Don’t Break up Syria: WW I-Style Imperial Divide & Rule is a Failure

(By Christopher Dekki)

Since the beginning of this terrible conflict in Syria, I have been closely listening to people’s reactions to the violence and devastation occurring there. What is astonishing is how quickly Syria transformed from a place of relative obscurity to a topic of constant discussion among so many.

Even more astonishing, the solutions often offered to stem the violence prove that westerners have simply learned nothing from the lessons of history. These “solutions” tend to follow the same, tired formulae of a colonial mindset that helped put the Levant in this mess in the first place.

Some of the most passionate calls for “humanitarian” intervention and instant, western-led regime change have come from people who, ironically, are still disillusioned by the disastrous Bush Administration lies that led the United States into the heinous Iraq invasion of 2003.

Nevertheless, of all the “solutions” that I hear bandied about by those who truly believe they are in the know concerning these grave geopolitical issues, the most idiotic and truly outdated is balkanization, or as I like to call it in the context of Syria, Sykes-Picot II.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was a secret deal between France and the United Kingdom in the latter years of World War I regarding the future of Ottoman Turkey’s Levantine territory. The deal was meant to define each empire’s sphere of influence in the Levant once the Turks were defeated.

It was the first step by western powers to impose age-old divide-and-rule policies on a large swathe of the former Arabic speaking part of the Ottoman Empire. The result was merely a change of control by one imperial power to another, from Ottoman Turkish to European.

“Balkanization would mean an injection of further chaos into an already chaotic situation”
“Balkanization would mean an injection of further chaos into an already chaotic situation”

What we see today playing out in the Levant is the outcome of the failure of Sykes-Picot’s regional order to establish a semblance of lasting stability. It should be noted that this failure was the intended consequence of the agreement, because divide-and-rule seeks only to disturb and subvert, never to unite.

Sykes-Picot was the balkanizing effort that kept the Levant at the mercy of outside powers, and those suggesting the international community balkanizes Syria are simply replaying the failures of the French and British empires nearly a century ago.

Now, balkanizing the already balkanized Levant is asinine for a number of reasons. Normally, I would make ideological pronouncements against perpetuating sectarianism and about the necessity of promoting a culture of unity among the people of the world. But, I will spare readers this approach and go in a more pragmatic direction.

The balkanization scheme as a means to ending the Syria conflict essentially translates into dividing the country into ethnic and religious enclaves, where Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds and other groups can live in “peace” in their own autonomous microstates.

The promoters of this “solution” often pat themselves on the back for their cleverness (whilst ignoring over 1,000 years of history that shows how the diverse groups of the region have lived together quite well), but seem to forget one major problem: The threat of Salafist jihadists has made the already foolish idea of new borders and boundaries even more untenable, unrealistic, and essentially superfluous.

These militants seek to reestablish the Islamic Caliphate (of course with very little resemblance to the original). This Islamic government would transcend political borders, culture, and language.

Further weakening what we call the Syrian state means an even greater potential for the Levant to become a breeding ground for Salafist militancy and protracted violence. Especially now, when the threat of Al Qaeda terror has increased (notwithstanding the idiotic claims of the United States that it is winning its war on terrorism), the possibility of the terrorist network firmly establishing itself in yet another region of the world is more real than ever before.

Besides the Al Qaeda problem, another drawback to balkanization is that inventing new borders in places where they never existed leads to chaos, both in the short and long term. Think of India and Pakistan, the whole of Africa, or other places that have yet to move past the grave problems created by arbitrary division.

In Syria especially, there are many areas of the country that are not homogenous in the least. Large portions of the country are multiethnic and multi-religious. Partition could lead to mass exodus, violence, and death, as has occurred in South Asia, Palestine, and other places throughout the world that were placed on similar paths.

Balkanization would mean an injection of further chaos into an already chaotic situation. So many Syrians have lost homes, livelihoods, and loved ones. Creating new microstates would only threaten fragile lives with even greater uncertainty, instability, and fear. There is absolutely no sense to a “solution” that engenders any more discord in Syria and the region.

The time has come to reject outdated notions of divide-and-rule, to stop forcing people who share a common history, land, identity, and so much more into believing they are too different to live together peacefully.

The time has come to oppose tired neocolonial paradigms that only benefit hegemonic powers.

The time has come to work for unity and lasting peace, where the people of the Levant forge a future for themselves, for a peace that originates from the grassroots and is not imposed by one sided conferences taking place in Europe.

Balkanization is a threat to the future of the Levant and its people. It will do nothing but create a power vacuum in a region already plagued by chaos. Those who promote balkanization as a solution either have insidious motives for the region or are completely ignorant of the Levant’s rich history of coexistence. Overcoming sectarian strife and civil conflict means we must help build bridges between communities, not forcefully erect new barriers.

