Is Partitioning Syria the Way to Peace?

Kurdish YPG fighters defending Kurdistan from the so-called Islamic State. (Image:Kurdishstruggle via flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Kurdish YPG fighters defending Kurdistan from the so-called Islamic State. (Image:Kurdishstruggle via flickr/CC BY 2.0)

As battle smoke continues to cloud the Syrian sky, it is abundantly clear that the country’s political landscape is going to be forever changed.

There are Sunni, Alawite, Shia, Druze, Yazdi, and Kurd groups in Syria, but the country’s pre-war society was not overwhelming divided along these lines. Five years of civil war has not just destroyed Syria’s infrastructure and buildings, it has also created a series of societal divisions that were not in place before the conflict began. As the next round of peace negotiations fall apart, it is clear that the sheer multitude of groups that are now represented in the conflict means that the political system will need an overhaul.

It is a foregone conclusion that most regions of Syria will no longer tolerate Bashar Assad’s political domination. The government’s formation of security forces that robbed, tortured, and raped young men and women, as well as the bombing of opposition towns and cities instead of al-Nusra and ISIS over the past five years has eroded any legitimacy Assad had.

This was demonstrated by the recent swathe of 104 anti-government protests around the country in March. Simply put, many people distrust the al-Assad regime. As one organizer of the protest in Aleppo commented:

Watch more in the following SRLW on the protests here:

So the question now becomes: “What will bring peace?”

The dream of partition

According to the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, if the peace talks fail, plan B for Syria is the partitioning of the country along sectarian or ethnic divisions.


United States Secretary of State John Kerry. (Image: Ralph Alswang/Center for American Progress Action Fund/flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Secretary Kerry told the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee that:

Although Secretary Kerry has not given details of how such a partition would be completed, the plan was previously outlined by Condoleeza Rice in 2006 as part of U.S. foreign policy entitled, The New Middle East Plan, which had its roots in Israeli foreign policy from the 1980’s by Odid Yinon. The U.S. is said to have a plan to separate Syria into a federal system of states, like the U.S., Russia, or Australia. Thus the Alawites would have a state in the west near Lebanon, a Sunni Arab state would dominate the center and the Kurds would control the north.

The reality

Unfortunately, this sort of partitioning is little more than a recipe for disaster.

Firstly, it does not include many of the minority groups like the Druze, Yazdis, or Armenians that have coexisted in Syria for generations. Furthermore, with interfaith and inter-ethnic marriage occurring regularly, it is hard to see how such a heterogeneous society would operate under a more homogenous rule.

In the current climate the separation also does not demonstrate how such a division will provide an equal amount of resources to all divisions in Syria. As the Alawite and Kurdish territories would control most of the arable land, water supplies, and oil and gas fields, this partitioning would mean that large portions of the Syrian population in the Sunni section would be left without ready access to arable land, oil, and most importantly, water. This could lead to further conflicts within the federal state system as resources and control over the government becomes an issue for the have-nots.

As Jacob Purcell from Global Risk Insights argues:

It should be noted that the argument for partitioning has been overruled by more than one participant in the war.

Lack of Syrian and Russian support for plan B

The Assad regime, for one, has stated that they will not agree to anything that compromises the integrity of Syria as a whole. While the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, has echoed these sentiments when he stated that it is best to keep Syrian territorial borders unchanged and the people unified.

Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab has stated that “any mention of federalism or something which might present a direction for dividing Syria is not acceptable at all.

“We have agreed we will expand a non-central government in a future Syria, but not any kind of federalism or division,” Hijab said.

The winner is Kurdistan

One place that supports this plan is in the autonomous Kurdish regions. The civil conflict has allowed for the creation of large autonomously governed sections of Kurdish territory, which are now backed by organized and battle hardened militia and governing bodies. In March this year the Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D, declared that it would be putting together a plan to unite the regions controlled by the Syrian Kurds into an autonomous region to operate within a federal based system.

For more information on the Kurds watch this documentary by Journeymen Pictures:

Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in the Middle East, Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.

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