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

The population of Syria is currently estimated at 22.8 million (including displaced refugees). Using the commonly accepted rule of thumb that for a successful counterinsurgency at least twenty security-force members are needed per one thousand in population, Syria needs about 450,000 personnel to give it a good chance of achieving security and stability after the current war. Even if two-thirds are locally recruited (and it will take some time before this number can be considered properly trained and organized, as was seen in Iraq) the remaining 150,000 will need to be provided from the international community: a number equivalent to the highest level deployed to Iraq after 2003.

Such a major international commitment would need a UN mandate to provide the underpinning legitimacy for intervention. This requires a common approach to Syria, especially between the United States and Russia, which is noticeably absent at present and unlikely to be reached in the foreseeable future.

If the UN Security Council were to reach agreement on Syria, it would still prove difficult to find the manpower for such a major international effort. It is unlikely that most Western nations, after a decade of engagement in Afghanistan and the costly commitment to Iraq, would volunteer for such a dangerous and open-ended commitment. Regional powers, such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, all have a vested interest in influencing the postwar settlement to their own advantage, and it would be dangerous to rely on them to police an internationally agreed peace agreement. Many in the West view Russia, Syria’s traditional protector and ally throughout the Cold War, with grave suspicion. There are no good or easy options to enforce security following a peace settlement in Syria as a unitary state within its existing borders.

If, however, one were to consider the redrawing of borders, the security situation would look very different. In that case, autonomous administrations with a longer-term pathway to full independence would mirror the de facto boundaries that have emerged over six years of conflict.

New federated or independent states are much more likely to secure internal peace than the current potpourri of ethnicities, interests and beliefs. It would be much easier for new governments to provide security for their people, as the sources of insecurity will be greatly diminished. To be sure, political differences will remain in the new states, as we have seen in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq or between Shia parties in Baghdad, but they are more likely to be dealt with by politics than extreme levels of violence: this is because conflict between homogenous groups is fundamentally self-limiting. They accept the legitimacy of the state but seek to change its government, rather than destroy the state as an entity, which is the current goal of some of Syria’s current warring factions.

There are a number of possible new states that could claim internal legitimacy among Syria’s people. There will probably continue to be a large group, including most Alawites, who will owe allegiance to a Damascus rump state. The Kurds of Rojava could command the legitimacy to create their own state in the north, as could the Sunnis in the east. Or, possibly, the current military alliance between the Kurdish YPG, Sunni Arabs and others in the Syrian Democratic Forces may command sufficient legitimacy among their people that they could form the basis of a multiethnic state in eastern and northern Syria.

Whatever new states or autonomous regions are created, they will need their own security forces, loyal to the state and with support from their people. Syria’s existing armed forces can provide the basis of security for the new Damascus rump state. The YPG and other Kurdish groups can evolve to become national-security forces for any new Kurdish state. The third possible element—a new, largely Sunni state—would provide the greatest challenge for managing its own security, as there are currently a multitude of Sunni rebel groups ranging from the Islamic State to the more secular Free Syrian Army. Here, international support will be needed to create a responsible and representative security force. Regional Sunni states, whose current involvement in a unitary Syria has many negative repercussions, would become a positive in a new Sunni state: Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt or Jordan can be invited to take the lead in building a security infrastructure in the new Sunni state.

But it will not be easy. If new states are created within the current borders of Syria, at least two of them would be deeply antithetical to each other—one consisting predominantly of Sunnis and the other of Alawites. Both could expect to be politically and economically supported by their own sponsors (Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively), for whom the temptation would be to use them as proxies in their own regional struggle. The cost, therefore, of lessening tension within a state is likely to be increasing tension between new states. In such a case, the international community has a choice. On the one hand, a concerted international effort can be made, with an uncertain outcome, to stabilize an existing but extremely unstable Syria with high levels of internal conflict. Or on the other hand, the creation of new states can be encouraged, largely at peace within themselves, but with tension between them.