Who Would Benefit From A Syria Partition?

February 26, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question about developments in Russia and the broader region. This week, experts respond to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that a partition of Syria is an increasingly likely alternative if peace talks fail. 

Michael Kofman, Public Policy Fellow, Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

michael_kofman_hr_0There is a great irony to partition being discussed as one alternative solution to Syria, because in many respects this is what Russia sought at the political level, but was not able to accomplish, in Ukraine. That is, a process of federalization and devolution of power that would result in de-facto partition.

The beneficiaries of partition in Syria will be the Syrian regime, Russian and Iranian interests, but interestingly so will America’s allies — the Syrian Kurds.  The mere mention of this idea suggests a political defeat for Turkey, which would vehemently oppose any sort of partition that would allow Syrian Kurds their own statelet, especially given their advances close to the Turkish border.

Partition would leave Assad with a viable state, supported by Russia and Iran, while the rest of Syria would fall to ISIL and the Kurds.

Syria is already partitioned into two separate battle spaces: one a fight for the future of the Syrian regime, the other a U.S.-led coalition battling ISIL. Both Russia and the U.S. are making military gains in their respective wars. A partition would serve to lock in those gains, but with clear losers and winners. Assad already controls most of the major cities, short of Aleppo, as well as much of the population and access to the sea. A partition would leave him with a viable state, supported by Russia and Iran, while the remainder of Syria would likely fall to ISIL and the Kurds. From Russia’s perspective, a Kurdish state is an ideal partner for the Syrian regime. The more ISIL loses the more the Kurds gain, despite Turkey’s objections and military efforts to stymie the Kurds’ advance. As of January, the Kurds are the only ally that Moscow and Washington both support in this messy conflict. 

Given the current balance of forces, a partition would not necessarily end the fighting, but it would legitimize some fighters and delegitimize others. There would be those who agree and are part of the plan, and those who refuse, thereby making themselves viable targets. Such a scheme will likely marginalize more radical forces supported by Saudi Arabia, while those being backed by Turkey are by and large being crushed by the Russian-led coalition. This plan concedes that the Syrian regime, whether it is led by Assad or not, is here to stay, while also further advancing the Kurdish cause. An autonomous Kurdish republic emerged from the war in Iraq, and if another Kurdish political entity is created through partition of Syria, it may be that a greater Kurdistan is inevitable.  

Mutlu Civiroglu, Syria and Kurdish Affairs Analyst


MutluAfter five years of bloodshed and failed peace talks, Syria is in a situation where distrust, dislike and disunity prevails — especially after the most recent UN-mediated talks failed and with pessimism for the future of the country growing. Now, many are curiously awaiting the planned ceasefire, due to start in the next few days. However, there is little hope that this ceasefire will bring positive changes on the ground. Therefore, John Kerry’s comments about moving towards a plan B that could involve a partition of Syria is remarkable, as it puts tangible shape to the silent ideas that have been swirling in many people’s minds.

Considering the history of Syria and the current mess the country faces, partition of Syria is a strong possibility and a good solution for the peoples of Syria. Kurds have been promoting a decentralized, democratic Syria where all ethnic and religious groups enjoy freedom and democratic rights. A self-governing canton system has been in place in three traditionally Kurdish regions of north Syria, where Kurds live with their own culture and language. In addition to Kurds, the Arabs, Christian Syriacs and Assyrians as well as other smaller communities in these cantons are living freely and sharing power with the Kurds. Unlike some suggest, Kurds do not seek secession from Syria. They would rather be part of a democratic, decentralized and pluralistic country where everyone can live with their own culture.

Partition is the best way to ensure coexistence among Syria’s minority groups.

Similarly, the canton system can be used where Alawites comprise a regional majority and live with their identity intact, without fear of being overwhelmed by the Sunni majority in a centralized national system. Similar systems can be formed in other parts of the country as well, depending on the social, demographic and historical realities of those areas. So whether it is a federal, or canton system, such a loose system can be the most effective way to resolve the Syrian crisis. It is also the best way to ensure coexistence of the peoples of Syria: after so much suffering, nobody will accept living under another dictatorial regime, deprived of their political, cultural and economic rights.  

