In Syria talks, don’€™t mention the P-word

Diplomats officially disavow any possibility of partition, but Syria is already splintering along sectarian lines

Rebel fighters in the northern city of Aleppo fire on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Medo Halab/AFP/Getty Images

As top diplomats from the United States, the United Nations, Russia and elsewhere meet in Geneva along with representatives from the Syrian government and elements of the opposition, their most immediate aim is to keep everyone at the table and talking. The attendees are attempting to extract an agreement from all sides to establish a transitional government — supported with more than $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid from the United States — but one topic that won’t be on the agenda is the possible partition of the Syrian state.

“They’re not talking about it (partition). They’re saying we still have the same goals,” said Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush. “But the facts on the ground aren’t going to change just because they’re not talking about it.”

While the Defense and State departments both strongly dismiss any suggestion that dividing Syria along ethnic lines might be on the table during the Geneva talks, for many observers, fragmentation, separation or enclave creation has already occurred.

“In effect, Syria is already partitioned, but it is such a patchwork of different opposition groups faced off against regime-controlled areas, corridors and outposts that it is difficult to discern what a workable partition may look like,” said David W. Lesch, author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.”

According to him and other Syria experts, the country, once part of the greater Levant, is witnessing its population centers receding along sectarian lines. Alawites and Christians are collecting along the border with Lebanon, to its west and to its north. The Kurdish have moved to the northern and northwestern edges of the country, and the Druze are settling in the south.

That patchwork, meanwhile, will only heighten tensions among regional players as peace talks begin, said Lesch, who is also a professor of Middle East history at Trinity College in San Antonio. What happens in Syria — and whether the country unravels — will have earth-shifting consequences for all its neighbors, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and, in particular, Israel.

“If some sort of (official) partition does occur through military force or diplomacy, there will not be clear-cut, stable borders but rather continuing conflict and potential regional instability,” he said. Regional stakeholders “will not all of a sudden end support for their respective Syrian allies.”

‘A state of instability’

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Across the Levant, observers and analysts are redrawing maps, to show where people of the same ethnicities have clustered to either escape or provoke the conflict.

Jean Aziz, a Lebanese political talk-show host and columnist for the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, wrote that partition is already afoot.

“The first indicator,” he said, was the Syrian armed opposition’s establishment of an “interim government.” That brought with it a seat for the Syrian opposition in the Arab League. There has even been a push for the Syrian opposition to be able to issue its own passports to citizens opposing the regime.

Aziz said that the current discourse by opposition leaders “that what they are doing is for the sake of a unified Syria” is not new in the historical experience. He argued they may talk of wanting a united Syria, but their actions, in effect, could lead to a splintering of the country. “The pro-unification discourse can be traced throughout history, from Korea to Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Germany,” he wrote. “Every de facto partition was sought implicitly and rejected publicly.”

Last spring Syria’s parliament moved to revise administrative divisions and recommend the creation of provinces that, Aziz said, essentially “delineate the areas controlled by the regime.” It’s a move, he said, by President Bashar al Assad’s regime to better corner his opposition.

Those zones, he said, are clearly sectarian. “The Aleppo countryside, Manjeb province, is adjacent to Turkey and is mostly Sunni,” Aziz wrote. “The province of Qamlishi, detached from Hasaka, has a Kurdish majority, while most Hasak residents are Sunni Arabs.” Another new province, which takes in the ancient city of Palmyra, is mainly Sunni as well. “This reduces the number of Sunnis in Homs, where the western countryside is mostly Christian and Alawite.”

Assad, an Alawite whose family has dominated the country for four decades, used the prospect of partition in Syria to warn the rest of the region that the unfolding violence would soon spill their way. “Everyone knows that if things reach the point of partition or if terrorists gain control in Syria or both, the situation will directly spread to neighboring countries,” Assad said in comments broadcast on Turkish television last year. “This means that there will be a state of instability for years, perhaps decades.”

The larger battle

But to some, that instability has long been a reality on the ground.

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” Walid Jumblatt, head of the Lebanese Druze minority, told The Washington Post last month. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

Most analysts and several government officials agree that Syria has become the nexus of a regional conflict where Saudi Arabia and Iran are battling for supremacy. To Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics, the future of the region depends less on what Washington wants and more on what Tehran and Riyadh seek.

“It is doubtful the peace talks can even be convened, let alone produce results, without an implicit understanding between the two warring Gulf powers,” he wrote in The Guardian last month. Yet both have “much to gain from preventing Syria’s implosion.”

Syrian novelist Mustafa Khalifa, who spent more than 12 years behind bars for his actions against the Assad regime, penned a detailed dispatch scrutinizing what he calls “the impossible partition of Syria.” It not only maps the ethnic and sectarian makeup of Syrian society to try to determine when and how fragmentation might occur but also looks at its demography and economy. Those factors, he wrote, led to the failure of partition in 1922, which would have given the Alawites control over a smaller state.

“The partition that was rejected by an overwhelming majority of Alawites at the time of the French experiment might receive a torrent of popular support (today),” he wrote, “if it were viewed as the only safeguard against the existential fear that the regime has sown in the hearts of the Alawite sect: a conviction that the Sunnis will slaughter them if the regime falls.”

The French experiment refers to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, which essentially carved up what was left of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Along with creating new Arab states, the agreement was established to build a railway extending from Baghdad to Haifa. It delineated countries where they never existed before, bundling different ethnicities and sects into single states, cutting across family and neighborhood lines and setting up the region for the mass tumult it is experiencing today.

“Everything is in question now, and it is all very difficult to predict,” Gerges said in The Washington Post. “But what we are realizing is that the Middle East state system set up after World War I is coming apart.”

International commitment

For Armitage, U.S. President Barack Obama may not have a choice — or the influence — to argue for his own agenda in the Geneva talks.

“He (Obama) has left everybody, friend and foe alike, confused. His colleagues have brought into question the basic competency of the United States. I really wonder how much influence the U.S. has to affect the facts on the ground,” Armitage said in an interview with Al Jazeera America.

Armitage, who served under Secretary of State Colin Powell in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, blames the loss of influence on Obama’s decision not to follow through on his warning about the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” for military action against the Assad regime.

“You can’t force these things (agreements), particularly when you’ve given up most of your leverage,” Armitage said. “We have very little leverage.”

And then there’s the even greater question those meeting in Geneva are reluctant to contend with: If Syria does settle into a state fragmented along ethnic lines, what are its chances of attaining stability without international support?

“The international community is not prepared to send one soldier into the quagmire of Syria,” wrote Khalifa. Therefore, he asked, “Who would enforce it?”

Lesch agrees, telling Al Jazeera America that any real and diplomatic partition down the road would “require an extensive international commitment in peacekeeping forces and largesse to rebuild the various statelets to make them halfway viable.”

Given the absence of U.S. military appetite to become embroiled in yet another Arab conflict, an international force commitment seems even less likely than progress by all sides at the talks this week.

Lesch points to the United Arab Emirates as the best possible example of what a partitioned Syria might look like: “divergent and dissimilar territorial entities that maintain quite a bit of political economic and cultural independence, which would most certainly have to be the case with Syria.” But he adds a major caveat, saying that “it may take a decade or more of military and political exhaustion before Syria even arrives at the point where something like this could even be attempted.”

And with so many regional players having so much at stake, it’s unlikely that such a scenario would be realized for years.

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