The Agenda

Syria and the Limits of Partitionism

One of the most persistent questions about the partition of Syria concern the fate of its minority communities, including the Alawite community that is so closely associated with the Assad regime. And so some have suggested that Syria should be partitioned along ethnoreligious lines.

Dilip Hiro explored this idea in late July for YaleGlobal. My sense is that Hiro understates the challenges involved, in part because he understates the problems caused and exacerbated by the partition of South Asia, his chief analogy. (For a sophisticated analysis of the 1947 partition of British India, I recommend Perry Anderson’s recent essay on the subject.) The economic viability of an Alawite-Christian state wedged between Lebanon and Turkey is also worth thinking through. 

Amir Taheri has explored the possibility that Syria might fragment into as many as four states.

Richard Spencer, writing in the Daily Telegraph, dismisses the idea of a neat partition:

A partition of Syria starting from this base might seem at first superficially attractive. The Alawites would feel secure; the Sunnis would get their country back; there might even be semi-autonomous space for the Kurds, who have both been marginalised and to some extent have marginalised themselves from this revolution, in their own interest. It would be the ultimate Balkanisation of a country whose vicious fighting has already reminded many of the Yugoslav wars of the Nineties; and there, new states are now slowly rebuilding themselves. …

In short, the division of Syria would be a recipe for permanent instability, in which the West, Russia, Iran and a variety of Islamist sub-groups would be constantly manoeuvring to press their ends, and in which, as in the Occupied Territories, war and diplomacy are simply extensions of each other. In the meantime, every nuance would be exported – arms into Lebanon, militancy into the ever-nervous Jordan. Israelis and Jews everywhere would live in fear of distraction terror; Iran and its nuclear programme would be an intractable problem. The Israeli and American Right would press for a one-size-fits-all regional solution, an intervention that might work but would more likely create a regional Iraq.

Spencer concedes, however, that this outcome might be preferable to ongoing military conflict.

A report from ANSAMed highlights Turkey’s concerns:

Tensions have been seen not only in Syria but in Turkey, too, where Alawis represent a fifth of the population. If the Syrian crisis were to lead to partition, Turkey and for other Middle Eastern states would risk seeing the opening of a Pandora’s box of minorities. According to daily paper Zaman, the Sunni part of Syria, close to the Erdogan government, would be cut off from the Mediterranean. An Alawi state would also upset Iran, cutting of communication lines with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. A possible division into three of Iraq, into Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites would then become more probable. The Alawi community in Lebanon might be tempted to join up with their Syrian brethren, and Turkey could be exposed to seeing the balance of power upset between the Sunni majority and Alawi minority, whose presence is especially strong in Istanbul and along the 300-mile-long border with Syria. This is an area where Turkish policies hostile to the Damascus government fall on stony ground. Among Turkish Alawis in Hatay and in Istanbul, pro-Assad demonstrations have taken place and the government has been forced to move the Sunni refugees from Syria further to the North in order to avoid incidents. The creation of a Kurdish state in Syria between ar-Raqqah and al-Qamishli would also aggravate the situation in Turkish Kurdistan. 

The United States has little choice but to become more actively involved in finding a workable solution to Syria’s unfolding crisis. 


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