by Rhodri C. Williams
One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.
Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.
For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.
As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control:
Started as peaceful and inclusive popular movements striving for social and economic justice, the uprisings in Syria posed a serious threat to the regime: they carried legitimacy and a powerful narrative. This required the construction of a counter-narrative: the presumed fight against transnational religious extremism exported into Syria by external actors.
As discourses are best implemented by practices, the regime’s strategy was to bring confrontation onto its favourite ground early on: military and sectarian conflict. The country’s harmonious social fabric and long-standing tradition of coexistence was destroyed.
A worrying article in the Guardian now raises the possibility that the regime may have tacitly abandoned its goal of re-subjugating the entire country through conquest and instead opted to preempt a stalemate by a strategy of unilaterally carving out the parts of Syria it feels it can defend. Key portents of map-cleaning are alleged, including the intentional destruction of property records, the arming of loyal groups and secret negotiations with Israel to test regional reactions to a Syrian rump state under the control of the Assad regime. Such a course of action would not only risk yet further bloodshed in Syria but also further regional destabilization.
Just over a year ago, this blog cited a defected Syrian General interviewed by Foreign Affairs, who claimed that the Assad regime “actually regulates how many should be killed per day” on the theory that up to 30,000 casualties could trigger an international intervention. With deaths in Syria now over three times that number and the ‘red line’ on chemical weapons crossed without any immediate consequences, it is hard to imagine what constraints may now remain on the behavior of the Regime’s security forces, and particularly its less disciplined militias.
With many ethnic enclaves remaining within the “Alawite spine” the Regime is said to seek control of, the potential for another catastrophe on the scale of Srebrenica is apparent. As reports continue of the Regime continuing to lose ground outside this region and carry out ethnic massacres within it, Assad’s invocations of sectarian division risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.