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Posts from the ‘Middle East’ Category

Banksy, Art, and Syria’s War

By Taylor Marvin

The famous British street artist Banksy has released a short video satirizing the Syrian civil war. The video, a minute and a half long, depicts two rebel fighters firing at an arial target with a MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-air missile system. Shouting Allahu Akbar, the rebels down an aircraft and run towards the crash site. The ‘aircraft’ is then revealed to be an animated depiction of the Disney character Dumbo the flying elephant, dying in pain. A child, dismayed at Dumbo’s death, kicks the fighter who fired the MANPADS, who falls clutching his shin in pain.

Washington Post writer Max Fisher has a thought-provoking post examining the video, which has been criticized by many. Fisher attributes the video’s odd tone to liberal internationalists’ conflicted relationship with a war where no armed faction seems worthy of support, and any intervention is perceived to carry imperialist overtones. “There’s been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children’s cartoon characters,” Fisher writes. But the murderous Assad regime is if anything even more unworthy of leftist’s support. “There’s no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.” As Fisher notes, this bird’s-eye view of the Syrian war makes taking any stance beyond simply decrying the loss of life difficult; the only firm position taken by the international leftists Fisher associates with Banksy has been opposition to US or NATO entry into the war. Of course, this opposition is similarly fraught; while the efficacy of proposed airstrikes is unclear, opposing Western intervention in Syria means at best admitting that the killing will continue, as will Russian and Iranian aid to the Assad regime. It is perhaps this confused position that explains leftist’s adoption of the “endless war for empire” rhetoric better suited to their narrative of the lead-up to the Iraq war than the Obama administration’s real dilemma in Syria.

Fisher attributes Banksy’s muddled message to this awkward balancing act, which leaves caricatures of Islamist fighters as the only channel for satire left:

“Unlike his West Bank work, it’s not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It’s not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn’t mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it’s an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement’s struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.”

I think this is certainly true. Crafting artistic depictions of wartime that do not endorse or denounce any one side is extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the constraints of a 90 second viral video. But I also think Banksy’s narrative choices take his work beyond the “awkward” and into outright unsettling.

Screen shot 2013-10-10 at 5.26.29 PM

Admittedly, I know very little about Banksy’s wider work and believe that the video’s intended reading is a statement on how Syrian adults’ warfare makes childhood impossible, an artistic message emphasized by the closing image of the child kicking the MANPADS-armed fighter. But this simple denunciation of the horrors of warfare is contradicted by other elements of the video’s symbolic toolkit. Importantly, Banksy chose to associate Dumbo, the murdered children’s cartoon character, with airpower, one of the few element of military force that the regimen enjoys a complete monopoly over. Syria’s rebels fight with small arms, rockets, armored fighting vehicles, and potentially even chemical weapons (a common but very unlikely accusation disseminated by the Assad regime’s messaging and global news organizations like RT). But only Assad can operate military aircraft, and regime fighter aircraft bombing rebel forces and civilian neighborhoods in relative safety is one of the defining image of the war. Moreover, denying the Assad regime the use of its monopoly on airpower — either through a No-Fly Zone or airstrikes targeting the regime’s air force — is one of the most-discussed options for a potential Western intervention.

Given this monopoly, Banksy’s choice to incapsulate the Syrian war in a depiction associating regime airpower with a symbol of childhood is striking. I don’t believe that this can be read as even an indirect endorsement of the regime, but it is in my mind a clumsy attempt to satirize the conflict. But Banksy has taken on a difficult challenge. In the midst of a war between a brutal autocratic regime and an increasingly-disunified opposition, Syria is fracturing along ethnic lines with any losing side facing the prospect of brutal retaliation by the winner. Ultimately, the tragedy of the Syrian war breaks any mode of satire, except for complete cynicism.

Who’s Fence-Sitting in Syria?

By Taylor Marvin

Writing at Political Violence @ a Glance, Barbara F. Walter poses an interesting puzzle (note: I contribute to PVG). Citing Eli Berman, Walter outlines a problem facing Syria’s urban Sunni Muslim population living along the country’s western strip that is for the most part controlled by the regime. These Sunnis are understood to be the “swing voters” in Syria’s civil war; while they could benefit from a complete rebel victory bringing a new regime dominated by Sunni Muslims to power, they have also historically benefited from the stability enforced by the Assad family’s Alawite Muslim-dominated government. In Berman’s view these urban Sunnis are waiting to see who appears likely to win the war; when this information is revealed they will then side with the likely victor.

