rebel groups control swaths of Syria’s north, middle and south, Kurds hold sway in the northeast, and the regime retains some grip on the capital of Damascus, along with major cities and the coastal region.That’s led Syria watchers to wonder, what are the chances the country could split into functionally autonomous parts? We asked a team of experts to weigh in.
Taufiq Rahim, Dubai-based Arab affairs analyst: [![taufiq]]
That’s always been a risk. Since the beginning of the violent phase of the conflict and as it spread and became more embedded, the thought has always been that Syria would have, perhaps, a Damascus controlled by the central government, an enclave in Latakia and the coast, and then the north and east under rebel/jihadi control. In the last year or so, and especially the last few months with the gains made by the Syrian government, the prospect of a divided Syria or a full-blown partition seemed distant, but the raid by certain rebel factions into Latakia raised the specter, again, of sectarian cleansing and the risk of fragmentation.
The scenario is much more likely if the Syrian government falls outright, and then in that vacuum you would have an Alawite statelet in Latakia and the coast, certain rebel factions that are pro-Western controlling part of the south in Deraa and some of the suburbs around Damascus. I think you would then have Jihadi factions and Kurdish groups having separate enclaves in the northeast and Turkey-supported rebels controlling parts of Idlib and Aleppo. That’s if the government fell, and Damascus would be a free-for-all like Kabul in the early 1990s.
More likely, we will have just a more advanced nature of the current situation, which is already a form of division and partition. Who controls Aleppo is different from who controls Raqqa and the suburbs in Damascus. So areas where the regime has lost control are already fragmented, the supply lines are divided, the borders are divided. But that’s the nature of a civil strife.
In 2006-7, everyone was talking about Iraq being partitioned outright, and the prevailing wisdom thought that would happen. Today it’s still one country. In the worst times of a crisis, the possibility of outright partition rears its head. So I still think it’s unlikely [in Syria].
Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based think tank INEGMA:
It’s obvious that the regime, with Iran and Hezbollah, are setting the stage for that option, if the Geneva talks do not bring about a solution that would guarantee the survival of the regime. Because splitting it into two, meaning there would be the Alawite-controlled area of the regime, that would keep an influence and a foothold for Iran. It’s obvious this is the main strategy for the Syrian regime and its allies.
I think the regime wants people to think its presence guarantees the [togetherness] of Syria, and its departure would lead to chaos. You have to bear in mind that the influence of Assad in Syria has been tremendously reduced. Iran is the one that holds the upper hand in Syria today. So I’m not sure whether Assad staying or leaving makes a difference, because the one who is gaining the upper hand in Syria is Iran. Today the regime seems to be winning the battles in which Hezbollah and Iran are getting involved. We’ve seen this in Qusayr and other battles, and in Homs and in and around Damascus. The Iranians are not going to be sending in these forces, these weapons, and investing millions in keeping the Syrian treasury afloat if they don’t have a long-term plan over there. And they’re not pinning their hopes either on Assad staying or leaving power. They will not base plans on whether he’ll stay alive or not. The only way they can ensure a foothold is if the conflict becomes more sectarian.
Let’s be clear: there is [already] a de facto split. The international community will not accept a divided Syria, will not recognize independent entities in Syria. They can go so far as to recognize a federal state in Syria, like we have in Iraq, where there are strong provincial governments and a weak central government. But they will not accept a divided Syria. Turkey will not allow it, because it undermines Turkish national security.
Rami Khouri, director, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut:
I think the odds of Syria formally splitting into two are very small, but the reality is that it has already split into three zones, with dozens of smaller [![rami_khouri]]principalities. It’s all very informal: the actual territory controlled by armed groups and civilian authorities are now counted probably in the dozens or scores all across the country, and this is a pattern that will continue.
If you look at other examples around the region or the world where countries have split into two — you can go back to Pakistan splitting into Bangladesh and Pakistan, to North and South Yemen, North and South Sudan — it’s usually either the express desire of a certain group of people in a geographically contained area to separate into their own country, and sometimes these things happen because of the consequences of war, where warfare brings about the collapse of the central government. Theoretically Syria could split up into several areas, more than just two — you could have an Alwaite area, a Druze area, a Kurdish area — but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think Syria will remain a single country but with strong decentralization, as we see in Iraq already.
There isn’t a single group on the opposition that would control a hypothetical half of the country. If you have half that’s government-controlled, whether by Assad or someone else who runs the government, there’s [nothing that signifies] the rebel side being under single leadership. There’s a few jihadi groups that are stronger than some of the others, but there’s zero evidence that there’s any significant popular support for these groups other than pockets here and there. It’s a country that has a long tradition of pluralistic tolerance and co-existence, but there is zero evidence of major and real grassroots support for the jihadi groups. I don’t see them having any chance whatsoever to dominate Syria or even parts of Syria in the future for any period of time, other than these brief transitional periods like we’re seeing now, when their success is due mainly to their prowess in fighting the regime in a chaotic situation.
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