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 international community’s record in keeping the peace between states is better than its efforts at establishing peace within states. It is what the UN was founded to do; to a large extent, the established international rules and mechanisms are designed to resolve interstate differences and make conflict between states difficult. The international community may need to be prepared to put into place special mechanisms to stabilize relations between the new states of the region, not unlike the deployment of UN personnel in the Golan Heights. It will not be easy, but it will be more achievable than attempting to enforce internal security within the deeply fractured state that Syria is today.

THE PROVISION of basic needs is the last of the three critical elements of successful state building. Following devastating civil wars, international assistance is the main source of humanitarian aid, regardless of whether one is rebuilding a unitary state or multiple states. The two differences to be taken into consideration are, first, the treatment of minorities by a majority government and, second, the impact of insecurity upon the distribution of humanitarian aid.

The situation in Iraq shows how an elected majority government can discriminate against minorities. Once the Shia political parties won the 2005 election, they began installing fellow Shia into key positions, gave contracts to Shia companies and ensured that Shia officers rose through the ranks of the various security institutions; most importantly, the rebuilding of infrastructure and provision of basic services was skewed in favor of Shia regions of Iraq. This prejudice, driven by a sense of deep grievance and a desire to right the wrongs of the past, is one reason why so many Sunnis chose to support fundamentalist militants sustaining the uprising: they felt disenfranchised from the new government.

Considering that Sunnis make up 74 percent of the Syrian population, what leverage does the international community have to prevent a democratically elected Sunni government from acting to right the perceived wrongs of the past under a unitary state? If this were to happen, we believe that the response of the Alawite and Christian populations would resemble that of the Sunnis in Iraq—a sense of disenfranchisement that leads to support for insurgency.

Iraq also provides an important case study as to how reconstruction can be hampered by poor security. Militias and terrorist groups, both Shia and Sunni, deliberately disrupted reconstruction efforts in Iraq, including attacking electricity distribution networks and oil infrastructure, to undermine the authority of the established government, thereby heightening a sense of disillusionment in the new regime and solidifying their support as alternatives. A return to the prewar status quo in Syria would inevitably result in high levels of internal conflict that would hamper attempts to provide for the basic needs of the population.

Conversely, by creating autonomous states, internal security will be greatly enhanced, which in turn will lead to better delivery of basic needs to the people. Each government will not only serve its citizens well, but is unlikely to feel threatened by any small minority that chooses to remain, as their nationalist ambitions will already have been met in a neighboring state.

THERE ARE risks in redrawing borders, though we believe that these are also present under the current status quo. We respond here to the four main arguments used against breaking up Syria.

One argument against a shift in borders is the fear that mass migration of the remaining minorities would occur in a manner similar to the bloody partition of India. While this is a serious concern—albeit minimized because of the already considerable movement in population—it should be treated as a challenge that can be overcome through international support and working with each new state to ensure that their minorities are protected. While many believe that a unitary Syrian state would allow minorities to return to their homes and that Damascus would rapidly return to being the cosmopolitan city it once was, postconflict experiences in Iraq and Bosnia suggest that this is unlikely.

Another argument is that the finely balanced geopolitics of the region may be disturbed with the creation of new states. We believe that the opposite is a more realistic assessment. Because of the changing geopolitics of the Middle East, brought about through the shift of power from Sunni to Shia in Iraq and the ramifications of the Arab Spring, controlling Syria becomes a critical objective for players in the region. With a division of Syria, each of the vying regional powers attain a part of their ambitions, and thus the likelihood of a larger conflagration lessens as the benefits of going to war diminish.

The third reason why some fear redrawing borders is the perceived difficulty in identifying where those boundaries will lie. While a real challenge, there is a precedent that can be followed in this regard—the boundaries of the autonomous regions within Bosnia and Herzegovina. The iterative process of drawing and redrawing the borders led to minimal additional population movement, as the lines were drawn around each faction’s existing territory, taking into consideration historical and cultural exigencies.

The fourth concern raised by those who stand against this approach is that dictators and belligerents will be rewarded: they argue that it will legitimize Assad’s use of chemical weapons and possibly lead to a fundamentalist Sunni state that has failed to respect the most basic of human rights. While this may be the case, we can’t use peace plans as tools for rendering justice. We can’t hold hostage an entire population because we feel aggrieved by how their leaders have acted.