Many Syrians, especially urban Sunnis, are reluctant to choose sides in the Syrian war. In a January New York Times piece Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad related the dilemma of a Damascus Sunni Muslim civil servant quietly pondering “his own private endgame, toying with defecting to the rebels, yet clinging to his post, increasingly sure there are no fighters worth joining.” However, it is worth noting that Berman’s argument that Syrian “swing voters” will decide the war is not universally accepted; an April 2013 Rand report claimed that “the remaining fence-sitters inside Syria are not in a position to tip the military balance” (it is also worth noting that elements of this report have been passed by events since its publication).

However, Walter has a problem with this logic, which presumes that Syria’s urban Sunnis have the option of laying low and emerging from the war in good condition. What if they are instead locked in a “lose-lose” situation? A rebel victory would subject these well-educated urban moderates to a new government dominated by Islamist extremists, an outcome not in their interests. But if Assad should win, these Sunnis could be grouped with their co-sectarians who had rebelled against the government and targeted for reprisals.

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

I think this interaction is more complex. While Syria’s urban Sunnis may face a lose-lose situation now, in 2011 it was plausible to suspect that a rebel victory could lead to a Sunni-dominated but largely secular government; today, as Islamist rebels appear more and more ascendant within the rebel movement, this is much less likely. Not only are today’s rebels more dominated by jihadists, the inability of the rebel movement to coalesce into an operationally-unified force and frequent incidents of rebel infighting in the three-sided civil war make further civil war in the aftermath of an Assad regime defeat a very real possibility. If we accept that Syria’s western urban Sunnis have for the most part so-far declined to definitively chose sides — a key assumption of the “swing voter” theory and one that appears to be true — then the fact that the outcome of a rebel victory appear to be growing less amenable to their interests suggests that they will continue to fence-sit.

The most obvious answer is that Walter’s logic is correct, and there is no puzzle at all: Syria’s urban Sunnis have, for the most part, already made their choice because in the context of the Syrian civil war their fence-sitting for all practical purposes serves the regime. While contested by the rebels, large cities like Damascus, Homs, and Hama all lie within the western strip held by the regime, which is centered on the country’s smaller Alawite-dominated coastal strip that is the Assad regime’s heartland. A large-scale rebellion by this region’s Sunnis would be disastrous for the regime, depriving it of its base, threatening its Alawite backers, and eating up military resources that could otherwise be employed in the hinterland and central Euphrates valley that for the most part is held by the rebels. If the regime loses control of this region its ability to eventually win the war — or, more importantly in the context of a civil war with fence-sitters, ability to appear likely to win the war — would be cast into much greater doubt. Barring situations where western villages are forced to choose, fence-sitting can still be considered valuable for the regime.

Remapping the Middle East, Part II

By Taylor Marvin

In what is apparently a popular sub-genre, last week the New York Times published a map by Robin Wright speculating how Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries could soon split along sectarian, ethnic, and regional lines. After the destabilizing Arab spring and widening Syrian war, Wright writes, “countries could unravel through phases of federation, soft partition or autonomy, ending in geographic divorce.” Citing the Syrian civil war, regional sectarian rivalries, and the unresolved legacy of colonial borders imposed by the British and French after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Wright speculates that Saudi Arabia could divide into five new independent states, Yemen could once again split in two, and that a formally independent Kurdish state could emerge in northern Syria and Iraq.

middle east map

Click through to the New York Times for labels.

On Twitter, Kal of the blog The Moor Next Door criticized the Wright’s speculation, noting that it, like many popular conceptions of Middle Eastern violence, attributes the region’s weak states to to sectarianism rather than the colonial mandate system and historical regionalism. Worse is the map’s use of the Persian “-stan” suffix to name hypothetical states like “Sunnistan”, “Shiitestan”, and “Wahhabistan” — with no relevance to these Arabic-speaking countries, the “stan” suffix is perhaps only used because the term Kurdistan entered the American lexicon after the invasion of Iraq and hey, it’s the Middle East, right?

