Syria Special: Partition is Imminent


PHOTO: Residents of eastern Aleppo city leave, December 2016

Published in partnership with The Conversation:

After nearly six years of uprising, conflict, and chaos, the partition of Syria is imminent. President Bashar al-Assad will of course rail against it; his crucial ally Iran will probably resist too, and the marginalised US won’t even acknowledge the prospect. But the lines are nonetheless being drawn.

But with pro-Assad forces back in control of Aleppo city, a newly co-operative Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option, and the leading Kurdish political and military groups will settle for whatever autonomy they can get. By the end of 2017, Syria will quite probably become a country of four parts.

The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime is set to hold much of the south and west, and most of Syria’s cities. There’ll most likely be a Turkish/rebel area, effectively a “safe zone”, in parts of northern Syria; the Syrian opposition will probably control Idlib province and possibly other pockets of territory in the northwest; while the Kurds will have some form of autonomy in the northeast.

See also Syria Special: Laying the Foundations for A “Credible Transition”

A settlement like this has been a long time coming. Neither the Assad regime nor its enemies will settle for just a part of Syria, and both have survived years of intense conflict. The opposition and rebels still control territory from the north to the south; Assad clings on with the help of Russian aerial bombardments and Iranian-led ground forces. All the while, the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia are still defending territory against both IS and the Assad regime.

If the lines of a potential partition were clear some time ago, what stood in the way of recognising them was the challenge of Aleppo city. Without recapturing it, the Assad regime had no hope of claiming an economic recovery (however disingenousouly) in the areas it controlled, let alone in the entire country. But the city was surrounded by opposition-controlled territory; Assad’s military was far too depleted to change the game, and even with outside support, its campaign would be protracted.

The Deal

The turning point came in August 2016 when Turkey and Russia began to reconcile. The two countries had always been on opposite sides of the conflict, Turkey supporting the opposition and rebels and Russia Assad. Their relations had been tense since November 2015, when Ankara’s jets shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. But within a year, both saw the advantages not only of reconcilation, but of agreeing on what their respective spheres of influence in Syria should be.

A deal was quickly established: Turkey would accept the reoccupation of all of Aleppo city by pro-Assad forces, supported by Russian-Syrian siege and bombing tactics, while Moscow would accept a Turkish military intervention alongside rebels in northern Syria, including much of Aleppo province.

Which is where we are now. Civilians and rebels have been evacuated from or allowed to leave the last opposition holdouts in eastern Aleppo city. The Turkish-rebel offensive continues to push back IS, although it is facing difficulties in its assault on al-Bab, the group’s last major position in Aleppo province.

A national ceasefire, brokered by Turkey and Russia in the last days of 2016, but pro-Assad forces are breaking it in offensives near Damascus. The two countries are trying to arrange political talks between the regime and the Syrian opposition later this month in Kazakhstan.

As Andrey Kortunov, director of a think tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, summarized it to Reuters: “There has been a move toward a compromise … a final deal will be hard, but stances have shifted.” The same story quotes a “senior Turkish government official” explaining that the convergence “doesn’t mean we approve of Assad. But we have come to an understanding. When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK.”

So can the Turkish-Russian initiative win over (or put down) everyone else who has a stake in the outcome?

The Obstacles

The biggest immediate challenge is in the opposition-controlled areas near Damascus. The Assad regime has already taken back many of the suburbs, but two key areas are still beyond its control: Wadi Barada to the northwest, and East Ghouta and Douma to the northeast.

Wadi Barada is home to the al-Fijah springs, which provide more than 60% of Damascus’s water. Since mid-December 2016, the Assad regime’s forces and Hezbollah have been trying to overwhelm it with bombing, shelling, and ground assaults. In the process, the pumping station for the springs has been damaged, cutting off or limiting water to about 5.5m people.

At the same time, the Syrian Army and its allied militias are trying to take more territory near Douma, which is the centre for the leading rebel faction Jaish al-Islam. Turkey is critical of the offensive, Russia is staying silent, and the Iranian government and possibly its military are backing it.

Then there’s the Syrian Kurdish movement. The PYD would like to unite its area in the northeast with a Kurdish canton in the northwest, while Turkey would like to push back any Kurdish zone of influence and elevate other Kurdish groups over the PYD. With the Assad regime opposed to Kurdish autonomy of any sort, the only agreeable option may be containment: Turkey will probably accept a Kurdish area east of the Euphrates River, limiting any zone of control or potential military advance. The PYD, knowing it has no powerful backing, will accept the offer, even if it isolates the Kurdish area in and near Aleppo city.

