While the forces of the government of Bashar al Assad, backed by Russian and Iran have retaken Aleppo, the pre-war economic centre of the country, and forced back insurgent forces elsewhere, they have as yet been unable to deal the, mostly Sunni Islamist, insurgency decisive blows in its remaining strongholds of Idlib in the north, Hama province, outside of Damascus and Daraa in the south.
Russian air power and increasingly, its reorganisation and re-training of Assad’s ground forces have saved the Assad government from collapse, but manpower shortages, (notwithstanding the extensive use of foreign Shia fighters) make it difficult for the Syrian state to fight effectively on so many different fronts at once.
A democratic revolution?
The idea that the rebels represented a democratic revolution has long since ceased to be credible. Today the strongest rebel groups are HTS; a militia coalition led by al Qaeda franchise Jabhat al Nusra; Ahrar al Sham, a militia whose stated aim is an Islamic state modeled on the Taliban and Jaysh al Islam, a Saudi sponsored Islamist group based around Damascus. Elsewhere the rebels are extremely splintered into dozens of locally based militias.
Though the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ is still commonly used in media coverage, in reality no such centrally organised group exists. The name has meaning only in that it denotes a rebel militia that does not belong to one of the main jihadi groups and that seeks US military aid.
The rebels cannot win, but nor, as a result of the military and financial aid of foreign powers including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom, can they easily be defeated.
In the east of the country, what is for practical purposes a separate war rages between ISIS (the self-styled ‘Islamic State’) and the American backed, mostly Kurdish forces of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ or SDF. The forces of the Baathist state have almost totally withdrawn from this zone apart from an outpost tolerated by the Kurds in Qamishlo city and an enclave besieged by ISIS at Deir Ezzor city on the Euphrates river. The other rebel militias were expelled by ISIS in 2014.
The SDF, spear-headed in practice by the Kurdish YPG and with the aid of US air power, have wrested the north of Syria from ISIS, alarming Turkey to the degree that its forces invaded Syria at the town of Jarabalus in 2016 in partnership with a rebel militia coalition known as Euphrates Shield, in order to prevent the Kurds from seizing the entire border.
While the SDF has begun encircling the ISIS ‘capital’ of Raqqa, it is by no means certain that they are motivated enough to assault it as their American allies wish. Raqqa has virtually no Kurdish population whereas the Kurds actually covet the area currently occupied by pro-Turkish forces.
The many-sided and inconclusive war has killed an untold number of people; estimates now range up to half a million, but there is no reliable figure, and has displaced up to half of Syria’s population of 20 million. Syria has become an incubator for terrorism and Islamic extremism, and floods of refugees threaten to destabilise the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and even western European nations such as Germany and Sweden.
Partition, a viable solution?
So the question naturally occurs; how can the war be ended?
There are no easy answers to this question. Russia has on numerous occasions attempted to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the Syrian state, only for these to typically break down within hours. The principle reason for this is that while Russia wants a negotiated solution, Bashar al Assad does not. His stated aim is ‘re-conquer every inch of Syria’.
On the rebel side there is no one political or military body with whom pro-regime backers can negotiate. Those rebel groups that do exist such as the Turkish and US sponsored Syrian National Council have demanded that ‘Assad and his clique’ i.e. the ruling Baath Party, must go before any negotiations can happen. And clearly, in the absence of a military decision, this is not going to happen.
Turkey refuses to countenance the entry of Kurdish representatives into negotiations on the basis that it will not recognise Kurdish separatists linked to the guerrilla group the PKK along its borders.
Finally, no party to the war contemplates negotiating with ISIS, nor has the extremist group asked to be allowed to enter political negotiations.
In short, this is a war that no side looks capable of winning and yet no one is willing to end.
And so, one ‘common sense’ solution constantly re-iterated in the western media is the partition of Syria. Assad, this argument goes, can rule a rump state composed of Allawites (his own sect), other Shia Muslims and perhaps Syria’s Christians and Druze. Sunni Arabs, the bulk of the population, and the rebels’ support base, must have their own state and the Kurds in the north their own. Thus separated, the apparently warring communities can then live in peace. So goes the argument.
But this is in fact a shockingly misconceived idea, for many reasons.