Aside from these objections, Wright’s analysis does reflect a broadly-held theory that the borders imposed by the 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement are uniquely unstable and are at the start of process of violent reorganization. In a March piece in Slate Fred Kaplan wrote that the US invasion of Iraq accelerated the “collapse” of the Middle East’s system of colonial borders, questioning how “far this unraveling goes” and whether new borders will “be drawn up at some point, conforming to some historically ‘natural’ sectarian divisions”; at the time I doubted that the last decade was a sufficient catalyst for the change Kaplan predicted. This August David W. Lesch asked whether the Syrian war heralded the end of the Sykes–Picot borders, concluding that “we seem to be witnessing much of the Levant returning to its constituent parts, where the nation-state as a unit of analysis may no longer be valid.”

What I think is most interesting about the redraw-the-Middle-East theory is while many apparently agrees that Middle Eastern countries’ artificial borders are due for violent revision, as Kaplan noted there is absolutely no consensus on even the broad outlines of a redrawn map of the Middle East. While Wright imagines Saudi Arabia perhaps splitting into five regions, a September 2012 piece by Frank Jacobs and Parag Khanna — again published in the Times — imagined Saudi Arabia uniting with Yemen, Oman, and the Gulf States into an Arab Gulf Union “to counter the rising Iranian threat”; or exactly the opposite! In a 2006 piece in the Armed Forces Journal, Ralph Peters presented another view of a redrawn Middle East.* While Peters’ analysis presented simply a view of how a “better Middle East would look” rather than a prediction of future border changes, it is notable that Peters’ map again looks nothing like Wright’s or Jacobs and Khanna’s. Yemen grows rather than shrinks, and southern Iraq’s “Shiitestan” (to use Wright’s term) gains Iranian territory, as does Azerbaijan. Like in Wright’s and Jacobs and Khanna’s analysis coastal Syria splits from the country, though here it is incorporated into a “Greater Lebanon” rather than an independent Alawite-dominated state.

The Project for the New Middle East

Map by Ralph Peters, 2006.

In my mind these maps reveal more about the biases of the year in which they were created than any truths about the Middle East. Peters’ map was devised in 2006, and it is easy to see his shrunken Iran as suffering from the era’s strong US animosity towards towards the country (though again, it is important to note that Peters is not attempting to predict the future) even though during the Iran-Iraq War Iran’s Arab-settled western Khuzestan province did not rebel to the extent that Saddam Hussein’s invasion plans counted on. Similarly, Jacobs and Khanna’s map shows Azerbaijan gaining Iranian territory despite the fact that Iran’s Azeri minority is not particularly restive and the Iranian state, counter to Jacobs and Khanna’s claim, is not at risk of “implosion”. Today the Syrian conflict has brought the Alawite minority’s domination of Syria to wide attention, so now Alawites gain a state, as may well be a result of the Syrian war. But complicating this possibility is a very real chance that in the event of a rebel victory, in Steve Saideman’s words, “the folks who win in Syria are not going to let their former oppressors escape, especially if they take the coastline along with them” and no one knows how a stalemate could affect Syria’s de jure borders.

Similarly, while Peters’ depiction of a large independent Kurdistan is perhaps only just, it also reflects the dynamics of the US occupation of Iraq that made Turkey unpopular in American circles, Kurds close US allies, and attracted widespread popular sympathy to their cause. Wright’s contemporary prediction that the de facto independent Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq could one day unite into a formally independent state completely glosses over the problem of Turkish and Iranian objections — two of the region’s most powerful players, and both of which have a strong incentive to block the emergence of an independent Kurdish state that could stoke nationalism among their own Kurdish minorities.

Again, all of this isn’t to say that the artificially-imposed borders of the Middle East aren’t an impediment to state consolidation, or to criticize different authors for their differing speculations about the future. But I do think it is telling that these three views about what the “right” or “future” Middle East would look like differ so substantially. Modern observers frequently joke about arrogantly oblivious European diplomats dividing the Middle East with straight lines drawn between letters on a map. But predicting that the region will divide based on a bird’s-eye view of “natural” sectarian distributions strikes me as perhaps similarly misguided — after all, it is the same logic that Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini followed during the Iran-Iraq war, to disastrous results.

*Peters apparently expands on this argument in a book that I have not read.

Updated for clarity.

