Is partitioning Syria a viable option?

Is partitioning Syria a viable option?

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. Jacob Purcell presents why, while there is every reason to think that a partition of the Syrian state along ethno-religious lines would improve the chances of long-term peace, it is unclear that such a partition is actually feasible. Read the case for unity here.

Despite recent gains by Assad’s government, the war in Syria seems set to drag on indefinitely. Even if government forces should manage to win the siege of Aleppo and forcibly conquer the other territories held by the Syrian rebels with help from Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, years of government brutality make it unlikely that the Syrian populace will easily accept the return of Assad’s rule.

This could easily lead to a long and costly guerilla war, as bands of rebels launch hit-and-run attacks against government forces before blending back into the populace.

Given Syria’s position as a lynchpin of the Middle East, it is natural to wonder if there might not be a better way to resolve this conflict, one which would provide true stability instead of vicious asymmetric warfare.

Perhaps the most promising hope of creating long-term stability in Syria is to partition the country along sectarian and ethnic lines. This would address the fears of group reprisal which minority groups within Syria currently feel, and would prevent domestic political infighting for control of the state.

However, given the current balance of power within Syria, this sort of negotiated partition is unlikely in the extreme. Instead, we may well see an unofficial, de facto division of the country based on what groups within Syria can realistically control.

A divided state

During the time since the war broke out in Spring 2011, it has become increasingly sectarian in nature. This can be clearly seen in the opposition forces, which are formed overwhelmingly of Sunni Arabs who feel that Assad has systematically excluded them from government.

Similarly, the Kurds have formed a separate block, which they call Rojava, and have largely pursued their goals of autonomy and self-defense without getting involved in the broader civil war.

Interestingly, while Assad’s forces are frequently portrayed as being overwhelmingly Alawite in nature, the government is perhaps the least sectarian of these factions, as it also relies heavily on certain segments of Syria’s Sunni population for support.

Indeed, an estimated 60% of the government’s armed forces are Sunni, and the government has historically worked hard to present itself as secular and above sectarian favoritism.


An Ethno-Religious Map of Syria. Image credit: Wikimedia.

However, the fact that many Sunni opposition groups identify the government as being coterminous with the Alawites has motivated anti-Alawite sentiment within the opposition. This anger has caused the Alawites to fear that any opposition victory would come with brutal persecution and ethnic cleansing, and consequently rally behind Assad.

An ethno-sectarian partition?

The needs of all of Syria’s major ethnic and religious groups could be addressed through a partition of the country, which would split Syria into three independent countries roughly corresponding to the underlying population distribution.

The Alawites would thus have a state in the west, with a Sunni Arab state in the center and a Kurdish state in the northeast. This distribution of territory would help ensure stability, as each of these major groups is dominant within its own state, thereby addressing the concerns of the previously marginalized Sunnis and Kurds, as well as the fears of the Alawites.

To be sure, Syria could be divided domestically without going so far as to create new independent states. Some sort of federalist arrangement could be possible; for instance, semi-autonomous provinces could be created along sectarian lines, and then placed under a central government in Damascus.

Such a federal government may seem especially attractive as it potentially suggests a negotiated peace with Assad might be possible – the current Syrian government could transition into the new federal government; thereby relinquishing some direct control in the provinces but regaining a greater degree of control over the country as a whole.

However, for lasting, long-term stability, a full partition of the country is preferable. A federal system like the one described above could simply set up the next wave of fighting as various ethnic groups contend with each other to control the central government and entrench themselves.

This sort of political infighting may not break out into open war, but it sets the stage for further instability and unrest. This can clearly be seen in Iraq’s recent history, where al-Maliki’s marginalization of the Sunni community was key in driving many Iraqi Sunnis to support ISIS against the government.

An impossible dream

Unfortunately, while a partition on ethno-sectarian lines has been frequently discussed, actually realizing it will prove next to impossible, as key players either have no reason to accept a partition or have been assumed away.

Assad falls into the former category, as he currently seems likely to reconquer the heart of the opposition and thus has no need for a negotiated peace. Unless Assad faces the serious prospect of being unable to win militarily, there is no reason for him to seriously come to the negotiating table.


Approximate areas of control of the principal factions within Syria as of Feb. 8th, 2016. Image Credit: Wikimedia.

Discussions of this sort of partition are also premature because they entirely ignore ISIS’ hold over eastern Syria, and implicitly assume that the manpower and will to drive them out will spontaneously materialize. Given that none of the factions within Syria possess these sort of resources, the hope for a negotiated partition thus rests on a foreign power intervening drastically on the behalf of the rebels to stymie Assad’s offensive and crush the Islamic State.

This would be a serious escalation which would require a massive number of boots on the ground to achieve and would risk a counter-escalation by Iran and Russia.

A de facto partition

However, while Assad is currently well on his way to subduing the Sunni Arab rebels, it is not clear that he will be able to defeat ISIS and the Kurds to reunite Syria militarily. Even if Russia continues to provide air support against the Islamic State if non-jihadi rebels are defeated, ISIS is far better organized and united than the loose coalition of militias that make up the Sunni rebels.

Assad is thus likely to get bogged down in another brutal stalemate. This in turn would lead to a de facto partition of the country, with Assad occupies the west, the Kurds in the northeast, and ISIS in the center of the country. Such a partition would be based on the balance of military strength, and as such could prove highly durable.

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About Author

Jacob Purcell

Jacob Purcell is a Middle East expert. He holds a Master's graduate from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations Program, where he focused on International Security and International Economics. He received his BA from the University of Arkansas, where he graduated Magna cum Laude with majors in International Relations, Political Science, and Economics, as well as minors in French, History, and Classical Studies.