Why Syria will remain united

Why Syria will remain united

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently said that partitioning Syria may be a possibility. In this debate series, GRI asked whether Syria would remain united. Chris Solomon argues that despite long term political instability and terrorism, the borders of Syria will remain intact. Read the case for partition here.

As world powers attempt to steer the conflict in Syria towards a ceasefire, the idea that the country will become divided into separate enclaves is a continuing to be a keenly debated issue among Syria analysts. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon recently expressed this belief on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, claiming Syria is on the path towards a long-term political division.

Splitting Syria into two or more entities along ethnic lines, such as an Alawite Republic along the coast, may seem like a real possibility, but a deeper look shows this is unlikely.

Syria, for better or worse, will remain a badly wounded, single entity. This is in some ways fortunate; any division of the country is likely to spark further regional conflict between the Kurds with Turkey and Sunnis with Syria’s neighbors.

Syria’s turbulent history and regionalism

Since independence, Syria has seen a number of changes to its borders. Hatay, for instance, was part of the French Mandate of Syria following WWI before a referendum absorbed it back into Turkey’s control. For decades Syria’s media was largely silent on this issue, though it has gained resonance recently as Turkish-Syrian relations have soured.

For the most part, however, modern and multi-ethnic Syria has been held together by the authoritarian rule of the Assad family and the Syrian Arab Socialist Baath Party. Hafez al-Assad’s passing in 2000 led to the continuation of his family’s rule through Bashar. The other major territorial loss was the Golan Heights during Hafez’s rule in the Six Day War.

Seccessions in Turkey, Iraq and Syria?

Despite Syria remaining relatively stable in recent times, the conflict there has seen several possible secessionist movements develop in Turkey, Iraq, and south Syria.

Turkey

Of all the rebel forces, the one most likely to make a play for succession is the Kurds. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is an alliance consisting of the Kurdish YPG, Armenian, Syriac Christian and Arab militias, and certain factions of the Free Syrian Army that formed after the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) at Kobani.

The SDF are also seen by the Western-led coalition as the best choice to take on IS. In the short-term, this newfound relevance will embolden their sovereignty claims. Last December, for instance, they established their political arm, the Syrian Democratic Assembly, in order to further this cause. Owing largely to historical clashes, however, Turkey remains vehemently opposed to the prospect of Kurdish sovereignty.

Turkey’s ruling AK Party has repeatedly intervened against the Kurdish PKK, vowing that no independent Kurdistan will remerge from this conflict. While there is little appetite for a large scale intervention, Turkey may use its diplomatic influence through its NATO membership, airstrikes, limited incursions, and pressure on the KRG in Iraq to keep Kurdish aspirations in Syria subdued.

Russia, in reply, has steadily built up relations with the Kurds in a bid to undermine Ankara’s influence in the region. This has seen the Kurds setting up a diplomatic mission in Moscow.

Iraq and Syria

In the case of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government gained autonomy from Baghdad over a long period of time after US interests aligned with the Peshmerga against the regime of Saddam Hussein. In another example of a succession movement, South Yemen, there is a long history of political organization and a formal Cold War-era partition. This makes a succession in Yemen much more likely than in Iraq.

Syria’s south, where the rebellion began, is another possibility. The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is perhaps the most well trained and best organized of the FSA factions. The Southern Front recently lost ground to the regime along Jordan’s border. With close ties to Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID), FSA will experience an increase in the regime assaults to secure the Jordanian border.

The battle against Islamic State

Assad has vowed to retake all of Syria. Unless there is a dramatic change in Western military support, the Syrian rebel factions are going to lose this war. Aleppo is under devastating bombardment by Russia. Encirclement by the Assad regime looks imminent and will be a major blow to the Syria’s rebellion.

Arms flow to opposition has been stop and go. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is already positioning itself to take on IS held areas in the eastern areas of the country, such as the Taqba Airbase not far from IS’ proclaimed capital, Raqqa. The pro-government Palestinian militia, Liwa Al-Quds, experienced from their time at the front in Aleppo, is also taking part in this offensive.

In the east, Russia is increasing supplies and airstrikes for the SAA currently under siege by IS in Deir ez-Zor. This suggests Russia is planning to assist in expanding the regime’s gains to the rest of the country.

IS is under heavy military and financial pressure. The group has halved the salaries of its civil servants and is releasing hostages for $500. IS will continue its journey towards a break down in its façade of statehood. As this happens, the SDF and SAA will likely meet up half way, theoretically creating a new dividing line of political control over their respective areas in eastern Syria.

However, the recent history of cooperation between the regime, Russia, and the SDF against the Islamist groups has shown there is a precedent for dialogue. The war weary Russians will not support a new round of confrontation between the regime and the Kurds. This could force a stalemate that leads to the long sought political solution. A political solution is unlikely to accommodate secessionist claims.

Future of the Mukhabarat State?

Much of the focus of a political settlement has been on Assad himself. The reality is the humanitarian catastrophe occurring in the regime’s prisons will be hard to reconcile in a post-war political environment. This, along with the history of the Mukhabarat (secret police), will be a stumbling block for the different factions wanting to remain in a united Syria. The SAA, for its part, is being used to drive Sunnis out of the country, rather than allow them to stay and form opposition.

Syria’s Mukhabarat culture may survive the war with the nominal goal of hunting down terrorist groups but will also terrorize organized political opposition. It is this type of state sponsored repression that has held many Arab countries together. The future of the Syrian Mukhabarat will depend on how much power the Syrian opposition and Kurds are able to gain during final peace talks.

Addressing the future of political pluralism and protection of minorities in Syria will be one of the greatest challenges to be decided between the fervently loyal Assadists, the brutalized and economically marginalized Sunnis, and the independence-seeking Kurds. Representation in parliament, release of government prisoners, curbing executive power, and allowing some militias to maintain arms should all be on the table.  Like post-civil war Lebanon, there will be violent setbacks and years of political dysfunction, but the widespread bloodshed will stop.

Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and the world would all benefit from seeing a united Syria. Breakaway regions will be weak and state building efforts are questionable and would take time.  Russia and the United States still agree on maintaining the Sykes-Picot borders between Iraq and Syria.

Just as foreign powers created Syria in 1916, they will preserve Syria in 2016.

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About Author

Chris Solomon

Chris Solomon is the GRI Guest Post Editor and a Senior Analyst. He has supported several US government-funded international development programs in the Middle East and Africa throughout his professional career. He has also been a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy on the U.S. strategy to combat ISIS. Christopher holds a master’s degree in Public and International Affairs from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris.