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 ELIMINATION of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria has become an unhealthy obsession for Western nations, most of which operate under the assumption that the destruction of ISIS is the only thing standing between peace and eternal crisis. It isn’t. Focusing on ISIS’s defeat is a nonstrategy that has been seen before, one familiar to anyone involved in the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition removed Saddam Hussein without a coherent plan for the day after. Our combined experiences in Iraq as senior military and humanitarian leaders prompt us to call for careful consideration of what comes next—before today’s actions lead us down an even more treacherous path.

Whether it’s the deployment of special forces against ISIS or firing Tomahawk missiles against Bashar al-Assad, regardless of which faction is eliminated or who is removed from their position of power, the likelihood of stabilizing Syria is low. The country has traveled too far down a path that no amount of international goodwill can bring back. “Syria,” as it was previously known, is dead. Investing in an attempt to revive the pre-war status quo of a unitary state is a fool’s errand, which will drain immense resources, drag out the suffering of the people and distract the international community from seeking more achievable goals. The limited capacity of the international community (both resources and will), the conflicting geopolitical interests, and the depth of animosity among people on the ground mean that a strategy premised upon a return to the Syria that once was is bound to fail.

Although success in rebuilding countries after war appears elusive, especially considering the precariousness of Iraq and Afghanistan, research shows that when three goals are achieved—legitimacy of the state, security for the people and the provision of basic needs—success follows. Lacking any of these will lead to a cycle of instability and ongoing conflict. Eliminating ISIS or removing Assad can only be justified if establishing a legitimate, stable and functioning state in the aftermath is possible.

We believe lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that key challenges can only be overcome if the borders are redrawn, allowing the various nations of people to establish their own autonomous administrations with an agreed pathway, backed by the international community, to independence.

Our argument for the breakup of Syria isn’t a call to revisit the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the subsequent Treaty of Sèvres—in which Western nations mapped out the current Middle East, ignoring what the local people wanted—but rather to recognize that borders are not immutable and are a function of an ever-evolving history, culture and politics. The century-long map of the Middle East, for better or worse, served the region during the interwar period and the subsequent postcolonial transitions, but the internal pressures that had been contained by strongman dictatorships, with the support of various foreign governments, can no longer be held back. Persisting with the status quo in Syria without acknowledging these challenges and realistically considering the likelihood of a sustainable peace will lead to a far worse situation.

Breaking up the current Syrian state is the best way the various Syrian groups calling for self-rule can have their demands met. At the same time, doing so recognizes the changing international political environment, which is no longer willing to accept the degree of foreign support that would be necessary to make the status quo work. To make this case, in the following section we consider the strengths and weaknesses of pursuing the status-quo unitary state, versus our proposal of redrawing borders, against the three criteria for successful state building.

IS IT possible for a legitimate Syrian authority to emerge from the ravages of what is quickly becoming the most devastating conflict of this century? Proponents of the putsch against Assad and those waging the war against the Islamic State should have already answered this question, yet evidence of any such consideration remains elusive. The United Nations has been pushing a three-point plan—an all-inclusive government, a new constitution and a presidential vote. But will such a plan be able to deliver a stable Syria? Military commanders have been tasked by President Trump to develop a plan to deal with the Islamic State, but they haven’t received from their political leadership a clear answer to the question: “to what end?” Without considering these questions, any military intervention serves little purpose if all it achieves is to delay a return to an even more devastating conflict. A peace plan backed solely by the weight of diplomacy is only worth pursuing if it is structured in such a way that it leads to a stable and sustainable outcome.

Can the UN peace plan contribute to establishing a legitimate government? For the UN and proponents of its plan, a government is legitimate if elections are held and other states recognize the outcome. Syria, at war with itself for six years, retains an external legitimacy in the eyes of the United Nations and its members because its peers recognize its borders, whereas Somaliland, which has had peace and stability and internal legitimacy since 1988, is not recognized internationally as a legitimate state. This preference for external legitimacy over internal legitimacy is a dangerous idea that is driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of legitimacy best contributes to stability.

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.

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.

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.

PROPOSALS TO redraw the borders of this part of the Middle East are not new. We do not attempt here to produce a map or draw specific boundaries between new states or entities, although such things do exist. Detailed borders should be the result of negotiations between Syria’s factions overseen by the United Nations.

Any changes in Syria’s borders conducted through such a process would of course impact its neighbors, in particular Iraq and Turkey. The tribes straddling the Syria-Iraq border are largely Sunni, and it can be argued that it would make sense for any new Sunni state to encompass both sides. Although Syria’s Kurds have a different political complexion to Iraq’s, especially in relation to the Kurdish PKK in Turkey, both may see advantage in some form of unity or confederation. But any move to include portions of Iraqi territory within the new states should be done separately from the division of Syria. It would be an internal matter for individual Iraqi provinces, under the Iraqi constitution, whether to first become autonomous regions and then, potentially, to join the emerging states in the long term.

There is little doubt that the creation of a new Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border would further complicate the already-fractious relationship between Ankara and its own Kurdish population, especially given the close relationship between Syria’s Kurds and the PKK. Turkey cannot be expected to welcome such a development. However, a de facto independent Kurdish state already exists in Syria’s north, and denying its population the right to hard-won autonomy will only sustain a costly and simmering tension. Dealing with Turkey’s concerns should become a major objective for the international community, in order to prevent Ankara from attempting to veto what will be the best opportunity for long-term peace in Syria.

THERE IS a stark choice that faces the international community. Continuing to pursue the current strategy is unlikely to lead to stability. Embracing a rare opportunity that has emerged from the devastating conflict, however, could lay the groundwork for lasting peace. Our experience leads us to conclude that the likelihood of guiding a Syrian transition from the current state of war to peace and stability is very low. We have argued that eliminating ISIS or Assad should only be done if establishing a legitimate, stable and functioning state in the aftermath is possible. We have argued that it is not, and furthermore, that the consequences of pursuing this goal are far costlier than the alternative options.

The most sustainable and least costly in terms of human suffering is the redrawing of borders. This should not be undertaken as part of a grandiose scheme to build a new Middle East, but as a unique opportunity to reshape Syria and break the cycle of intense violence. Acknowledging the demographic changes on the ground, recognizing the will of the people to live separately from those they have fought against or suffered under, and understanding the geopolitical benefits of smaller states makes the choice clear: Syria needs to be broken up.

Denis Dragovic is the author of the book Religion and Post-Conflict Statebuilding: Roman Catholic and Sunni Islamic Perspectives as well as the forthcoming No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis. Richard Iron, a forty-year veteran of the British army, edited British Generals in Blair’s Wars.

This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “Farewell, Syria.”

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