By Gary C. Gambill, Associate Fellow, Middle East Forum
Reviewed by Colonel Norvell DeAtkine
Mr. Gambill puts forth an idea that has received growing attention in the past few months. Based on the realistic assumptions that the Syrian civil war is basically a stalemate and that the Assad regime is not going down anytime soon, Gambill views a partition as a viable, if not optimum, approach to the future of the Syrian state. He believes, quite rightly, that the eventual overthrow of the Assad regime will not bring peace or stability to the region but that partition is a realistic assessment of what is occurring on the ground. Gambill views the war as basically intractable, with Saudis and Gulf state money pouring in, continuing to finance the anticipated emergence of a Sunni state. On the other hand the Alawis and other minorities view the war as existential and cannot countenance any sort of compromise with their enemies.
Gambill acknowledges that the Syrian provinces are not homogeneous and in many areas, especially in the cities, are ethnically mixed, making a sectarian state problematic. He observes, however, that like Iraq, as the war drags on, the refugees fleeing the fighting congregate in their ethnic enclaves, eventually creating ethnically-cleansed regions.
For the international community the issue is whether to condone or even encourage those sectarian enclaves to make the partition of Syria an easier process. The amount of human tragedy involved would be is immense and a human disaster. This may be difficult to sell to the Western world, but there have been so many continuing Middle Eastern sectarian tragedies in the past century that the world has become somewhat anaesthetized to these man-made disasters.
The response to sectarian partitioning is not an optimal development for Syria’s regional neighbors. However, Gambill writes, that is not the worst option either. Continued deterioration dragging the entire area into sectarian conflict is viewed as the worst eventuality. He correctly notes that the Turks will be the most cautious concerning a partition of Syria. The idea of allowing a Kurdish statelet to evolve, perhaps eventually joining with Iraqi Kurdistan , is anathema to the Turks. A Kurdish state on the border will always be an inducement for Turkey’s Kurds to break away and seek to join it.
Gambill leaves out some important considerations, however.
Despite the oft heard lament that the Arab borders were imposed by European colonialists and are artificial constructs, over the years they have become sacrosanct. The idea occurs to the rulers that if one border can be erased perhaps their own could as well.
Perhaps the most salient argument against partition as a viable solution is the economic one. The Islamic State of Syria and Iraq might become mostly desert without the oil or population to support an independent state. Similarly Druze and Alawi entities would not be viable. One could expect these new states to be in constant conflict over the scarce resources. Larger neighboring l states would likely be constantly interfering and jousting for an advantageous position.
In the final analysis there is no visible solution that would ease a human tragedy or create a stable region. The West and the United States, having chosen a hands-off policy, can only stand aside, issue platitudes from time to time, and watch as the conflict evolves.