If the Anti-CW Norm Should Be Enforced, Unauthorized Use Matters

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / ABr, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Yesterday at Political Violence @ a Glance I posted a brief piece summarizing President Obama’s Tuesday speech on Syria, in which he called on Congress to delay a decision on whether to strike the Assad regime in favor of a potential diplomatic solution that would, with Russian support, see Assad give up his chemical weapons under international supervision. Commentators’ reaction to the diplomatic initiative was mixed. On the one hand, it allows Obama to avoid either the unpopular airstrikes that his previous ill-advised red line had rhetorically committed him to or an unprecedented rejection of his plan in Congress. If the initiative succeeds it will also strengthen the international norm against chemical weapons use much more effectively than limited, internationally unpopular, and likely irrelevant airstrikes. However, it remains unclear if the diplomatic plan will succeed, effectively cataloging and destroying Assad’s chemical weapon stockpiles in Syria’s chaotic civil war looks to be an extremely difficult and risky task requiring extensive international commitment, and the plan does nothing to end the war that has already killed over 100,000 people and appears to be degenerating into a bloody three-sided stalemate.

In contrast to Noah Schachtman and Colum Lynch’s worries that cooperating with the Assad regime on chemical weapons legitimizes it, Max Fisher writes today that it will not — while the Obama administration has maintained that “Assad must go” since the civil war’s inception, “Obama never actually sought to remove Assad from power against his will and has consistently acknowledged him as Syria’s head of state.” While this is true, it’s also clear that the lesson that chemical weapons use will at most result in a diplomatic effort to peacefully destroy these weapons and not airstrikes is not an encouraging one for Syria’s rebels, regardless of the potential airstrikes’ wisdom.

In his excellent piece on how Obama’s speech succeeded and failed, Kevin Lees highlights an important observation: Obama never definitively established that Assad ordered the Ghouta gas attack:

“Whatever the US government knows (or thinks it knows) about the Assad regime’s fault for the attack on August 21, it’s certainly been incredibly bashful about sharing it with the rest of us.  Middle Eastern armies often distribute gas masks to their troops, and the Syrian army is firing a great number of rockets into a great many neighborhoods these days.  That alone tells us nothing — it’s certainly information that can supplement the case for Assad’s blame, but it’s ultimately circumstantial.”

Claims that the rebels and not the regime were responsible for the August 21 attack that killed at the least hundreds of people, highlighted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his op-ed in today’s New York Timesare not credible. As Erica Chenoweth and Human Rights Watch both noted today, international investigation overwhelmingly holds the regime, not opposition, culpable for the August 21 attack. But the Obama administration’s reluctance to draw a direct line between Assad and the attack doesn’t mean that there’s any real doubt what player was responsible. Most obviously, it’s possible that the Obama administration simply doesn’t want to reveal in detail its sources, for any number of reasons. Secondly, as Lees notes, it’s possible that a rogue regime commander or garbled orders were responsible. As I wrote in May, this loss of control is a more pertinent danger associated with chemical weapons than other strategic arms. Since chemical weapons are typically battlefield tactical weapons mounted on limited-range delivery platforms, they must be distributed to the battlefield before use. This gives local commanders direct control over chemical weapons, and it is possible that Assad did not directly order their use — either a local commander or regime subordinate could have acted on their own initiative, misunderstood orders, or believed Assad wished the attack launched when he did not. It is similarly possible, as recent reporting suggests, that the attack was either launched on an angry whim by Assad or was more lethal than intended.

But even if the August 21 attack was due to a loss of control over the regime’s chemical weapons or operational mistake and not directly ordered by Assad in a manner the US can document, it is unclear in my mind whether this should have any bearing on the decision to punish — whether diplomatically or otherwise — the regime. Leaders understand that distributing chemical munitions to military units in war zones is a risky delegation of the authority to actually use them. Ultimately it is this decision, not the act of actually pushing the button that launches a rocket or drops a bomb, that bears the responsibility for chemical attacks. If the goal of punishing chemical weapons use is to preserve the anti-CW norm — and this is a big if — then that is the decision that should be punished. Loss of control or operational mistakes ar not an excuse.

France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

Why Are Bombings Still the Weapon of Choice in Iraq?

