If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

Almost inevitably in appalling situations like the conflict in Syria, there comes a moment when inhibitions seem to drop among certain sectors of the commentariat and a note of petulant, provocative resignation enters the debate. They can’t live together, goes the standard line, and they have well and truly proved it now. Why should liberals in the West be indulged in their Benetton fantasies? Why spend blood and treasure to preside over the shotgun remarriage of nations so fundamentally unable to tolerate each other’s presence that they engage in fratricide?

The infuriating thing about such ‘partitionist’ arguments is not (only) the curiously visceral satisfaction some commentators seem to take in espousing a vision of humanity unable to accommodate difference by any other means than forced assimilation or strict separation. Nor is it the fact that such arguments tend to rely on speculation about what ordinary people actually want, often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Nor the way that they play into the hands of unprincipled and frequently undemocratic elites and conflict entrepreneurs. It is the fact that they may in some cases be right but for all the wrong reasons.

My first brush with ‘partitionist’ lines of argument came in Bosnia where my initial receptivity to them was challenged not only intuitively (by my unreconstructed persistence in the belief that people can find ways to rub along together) but also structurally (by my job specifically seeking ways to support Bosnians in doing so). However, my best efforts notwithstanding, the partition bandwagon rolled along, perhaps in most raucous form when splitting Bosnia looked like a real option, yet gaily undeterred long after it was clear that partition was neither particularly feasible nor especially desirable.

Perhaps as a result, there was a certain satisfaction in having worked on something as seemingly pollyanna-ish as property restitution in post-conflict Bosnia and seen it succeed. Granted, not everyone returned, but the result was segregation based largely on individual and household choices, rather than partition based on a political sew-up. And, safe in an unprovable negative, I will propose that the brute fact of restitution – the resolution of 200,000 claims that intimately affected many of the families most victimized by the conflict – cannot but have had a calming influence that has helped keep Bosnia’s notorious post-war ethnic politicking from spilling over into new bloodshed.

One can even argue that the pollyannas have been vindicated once again by the recent post-nationalist demonstrations in Bosnia. Perhaps the new generation we have all been going on about so long has now come of age. If this is the case, a new politics could result. Certainly not a politics that transcends nationalism (not even Sweden can manage that), but one that could at least reveal the hollowness at the core of the ‘inevitability’ discourses surrounding partition proposals in places like Bosnia.

Nevertheless, in 2004, the very year that I left Bosnia convinced that partitionism was en route to the dustbin of history, ethnic riots in Kosovo sent carefully orchestrated plans for national reconciliation there into a tailspin. A familiar call and response ensued, with aggrieved international observers eager to wash their hands of the mess and earnest liberal interventionists arguing that the preservation of a multiethnic society was not only possible but necessary.

At that point, my former Bosnia colleagues Marcus Cox and Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) were prompted to mount one of the most spirited defenses of ‘post-partitionism’ to date, contrasting the integrity of international efforts to hold places like Bosnia together with the cynicism of an earlier generation of peace agreements in which population transfers were as routine as border demarcations. But in 2004, one year into the US invasion of Iraq, the partition debate had barely begun. Two years later, the festering dispute between Arabs and Kurds over the region surrounding Kirkuk and the spiraling sectarian violence in Baghdad placed partition squarely on the international agenda.

It was at this point, that I was first drawn into the debate, in response to the idea that stable peace in Bosnia had been brought about solely through the ‘soft partition’ of the country into ethnically identified ‘entities’ and ‘cantons’. In a 2007 comment for the Brookings Institution, I argued that these portrayals missed the point – and, particularly, that the terms of the Bosnian Peace Agreement ensured that households ethnically cleansed from these new federal units would at least receive redress for their suffering and might in some cases subvert soft partition entirely through the collective effect of their decisions to return to their homes.

While partition proposals for Iraq became more muted during the late 2000s stabilization, the country’s current trend toward violence and authoritarianism have raised the issue anew. However, this time, partition seems to be portrayed less as a possible solution than as a likely problem. Which brings us finally to Syria. Arguably, the arc of Syria’s progression from a peaceful, civic national uprising to a bloody, increasingly sectarian and international conflict has lent far greater implications to any partition – de facto or de jure – in the region than most sane commentators wish to speculate on.

As Syria’s conflict throws the entire post-Ottoman order in the Middle East into question, shifts in population could quickly lead to shifts in borders, and nobody knows where that ends. These circumstances have lent a distinct sobriety to most commentary on Syria, with the dyed in the wool partitionists left to clamor anonymously in the comments section. For instance, one commentator to a recent piece in Foreign Affairs (the inaptly named ‘moderate guy’) invokes all the familiar tropes of partitionism with the lonely passion only an international affairs troll left clinging to yesterday’s policy nostrums could muster:

Or you could … realize that different people do not want to be forced into the same state; and help “Syria” divide along national/religious lines with as little bloodshed as possible. …. When will idiots like Andrew J. Tabler get it through their dumb, think skulls that people feel safe only among their own kind and “national” reconciliation will never work between people from different, you know, nations.

In an interesting sign of the times, one of the leading advocates of partition for Iraq in 2007 – Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution – has recently swung firmly in favor of international efforts to maintain Syria as a unified country. In fact, O’Hanlon explicitly invokes the diplomatic push that led to peace in Bosnia in recommending that the US administration strengthen the opposition to the Syrian regime to the extent necessary to force the latter to the negotiating table.

