It's Time to Break Up Syria

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) stand in a house in Raqqa, Syria June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Some believe that the destruction of ISIS is the only thing standing between peace and eternal crisis. It isn’t.

July-August 2017

According to the British social theorist David Beetham, whose work builds upon efforts by others such as Max Weber, legitimacy has three intertwined pillars: a legality of the ascension to power, governance structures needing to be justified by the prevailing norms of society, and consent being given by the populace for the new regime to rule. If the process of a peace plan doesn’t strengthen these pillars of legitimacy, then the peace plan is unlikely to result in a sustainable and stable outcome.

While an externally imposed legitimacy might be achieved by heavy international military pressure on different factions, such an outcome leaves an internal legitimacy deficit that can easily be manipulated by embittered local or foreign groups. It’s an imprecise rule of thumb, but the bigger the legitimacy deficit, the greater the burden upon the international community to enforce security, which in turn requires international consensus and a willingness to contribute blood and treasure to fill the legitimacy void. With renewed Russian assertiveness and a tired, war-weary United States under the leadership of a president fond of fewer foreign forays, the collective international commitment required for success in Syria is beyond the combined capability of any international coalition. Committing to the cause without the resources necessary to succeed will entrench the conflict by creating enemies out of friends, drain the will of the international community to act elsewhere and probably lead to an even worse outcome for the people of Syria.

The alternative approach, being pursued within the confines of a status-quo state, is an attempt to entice a broad coalition of Syria’s warring factions to come together as a replacement for Assad’s government. While possible, this approach will require overcoming the competing justifications that each group has developed to sustain its legitimacy. Syria doesn’t have the luxury of a conflict that is defined by a single dimension, such as class (Cambodia), ethnicity (Rwanda) or ethnoreligious identity (Balkans). The fundamental drivers of the competing factions are so diverse, including historical animosity, economic disenfranchisement, national aspirations, religious fundamentalism and ethnic hostility, that a genuine commitment to discussing a common platform would be impossible. Are the Sunni Arabs of the Islamist movements in Syria expected to sit together with the Alawites whom they have branded enemies of God? Can the Kurds, having for the first time established self-governance, be expected to hand back their hard-earned gains to a regime that will outnumber them ethnically in any coalition in Damascus? Investing diplomatic and military resources in the establishment of fractions of coalitions that cannot foreseeably come together and stay together distracts efforts from alternative, more achievable opportunities.

Conversely, natural constituencies have emerged through the six years of conflict, each with their own narratives that justify their ascent to power. These narratives embed their governance structures within accepted social norms, as well as having already elicited consent from the people in various forms. Legitimacy in the eyes of the people has already been achieved by the Kurds of Rojava, by the rump areas under control by Assad and arguably by some Sunni groups. This legitimacy is a gift to those seeking stability in the region—a gift that needs to be embraced. The international community needs to move away from the pursuit of de jure external legitimacy and acknowledge the de facto internal legitimacy that already exists throughout the country.

THE SECOND aspect of successfully rebuilding countries after war is the provision of security for the people. We begin by considering the prospects for security were the Islamic State to be defeated and Syria remain a unitary state.

The legitimacy deficit noted in the previous section, along with continuing external support to proxies in Syria, guarantees significant levels of internal conflict into the future. Even if the armies of ISIS and other similarly aligned Islamists are defeated, their ideology, leaders and supporters will not simply disappear. Just as the supporters of Saddam Hussein went underground after his armies were destroyed, so too will the emergence of a violent underground Sunni extremist insurgency, sustained by external support, be equally dangerous. Similarly, removing Assad is popularly touted as a long-term solution, but doing so would only see minorities finding an alternative ethnic strongman who, in seeking to ensure his people’s protection, would negotiate to maintain Iranian and/or Russian support.

The geopolitical reality of the Middle East is such that, as it is currently played, Syria is a zero-sum game. There is no unitary-state solution in which the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional hegemony can be settled. Furthermore, calls for a Kurdish state are not going away: whether explicit promises have been made or not, there is a widespread expectation among the Kurds that they will be rewarded for their crucial role in any future defeat of ISIS, and the international community is expected to deliver.

Syria will remain deeply divided, and extreme low-intensity violence will continue. Enforcing peace in such circumstances will be costly and politically difficult. Much of the peacekeeping and policing burden will fall on the international community, since none of the existing parties to the Syrian Civil War would be considered impartial by other factions: although locally recruited forces may reinforce an international security framework, they will largely be confined to areas of low threat with little ethnic or sectarian tension.