Christopher Dekki is a native New Yorker, a scholar, an advocate for youth, and an educator. Primarily, he is the United Nations representative for the International Movement of Catholic Students – Pax Romana, one of the oldest and most respected youth NGOs at the UN. As the main representative, he leads a team of young people that lobbies UN member states on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Read his blog Embattled Empire (


Related video:

AFP reports on the failing Syrian talks at Geneva II

16 Responses

  1. The Kurds are creating an autonomous region in Syria and seem to be able to defend it from the Salafist militants. Balkanizing nationalist independence movements arise everywhere. They don’t need outsiders to inspire them.
    It’s hard to know when to support the dividing of a state. East Timor was probably a good idea. Likewise, Kosovo. We may have screwed up in Sudan. The US was probably wrong to recognize the first state to break off from Yugoslavia. We may be screwing up by encouraging the protesters in

  2. Mr. Dekki passionately protests against Balkanization of Syria, offering tired cliches in support of his position (“The time has come to oppose tired neocolonial paradigms that only benefit hegemonic powers.”) Of course, it’s fun to employ the jargon of Post-Colonial literature (“Neocolonial paradigms”, “hegemonic powers”), but where is his solution to the Syrian problem? Mr. Dekki offers nothing.

    Does Mr. Dekki think intervention under a UNSC resolution advisable? Does he support arming the rebels against Assad advisable? Does he think the world should simply let the civil war proceed without any intervention until one side or the other prevails? He doesn’t say. He seems to be up on his history of Sykes-Picot, but to suggest that the creation of ethnic/religious enclaves of self-rule in Syria is equivalent to Sykes-Picot (with “hegemonic powers” ruling) is stretching the analogy beyond usefulness. It would have been interesting had Mr. Dekki compared the likely result of “Balkanization” to the result of other potential solutions being discussed. Unfortunately, he has left that for someone else to tackle.

    • The only way people can live in harmony — which would be the natual state, is to STOP meddling from the outside. Not to go into history at all, so let us stick with present. STOP pumping up Salafi extremism and their mentors, Saudi Wahhbis. And who should stop? Primarily US and UK. With plenty of help from spineless Europe. What is the goal? The primitive notion is that once all those A-rabs are forced to follow Salafi fundamentalism, they will take orders only from Saudi Arabia (from US, that is), and problem solved. Now, is it GOOD to have the Arab world forced to accept fundamentalism? May look usefull, by having them A-rabs be all controlled like zombies from the zombie kingdom, and then just remote control them. But it iwill backfire, and we will pay for our stupidity with our good lives and risk future of our kids. Are there ANY adults left in charge of this country?

  3. If you want to be technical, Sykes Picot wasn’t really an attempt to divide and rule, it was simply a division of the spoils of war that paid very little heed to the ethnic and religious geography of the territory. That said the French did try to divide up Syria with ethnic states, particularly the Jabal Druze and the Alawite state. That was anathema to the nationalists in their various configurations.

    However, things have changed and I see only two ways for the Syria conflict to end. One is partition and the other is total victory for one side or other. Partition doesn’t have to mean the formal breakup of the country, e.g. the division of Bosnia into Bosnia and the Rpublika Srpska. What it does have to mean is that neither side is in the other’s power since both have the probably perfectly accurate impression that they wouldn’t be safe if they were ruled by the other side. I really doubt the two can share power in the same government safely at this point. The only other option is is wait until one side wins, if even, and that would probably take years and result in the destruction of even more of Syria. Particularly now that the rebels now mostly openly reject democracy, I don’t really think a Taliban style government would be better enough that Assad to destroy what’s left in Syria for. That’s just me though.

    • That is a great slogan. Does it match up with what can be seen in the videos being so proudly submitted to youtube and cataloged under “Syrian war,” like this, link to of which there are thousands, maybe next to be seen in bulk at future war crimes trials or, Insh’Allah, as one of 12 steps on the path to some great reconciliation?

    • If youre not breaking up syria then why you fight kurds in the north-east and druze in the southeast ? why you massacre alawite civilians in the western syria on August 2013 ? by attacking them you force the kurds to defend themselves by militias (YPG), you force the druze to defend themselves by militia (Jaish al Muwahideen), and you force the alawites to defend themselves by militia (NDF and Syr Resistance) creation of these militias creates a situation similar to balkans where they become autonomous and secede/separate later on, leading to the breakup of the state.

      This means that YES you (i.e. opposition/islamists) ARE INDEED breaking up syria by attacking different syrians and forcing them to defend themselves through militias and eventually declaring autonomy when the regime is absent (like the Kurds did in Rojava). You cant be fighting for all syrians if youre fighting all other syrians.

      P.S. Since this “freedom” of yours leads to the break-up of syria and establisment of islamic law/caliphate (i.e. discrimination against non-sunni muslims and secular sunni muslims) you can keep your freedom, syrians would therefore choose 1000X Assad over your freedom!!