However, in another irony, it may now be too late for such a strategy to succeed. For over a year now, it has been well known that the Assad regime has been pursuing a strategy of ‘compromising the villages’ to consolidate its support among the Alawite minority in Syria and possibly pave the way to a de facto Alawite state. However, it is also clear that earlier efforts by the regime to enlist the support of other non-Sunni powers in the region have now led to a situation in which those powers have too much at stake to passively allow the regime to fall, whether by force of arms or a negotiated exit.

In a recent comment for BBC, Jim Muir ties these trends together, transcending an initial bout of overwrought journalistic prose (the Syrian crisis as “sliding inexorably over the brink, crashing onto the rocks below in a struggling mess”) to provide a chillingly clinical portrait of a conflict in which regional backers of Syria have both the motivations and the means to match any tactical escalation meant by the West to force negotiations. However, given the unlikeliness that the regime could regain full control over the country, stalemate and de facto partition – and not just of Syria – is seen to loom:

Only two things could save Syria as a unitary state: complete victory by one side or the other, which seems very unlikely, or a political settlement, the chances of which look equally slight.

And as Syria fragments, the cross-border interaction of its component parts is threatening to rend the fragile fabric holding both Lebanon and Iraq together. Frontiers could become increasingly theoretical as Sunni and Shia communities coalesce against one another.

President Assad must be watching with grim satisfaction as he sees his long-standing warnings of regional turmoil coming true.

So back to the partitionists being right for the wrong reasons. The idea that the people – and peoples – of the region would favor partition remains unproven, and certainly as of 2011, unlikely. But as in the former Yugoslavia, when authoritarian ideologies fail, appeals to chauvinism can be a handy fallback – and partition in such contexts may come down to little more and certainly no less than a brutal form of gerrymandering. Partition is neither inherently desirable nor necessary but it may, tragically, be inevitable.

3 responses to “If it’s broke, destroy it? The partition debate arrives in Syria

  1. Europe and the USA watched silently when Bosnian were getting massacred and the reaction was then a delayed one after many thousands had died. We see a repeat of that scenario in Syria. The Russian government again taking the side of the oppressor (at least doing something) while others watch. But where is humanity? Surely the Russian see good in selling their weapons and securing arms deal with the Assad regime a higher obligation than protecting civilians who are dying in the middle. But a solution can’t be seen in arming the rebels, with the Western world fears of the unknown especially with Al Qaeda affiliated groups like Al Nusra front. Despite, arming the rebels was already taking place, although in directly via Saudi and Qatari channels.
    What Syria needs now is not escalating the conflict by arming one side, but rather actions from the powerful nations. Forcing Assad to step down and punished for his actions through a fair justice system so the Syrian people get some dignity back, pressuring the Russians to stop their support, large humanitarian activities to help the millions of displaced and homeless refugees and finally disarming the entire population as everyone in Syria now seems to carry a weapon, to then help build a strong Police and armed forces. But at the end of the day everyone remembers how the peaceful protests in Daraa became the War Within after the brutality of a regime.

  2. The International Crisis Group just came out with an interesting report that seems to crystallize an emerging sense that the Syrian war is now being driven by a broader regional dynamic, and one which currently not only guarantees that neither side can win but also creates perverse incentives for both sides to keep incrementally increasing their support:


    In effect, the report recommends that outside backers should all begin to urge their proxies (?) inside Syria to refrain from deliberate provocation and escalation while beginning to give serious thought to the contours of a broadly acceptable post-conflict Syrian state *not* premised on the complete victory of one side or the other.

    The report includes a number of specific recommendations on measures that would need to be taken at pages 38-40, including significant reform of the military, dismantling the security services, a broad and inclusive negotiation process and guarantees to external actors that the resulting settlements would not harm their interests.

    Two of the recommendations in particular struck me as sound in principle but difficult to transform into practice in light of regional precedents. The first relates to transitional justice:

    “Setting up an effective transitional justice system. Due to the massive violence by both sides, the judicial aspect should focus on responsibility for especially egregious crimes, such as ordering or carrying out actions specifically targeting civilians …. Leniency could be shown to all who cannot credibly be charged with such offences. The remaining trauma should be dealt with, over time, through an indigenously agreed-upon series of actions, including truth-telling, reparations and so on.”

    This approach cuts precisely against the trend toward justice verging on retribution, in light of the harsh and sweeping vetting laws recently passed in both Libya and Tunisia. However, those laws were both passed by new revolutionary governments that had entirely toppled the previous regime, e.g. under circumstances that the ICG pointed out are now apparently unlikely to come about in Syria.

    Second, the ICG recommends devolution to the extent necessary to avoid de facto partition while not going so far as to sanction de jure partition:

    “Offering guarantees to all Syrian actors in the new political set-up. Given society’s extreme polarisation, predictable enduring distrust toward the state, weakness of centralised institutions and the legacy of militias and armed groups reflecting redistribution of power to the local level, any realistic political system presumably will have to both empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies by giving a far more substantial role to governorates, municipalities and provincial police forces – a process of partial devolution that should not be understood as either challenging the state’s integrity or laying the groundwork for partition.”

    Without denigrating the role of devolution as a potential conflict management device in many settings, there are precious few precedents in the Middle East for managing diversity in a democratic framework.

  3. Pingback: Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria | TerraNullius

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s