Syria’s five-year-long, communally charged conflict has led many to call for the country to be partitioned – perhaps even into four or five smaller states. Others argue for a federal model that would essentially divide the state into autonomous Alawite/Christian, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish “zones.” These analysts argue that there is no way the state, after all of the bloodshed between Syria’s various ethnicities and religious communities, could be put back together again. This thinking, however, ignores Syria’s long history of coexistence between these disparate groups, the regional consequences of this proposal, and significant scholarship pointing to the fact that partitions, and even federalism, rarely work.
Syria has been an ethnically and religiously diverse place for centuries. Sunni Arabs make up the majority of Syria’s population at roughly 74 percent, while Alawites are 11 percent, and Kurds (who are also Sunni) make up 9 percent. Christians constitute roughly 8 percent There are also smaller minorities, such as the Assyrians, Turkmen, Circassians, and Yazidis. These sects have lived as neighbors in peace for much longer than they have been at war.
However, the current war is fierce, and those calling for partition or a confederal model argue there is simply no way to put Humpty Dumpty together again. They say efforts to contain the conflict have failed and that increasing direct military involvement would likely make tensions between sides worse, not better. In five years, nearly half a million people have been killed and over half the pre-war population displaced. Neighboring countries and the international community are struggling to deal with the spillover, including the growing threat of terrorism in the region and abroad. And the longer the war drags on, the greater these threats will become. Ending the war by separating the warring parties, either into different states or autonomous regions, is the only reasonable solution to ending the conflict.
This thinking, however, ignores Syria’s long history of coexistence between these disparate groups, the regional consequences of this proposal, and significant scholarship pointing to the fact that partitions, and even federalism, rarely work.
Yet the arguments for partition and ethno-centric federalism are flawed on many counts. First, they fail to take into account the strategic challenges and destabilizing factors these approaches would cause. Turkey and Iraq, both U.S. allies that boast large Kurdish populations contiguous with the proposed areas for Syrian Kurdish federalism, are vehemently against the establishment of an independent Kurdish state or autonomous zone on their borders. The Kurds in Iraq and Turkey have long histories of using violence against the state to pursue their interests, and it is likely that the creation of Syrian Kurdish state would renew this violence. Of course, supporting Kurdish autonomy along the Turkish border would worsen the already strained U.S.-Turkish relationship, as the United States views the Kurds as a key ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. Moreover, partitions do not necessarily pacify warring parties and may create a moral hazard by encouraging partitions elsewhere.
Second, most Syrians want neither partition nor a federal system. Syria has a long history of coexistence, a history of which most Syrians – Arab, Kurdish, Sunni, and Christian – are very proud. Even after the bloodshed between them, most do not want to see their country torn apart in the end. One group’s attempt to declare federalism has brought significant backlash: on March 17, the PYD, a Syrian Kurdish political party with strong links to the PKK, unilaterally declared the “Federation of Northern Syria,” an autonomous Kurdish region along Syria’s northern border. The U.S. State Department, Senior opposition negotiators, the Arab League, and even the Assad regime have all rejected the proposal. Most Syrians strongly oppose the state’s outright partition, and even those that do not oppose the idea of federalism generally do so under the condition that it does not lead to partition in the future; most reject the Kurds’ federalism project precisely because they believe that it will lead to the ultimate division of Syria.
Third, there is no way to cleanly divide the country, either into separate states or autonomous zones. Kurds do not constitute an ethnic majority in any one place, even in areas under Kurdish militia control, and most Kurds largely reside in three, noncontiguous areas across northern Syria. The population of al-Hasakah, for example, which Kurdish authorities have incorporated into its self-declared Federation of Northern Syria, is made up of Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Turkmen, and Arabs. Moreover, in a country with a history of intermixed populations, partition may in fact make matters worse by dividing families. This localized diversity simply means that partition would result in recreating the same ethnic tensions facing unified Syria today.