  4. “The time has come to work for unity and lasting peace, where the people of the Levant forge a future for themselves, for a peace that originates from the grassroots and is not imposed by one sided conferences taking place in Europe.”

    umm, just how to you propose to do this?

    It seems incredibly naive to think that “Europeans” are driving this conflict anyway; it’s pretty clear that Sunni Gulf States, and allies, are waging a proxy war against Shi’ite Iran and allies, and “Europe” is not exactly being consulted.

    The locals are indeed seeking “Unity,” but not necessarily with their neighbors, but more with their co-religionists.

    • Europeans are driving it more than Americans. Gulf states on the one side, and Iran and Russia on the other (why leave them out?) fighting a proxy war are driving it more than Europeans. I’d put non-state actors like Islamic State of Iraq and Hezbollah right up there with the regional state actors, too.

      But driving it more than anyone is Syrians themselves. Let’s not write them out of their own history.

  5. “Those who promote balkanization as a solution either have insidious motives for the region or are completely ignorant of the Levant’s rich history of coexistence.”

    I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that “Dekki” is not a Kurdish name.

  6. Pan-Arabism, expressed as an opposition to borders.

    Appeals to anti-colonialism

    Bashing of Salafists

    Not a harsh word for the Assad government

    Find me a better description of the Baathist viewpoint.

  7. The organizing principle of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamic Front, and even Jabhat al-Nusra is the removal of the Baathist regime of Assad and its human rights violations chronically perpetrated by its security services. There was little media coverage in 1982 when 30,000 inhabitants of Hama were massacred after the Muslim Brotherhood rebelled against Hafez Assad’s rule. The entire city was razed, bulldozed and steamrolled after existing tor thousands of years and symbolized the brutality of Hafez Assad.

    Hafez Assad assumed office illegally in 1970 and his family have dominated the Syrian government since that time via the commission of wholesale human rights violations. His Alawite minority controls a disproportionate share of the wealth and political power in the Baathist regime.

    The FSA has been emphasizing that sectarian differences and the danger of jihadists has been overblown by the Baathists and that “FSA” represents the “Future Syrian Army”. The longtime chair of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is Christian, Suheir Atassi is a secular feminist and a key negotiator at Geneva II, and Kurds, Sunnis and other secular leaders have held seats in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). The establishment of an interim transitional government is the key aim at this time of the SNC.

    While I agree that there are parallel’s to Iraq’s sectarian strife, the difference in Syria that there has been a pre-existing commitment to an equitable distribution of political power. The FSA’s Supreme Military Council has committed itself to a signed declaration of democratic principles and is itself elected via the voting process. The Islamic Front and the FSA have been largely allies and the key differences lie in the FSA’s allegiance to the SNC and its Western diplomatic ties.

    The U.S. State Department has resumed aid to the FSA units near Damascus fighting the Assad regime and Saudi Arabia is providing the bulk of funding to the Islamic Front. U.S. and private funding to the FSA exceeds $170 million and the Saudis have given over $500 million in aid to rebel forces.

    Once the Baathists are removed from power there is likely going to be greater autonomy given to certain regions and minorities. The Kurds in northern Syria are an example of a likely future autonomous state that will remain a part of Syria.

    The Sunni Muslims of Syria are the most vocal expatriate group in the U.S. and their community in Syria will be the biggest winners in a post-Baathist government. The Sunnis controlled the Syrian presidency with a popularly-elected president when a CIA- inspired coup brought a military junta to power in 1949.

    “Balkanization” is too strong a term to describe a likely post-Assad Syria. Greater autonomy to certain regions is likely and the primary danger to security will probably be from jihadists such as ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra.

    I agree that there is “a rich history of coexistence” in Syria and that such a future goal is to foster ongoing goodwill between the ethnic factions.

  8. Sounds like an assumption in search of an argument. I haven’t read about any major international push to orchestrate such a break-up. But the bigger question is whether the modern state called Syria is sufficiently organic to exist as a single polity. I express no opinion here as this ought to be the decision of the people who live there. But the ethnic fragmentation of what is an artificial entity cobbled together by colonial European powers is manifesting itself in the ugly bloodletting we see now. Would a breakup be worse? Perhaps. But perhaps not. Think about that.

  9. In this dirty world, nobody who is in the fight wins.
    The winner is the guy who is ready to seize power after the combatants have bled each other to death. In Syria, I expect it will be elements (who are 15 or 20 years old now) backed by Turkey who are not in the fight now who will emerge to pick up the pieces ten or fifteen years from now. Syria will become an appendage to Turkey. I don’t see another power positioned to make use of the opportunity.
    Maybe the Ottoman past isn’t over yet.
    There’s a good chance that a Kurdish nation state emerges out of the tangle, including real estate now controlled by Turkey. Remember the Iraq wars are far from over.

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