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.