With the ceasefire generally holding, the fate of Syria comes to the fore. The UN emphasizes Syria’s unity. But no eyebrows are raised in the West when some experts and politicians openly say a partition is a way to finding a final settlement of the problem. They affirm that a dismemberment of Syria could be a form of a lasting political solution. The idea appears to have become an option on the table.
On March 9, Foreign Policy published an article written by James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Commander, Europe and head of US European Command.
The Admiral writes that «Syria as a nation is increasingly a fiction. It is utterly riven by the civil war that has raged for three years, and large chunks of it are ruled by disparate actors with no allegiance and often bitter enmity toward what remains of the sovereign state». According to him, the odds of putting Syria back together again into a functioning entity appear very low. It is time to consider a partition, which could provide a simple chance to leave a refugee camp or avoid a long and dangerous trek to an asylum state – in effect creating the elusive «safe zones». The author emphasizes the fact that Syria’s borders, of course, were drawn in the early part of the last century. Syria is not a long-standing civilization like Iran (Persia), Turkey, or Greece. Part of the reasons it has descended into chaos is that it is already divided along religious and ethnic lines.
Mr Stavridis believes that a partition could range from a full break-up of the country (much as Yugoslavia broke up after the death of Marshal Josip Tito); to a very federated system like Bosnia after the Dayton Accords; to a weak but somewhat federated model like Iraq.
The Admiral’s article makes spring to mind what US State Secretary John Kerry told The Guardian on February 23.
According to the US top diplomat, he will move towards a plan B that could involve a partition of Syria if a planned ceasefire due to start in the next few days does not materialize, or if a genuine shift to a transitional government does not take place in the coming months. Kerry suggested that a partition could form part of an eventual solution, saying «this can get a lot uglier and Russia has to be sitting there evaluating that too. It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if it is much longer». It was the first time a US official spoke of partition.
Actually the idea has wide support. For instance, the government of Israel has come out in support of Syria’s dismemberment.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull openly backs Syria’s partition.
John Bolton, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who served as the US ambassador to the United Nations, suggests «the best alternative to the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq is a new, independent Sunni state».
He calls for the establishment of «Sunni-stan». De facto it would mean a mono-religious entity with Shiites and Christians assigned to a subordinate status. It looks like an «Islamic State (Daesh)-light» version, which, as Bolton phrases it, «could be a bulwark against both Mr Assad and an Iran-allied Baghdad».
This is not the first time that the world has flirted with partition as a way to solve an intractable war. The idea has circulated for many years as an option for managing the crisis in Iraq. There have been proposals made public to reshape the entire Middle East. The one put forward by Ralph Peters hit the public light in 2006.
True, the borders of Syria were created by colonial powers in the early 20th century. They are often called «artificial» and referenced as a cause of instability as countries struggle to control divergent populations. By and large, it all boils down to dividing the country’s territory up along ethno-religious lines for the Sunni Arabs, Alawi Arabs and Kurds as either separate countries or as states within one federal system to achieve stability and a put an end to sectarian violence. Iraq and, especially, Bosnia are cited as good examples to follow.
But if history is any guide, partition is no guarantee of peace. Indeed, it can ignite the very conflicts it means to forestall. Did the partition of India into India and Pakistan in 1947 end violence? Or, let’s look at the most recent example – Sudan’s partition in 2011, which gave rise to horrible bloodshed.
Syria’s prime location makes it the strategic center of the Middle East. But it is a complex country, rich in religious and ethnic variety, and therefore fragile. If new borders were drawn in Syria, many people would find themselves «on the wrong side» of the lines, especially those who will be deprived of the right to have a state of their own (Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Mandaeans and many others – the list can go on).
The Syrian opposition has no leaders to unite and lead it. The Kurdish region is the most cohesive entity, but Turkey appears to never reconcile with the idea of an autonomous Kurdish state near its border. As a result, a partition could have the opposite outcome of the one expected and simply ignite new fights.
There is no legal way to partition the country. Receiving the consent of Syria’s is hardly conceivable as it has reportedly rejected the idea. Syria's leadership opposes the partition of the republic and does not support the idea of the country's federalization, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on March 11.
The approval of the partition by UN Security Council through Chapter VII of the UN Charter is also unrealistic.
Russia and China have rejected plans to carve up Syria. If the United States and its allies were to go ahead without Security Council approval, it would represent a blatant rejection of the international legal order.
There is no alternative plan to the joint Russian-US statement on settlement in Syria, and nothing like that is planned, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on February 25. «We’ve already said everything on the ‘plan B’ – there never was one and there never will be», he noted.
The recent history provides lessons to learn about the fate of loose federal states with strong autonomies. Iraq is actually a failed state – the turmoil there made possible the emergence of the Islamic State group. Yugoslavia was a strong and prosperous state before the partition. Now its former part – Bosnia and Herzegovina – has turned into an artificially created entity, which is impoverished and fully dependent on outside help.
Let’s not forget Kosovo and Libya plunged in disorder and turmoil after NATO’s interventions.
If a federal state is the solution, then why the West does not say the same thing about Ukraine?
True, a status of autonomy for the Syrian Kurds is a natural thing to do. The problem is Ankara. Its government is opposing too many things with making no constructive proposals of its own. Just remember how Turkey complicated the peace process in Geneva.
The information about its ties with the Islamic State has been made public.
Ankara violated the UN-brokered truce in Syria.
As time goes by, Turkey may turn into the main obstacle on the way of finding a settlement to the Syrian crisis.
No matter how the events unfold, one thing is indisputable – the feasibility of a federal administrative alignment in Syria is conditional on the progress to be made at the inter-Syrian dialogue. No arrangements imposed by outside powers can do the job. The mission is to create proper conditions for talks. Let Syrian themselves decide their fate. All the statements and opinions mentioned in the article calling for some kind of Syria’s partition are in gross violation of the United Nations resolution 2254 (2015) which states unambiguously that it is adopted «reaffirming its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syria Arab Republic, and the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations».