Since the creation of de-escalation zones inside Syria with Russia, Iran and Turkey as guarantors, discussions about partitioning the country are gaining momentum.
This idea of a de jure partition of Syria was then-US secretary of state John Kerry’s official Plan B, which he announced in February 2016. But at that time other major powers operating in Syria didn’t show any interest in the idea.
Now the situation has drastically changed and all the major powers and their proxies have accepted that they can’t prevail in a whole Syria and they have to be satisfied with the share of territory they control. That’s why these de-escalation zones have been established and even been referred to as “soft partition” by analysts. This so-called “soft partition” can be a first step in the direction of a permanent partition of Syria. Even the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is cautious about this development; he said that any plan crafted by world powers to establish safe zones in the war-battered country should only be seen as an “interim” arrangement and not a precursor to partition. The main irony in this whole episode is that the Syrian people were not even consulted. Despite the deep divisions between Syrians, they all agree that partitioning Syria is not an option. Let’s have a look at some of the factors that will make any potential partition a disaster for the country.
Territorial separation in Syria could be viewed as a panacea for solving political problems and encourage secession elsewhere
Demographic challenges: The proposed partition has been drawn up along ethnic and religious lines, but people living on the ground are not easily divided into these groups. Therefore, transforming these heterogeneous areas into homogeneous ones, based on sectarian or ethnic divisions, will likely create new waves of mass internal displacements accompanied by violence. The ethnic and sectarian composition of Syrian society and the distribution of the population across the country make the partitioning of the country impossible.
Economic challenges: None of the proposed mini-states will have sufficient resources to be self-sustaining and as a result of partition and its political implications, hostile neighbours will make imports extremely difficult, resulting in a resources war. Moreover, Syria is a small country and natural resources are not equally distributed between the regions. It is most likely that the pre-existing tensions between these proposed states will make trade negotiations a challenge and undermine the potential for investment opportunities. As each state struggles to meet the demands of its population and begins to look elsewhere, a battle over resources will ensue.
Regional implications: A divided Syria could have consequences for the wider region. Territorial separation in Syria could be viewed as a panacea for solving political problems and encourage secession elsewhere. The Kurds, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, and even Shiite regions of the Gulf would be tempted to solve political problems on a purely territorial level. This would probably spark off conflicts and separatist wars, and the region would be placed in an explosive situation with no certain end that could have negative repercussions at an international level.
Breeding ground for extremism
The weakening and division of the Syrian state mean an even greater potential for the Levant to become a breeding ground for Jihadist militancy and protracted violence. Studies have shown that small states are more vulnerable to terrorism and militancy. Creating new microstates would only threaten fragile lives with even greater uncertainty, instability and fear.
It is worrying that some short-sighted politicians believe that the partitioning of Syria would provide a solution. Those who advocate it clearly see the potential short-term benefits but appear to ignore the severe consequences of this quick-fix for Syria, its population and the entire region. All indicators suggest partition would be extremely difficult to implement, creating mass displacement and destabilizing the region rather than restoring stability. Thus the political cost of dividing Syria could be significantly higher than the costs involved in pressuring the warring parties, especially the Syrian regime, to begin a political transition in the hope of building a civil, democratic, inclusive and united Syria.
If history is any guide, partition is no guarantee of peace. Indeed, it can ignite the very conflicts it means to forestall. The time has come to work for unity and lasting peace, where the people of the Levant forge a future for themselves, for a peace that originates from the grassroots and is not imposed by one-sided conferences taking place in Europe. Syrians may be in a position to unify Syria again through promoting nationalism, which can act as the unifying force. Using the negotiated territories as a starting point, representatives from each can come together to form a new Syrian government. The focus should be on rebuilding a state based on tolerance and diversity rather than the creation of impotent statelets.