It's Time to Break Up Syria

June 25, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeySyriaKurdish StateKurdsPKKWarMilitary

It's Time to Break Up Syria

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

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