Why the partition of Syria is a terrible idea

As the civil war in Syria drags on into its seventh year, there are no signs that the war is coming to an end.

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?

syria map may 2017
A map of the Syrian war, May 2017.

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 The forces of the Baathist state have almost totally withdrawn from this zone apart from an outpost tolerated by the Kurds in Qamishlo city and an enclave besieged by ISIS at Deir Ezzor city on the Euphrates river.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

Syria-Ethnicity-Summary-Map
A map showing the demographic distribution of ethnic and religious communities in Syria.

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.

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Kobane and virtual war

kobane

The 21st century is a strange, strange place.

Like almost everyone in the world outside Kurdish populated areas of northern Syria, I had never heard of the town of Kobane before the summer of 2014.

Kobane is a small city, roughly the size of Galway, in Irish terms, squeezed up against the Turkish border with Syria. Apparently it got its name from a Kurdish corruption of the word ‘Company’ because it developed as a railway hub in the early 20th century when European companies built the railways in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Officially though, in the Syrian Arab Republic it was known as Ayn al Arab.

Had it not been for the Syrian Civil War, people would probably still not have heard of Kobane and for that its 50,000 or so inhabitants would have been very grateful. Today they are scattered as refugees across Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or if they have returned to the shattered, bombed out city, are probably sleeping in the ruins of their houses.

But this is not the strangest thing about Kobane. Death and destruction has been visited on dozens of Syrian towns and cities without the rest of the world paying undue attention. No the strangest thing about Kobane is that the desperate battle waged there from September 2014 to January 2015 was followed across the world, literally ‘in real time’ by millions of people. And I was one of those people.

ISIS and the YPG

The insurgent group calling itself Dawla al Islamya fa Iraq wa al Sham (Daesh to its enemies) or in English ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or laterally, the Dawla Islamya (Islamic State or IS) swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking the city of Mosul and much of central Iraq and then attacking the Kurdish north.

From its advance, across the internet, came the most appalling images, heads cut off by grinning bearded fighters. Hosts of desperate teenagers (Iraqi Army cadets and Syrian conscripts) machine gunned into mass graves. Prisoners hoisted one by one to an execution place beside the Tigris River and then shot in the head. The Yezidis a minority Kurdish speaking sect, driven completely out of their homes to die on a barren mountain. All this happened within two months. All was filmed gloatingly and promoted on twitter and other social media by the group’s supporters.

The ideology of ISIS (an ultra-extreme form of Islamism) may not be unique, nor its violence (though horrific) unprecedented in the context of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011. What was different was its unashamed promotion of its violence and its exposition to the world. It was saying; ‘we do not think this is wrong, we are proud of these atrocities and we will use them to impose our ideology’. They quickly became demon figures in popular culture.

And against them, the world needed heroes. The shambolic Iraqi Army did not fit the bill, nor the Syrian Army of the dictator Bashar al Assad, nor the Syrian rebels groups, themselves largely inspired also by political Islam. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga seemed a better bet. But better yet was the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG. The YPG (People’s Protection Units) was formed to defend Kurdish area of northern Syria when that country collapsed into civil war. It was largely sponsored by the Turkish Kurdish (excuse the shorthand, any Kurdish readers) guerrilla group the PKK.

It carved out three autonomous parts (‘cantons’) of Syria, Afrin, Cizire and alone in the centre, Kobane.

The YPG and its women’s militia the YPJ espoused and to some extent implemented, a radical egalitarian programme. For instance for every male official there must be a female one. Women fought alongside men. All localities must elect a committee which makes all local decisions. Despite being Kurdish nationalists, the YPG worked with all the other ethnic groups in areas under its control. It was the YPG which rescued the Yezidis from extermination on Mount Sinjar.

So when, in September 2014 ISIS forces attacked the YPG held city of Kobane, it seemed a genuine case of angels against demons.

Now in reality the YPG and their PKK sponsors are no angels. They are a highly authoritarian militaristic organisation, with a violent history, like any organisation involved in prolonged guerrilla war. But this did not seem important at the time.

Attack on Kobane

The battle for Kobane was a horrendous four month attritional killing match, largely fought out among the ruined buildings of Kobane itself.

I was not there.

What I am going to be write about here is how, in a very strange way, I and others experienced it. I awoke one morning and found a Guardian headline saying ISIS had taken 60 villages around Kobane.

Moving to twitter, one could get hourly updates, many of them, by Daesh sympathisers showing grinning fighters gloating over dead Kurds, lined up at their feet. Dead Kurds including beautiful young women, disfigured by bombs or bullets. One photo showed, or purported to show, a teenaged YPG prisoner having his throat cut. And all the more repulsive was the commentary. Of the dead female fighters, one wrote, ‘comfort women by night, cannon fodder by day’. Of the young murdered prisoner, ‘look now at the big bad communist PKK’.

Now here’s the strange thing about personal engagement in war. Seeing the pictures of dead young Kurdish fighters inspired in me immense, genuine sorrow. I would look at the shattered bodies and see bright beautiful young people whose lives had been snatched away. But when the YPG posted their pictures of killed Daesh, I thought either, ‘good’, ‘fuck them’ or else ‘not enough’. Dehumanisation comes easily to us when we pick sides.