A democratic, pluralistic Syria where the cultural richness of all Syrians can be equally represented will likely create stable communities that form strong relations with their neighbors. Such a Syria can also take its place among the civilized world and be a strong ally of the West.

Barın Kayaoğlu, Turkish and International Affairs Analyst


Barın-KayaoğluSeveral questions arise from Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on 23 February that “it may be too late to keep Syria as a whole if we wait much longer.”

First, America’s top diplomat said those words in relation to whether the U.S.-Russian ceasefire, which comes into effect on 27 February, could hold and whether the Assad regime would allow the formation of a transitional government in 2016 to end the Syrian civil war. The ceasefire, for Mr. Kerry, should lead to a political process that will lead to tangible solutions.

He is right: if the impending ceasefire does not lead to a visible decline in violence, the point of having a transition will be moot. The war in Syria will continue.

The second point is that a peace agreement that permanently divides Syria is a contradiction in terms. If the war-torn country were to get peace through partition, the new statelets would be too weak to tackle extremism. Extremists have a bad habit of not going away after diplomats sign peace agreements. Quite the opposite: the collection of mini-states in Syria would be vulnerable to exploitation and attacks by extremist militant groups (unfortunately, Daesh is not the only one) and their sympathizers.

A permanently divided Syria would be too weak to tackle extremism and unable to reabsorb its refugees.

Third, even more important than state(let) viability is how the partition of Syria would affect the most important stakeholders in the conflict: the Syrian people. The permanent division of Syria would mean that those Syrians who have become refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) would not be able to go back home. Likewise, those Syrians who have not fled their homes might find themselves stuck on the “wrong side” of the new borders because of their “wrong” ethnicity, language, or faith—a prelude to ethnic cleansing, new refugees, and re-escalation of violence. Neither the people of Syria nor outside stakeholders have anything to gain from that.

Last but not least, much like neighboring Iraq, post-civil war Syria will have to redefine power relations between Damascus and the rest of the country. Similar to other Arab Spring revolutions, the war in Syria started in 2011 when its people rose up to overthrow a regime that produced little beside bad governance and authoritarianism. Although the past five years have proven that there are worse things than corrupt autocrats, dividing Syria without addressing the central causes of the war—lack of freedom, justice, and prosperity for its people—will likely produce more bloodshed, tears, and displaced people.

Velina Tchakarova, Senior Research Fellow, Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy


tchakarovaKerry’s statement on Tuesday that a partition of Syria is becoming an increasingly likely alternative if peace talks fail is by all means not surprising, as there have been noteworthy indications pointing towards such an outcome. Very soon it became obvious that ISIS will not be completely defeated  neither by the U.S.-led coalition nor by the Russian intervention.

Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian government will be capable of restoring the territorial integrity of the entire Syria. Finally, external players involved in the conflict have turned Syria from a civil war into a proxy war, resulting in the country’s de-facto partition into zones of influence: the government-held area, the Syrian Kurds-held area, the rebel-held areas, and ISIS.

Partition is the second-best option for the United States and Russia, but bad for Turkey and Assad. 

Based on Kerry’s statement, we can conclude that a partition of Syria seems to be the second best option for the United States. It is obviously in Washington’s interest not to get involved in any major military actions in the Middle Eastbe it in Syria or somewhere elseat least not until the inauguration of the new American president in January 2017. As long as a partition would serve this interest, it will remain a better option than any further escalation of the situation on the ground. Furthermore, the U.S. could establish a military presence against the will of the Syrian government based on ad-hoc agreements with fighting groupsfor instance, from the areas held by the Syrian Kurds.

Given Moscow’s stance on Assad and the principle of no regime change in Syria, a partition will definitely be not in Russia’s interest but it seems to be the next best option as well. Since Russia has consolidated its military presence on the ground, a partition will surely guarantee and extend its (military) positions in the government-held territories. As to the rebel-held areas, we can expect Russian airstrikes to continue with a similar intensity, no matter whether or not a partition will be introduced. The short to middle-term objective for Russia will remain to reduce the scope and control of rebel-held areas, to the advantage of the Syrian government.

