There may be a tentative cease-fire at present, but let’s not get carried away. The war in Syria is going nowhere fast. It staggers along, with daily violations and a rising body count — another vicious “problem from hell.” Estimates vary, but some observers now put the death toll in Syria at nearly 500,000 and climbing — roughly 2.5 percent of the prewar population. Close to 50 percent of the population is displaced. It is hard to think of a catastrophe of similar proportions since the end of World War II.
Some efforts to negotiate a solution have been undertaken, led by the indefatigable U.N. diplomat Staffan de Mistura. The real problem, of course, is that the major players are in sharp disagreement about a path forward: the United States and Russia disagree on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s future; Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a geopolitical and religious conflict across the region, with Syria as ground zero; Russia and Turkey are in bitter disagreement about tactical and strategic issues; and on and on.
What is increasingly apparent amid all this misery is that Syria as a nation is increasingly a fiction. It is utterly riven by the civil war that has raged for three years, and large chunks of it are ruled by disparate actors with no allegiance and often bitter enmity toward what remains of the sovereign state. Like Humpty Dumpty in the children’s nursery rhyme, the odds of putting Syria back together again into a functioning entity appear very low. It is time to consider a partition.
Yes, it’s a decision with many risks, downsides, and complications — and one that is generally shunned by the international community. But in the interest of providing a way to douse the flames of the conflict and enable negotiation, it should be on the table at Geneva as the parties go forward.
Syria’s borders, of course, were famously drawn in the early part of the last century, as the “sick man of Europe” — the Ottoman Empire — collapsed after World War I. Syria is not a long-standing civilization like Persia (today’s Iran), Turkey, or Greece. Part of the reasons it has descended into chaos (along with the brutal actions of the Assad regime, water scarcity problems, and the general upheaval of the Arab Spring) is that it is already divided along religious and ethnic lines.
Some observers have taken an initial look at a partition, which would probably include an Alawite region around Damascus, running to the sea, ruled by the Assad regime or its follow-on leaders. It would also have a central portion that hopefully over time would be run by a moderate Sunni regime, obviously after subduing the Islamic State and various al Qaeda factions. Finally, and most controversially, it might include a Kurdish enclave in the east. Obviously, the approach for a partition could range from a full break-up of the country (much as Yugoslavia broke up after the death of Marshal Josip Tito); to a very federated system like Bosnia after the Dayton Accords; to a weak but somewhat federated model like Iraq.
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