For several weeks fighting ebbed and flowed in the countryside, each day maps posted up online showed Daesh creeping closer to Kobane itself. At times the YPG would counter attack, and the yellow lines on the map would expand. Pictures posted up on twitter by Kurds would show the horrible black flag begin thrown down by YPG fighters and replaced with the yellow flag with red star of the YPG. And I would punch the air. I was filled full of admiration for the bravery of the Kurdish fighters. I would play punk versions of Spanish Civil War songs on my computer. ‘No Pasaran’, ‘Madrid que bien resistes’.

But ISIS had the upper hand in numbers and weapons. The videos they would post up showed them advancing in tanks, with self-propelled artillery and in disciplined formations. They reached Kobane itself it the first week of October. The virtual war now took on an even more surreal dimension. Several hundred metres away from the actual fighting was the Turkish border, where foreign journalists and Kurds could watch the battle in relative safety. So now one could get live actual reports and live footage from the battlefield.

A Kurdish activist calling himself Cahit Storm hid in a pepper field just over the border and morosely told his followers that the Black flag had appeared on hills and buildings inside Kobane. Mishtenur Hill, 600m high overlooking the town fell to ISIS after a bitter battle in which the Kurds used , at least once, suicide bombers. Within hours the pro-PKK twitter accounts were referring to ‘the martyr Arin Mirkan’.

As Daesh fighters took over the hill a panicked Kurdish tweeter named Kovan Direj called desperately for air-strikes, ‘Strike them! Strike them!’ he wrote. We, those of us following the fighting with an increasing sense of dread, felt as if it was actually happening to us. A Spanish journalist on the border, Lluis Miguel Hurtado, tweeted ‘without the hill defending the town would be a utopia.’

Pictures appeared online of grinning Daesh militants holding up the severed head of a ponytailed female YPG fighter. Hours later the Kurds posted a picture of his own dead body. ‘Karma didn’t take long for this motherfucker’ someone wrote.

As the Kurds were pushed back into a corner of the town, it was becoming apparent that the situations was desperate. Cahit Storm wrote on twitter, ‘you have no idea how difficult it is watching Kobane falling to Daesh’. Kobane came to dominate my thoughts. I even dreamed of it constantly. Every time I was away from the internet for any period I immediately checked it with a sense of dread expecting to hear the worst. It got so that I would only log in going straight to trusted pro-Kurdish twitter accounts. I didn’t want to hear bad news from any Islamo-fascist gloating over the latest atrocity, nor to see pictures of their dress-clad bitches under their insect-black flag.

At the same time Turkey closed its border, refused all help to pass through its territory and shot down in dozens the pro-PKK Kurds who demonstrated in support of Kobane on its streets.

But the worst never quite happened. I was part of a twitter storm asking the US first for air-strikes and then for an airdrop for the beleaguered Kurds. And miraculously, both occurred. Seeing packages of the parachuted arms ammunitions and first aid supplies dropping form the air, I again punched the sky. And suddenly Cahit Storm and others were reported massive explosions from American bombers in the ISIS-held part of Kobane. What do you know, I thought, just occasionally the Americans get around to bombing the right people.

But that was not the end of the battle. Far from it. It became a slugging match in which the YPG forces held doggedly on to their enclave in the west of Kobane, while ISIS tried to dislodge them with suicide truck bombs and mass assaults. Meanwhile the US Air Force relentlessly pounded the ISIS positions. It was grim, bloody urban warfare. The toll it took on actual participants, both in terms of lives lost and trauma inflicted must have been awe-inspiring. Oddly enough the relentless attrition also took its toll of twitter warriors.

Several seemed to succumb to a kind of combat exhaustion as the fighting dragged on.

Here’s what I wrote, privately in early November 2014. ‘What’s going to happen I just don’t know. There’s a part of me that just wants it to be over. The twitter updates, the smashed up bodies. I want it all to end. Maybe the peshmerga will get in in time. Maybe not. If not let’s be honest it’s all over for the YPG fighters in Kobane. In the most gruesome way. I can’t even think about that.’

Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces with artillery and mortars did get in. In January 2015 the Americans stepped up air-strikes and the town, what was left of it, was liberated.

It was a great victory over what looked like certain defeat for the forces of humanity. A huge Kurdish flag was planted over the re-taken Mishtenur Hill. It was of course a huge relief for those of us who had been caught up in the drama from far away. But I wonder, if any others, like me felt a little ashamed of themselves.

I blocked all the pro-ISIS accounts I have come across, so now I never see pictures of YPG dead. I do see, increasingly, pictures of heaps of Daesh dead. And I don’t even think anymore, well that is regrettable, but in the end it will save lives.’ Nor do I even think, ‘fuck them’. I just think ok, looks like a good day then’.

 

 

 

First Post, February 6, 2015.

Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.
Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.

Just a little first post to whoever comes across my blog. I’ll be posting thoughts on more or less whatever interests me; culture, world affairs, sport, cycling and life in general.

The main idea is to write things not connected with Irish history, which I do on my other site http://www.theirishstory.com