Why partition is a terrible idea
First of all, while it is true that the war in Syria is in part a sectarian war this is far from the full picture. Certainly the rebels are mainly reliant on support from Sunni-majority countries on the basis that they fighting Allawite and Iranian Shia proxies (in the war’s insulting vernacular, Rafidi and Nusrayi) and certainly also Assad’s forces are bolstered by Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq Iran and even Afghanistan, on the basis that they are defending people of that faith from Sunni extremists or ‘Takfiris’.
On the other hand though, it is quite wrong to think that Bashar al Assad is some sort of Allawite or Shia communal leader. On the contrary, his propaganda is that he is a secular (though Muslim) nationalist fighting off an extremist insurrection funded and armed by Syria’s outside enemies. Assad’s wife is a Sunni Muslim as are the majority of his, admittedly conscript soldiers. Furthermore, at least 70% of the Syrian population lives in government controlled areas, including the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus, the vast majority of whose population is Sunni Muslim.
In the absence of free elections it would be unwise to conclude that all of them support the government but it is certainly true that many Syrians of Sunni Muslim religion do, if only on the basis that the current Baathist state is all that stands between them and either anarchy or an extremist takeover.There is no reason to suppose that the majority support the rebel factions. When rebel-held east Aleppo fell to regime forces in late 2016 the majority of the civilian population sought refuge not in rebel held Idlib but in government held west Aleppo.
Furthermore, the idea that Assad would hand over Syria’s main cities to a hypothetical Sunni state when the rebels have been unable to take them on the battlefield, on the basis that they have a majority Sunni population, is simply fantastical it will not and could not happen.
Even supposing that Assad and his government were to agree to this proposal it sill makes no practical sense. Christians, Sunni and and Shia Muslims and Druze do not live in neatly segregated blocks of Syria but live intermingled throughout the country. It would take a massive act of population displacement based on religious origin ( I deliberately do not use the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as these are religious not ethnic groups) to make it remotely practicable.
Finally, even supposing that all Syrians based their political allegiance on their religious origin (Sunni – pro-rebel and Shia, Allawite, Christian or Druze, pro-Government) and even supposing this could be made into a geographic and demographic reality, there is a final factor which should end the conversation; not a single rebel group calls for the partition of Syria. Rather they call for a new state (for most of them inspired by political Islam) for all of Syria. Indeed the rebels have shown intense hostility to the Kurds for their ‘separatist’ ambitions.
Even the Kurds, the most straightforwardly ‘ethnic’ faction of the war, have not called for an independent state of their own. This is largely tactical, to ward off out and out war with either the Syrian regime or Turkey, but also a recognition that there is no area of Syria where Kurds are a large, contiguous majority. The Kurdish PYD party have therefore called for autonomy for ‘Rojava’ or the ‘North Syrian Federation’ rather than independence.
So if none of the actors on the ground in Syria call for a partition on ethnic or sectarian lines, why is the idea so popular with western commentators?
At the risk, no doubt, of being labelled a a conspiracy theorist, I would suggest this is because the partition and weakening of Syria is the western, particularly US and Israeli, strategy. A partitioned Syria would no longer be a conduit for Iran to project its influence, via the Assad government and Hezbollah, into the Mediterranean. A partitioned Syria would no longer pose any threat to Israel’s northern border.
Safe zones and the future
Since I began writing this article, the germ of a new peace process has begun with the agreement, brokered by the Russians at Astana, of ‘safe zones’ in which fighting will cease. Again, this has sometimes been described as the beginning of the de facto partition of the country.
But again, this is misconceived. The ‘safe zones’ in effect are breathing space for Syrian government forces, who will use the deactivation of most fronts in the west of the country to try to reclaim the east from ISIS. This, if successful, would leave Assad in an immeasurably stronger position: de facto ruler of most of Syria again as opposed to occupier of just third of its territory.
Al Qaeda led HTS is excluded from the ceasefire and will attempt to sabotage it, but if the safe zones initiative works, it is actually be the beginning of the end of the rebellion. If and when Assad’s forces reclaim the east of Syria and close the border with Iraq, it will merely be a matter of time before they move on the HTS stronghold in Idlib, in the north west. After the that the surrender of the other rebel enclaves would appear inevitable.