Syria unlikely to be Partitioned: The Resilience of Colonial Borders

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Whenever a country falls into civil war, there are always observers who suggest that the problem could be resolved by a partition of that country. It is as though they think the parties to the war are like squabbling children in the back seat of the car, who can be dealt with by making them sit far away from one another.

Such suggestions are being made about Syria, including by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

But it isn’t likely to happen, and it wouldn’t necessarily be good if it did.

Many modern states are multi-ethnic, and not just in the Middle East. Spain, Switzerland, the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom are multi-ethnic countries. France has Bretons, Basques, Alsatians, and the people of Provencale. More monochrome countries like Poland or Greece did not get to be that way naturally. In Poland, genocide played a role, during WW II. In Greece, a massive and disruptive population transfer with Turkey was important. I don’t think we want monochrome countries at the cost of such immoral policies.

The one recent example of a partition is the separation of South Sudan from Sudan. South Sudan promptly fell into internecine warfare. In the old days the rival Dinka and Nuer tribal factions could call upon Khartoum to mediate between them. Now, that course of action is forestalled. So the partition of Sudan hasn’t worked out very well.

Moreover, countries that have been divided have seen the two new states go to war with one another. That happened many times between India and Pakistan.

A country like Syria is highly unlikely to splinter in the medium to long run.

The borders of modern Syria were drawn in the French colonial period by colonial administrators. Those borders were not exactly those delineated in the secret and duplicitous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

Still, however those borders came to define the country, they have taken on a life of their own.

Syria is unlikely to be partitioned because it is a small country with a limited internal market. You could not make much money manufacturing things and selling selling them inside Syria. A partition would create even smaller and less viable markets.

Syria is unlikely to be partitioned because there aren’t any clean lines to be had. Syrian Christians, some 5% of the population, live in mixed neighborhoods. Damascus and West Aleppo have mixed populations.

It is true that the northeast region is largely Kurdish and that there is a Druze enclave southeast of Damascus. But Syrian Druze are too small a group to sustain a state, and Turkey will not put up with a second Kurdish state, in addition to the one already operating in northern Iraq.

The government of Bashar al-Assad is determined to bring back every province into central government control, and it has the manpower courtesy regional allies to make that happen.

A more federal system and less direct central government control of some of these populations is desirable. Thus, the Kurdish enclave should have some rights. But it is a non-starter in the region that it should be completely independent.

Finally, Iran and Russia want Syria to stay together and they so far have been willing to lend the regime the firepower to help make that happen. Neither of them wants a partitioned Syria where some bits could go to al-Qaeda.

Hence, Syria is unlikely to be partitioned.


Related video:

Aljazera English: “Syria’s war: Government forces push into Aleppo’s old city”

Posted in Featured,Syria | 8 Responses | Print |

8 Responses

  1. It appears that Egypt is now entering the Syrian conflict on the side of Assad and are already working under the umbrella of the Russian air command. Ironically, the two Mistral class war ships that the French refused to sell to the Russians because of sanctions, have been sold to Egypt and are about to go to Syria to support the Assad government. I am surprised that you take any notice of the Syrian observatory for human rights. Allegedly, this is a one man band run by a man from a semi detached house over here in the UK from Coventry. This character is anti Assad and has been over here in the UK for more that a decade, having been in prison in Syria a number of times and then fled to the UK. Apparently, he gets his information from his ‘sources’ which only he knows about and are rarely able to be verified. Our press and media over here in the UK are much the same as yours in America and they are basically enthralled to the government line. The UK government is anti Assad and anti Russia so our pathetic media just carry on quoting the man from Coventry in his clothes shop without any kind of journalistic investigation. There was a time when well respected organisations like Reuters had their own reporters on the ground, but these days they just report anything from anyone who says what they want to hear. I don’t have a problem with the man from Coventry putting forward his point of view and any info he might have, but the notion that the press and media should just take this mans word or anyone’s word at face value without so much as a cursory investigation, is absurd.

  2. The inhabitants are likely more united as Syrians than outsiders realise, more than they are divided as members of this or that ethnic group or religious persuasion. Any sense of national identity necessarily encompasses all sorts of subdivisions. Although it may have had an element of seed on stony ground, I recall how dramatically it sprung up in the US in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Among more ancient peoples it has deep roots nurtured by the achievements and tribulations of their inherited past. My guess is Syrians would be seriously opposed to partitioning their land. A bit of federalism is another matter but that is not peculiarly Syrian, there is a broad nisus towards federalism in many places not least Europe. I also have an instinct that Assad’s single-minded dedication to restoring Syrian integrity has more local support than Western media may imagine, or want to. Let’s consider what Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview in October 2015.

    The last time I saw the Syrian President was in Damascus in May 2010. Syria was a tranquil and civilized country then, unlike now. The old part of Damascus, where I could take a walk, looked like a city where people of different nationalities and religions lived together peacefully.

