Stalemate, Secession, and the Future of Syria
By Taylor Marvin
As the conflict in Syria drags on and grows ever more sectarian, it is becoming increasingly expected that whatever the war’s outcome, it will not include a unified Syria. While the rebels control 60 to 70 percent of mainly rural Syria, opposition forces appear to have lost military momentum, have fractionalized, and seem unable to threaten the regime’s hold over many urban areas and Syria’s western coastal strip. Likewise, the Assad government appears similarly unable to retake the rebel-held center of the country, and after two years of increasingly-sectarian warfare it is difficult to imagine how the Assad government could ever again govern the entire country.
As a result of this stalemate, ‘Syria’ is an increasingly obsolete concept: as recent reporting from AP and the Economist suggests, Syria is splitting into three distinct regions. Opposition forces hold the country’s predominantly-Sunni center, the regime the west, and Kurds enjoy increasing autonomy along the northeast Turkish border. While this division is nowhere near clearcut — the regime still holds many urban centers and military installations within rebel territory, for instance — these three regions are increasingly diverging, as each adopts different ad hoc institutions and overtly-sectarian cultures. Schoolchildren in the northeast now learn in previously-banned Kurdish, and various Sunni factions compete within the opposition to establish Islamist government in the country’s center.
Writing in Al-Monitor, David W. Lesch wonders if this incipit trifurcation heralds the end of the Middle East’s colonially-imposed boundaries. Borders between chaotic Syria and its neighbors have weakened, Lesch writes, noting that the borders drawn up by the post-Ottoman colonial mandate system artificially unite disparate ethnic and religious groups into countries that have been unable to forge durable national identities. Ottoman administration tended to follow sectarian and ethnic divisions, while the new order drawn up by British and French colonialists “was to all intents and purposes the imposition of the Western-based Westphalian nation-state system onto the Middle East,” and “centuries of pre-existing orientations were cast aside.” As the war in Syria drags on, Lesch concludes that “we may be witness to a generation-long process that will remap much of the Middle East.”
All this calls to mind Fred Kaplan’s recent piece in Slate arguing that, spurred by the US invasion of Iraq, these artificial borders are beginning a long process of reorganization. At the time I doubted Kaplan’s argument, noting that even “artificial” states that combine disparate ethnic and sectarian groups can be durable entities, and major modern-era restructuring is rare in other regions with similarly colonially-defined borders. (Notably, the post-independence national boundaries of South America were similarly artificial, and required a century of warfare to stabilize.) What’s more, I doubted that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq that Kaplan cites has begun this reorganization when previous stressor events like the Iran-Iraq War did not.
So where does this leave the future of Syria, and the wider Middle East’s, boundaries? Syria’s eventual unraveling appears more likely today than in March, when Kaplan questioned whether sectarian civil violence would lead to “new borders be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions.” But just how likely is Syria to split into two or three independent, widely recognized new nations?
In my mind, this question remains unclear. While Syria’s Kurdish region is, as Lesch notes, growing increasingly autonomous, Turkey remains enormously invested in preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Given that Iraqi Kurdistan has existed semi-autonomously since the Gulf War and more so after 2003, it is unclear if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is sufficient impetus to finally allow for the creation of a formally independent Kurdish state.
Similarly, it is unclear if the Syrian conflict will lead to a permanent bi- or trisecting of Syrian geography. While the Assad government appears unable to retake control of most of the country now, the regime is determined to do so — Assad recently claimed that any diplomacy with the rebels is unacceptable and the conflict will “be decided on the field.” While it is unclear how genuine this resolve is, it remains substantial barrier to the prospect of a stable division as long as the regime retains conventional military superiority. Conversely, if the rebels do manage to consolidate their hold on the Euphrates river valley — an outcome that implies increasingly rebel military capabilities — it is unclear if the regime-dominated coast of the country will be able to successfully extricate itself from a now-lost Syria. When considering the possibility of an independent Alawite-dominated coastal strip, Steve Saideman wrote last year that the outcome of a rebel consolidation is more likely to be mass killings of those associated with the regime than successful secession: “The folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them.”
The opposition may have every intention of evicting the regime and punishing its supporters, but after a year of military stablemate appears unable to do so. While the current stalemate does not appear stable, if rebels manage to take and hold the cities and military bases within their area of influence and avoid further intra-opposition conflict, it’s plausible that the conflict will stabilize leaving three de facto states, with the regime and opposition territories both laying claim to all of Syria. (Though the accelerating disunity of anti-Assad forces suggests that a de facto post-rebel state will only arise after a violent sorting process within the rebel “coalition”.)
So where does this leave the future of the Syrian state construct? Of course, it’s impossible to say, and history is no clear guide: as my recent post reminded, states are transient entities. But formal secession is difficult, and the idea of a state is a norm that’s similarly difficult to erase: Syrians both for and against the Assad government remember Syria as a unified state, and both have incentives to regain control over it by defeating their rival. Today’s apparent military stalemate makes this currently unlikely, but it is similarly unclear if this stalemate will persist long enough for desires to reunify the country to dissipate; “none of the sides can speak of confidently retaining the terrain they control,” AP reports.
Similarly, there are still many step to formal statehood. Will possibly future negotiations to end the fighting recognize these de facto boundaries, and will the opposition be able to present a unified anti-Assad front? Who will recognize these new states?
It’s also worth remembering that any type of “stable” division is unlikely to be welcomed by the international community, as it implies mass migrations and ethnic cleansing.
Barring a major shift in the Syrian conflict — whether caused by one side gaining military momentum or a decisive foreign intervention — the current stalemate appears set to continue. If it does, Syria’s three regions will grow farther apart, suggesting greater de facto future independence. But it is important to not overgeneralize this shift: it’s possible that the Syrian war will ultimately see Syria divided into two or three formally independent states, but there are many, many people with an incentive to forestall this future, avoid negotiated settlement, or forcibly reunify the country. Whether current inertial will overwhelm this desire remains to be seen.
Update: On Twitter Danny Hirschel-Burns adds, “As I see it, contradictorily, both a united Syria and the redrawing of state borders are going out of fashion simultaneously, which could have grave consequences for a negotiated solution.”