As for Assad himself, the Syrian opposition continues to demand that he step down – but few others are bothering any more. The US effectively gave up the cause in 2012, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have gone quiet, and Turkey seems not to care much. He may one day be offered the chance to step down peacefully when elections are arranged, but in the meantime he will stay where he is.

Confronted with the increasingly effective Turkish-Russian axis, a US official opted for condescencion: “So this country that essentially has an economy the size of Spain, that’s Russia, is strutting around and acting like they know what they are doing. I don’t think the Turks and the Russians can [negotiate] without us.”

This is pure bluster. For three years now, Russia has been feigning co-operation with the US, and in the process has deftly manoeuvred its Western rival onto the sidelines. If Washington pushes back too hard, it could wreck its relationship with Turkey – which grants it access to key airbases – and end up framed as the main obstacle to a major breakthrough.

The events of the last seven months have only reconfirmed what’s been clear for some time: there is no optimal solution to the Syrian crisis. Partition is far from ideal, and it may only be short-term — but at this point, it’s the only viable alternative to endless slaughter, displacement, and destruction.

The Conversation

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  1. “”When Islamic State is wiped out, Russia may support Turkey in Syria finishing off the PKK.””
    SDF is fighting successful against Raqqa so far. Whatever will happen to Manbij west of Euphrat
    it is almost sure that Kurds/PYD are controlling the North Eastern Territory of Syria between Euphrat and Hassakah. If IS is beaten at Mossul you could say there is at least a kurdish Territory between Mossul alone the Turkish border to the Euphrat.
    First, PYD in Syria is a different organisation than PKK . But who will have the military power to finish
    the Kurds at Norther Syria? Turkey and Russia together?
    The author of the articel above should use some more words to describe his vision that Erdogans Turkey and Putins Russia will fight the Kurds. It`s more likely that hell will break lose than a war of Turkey and Russia against Kurds because it would be a reason for a bigger confrontation.
    But first it´s neccssary to see what Turkey will do after El Bab. Second if IS is beaten by SDF at Raqqa furthermore 25% syria will be ruled by IS.
    Who will going to beat them in the center of Syria?
    If you look to the gains of IS at Palmyra wether Assad nor Russia can be seen to beat Daesh.
    Iran and shia militias aren`t seen either fighting against Islamic State.
    resumen: The question of Manbij and Raqqa including the question who will beat Daesh at the center of Syria after SDF have beaten IS at Raqqa must be answered before anyone can say what will happen to whole Syria..
    Additional the most powerful alliance against the syrian massmurderer Assad was the pre-war alliance of all opposition forces beyond sectarian borders. against the syrian regime. Only this alliance of all opposition forces will enable Syria to exist without partition.

  2. Partition is the most dangerous idea ever. A recipe for instability for many years. The Sunnies will never accept it. The part that the Sunnies get will be a constant agent of instability.
    The Sunnies need a super-nanny. Every territory they are given a chance to govern themselves becomes Islamic State. See Raqqa see Gaza. If the West wants to be safe it must make sure that the Sunnies are governed by responsible means: non-elected presidents, generals, monarchs, and juntas.

  3. Scott Lucas says: “Turkey and Russia are ready to pursue partition as a short-term resolution. The Syrian opposition and many rebels will embrace it as their best immediate option.” That idea has the fatal problem, untackled in the article, that it cannot happen without being positively embraced by the Syrian govt and the govt has not the slightest intention of doing so. What Scott Lucas here means by “short-term partition” is maybe just his alternative verbiage for “temporary ceasefire”. The Syrian govt has done temporary ceasefires at many different localities and different times over the past five years, and it is doing a ceasefire in some areas today. But it would be misleading and pretentious to use the English word “partition” to say that these temporary ceasefires are “short-term partitions”; i.e. word “partition” is not used in this sense in plain speaking. What I can say is: Turkey and Russia are ready to persue ceasefires as a short-term resolution, and many rebel factions will embrace short-term ceasefire as their best immediate option, and the govt will embrace short-term ceasefire in the govt’s chosen designated areas (Idlib) provided that the govt has a free hand to continue putting down the rebellion by violence in the govt’s other chosen designated areas of the country.

    Furthermore, there isn’t the slightest sign today that true effective partition could emerge along any ceasefire-line over time. But I say this is really not pertinent in the current scene and will not become pertinent unless ceasefire lines have been in place for long enough that we’d consider them stable ceasefire lines.

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