ISIS is not alone in wanting to revise the Sykes-Picot agreement and the Treaty of Sevres. In a new cover essay in the latest issue of The National Interest, two authors, Denis Dragovic and Richard Iron make a case for breaking up Syria and argue that it is the surest path to reduced conflict.
The idea of splitting up Syria and Iraq into multiple countries is not a new one. In 2006, then senator Joe Biden and foreign policy professional Leslie Gelb argued that civil war-torn Iraq ought to be split into ethnically homogenous provinces with maximum autonomy.
While others have also called for a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders after the Syrian war broke out, Dragovic and Iron make a cogent argument that is worth understanding and critiquing.
The authors start by pointing out that the international players in the conflict- Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the US, Russia and Israel- have conflicting agendas. Of these countries, the US has relatively limited stakes in the fight. It is monomaniacally focused on defeating ISIS and has no strategy for resolving the conflict.
Then there’s the matter of Syria itself. After six years of bloodshed and half a million dead, its prospects as a unified country are poor. The authors argue that any ‘attempt to revive the pre-war istatus quo of a unitary state is a fool’s errand, which will drain immense resources, drag out the suffering of the people and distract the international community from seeking more achievable goals.’
Dragovic and Iron argue that what is needed now is to encourage the creation of states that enjoy internal legitimacy, that is the confidence of the people they rule. This, they believe, has ‘already been achieved by the Kurds of Rojava, by the rump areas under control by Assad and arguably by some Sunni groups. This legitimacy is a gift to those seeking stability in the region—a gift that needs to be embraced.’
Underpinning this legitimacy will be the relative homogeneity of the new states. When people are ruled by their own, the authors argue, any violence is likely to be self-limiting.
Finally, according to Dragovic and Iron, such homogeneous states will do a better job of providing for basic needs- quite unlike in Iraq where the Shia majority systemically denies public goods to the Sunni minority.
The authors anticipate some of the arguments against a partition: That it will spark mass migrations and reward aggressors, that it will be impossible to draw acceptable boundaries and that new states will rewire the region’s geopolitics. Dragovic and Iron’s responses to these objections are straightforward. The feared mass migrations have already occurred- there are few multiethnic conclaves left in Syria. Yes, aggressors will reap rewards, but there is nothing any major power will be willing to do about that. For boundaries, just follow the guiding principle of the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the war in Bosnia- let borders reflect each faction’s existing territory. As for geopolitical changes, the authors argue that the creation of new states will end the struggle to control Syria and replace it with implicit spheres of influence.
Finally, Dragovic and Iron also recognize the conflict risk: While the new states may suffer from less internal violence, chances of armed confrontations between them will rise. However, they point out that the UN and the major powers are much better at containing such interstate conflicts than they are at ending civil wars.
The problems- and a possible solution
One rather obvious weak link in the authors’ case is Kurdistan. For one, they underestimate the opposition to an independent Kurdish state. Turkey would not be the only country alarmed- Iraq and Iran would also be dead set against it. Indeed, the creation of any new states will set off a spasm of anxiety about separatists all over the Middle East.
Moreover, the Kurds have spent their blood in liberating Sunni-dominated lands from ISIS and will be reluctant to surrender these territorial gains to a potential hostile new state. And if the Kurds do retain such territories, they won’t quite have the homogenous state the authors envision.
Furthermore, the Sunni lands of Syria continue to pose a serious problem. No one faction controls it, and as ISIS collapses, we don’t know what will take its place- if anything.
Finally, the authors don’t grapple with the key issue of state viability. Would the three or more new states have a customs union? A common currency? Any Kurdish and Sunni states carved out of Syria are likely to be landlocked. How would their economies run?
A more viable path to peace may come by being both less and more ambitious. The authors are correct in concluding that a unitary Syria is no longer possible. However, what may be much more feasible is a Syria that is a loose federation of autonomous Sunni, Alawite and Kurdish enclaves. Such a solution would create many of the conditions of the conditions the authors seek- legitimate local governments that will for the foreseeable future field their own armies. However, these autonomous enclaves would retain the Syrian pound as their common currency and levy no customs duty on goods. They would also, crucially, share oil revenue, grain, and access to seaports.
Achieving such a state will be much harder than proposing it- but it should be clear the proposal is nothing radical. It is the essence of plan Biden and Gelb had for Iraq in 2006- a plan that was itself inspired by the Dayton agreement. It’s worth remembering that the agreement allowed for the existence of autonomous Serb and Croat enclaves that for a while had their own militias. And while Dayton has caused all manner of serious problems, it has also allowed Bosnia to enjoy 22 years without bloodshed. With the Syrian conflict now having lasted as long as the Second World War, a chance for peace is nothing to be scoffed at.