Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, May 24th, 2015
By Vahik Soghom, BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin
Is Syria headed toward some form of partition?
Recent developments in the conflict give credence to a number of fears that have been making the rounds for quite a while now. The long-accepted observation that the Syrian army is growing increasingly unable to independently engage in military confrontations against a motivated enemy is becoming eerily palpable in Idlib and Palmyra. Along with painstaking losses of strategically significant territory, this naturally unearths the fear that Syria is on the road to partition—a tripartite or even quadripartite partition. The way it might look is: the northeast of the country for the Kurds, the central to eastern portion for the IS, the northwestern portion (i.e., Idlib) for the Jaish al-Fatah, and the western stretch for the Assad regime. Aleppo is still divided among the contenders, and Daraa and Quneitra yet await their verdict.
This proto-partition has come into shape after years of intensive clashes on multiple fronts and the rise of both local and global takfiri militant movements. The belief that the Islamic State, with its global jihadi ideology, is the only significant force capable of redrawing the map has been challenged by the Jaish al-Fatah’s recent takeover of Idlib city as well as Jisr al-Shughur. Idlib province will now be the testing ground for an Islamic emirate overseen by takfiris with a more localist bent. This new reality has emerged partly as a side effect of the deaths or desertions of nearly half the regime’s soldiers, combined with the near impossibility of recruiting fighters from among the local population. Far from being capable of launching an effective assault to retake Idlib, the regime now has a number of worrying prospects to deal with. Latakia, a regime stronghold neighboring Idlib, is now under the threat of a possible Jaish al-Fatah attack, and the Islamic State has successfully seized Palmyra. The Southern front, meanwhile, has long proven to be challenging, and there is no less danger for Dara’a and Quneitra to fall into militant hands.
The question that naturally arises at this point is whether this proto-partition signals the early stage of an irreversible de facto partition. Answering in the affirmative ignores a number of important observations that indicate an indefinite prolongation of the conflict, as opposed to either a comprehensive peace settlement or a de facto partition. By extension, a gloomy forecast of events is expected, with gruesome tragedies and loss of life continuing to make their mark on the Syrian drama—unless, of course, the actors opt for peace or partition. Neither, however, seems likely.
The start of a third round of peace talks has been downplayed in the media, and rightly so. This is because the talks, which are as complicated as the conflict itself, will not achieve anything remotely close to a comprehensive peace deal. The peace plan suffers from two basic limitations. Firstly, neither side is ready to accept the most basic demand of the other, namely that Bashar stays or leaves. This alone makes it impossible for the peace process to bring about a unified Syria based on a form of consociational democracy. Secondly, the two major opposition forces controlling the largest chunks of land—the IS and Jaish al-Fatah—are not, and cannot be, invited to participate. This poses the awkward question of who exactly the regime will negotiate with. The moderate opposition is virtually dead, and any serious comprehensive agreement would thus have to include, at the least, local takfiri groups like Jaish al-Fatah. But since no one wants to talk to the takfiris, and since the takfiris, by definition, don’t want to talk to anyone else, a comprehensive peace agreement is virtually impossible. And so the second possible outcome of the peace process, namely a de jure partition of Syria recognized under international law, will not be realized either.
Well, then, what about de facto partition, i.e. one not recognized under international law but that forms naturally on the ground? It is a much more plausible scenario than peace or de jure partition, and one can point out that it has already begun. A good example of this form of partition is the case of Cyprus, where the southern portion of the Island is under the administration of the Republic of Cyprus, and the northern part under that of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Under international law, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure authority over the island’s entirety, though, in reality, it has had no actual authority over the north since 1974. Perhaps we should expect a similar kind of partition for Syria in the near future, albeit with more divisions than just two. But this would depend on the assumption that the Syrian regime and its allies, as well as their opponents, both opt (or become unable) to continue carrying out military campaigns on the various fronts. Since this is unlikely to be the case, de facto partition would also appear an improbable outcome.
The military and human losses of the Syrian army do not signal an end to its fighting capacity. Hezbollah, the regime’s invaluable partner, is the key factor in determining whether the regime still has a fighting chance. As argued previously, a successful campaign in Qalamoun will allow Hezbollah to deploy to other fronts and create the conditions for promising assaults. Indeed, Hezbollah has so far succeeded in Qalamoun, and has shown once again that it has the resources and capabilities to secure a quick and strategic victory. This edge will surely be taken to other fronts where potential similar victories in Idlib or elsewhere would not be surprising. As for Hezbollah’s own losses in Syria, these should not be exaggerated. It should be noted, firstly, that Hezbollah’s loss of around 1,000 soldiers is an expense it expects to incur in any serious confrontation with Israel. It has thus likely shaped its strategy and planning accordingly. Secondly, a recent report suggested that the organization is in fact growing, and that in spite of heavy deployment to multiple fronts, its important units in southern Lebanon remain unfazed.
Moreover, Iran’s relentless policy of confronting takfiri militants ensures that the regime will go beyond a defensive strategy that aims to secure the western stretch of the country, from Latakia down to Quneitra. In fact, Hezbollah members are said to have already deployed to Idlib province as part of early efforts to launch an offensive. If the regime is able to reverse the tide of losses, with Qalamoun as its starting-point, the next major battles will likely take place in Idlib and perhaps the Homs countryside. The ideological nature of the largely takfiri-Shiite war currently engulfing the Middle East should not be downplayed. As long as sectarian identity plays a role in fueling the conflict, neither side will be willing to accept even minimal defeat.
The Syrian drama will continue indefinitely. A unified or de jure-partitioned Syria, brokered by the international community, are not feasible outcomes, yet with continuously shifting battle lines, neither is de facto partition. Instead, what we have now is what I would call a proto-partition—a loose partition based on moving lines that are susceptible to significant alterations. That said, two important developments should be closely followed, as they may prove vital for shifting alliances as well as prospects for a partial settlement. The more important of these is the unification of Turkish, Qatari and Saudi policies in Syria, a crucial outcome of which was the formation of Jaish al-Fatah. This unified approach is centered on offering support for local, as opposed to global, takfiri groups operating in Syria. Since the bulk of Jaish al-Fatah members are interested in jihad within Syria, with little appetite for global jihad, it may be that the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari policy aims to prop up the legitimacy of these groups in the eyes of the West. Secondly, the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra splitting off from the general command of al-Qaeda may be part of this localist strategy. Its ultimate goal may be to present the localist jihadists as potential partners for peace once all other options are exhausted. But it should be noted that the United States remains intent on undermining takfiri groups of all shapes and forms, and this policy will likely persist even amidst efforts of highlighting the localist agenda of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition.
In a sense, then, the U.S. shares certain affinities with both the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari position and the Iranian position in this conflict. With which side will it ultimately come to perceive its interests as more compatible? That remains to be seen.