What if Syria were a Chinese puzzle?



Vassiliki Kastriti

Syrian society is unique in its diversity. As soon as the civil war broke out, the country got fragmented into enclaves. Almost immediately, the idea of partitioning Syria gained ground, as the different identities of Syrians - as well as the deep feud - prevailed over the unique Arab identity. Following the Syrian state's collapse and partition, a different map will be created.


After three years of conflict, the window of opportunity regarding the establishment of a democratic Syrian state that will recognise and respect the various ethnic, religious and sectarian identities of its people is really small and, consequently, the possibility for reunification of the Syrian communities is beyond hope. Given the absence of a stable and coherent socio-economic and cultural order in Syria, a realistic solution for restoring peace in the region is the dejure partition of Syria. The dissolution of the country will push towards the creation of three smaller states. As Syria was generally never organised as a nation-state, a federal government with autonomous centralised cantons is an admittedly not viable solution, especially after the outbreak of the civil war. The sectarianisation would simply tear the structure apart.

More specifically, the first established state would be the Alawites' one. The Alawites, constituting the second largest sectarian group in Syria, following the Sunnis, live mainly in the Coastal Mountain Range. At the moment, Bashar al-Assad holds Western Syria, Damascus and its environs, most major cities as well as the western coastal region.1 The partition of Syria, which, at the time of the French mandate, was rejected by an overwhelming Alawite majority, is now simply accepted by the regime. Consequently, demographically speaking, the Alawite state will definitely include the two governorates of Latakia and Tartus - where they make up a majority of around 60% - and the regions of Hama and Horns - where again they constitute the majority. 2 In support of this hypothesis, the regime announced on April 2,2013, via the People's Assembly, that Syria's administrative divisions must be revised and suggested the creation of three new provinces. Although the pretexts for the creation of the new provinces were many, the connection between the new provinces and the military situation must not be disregarded.

The best prospect for both Assad and his close ally, Iran, is the creation of an Alawite state that will include the strategically important governorate of Horns since it guarantees the geographical connection with Iraq. Horns is the central link between the inland cities and the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that Iran will do its utmost in order to support Alawites and ensure the territorial proximity between the new Alawite entity and Iraq, thus securing its bonds with Hezbollah. Apart from Iran, Russia will also support the Alawites, as the creation of an Alawite state provides a good prospect for protecting and promoting Russia's naval interests in Tartus.

The second state will be that of the vast majority of Syrians, the Sunnis. The Sunnis are the majority in thirteen out of the fourteen governorates, while they are also the majority in the countryside, with the exception of the countryside of Latakia, Tartus and the Christian region, Wadi al-Nasara. The north-central and eastern areas of the country as well as a section of the state. 3 In short, the second state will include the territories that are effectively controlled by Sunni Arabs. However, the internal social stability of the Sunnis' state will be seriously challenged by the diverse rival groups. The greatest fear of many moderate Sunnis after all is the establishment of an Islamic state, since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is struggling to impose its absolute influence and control.

The third state will be that of the third largest ethnic group in Syria, the Kurds. The Kurds will create a state contiguous with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq - an idea especially alarming for Turkey with its significant Kurdish minority. Nevertheless, the circumstances have now changed. The Kurds are exercising firm control in the areas bordering with Turkey and Iraq, where the majority of the Kurdish population lives. What is more, the Syrian Kurds also control two small areas further west, held by People's Protection Units (YPG) militia.4 Even if there are still some doubts whether the Kurdish entity will form a really independent state, Kurds are determined to resist the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. So, despite any divisions and clashes among the various Kurdish groups, they are all trying to keep any opposition and jihadi groups away from the Kurdish region.

A matter of concern is whether the three new entities will be economically sustainable. This is essential for the success for any of the entities. Until the outbreak of the civil war, the main economic sectors in Syria were agriculture, energy, and commerce. Syria's GDP was dependent -almost absolutely- on the oil and agriculture sectors. As far as oil is concerned, Syria's average oil production for the period 2008-2010 was stable at approximately 400,000 bbl/d, however, when the civil war began, there was a rough drop. In January 2014, Syria's oil production was less than 25,000 bbl/d.5.

As far as commerce and industry are concerned, they were concentrated mainly in the two largest cities of Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, while Latakia and Tartus had the biggest commercial ports, and Baniyas was the main oil port. On the other hand, agriculture and oil were mostly concentrated in the inner governorates.6 Judging from the above, the Alawite state would be rather weak as a result of lack of agriculture, natural resources and oil, and of course due to the destroyed from the conflict infrastructure. If we also take into consideration the fact that the Alawite state would not be on friendly terms with its neighbours, its economic renaissance will be hard. However, despite the above-mentioned difficulties, the Alawite state has good possibilities of surviving if it successfully exploits its energy resources in the Mediterranean coast. At this point, Russian and Iranian help would be indispensable. On the opposite side, the Sunni state in the mainland of Syria is rich in agriculture and oil. It is remarkable that crude and refined oil was by far the largest export of Syria. Nevertheless, despite being rich in agriculture and oil, the independent state would be landlocked. As a result, the difficulties in reaching seaports will economically suffocate the state. Obviously, the prison-like Sunni state would make its population almost absolutely dependent on the neighbouring countries. In addition, the lack of any development project during Assad's rule, in connection with the destroyed infrastructure, dramatically reduces any prosperous future it might have. Recently, the UN Relief and Works Agency published a report according to which it would take the regional economy 30 years to return to the economic level of 2010. Finally, regarding the Kurdish state, its existence is seriously threatened both by its Arab and Turkish neighbours. What is more, the Kurds in Syria control some considerable energy resources but they would not be immediately capable of exploiting them. So, in order to survive, Syrian Kurds should create a new, greater entity, united with the Iraqi Kurds.

A second factor, on which the viability of the new entities is depended, is the demographic reality inside Syria. Syria's population is not strictly divided into geographic sectarian blocs. Therefore, fears of sectarian cleansing of all the involved parties or other violent methods so as to achieve homogeneity inside each new state are, under no circumstances, negligible. However, as refugees from government-controlled areas are disproportionately Sunnis and those fleeing rebel-held areas are disproportionately non-Sunnis, territories under the control of both the regime and the opposition are steadily becoming more homogeneous.

Last, but not least, the sustainability of the three new states is also strictly linked to the political positions which the neighbouring countries will adopt, especially Lebanon, Turkey, Israel, Iran and Iraq. While Israel would be rather satisfied with the strategy of "divide and rule", all the other countries have large groups that are affected by the spill over effect of Syria's dissolution and inspired by the partitioning of the country. The cohesion of Turkey and Iraq are under direct threat by the spill over effect, since an independent Kurdish state ante portas will pose a serious challenge for their territorial integrity. Needless to say that in this case the role of the Sunni state will be crucial. At this point, it is important to mention that Iraq is also highly concerned about a future independent Sunni state - possibly even more than a Kurdish one - since it will seriously challenge Iraq's internal political and social stability and threaten its territorial integrity as well.

The complexity of interests, and consequently of future alliances is great. Moreover, potential efforts of regional - and not only - actors to control the three states and make them their puppets are also a matter of concern and of high importance. Besides, the chance of intervention into their domestic affairs raises even more the anxiety for achieving peace and stability in the region. All things considered, the very existence of the new entities will be severely challenged.



  ΧΡΟΝΟΣ 14 (06.2014)