By Taylor Marvin

Sectarian violence is again on the rise in Iraq. July 2013 was the country’s deadliest month in five years, and sophisticated bombings targeting civilians are increasingly common occurrences. While this recent uptick in violence hasn’t approached the intensity that marked the worst years of the American occupation and civil war, the country appears to be headed towards greater instability. Iraq’s Sunni population is reportedly growing more frustrated and resentful of the Shiite-dominated central government, and sectarian violence lead by al-Qaeda in Iraq targeting Shiites has intensified in the last two years. In April Kurdish authorities deployed militia forces to Kirkuk to help prevent what Erbil reportedly believed to be an imminent sectarian civil war, while the Iraqi government in Baghdad viewed the move as a simple grab for the city’s oil resources. Many of Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority are now fleeing the country, with many fearing that all of the country’s Christians will soon be gone.

On Twitter, Danny Hirschel-Burns raised an interesting question: why do violent attacks in Iraq continue to be so characterized by bombings, as opposed to other methods?

I suspect that Iraqi militant groups’ apparent preference for bombings today has nothing to do with any conditions specific to the country’s recently-escalating sectarian conflict. Instead, it is likely the result of the continued application of the bombing-focused skill sets insurgents acquired during the American occupation of the country.

After the American invasion, anti-US insurgent groups quickly found that directly attacking American military units in Iraq’s crowded urban environments was dangerous at best, and often suicidal. These groups realized that bombings, overwhelmingly utilizing IEDs, were a safer, more effective means of successfully attacking US soldiers and killing large numbers of Iraqis, given the American military’s control of the country. While the vast majority of attempted IED attacks did not result in US casualties, they grew more dangerous over time. During 2003 and 2004 IEDs were responsible for 20 percent of US soldier deaths, but 50 percent in 2007, with the number of incidents peaking in late 2006. This rational, asymmetric response to coalition forces’ overwhelming military superiority quickly became the hallmark of the Iraqi insurgency.

Acquiring the skill set required to mount sophisticated bombing attacks is costly. During the American occupation insurgent groups continually improved IEDs and their techniques for employing them, leading to an arms race between insurgents and coalition forces; in a mutual learning process, as coalition troops grew more adept at countering IEDs, the bombs became harder to detect and deadlier. Tom Ricks profiled the early stages of this process in his 2006 book Fiasco

“Even these fairly primitive devices had their own evolution. At first, during the summer of 2003, almost all were hardwired — that is, attached by the lines used to detonate them. US forces learned to look for the wire and kill the person waiting at the other end. By the following winter, about half the bombs were remote-controlled, frequently set off using cellular telephones, car alarm transmitters, or toy car controllers.”

This evolutionary logic encouraged insurgents to become skilled at bombing warfare — those that didn’t either quit, or were killed.

After the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, bombings are a less necessary component of militants’ arsenals. Today’s Iraqi security services are far less capable than the US military, meaning, like in other violent societies, non-bombing attacks now have a greater chance of succeeding. But it’s reasonable to suspect that Iraqi veterans of the occupation and civil war remain influenced by the skills and operational practices they acquired during that conflict, practices optimized for operating in an environment of overwhelming military inferiority. The sophisticated coordinated bombing attacks that are a hallmark of al Qaeda in Iraq require significant organizational experience to conduct. Given how steep the learning curve to acquire this experience is, militant groups not facing the evolutionary pressures of military occupation by a superior force are unlikely to acquire them at all, despite the potential payoff from doing so.

Stalemate, Secession, and the Future of Syria

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

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.”

Writing and Reporting on Egypt’s Mass Killings

By Taylor Marvin

Today at Political Violence @ a Glance I compiled a list of links to great reporting and analysis on the recent mass attacks on pro-Morsi demonstrators by Egypt’s security services. Check it out if you’re interested.

Given the volume of items being published on the killings and what they mean for Egypt’s future, there are some that I missed:

Paul Pillar paints the choice to violently disperse the demonstrators’ camps as a deliberate ploy to radicalize Morsi’s supporters, to the government’s political gain.

Kevin Lees, writing yesterday, largely agrees and sees the killings as a return to Mubarak-era tactics: “At each juncture, as the military has escalated the violence against the Brotherhood, it has only narrowed the path toward a political settlement.”

Juan Cole notes that Morsi’s tenure increasingly resembled a slow-moving coup — “if Morsi was what democracy looked like, many Egyptians did not want it” — but lays responsibility for the violence with the military government.

