel exists only because it is strong and prepared to use its overwhelming power to survive....and the Arab world knows this and is wary of pushing Israel into a conflict they know they will lose.
As in Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war, the de facto partition of Syria has already begun. The question is whether the international community should encourage a settlement that institutionalizes this fragmentation (or balkanization) into sectarian mini-states or propel one side or the other to victory. With the incredible amount of “bad blood” between the two sectarian communities - Sunni and Shiite - it is unlikely that they will be prevented from killing each other on a massive scale unless Syria undergoes a balkanization similar to what Yugoslavia went through in the 1990s.
On the positive side of this argument, Syria’s religious and ethnic groups already have a strong geographic concentration in well-defined enclaves, so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that an outcome can be achieved whereby the various religious/ethnic communities can agree to co-exist together, but in more or less autonomous tribal and ethnic regions under a weak federal government so they can’t rule over one another.
Under the present circumstances, according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, balkanization “might actually be the most stable and humanitarian long-term option.”
Three-quarters of Syria’s Alawites live in the northwestern coastal Mediterranean province of Latakia where they constitute two-thirds of the population in an area stretching from Tartus in the south, near the Lebanon border, to the outskirts of Turkey’s Antakya in the north. The regime is also dominant in the capital and major cities (Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo) and the corridor connecting them. In the context of balkanization, Latakia would become strictly Alawite and Christian, two sects that have gotten along reasonably well with each other, and such an enclave would be autonomous from the other Sunni-controlled regions of Syria.
It can be assumed that a coastal Alawite-dominated canton would be likely aligned with Tehran and Moscow and would probably be Russia’s best hope of holding onto its naval facility at Tartus long-term. As Jonathan Cook writes in the Nolan News Review: “An Alawite enclave would keep the regime in place, boxed into its heartland, but sapped of the energy to concern itself with anything other than immediate matters of survival. It would be unable to offer help to Hezbollah, isolating the militia in Lebanon and cutting off its supply line to Iran.”
Similarly, a secure and autonomous Druze enclave in Syria's southwestern quadrant would provide Israel and Jordan with a buffer zone in the Golan region. The Druze have already formed militias to fend off jihadist rebel incursions and can be expected to remain neutral.
The Kurds who populate the northeast particularly in the regions of Qamishli, Hasakah and Derek would become autonomous and could establish a self-governing enclave in northeast Syria bordering Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurdish zone would likely form a close relationship with its counterpart in Iraq although Turkey, given its own large Kurdish minority, might be less than enthusiastic about this idea.
The Saudis would control the Sunni-dominated center of the country, although they would have to destroy (or allow to be destroyed) the growing radical Salafist power base in northern and eastern Syria – a power base (according to The Hindu) ironically they helped finance. A news report from the International Crisis Group from October 17th notes that these Saudi-funded Salafist groups are now “the most powerful groups in northern and eastern Syria.”
It seems however, that the Saudis may be becoming disenchanted with their Salafist proxies as they have become more violent in the areas under their control - not quite the outcome hoped for by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia backed the Taliban in the 1990s thinking the group would moderate its ideology over time. Nothing like that happened. If they become disenchanted with their Salafist surrogates in Syria, it is not inconceivable that the Saudis would be prepared to switch their support to more moderate groups. In the end, any efforts to successfully decentralize power in Syria will not succeed unless and until the radical Salafist presence in Syria’s northern and eastern regions is eliminated.
Even subject to the above, the partition of Syria would be challenging and would have to provide protection and self-determination for the communities in question, and that is by no means assured. Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, writing in Global Research, believes that balkanization may not resolve the centuries-old sectarian divisions that have plagued the Arab world for centuries: “The religious and ethnic cleavages in Syria are not demarcated in purely geographic terms and the balkanization process could play out as a lebanization process, which means that Syria will be divided along violent sectarian fault lines and face political deadlock like Lebanon during its civil war, without formally breaking up. Lebanization, a soft form of balkanization, has already taken place in Iraq under federalism.”
There is, nevertheless, growing recognition that eventually Syria will no longer exist as a unified country and will be divided into defined autonomous tribal enclaves. As Gary Gambill writes for the Foreign Policy Research Institute: “Down the road, it’s not inconceivable that Assad’s inner circle can be persuaded to abandon the interior (of the country) without a bloodbath in exchange for Western recognition of an Alawite-dominated mini-state. If that is what it takes to avert the calamities yet to come in Syria and the region, Washington should keep an open mind.”
As the Syrian conflict drags on and as civilian and military casualties mount, the balkanization of the country becomes a distinct possibility. What is inconceivable today may turn out to be a realistic solution tomorrow. In the end, the balkanization of Syria, anathema as it may be to those still emotionally attached to the Sykes-Picot order, may end up being the most humane resolution to the Syrian crisis.