If there is one great loser from such a scenario, it is definitely Bashar al-Assad and his government, because a partition will further deteriorate the territorial integrity of Syria. However, Turkey will also lose from a partition of Syria. Since the Syrian Kurds will probably benefit most by grabbing the historic chance of a self-rule, it will also automatically mean a ‘win-lose’ situation for Turkey, with the prospect of a possible autonomous Kurdish area near the Turkish border. The role of other external actors, however, who are involved in the proxy war in Syria, will not be hindered by a partition, but rather strengthened in one way or another.

Nicolas Tenzer, Chair of Centre d’étude & de réflexion pour l’Action politique (CERAP) and Assistant Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po 


tenzerWhile mentioning there could be a plan B for Syria, Secretary John Kerry not only acknowledges that the new ceasefire plan is unlikely to work, but also unveils the key shortcomings of U.S. strategy in Syria. It reveals unwillingness to truly cope with the Syrian disaster, a misunderstanding of the situation on the ground, and blamable indifference for human rights and international justice issues.

From a diplomatic point of view, invoking a plan B is not by itself a bad tactic. But usually a plan B should be envisioned as a retaliation if the plan A is not genuinely implemented. It requires that the plan B offers more advantages than plan A, which is basically based on compromises. It means that the plan B must appear with bold evidence as a threat to the adversariesRussia and Assad’s regimeand go along with a credible, strong resolution and military means, including peace-keeping forces, in order to implement it.

But as evoked by John Kerry, that is not at all the case. Plan B is even worse than plan A, or maybe an unexpected but possible consequence of plan A. Even if denied by Russia, it doesn’t appear to truly undermine Moscow’s strategy. It doesn’t go with true U.S. military engagement. Moreover, it reveals that plan A is unsustainable and likely to degenerate into plan B.

Plan B is basically about partition of Syria. It seems to be inspired by former Yugoslavia and more precisely the Dayton agreements on Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has nothing in common with Syria. Not only would a partitioned Syria not be viable, but it would pose real threats to the security of neighboring countries without protecting the Syrian population or solving the terrorism issues given the broad territories in ISIS’ hands. One cannot divide Syria into homogeneous communities, since the different groups overlap.

The main losers of a Syrian partition would be human rights and international law.

Partition would allow for ethnic cleansing, renewed slaughter of civilians, massive mass displacement of different ethnicities, and permanent incursions into others’ territories. Furthermore, what one usually calls “ethnicity” or “sectarian affiliation” is obviously not the right way to depict the Syrian people, even less their political claim that goes far beyond religious and ethnic legacies. Among Syrian Christians, for example, support for the Assad regime is far from universal and many have been persecuted by its militia. The same prevails for the Kurds, with many of them worrying about the Peoples Protection Units (YPG)—the main military arm of Syrian Kurdistan—cozying up to Assad. The most powerful groups, notably the Russia and Iran-backed “Assadistan,” would benefit from the situation, whereas the minorities and the democratic forces, whose protest against tyranny was at the very origin of the bloodshed committed by Assad, would suffer the most.

Already jeopardized by their lack of a solution, the U.S. and its Western allies’ credibility would be totally annihilated by the partition. So would the international law. The partition of Syria would mean Assad’s and his henchmen’s impunity for their crimes against humanity, and the same for other terrorist groups. It would also imply that a major power, Russia, could commit war crimes and back a criminal regimeand it will continue to do so as long as it’s supporting an “Alawistan”without facing any retaliation.

To make it short, a partition would clearly reflect that an aggressive country could be successful in a 21st century war. This precedent would be highly discouraging for those who advocate for human rights commitments and enforcement of criminal justice on the world stage. It would generate a strong incentive for barbarous behavior—and that is not good news.

The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone, and do not reflect the positions of their affiliated organizations.