[M]ost reject the Kurds’ federalism project precisely because they believe that it will lead to the ultimate division of Syria.
This leads to my next point: in a conflict as complicated as Syria, partition will likely only turn a civil war into an interstate war, either directly or through lower-intensity conflicts, as seen in places like Kashmir. Because of the lack of Kurdish majority populations in many of the areas Kurdish forces currently occupy, there is some evidence of intentional demographic shifts. Salih Muslim, leader of the PYD, stated that, “One day those Arabs who have been brought to the Kurdish areas will have to be expelled.” Arab residents have accused the Kurds of relocating Kurds to Arab-majority areas and even burning Arab homes and villages to change the demographic makeup of these areas. Some have also accused the Kurds of attempts to ethnically cleanse areas of Assyrian Christians. This is to say nothing of the high likelihood that Turkey would directly intervene in the event an independent, Kurdish state or autonomous entity were created along its border.
Lastly, but possibly most important, what does partition say about our own values as a multiethnic state that prides itself on its diversity, tolerance, and respect for minority rights? Our willingness to partition other states into their own minority enclaves diminishes these values. Civil wars have existed throughout history and, though painful and difficult, peoples have been able to recover and live alongside one another once again – our own history of bloody conflict being just one example. Others, such as the Cambodian genocide in which between 1.5 and 3 million people died and even post-apartheid South Africa have been able to recover and coexist – or at least not kill each other. Technology has certainly complicated this process, enabling images of atrocities and rumors of abuses to spread more quickly and more widely than in past conflicts to reinforce tensions between groups. Still, I take offense to the idea that disparate groups of people, many of whom have coexisted peacefully for most of their history, cannot live together without killing one another.
Though some promote federalism as an alternative to outright partition, creating zones along ethnic or sectarian lines, this solution does not get around most of the issues laid out above. Federalism in Syria would still require drawing borders for these zones, as the current provincial borders in Syria do not correlate to the proposed autonomous spheres: there are, in fact, no natural Alawite, Sunni, and Kurdish areas in Syria. (Proponents of federalism also do not indicate who would draw these boundaries, which brings its own host of challenges.) Additionally, Michael Meyer-Resende, Executive Director of Democracy Reporting International, writes that even the discussion of federalism as a possible solution unnecessarily burdens peace talks by imposing a specific organizing principle that is highly polarizing, providing the example of Libya as a case when peace can be derailed by “federalist” and “anti-federalist” camps. Furthermore, there is no evidence that building separate enclaves settles conflicts or offers different outcomes than outright partition. In reality, proponents of these options are simply providing another example of the “quick fix” mentality many Western policymakers have adopted toward today’s problems.
In reality, proponents of these options are simply providing another example of the “quick fix” mentality many Western policymakers have adopted toward today’s problems.
Of course, a solution that involves unified Syria with a strong central government is unlikely. In fact, for a unified Syria to succeed, it would likely require a decentralized power structure. The problem with the calls for federalism in Syria is the idea that decentralization must happen along ethnic and religious lines. The Kurds’ self-declared region was declared unilaterally and against the principles of democracy and self-determination, as the areas of control include a large number of Arabs staunchly opposed to living under Kurdish governance. (And the number of towns under Kurdish governance control is growing as the SDF progresses in Arab-majority areas). At the end of the day, though it is unclear what exactly federalism along ethnic lines would mean in Syria, it would almost certainly serve to only harden the cleavages that have developed between the various groups.
After five years and nearly 500,000 deaths, there are undoubtedly deep, torturous grievances on all sides of the Syrian conflict. These wounds will take decades or longer to heal. Neither partition nor federalization along ethnic or sectarian lines will cure these wounds. In the end, what is needed is a state that truly incorporates strong protections and guarantees for minority rights and provides measures to respect and enforce these rights. Partition and federalism seem like appealing proposals, because they are cognitively easier to digest. But that does not make it the right solution for Syria today, or in the future.