    I talked with Syrians, who spoke warmly about Russia and its people. I photographed its ancient mosques and churches. It was a modern secular country..

    Life in Syria became a nightmare in 2011, with war, terror, death and the destruction of holy places and monuments that are part of our global heritage.

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    Actually, I heard the same thing from a French friend who had been travelling there a few years earlier.

    We are invited to accept that the Arab Spring arrived in Syria in 2011, and the present mess arose directly from Assad’s brutal suppression of peaceful opposition. However I see no reason to discard the former French Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas’ assertion that regime change had been on the drawing board in the UK (and presumably the US since neither Blair nor Brown were likely to plan such a thing alone) for at least 2 years before the violence erupted in March 2011.

    I met with top British officials, who confessed to me, that they were preparing something in Syria. This was in Britain not in America. Britain was organizing an invasion of rebels into Syria. They even asked me, although I was no longer Minister of Foreign Affairs, if I would like to participate. Naturally, I refused, I said I am French, that does not interest me”.

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    If this reflects the truth, Assad was contending with a great deal more than local political opposition. As we may be approaching the recapture of Aleppo it’s perhaps time to reassess the true origins of this horrendous period and not seek to impose solutions better suited to a simpler but less accurate scenario.

    • Thank you for those interesting quotes about the state of Syria prior to the conflict and about foreign involvement in that tragedy. As early as 1996, “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm Israel” prepared by Richard Perle and other pro-Israeli activists for Benjamin Netanyahu, called for the removal of Saddam Hussein and the containment of Syria by engaging in “proxy warfare and highlighting their possession of weapons of mass destruction”. Rather than pursuing a “comprehensive peace” with the entire Arab world, Israel had to “contain, destabilize, and roll-back” those entities that posed threats to it.

      After the Israelis, the Turks and the Saudis also got involved. A US Embassy Cable from 3 Feb 2009 is basically about the Turkish and Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s influence in the region by destabilizing Syria. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Ambassador to Turkey, writes: “GPT [Turkish Government] remains focused on removing tools from Tehran’s hands and is convinced the best way to do that is to continue to drive a wedge between Iran and Syria, without whose support Iran’s efforts at destabilization would become far less effective.”

      John Hannah, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, wrote in summer 2011 that a senior Saudi official had told him that the Saudi king Abdullah believed that regime change in Iran would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests. He went on to say: “The king knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria.”

      As early as 4 November 2011, Alastair Crooke, a former security advisor to EU, in an article in the Guardian headlined “Syria and Iran the Great Game”, laid bare the details of a plan to “set up a transitional council as sole representative of the Syrian people; feed in armed insurgents from neighbouring states; impose sanctions that will hurt the middle classes; mount a media campaign to denigrate any Syrian efforts at reform; try to instigate divisions within the army and the elite; and ultimately President Assad will fall.”

      None of this means that the Syrians did not have some genuine grievances against their government or that President Assad did not use massive force to put down initially peaceful demonstrations. However, it is clear that the Syrian tragedy was not merely a civil war and had many regional and international aspects to it too, and unfortunately ordinary Syrians paid the price for other countries’ geopolitical interests. I am quite confident that both the Syrians and the Iraqis will resist partition of their countries and probably would appreciate the merits of unity more than they did prior to the catastrophes that they have suffered.

      • The article and responses are fascinating. Am I wrong in believing that the next step in the analysis is to more fully clarify the roles and responsibilities of outsiders, e.g., Britain, Israel and the United States in this regional holocaust?

        The colonial era is by no means over. Its forms and mechanisms have simply evolved with human capacities. They are less formal, far more complex and covert, and infinitely more violent. There is underlying structure, but it’s largely hidden as are strategic objectives and it’s thus more pernicious than ever.

        Should we not work toward a far less globalized, intrusive and militaristic foreign policy model consistent with our present interests? Granted it won’t be easy. In the 1930s the conservative wing of our democracy were demonized as isolationists. They believed they had learned something from WWI. Today their successors are equally demonized as military interventionists. God knows what they now believe.

  3. The Kurd situation seems as you say, with considerable more autonomy. The women soldiers indicate Assad may
    need to reconsider his strongman approach.
    But the Erdogan involvement worries me more, although
    it seems Putin has his hands securely on the reins. Whoa!
    Season’s Greetings, Juan!

  4. The Syrian Kurds have been calling for federalism (as have the Kurds in Turkey, back in better days). Assad dismisses this out of hand (as do Erdogan and Xi Jinping and a dozen other centralizing dictators), but it’s a reasonable suggestion. A key sticking point would be defining powers–for instance, Rojavan socialism teaches that sovereignty originates at the local, village level.

  5. Another thing: not every ethnic group would need to have its own territory in order to benefit from territorial division. Syrian Christians are de fecto allied with Assad and the Alawis, since a Sunni Arab victory would have most likely resulted in massacre for both groups (think ISIS lite).

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