Miltary Defections, Civil Resistance, and Syria

By Taylor Marvin

Erica Chenoweth has an excellent piece at Waging Nonviolence on how military defections can hamper, not help, civil resistance movements. In Egypt, collaboration between the military and anti-Morsi organizers contributed to the country’s recent coup — and uncertain future of democracy. Military defections vary in intensity, Chenoweth writes, from “full defection” to “partial defection,” and reluctance to follow orders running from “shirking” to “outright disobedience.” The challenge is preventing defections from allowing military elites to co-opt civil resistance movements, as the Egyptian military has done to preserve its privileges. If civil resistance organizers cannot retain their leadership positions in the aftermath of military defections to their cause, movements run the risk of leading to civil war or military juntas. While military defections can be important contributions to the success of civil resistance movements, organizers should “see that security forces have their own interests, and they can easily manipulate the movement to suit their own purposes in ways that undermine the movement’s own agenda.”

In Syria, Chenoweth notes, military defectors brought their skills and equipment into a previously non-violent movement, contributing to its shift into a civil war:

“In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle.”

The sectarian aspects of the Syrian conflict have contributed to this dynamic. While firm supporters of the Assad regime dominated the pre-war Syrian military leadership, they were not its entirety, as high-level military defections have shown. However, by self-selecting out of the military defectors have left a unified force whose loyalty the regime can count on. As Chenoweth wrote last year, “although many conflict scholars view defections as a sign of regime weakness, Assad may see it as a process of voluntary purging.” According “senior official” in Damascus quoted in a May 2013 Crisis Group interview, defections have strengthened the military they leave behind:

“Defections among army ranks have been numerous. We estimate that tens of thousands switched sides. But that meant they left behind the more reliable and motivated troops. In my view, defections are the single most important factor in explaining subsequent army cohesion”

Sectarian divides contribute to this selection dynamic: those who remain in the regime’s military are constantly told that the war is a sectarian conflict pitting Alawites and Shiites against Syria’s Sunni majority, with no option other than victory — ‘Sunnis fight out of fear and Alawites out of conviction,’ in the words of one regime defector.

In addition to contributing to the Syrian protest movements transformation into a military conflict, had these defections no occurred Assad likely would have been constrained by the uncertain loyalty of the armed forces overall. But defections have left Assad with a smaller but more dedicated military whose existence is tied to that of the regime. This information has allowed Assad to avoid the fear that unrestrained violence would lead to further defections — indeed, defections have significantly fallen off since the second half of 2012 (though not halted), suggesting that either opposition sympathizers within the military are now rarer or that fence-sitters are no longer prepared to bargain on the conflict’s outcome. While the Syrian military was never a non-sectarian actor defections have shaped it into a body unlikely to survive the fall of the regime, and thus much more closely associated with it.

Anyway, a really interesting take. Read the whole thing.

Syria, Hindsight, and Difficult Choices

By Taylor Marvin

As I have before, today I wrote the weekly discussion question feature at Political Violence @ a Glance: given what we know today about the costs of the Syrian conflict, imagine you could advise President Obama at the outset of the conflict. What would your advice be? How would this differ from the policy options you favor today?

I think this is an interesting question, and one I can offer no real answer too. If policymakers in 2011 knew the Syrian war would eventually kill at least 100,000 people, there would likely have been a much stronger push for an international intervention to stop the violence. But today, with neither side apparently capable of gaining control over the entire country, it appears likely that the war will kill many more people before it is over, and there is still little real international desire to intervene.

Alternatively, the optimal strategies for ending the violence could have shifted between 2011 and now. It’s arguable that opportunities for a diplomatic solution existed then, before the conflict radicalized into the general sectarian war it increasingly resembles today. But then again, it’s very unlikely that the Assad government and its sectarian power base would have ever accepted any form of power-sharing agreement. Similarly, it is also arguable that arming the rebels with the heavy weapons necessary to make them competitive with regime forces was more politically feasible early in the conflict, before the ideological fracture of the opposition and overt entry of al Qaeda, Iran, and Hezbollah into the conflict. The same logic applies to an international military intervention — but again, the Syrian opposition never appeared to be a united force able to serve as a military partner to Western airpower as in Libya.