Kerry warns of break up of Syria; but is that Realistic?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Amid ongoing talks in Geneva around a cessation of hostilities in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday night in a joint telephone call with other diplomats, “It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer.”

The ‘cessation of hostilities’ worked out by diplomats has little chance of succeeding on the ground. It excludes Daesh (ISIL, ISIS) and al-Qaeda, two of the major forces engaging in combat, and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army often have battlefield alliances of convenience with al-Qaeda. Those in besieged East Aleppo have allegedly begun cooperating with Daesh against the regime, a big change on the ground since earlier they had helped the US target Daesh.

Russia and the regime could only demonstrate their bona fides in this ceasefire by agreeing to dicker with the rebels in East Aleppo and by allowing humanitarian aid into that half of the city. If they make a full court press to take it (at which point they will have won the war for all intents and purposes), then the agreement will obviously fall apart.

It would be in Russia’s interest to dicker with the Free Syrian Army groups in Aleppo and to try to bring them into the elections now scheduled for April. While Russia might be able to bomb them into submission for the moment, likely a sullen and subdued population that had won its freedom from the sordid Syrian police state would go on mounting underground resistance into the future.

A fragile reconstituted state, similar to what has happened in Algeria, could be one outcome of such a situation. Another possible scenario would be Afghanistan, where the central government is just very weak in some provinces and constantly battling insurgents in a low-intensity conflict.

A break-up of Syria, however, on a South Sudan model, seems unlikely to me. What would be the territory involved in such a break-up?

syrprov

In the far east, the Kurds now have most of Hasaka province, along with some local Arab allies. In the medium term, the Syrian Kurds need allies against Daesh and need to guard against a forceful Turkish intervention They know Turkey would not put up with an independent Syrian Kurdistan, and say they want a postwar federal system a la Canada. They sometimes cooperate with regime forces against Daesh. For all of Ankara’s fears about this northeast tip of Syria breaking off, I don’t think that’s what local actors actually have in mind.

The regime has reconquered northern and western Latakia. It has most of Hama and Homs, and certainly the big urban populations, though there are eastern pockets of resistance in smaller villages. It has most of Damascus province.

Freemen of Syria and Army of Islam Salafi jihadis north and west of Damascus have been pushed back.

In the far south and the far north, the regime still faces serious challenges. In the north, Idlib is in the hands of an al-Qaeda-led coalition.

East Aleppo is in the hands of a mix of Free Syrian Army factions, along with some al-Qaeda.

Raqqa and Deir al-Zur provinces in the east of the country are Daesh territory. Daesh won’t be allowed to keep them. Eventually the Iraqi government will take back Mosul, isolating the small city of Raqqa and cutting off any aid or money from Iraq. Already last weekend Sunni clansmen in Fallujah staged a rebellion against Daesh. Could Syrian Daesh lands fall to other Sunni factions? Maybe, but the best fighters among them are al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda won’t be allowed to take these towns from Daesh (or in some instances, back from Daesh). Russia and Iran can and will prevent this outcome, and nor would NATO or Baghdad or Erbil want it.

Suwayda, Deraa and the Golan Heights in the far south are in the hands of a mix of factions, including al-Qaeda.

What is likely to happen if things go on as they have been for the past two months is that the regime will take East Aleppo militarily. (As I said, I think that would be a mistake, not to mention horrible for its people, but that is where things are going).

If Aleppo falls to al-Assad’s forces, and he keeps control in Latakia, then Idlib becomes an isolated Army of Conquest enclave, cut off from eastern, western and southern supply routes and solely dependent on Turkey; and likely will also fall.

The southern opposition is in easy reach of the capital’s crack troops and would be unlikely to be able to hold out if Aleppo and Idlib fall.

If al-Qaeda and Daesh are defeated on the battleground and deprived of territory, it is true, they could devolve into terrorist organizations again. But that pathway does not lead to a break up of Syria.

In short, I think that the geography, military logistics, and trade and other routes in Syria all tell in favor of a unified victor in the war. It was never likely to be Daesh or al-Qaeda, given the religious and ethnic diversity in Syria (I figure about 60 percent of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and over half of them are secular-minded people who are siding with the regime against the hard line theocrats). Had Russia not intervened last fall, then a partition might well have occurred. But now it seems that the momentum is on the side of Restoration, however horrible that outcome is (and I wouldn’t have believed it, but it is a slightly less horrible outcome than the worst of what could have happened, i.e. a Daesh or al-Qaeda takeover of Syria).

So I think Kerry is bluffing when he speaks of partition. He is just trying to get the regime to make peace with the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, which is in fact the best road forward for Syria. We have had enough, in the Middle East, of the anti-Mandelas who reject reconciliation and insist on total victory and vicious reprisals. That path just ensures violence and turmoil into the next decades.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Syria could fall apart if fighting continues, warns America’s Kerry”

8 Responses

  1. But the ‘alliance’/’non-aggression pact’, or however it is described between the YPG and al Assad, how long can it last? Iran will not want to see any autonomy granted to the Kurds. Russia might think it has something to gain from it, if only to aggravate Turkey. Assad will not like it.
    And what will happen in Aleppo if/ when Assad retakes it? There will likely be a reign of terror on what is left of the Sunni population there. How will the Kurds react to that?
    There will undoubtedly be great ethnic bitterness but will the YPG watch over a massacre in their city? Will they not fear they could be next? Will Aleppo be divided?

  2. For Kerry prognosticating a breakup of Syria is scarcely difficult since he and a whole disparate bunch of people are engaged in conflicting efforts and purposes which appear to be united only in moving in that direction. The sole entity actively opposed to such an outcome is the Syrian government, army and allies. Assad has made it clear his purpose is to regain control of all Syria, and the only way to accomplish that surely is to defeat or disarm all armed groups actively opposed to the government. If the West is not going to help in that direction it should get out. The ceasefire, is a US obsession, with Kerry desperately trying to look as if he is doing something positive, while the Russians go through the motions and get on with the job. Personally I consider Trump’s notion of US disengagement quite the most constructive suggestion.

    Rightly or wrongly, the US is giving the distinct impression of not having the faintest idea what it thinks it’s doing. Just compare Mark Toner, the DOS spokesperson, responding to questions the other day, link to state.gov. with the Russian, Maria Zakharova, doing the same.

  3. Why do western politicians have such a passion breaking up territories that don’t belong to them is intriguing. The entire Arab nation was divided into different nations. Further still Lebanon was divided as Syria and Lebanon. Now they want to divide Syria again? As if division of Iraq was not enough further carving up of the ME still remains a passion. In history countries of asia were also carved up like India,Korea,Vietnam and so on. Bomb,destroy and divide the world to suit western interests is all this deadly politics of the world is about. The powerful bullying the weak and playing the insidious ‘divide and rule game’. A shame indeed.

  4. Could the corridor from Damascus to Aleppo including the coast and Lebanese border be turned into an Alawite dominated heartland? The Sunni rebels in the East would be isolated, landlocked and busy fighting each other while the Kurds would face a bigger enemy in Turkey.
    Perhaps partition would suit Assad and not have to be imposed from outside.

  5. I’m not sure who Kerry thought he would be scaring with his talk of partition, but it is a low probability for a whole lot of reasons.

    The Kurds would be better off within a new Syria rather than an independent state- safe from attack by Turkey, and with greater recognition from Damascus, given their territorial control. They would be better off without any kind of formal linkage to the Iraqi Kurds, given that the ruling Barzani clan and their klepto friends seem to be driving that region into economic ruin; militias not paid for six months etc

    In other areas, the USA cannot afford to leave any part of Syria under the control of extremist Islamist elements like Nusra (al Qaeda) or Daesh- any such region would become a haven for extremist of all kinds, the very thing that the West has been trying, less than successfully, to achieve so far with their bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria.

    Even allowing a ‘moderate’ group to have its own territory carries extreme risks. We have seen only too often the fluid alliances between the 1000 or so militias operating in Syria . To expect that this pattern will cease, and moderates won’t play footsies with extremists, is hopelessly optimistic.

    The USA may not publicly support what Russia and the Syrian Government are doing, but it is in the US best interests that they do so. Kerry just can’t say so out loud.

  6. If they make a full court press to take it (at which point they will have won the war for all intents and purposes), then the agreement will obviously fall apart.

    Well, they’re obviously aiming for exactly that. And given how bad the situation is, we might as well root for them to do so. Daesh & al-Queda losing is good, even if the overall outcome is bad. (If Daesh & al-Queda won, it would be much much worse.)

    It would be in Russia’s interest to dicker with the Free Syrian Army groups in Aleppo and to try to bring them into the elections now scheduled for April.

    It seems to me the FSA has only one goal – opposition to Assad. This is essentially suicidal for them – if they succeeded Daesh or al-Queda would come to blows, and the FSA would get squashed in the middle and annihilated. Obviously, the FSA should throw its lot in with Assad and buy themselves survival with it, but I suspect they don’t want to.

    (As I said, I think that would be a mistake, not to mention horrible for its people, but that is where things are going).

    It’s a mistake in the sense it would be bad for Syria – all the other outcomes are worse. An underground war that rumbles along for a few years offers the non-fundamentalist opposition a chance to survive and someday come back. A war they’re part of winning means they get wiped out wholesale.

    but it is a slightly less horrible outcome than the worst of what could have happened, i.e. a Daesh or al-Qaeda takeover of Syria).

    Again, if Assad goes down at this point Daesh or al-Qaeda wins. Then they fight each other for control and all the remaining seculars get killed or driven out. Or the Turks intervene and turn Syria into a neo-Ottoman police state which will have to be just as bad and nasty as Assad’s state.

    Daesh wins or al-Queda wins and then Syria either turns into a mash of brawling princedoms (the war of all against all) with all the blood and death that entails, or Daesh wins. Or al-Queda wins and in either case Jordan goes down and Lebanon turns into a bloodbath and it’s crazy fundamentalists from the Med to Euphrates, all trying to purge their way to paradise. (Of course, we’d have to get involved so you can tote up a a million more dead just from trying to remain in charge of the situation.)

    The choice is tens of thousands more against millions with a good chance that burns out of control and drags everyone in the world into a real actual WWIII. (Much like Serbia v. Austria dragged everyone else into WWI.)

    If the thing gets snuffed out, the starvation and the artillery fire stops. Something can be salvaged from that. If we had to (and maybe we’d want to) a small partition of Syria and Iraq that involves giving the middle sands to the Saudis might be workable, although I doubt anyone would want to try.

    My actual question is just how big of a hot-headed fool is Erdogan? Is he going to cut his losses and let Assad/whomever mind the YPG under control for Erdogan, or is Erdogan desperate to hang onto the neo-Ottoman dream? If he’s sensible enough to cut his losses here, I think his position is decent enough – he can be part of the EU and maybe get the PKK problem under control. Or he can commit suicide by going to war with the Russians.

    max
    [‘We’ll see.’]

  7. Peter R: “But the ‘alliance’/’non-aggression pact’, or however it is described between the YPG and al Assad, how long can it last?”

    If Assad wins the war then that “pact” will be a cornerstone of the peace that follows.

    Syria will become a federated states with significant autonomy granted to the various ethnic regions.

    The Kurds will be the biggest beneficiaries of that change, as well they should since they will have played a vital role in Assad winning the war. The level of autonomy that Assad will grant to them will become a role-model for the rest of the country.

    Peter R: “Iran will not want to see any autonomy granted to the Kurds. Russia might think it has something to gain from it, if only to aggravate Turkey. Assad will not like it.”

    Yes, gosh, you’ve already pointed out that the deal is between Assad and the Kurds. What the Iranians think of it therefore matters little. That the Russians are in favour of it, again, matters little.

    What matters is that the Kurds an the Alawites have struck a deal, and they will expect Assad to live up to that deal.

    If he does then Hurrah!. If he doesn’t then they’ll fight.

    Assad will stick to that deal, precisely because after running his forces into the ground to defeat the jihadis he will not want to pick another fight. Certainly not with the Kurds.

    They’ll get what they want, both because they’ve earnt it and because Assad knows that they’ve earned it.

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