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Blog: The Geography Factor

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Iraq - The Options Remaining


August 30, 2013

No Arab state in the Middle East or beyond has suffered as severely from the impact of the Arab Spring movement as has Syria. It was always likely that Syria’s minority ruling regime would come under pressure, but Syria’s upheaval quickly generated a civil war that is no longer a domestic conflict. Fighters from across the border in Lebanon and as far afield as Xinjiang have transformed Syria’s war into the region’s most costly in terms of human lives (a toll estimated at more than 100,000) and refugees, who number approximately 1.6 million in four neighboring countries. Violence has spilled over into Turkey and Lebanon. Weapons and money from Iran to Qatar and from Russia to Saudi Arabia are fueling a conflict that has seen the Assad regime buckle and recover. Ideological disputes among rebel forces are destroying any prospect of postwar stability should they prevail. And now Western powers contemplate strikes against the Assad regime as punishment for the use of chemical weapons, with unforeseeable consequences.

International meetings to seek a solution to the crisis have been postponed; preconditions cannot be set. The Assad regime, benefiting from the rebels’ internal divisions and from external assistance, has recently been gaining on its adversaries, but there is no prospect of victory for either side. The zone between rebel-held Syria and the Assad regime’s domain could become a battleground for years, if not decades. To avoid this, the best hope is a stalemate. This could possibly be accomplished through a temporary partition of the country into three “states” that might, over time, achieve some form of long-term accommodation.

Wedge-shaped Syria’s geography is marked by vast areas of nearly empty desert territory in the east, broken by a ribbon of settlement along the Euphrates River on its way from Turkey to Iraq, and a concentration of most of its 23 million people in the west against its short Mediterranean coast and its borders with Turkey and Lebanon. The major cities, from Halab (Aleppo) in the north to Dimashq (Damascus) in the south, lie in almost a straight north-south lineup, equidistant from the Mediterranean shore. Aleppo in the far north, not Damascus in the south, is the largest urban center. In between lie the embattled centers of Hamah, Hims (Homs) and Al Qusay, where Assad’s forces, helped by Hizbullah fighters from Lebanon, achieved a comeback in June.

Syria’s war is sometimes seen as a Shia-Sunni conflict, but it is not that simple. The political capital of Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime is Damascus, but the Alawites’ cultural capital is the coastal town of Al Ladhiqiyah (Latakia). Alawites constitute a small minority of Shi’ism, but not all Shi’ites approve of its beliefs which Alawites tend to describe as “moderate” Shi’ism. The Alawites’ heyday began centuries ago in and around Aleppo, but under Sunni pressure their headquarters moved southward; even today, they constitute barely 11 percent of Syria’s population (non-Alawite Shias comprise another 1 percent). A remnant of Alawite residents extends from Latakia northward into Turkey.

Alawite control over the Syrian state has recent origins. Their rights in the dominantly Sunni territory were protected during the French occupation in the early twentieth century, when they asserted themselves in administrative roles and set the stage for a continuation of that influence when independence came in the 1940s and the socialist Baath Party took control. In 1971 they managed the election of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, as president . But the great majority of Muslims regard Alawites as heretics, and Hafez al-Assad ruled multicultural Syria through intimidation and terror while protecting minorities including Christians (about 8 percent of the population) and Druze (3 percent). Bashar al-Assad, upon succeeding Hafez, at first seemed to signal some liberalization of Syria’s police state but soon reverted to the autocratic ways of his father. When the Arab Spring reached Syria more than two years ago, defections from the Syrian regime appeared to presage its collapse.

It did not happen, and today the regime’s forces are contesting cities and towns lost earlier and thwarting the rebels’ advance. The major contest is in the Halab and Hamah Governates (as the administrative subdivisions of Syria are called), but conflict also afflicts Homs and, in the far south, the Druze base of Dar’a. Even as the regime has been strengthened by support from Lebanon’s Hizbullah, Iran, and Russia, the rebel push is slowed by internecine fighting. While an Alawite regime will never again rule all of Syria, the rebel forces give no evidence that they have the capacity to govern the entire state either. The treatment of minorities falling under rebel sway is abhorrent and the ruthless imposition of Salafist rules on Muslims in parts of the rebel-held domain portend an enduring struggle.

In the search for a way to interrupt the cycle of violence, the prospect of a temporarily partitioned Syria may be the only option. As the map shows, the Alawite domain, centered on Damascus and culturally anchored by Latakia, extends no farther east than Tadmur and includes cities long under Alawite rule. It includes the Russian naval base at Tartus. The Kurds, who constitute about 8 percent of Syria’s population, would organize a state centered on Al Hasakah that would adjoin the Kurdish sector in Iraq. The first steps have been taken: the local branch of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) has written a constitution and the state would be known as Rojava or West Kurdistan. Between the Alawite-ruled and Kurdish domains, the bulk of Syria would form a Sunni state centered on Aleppo, adjoining the Sunni region of Iraq.

This three-way split represents approximately the geopolitical situation in August, 2013, except on the Mediterranean littoral, where the greatest challenge lies. In order to function as a viable state, the proposed Sunni state needs a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, where a port should be constructed. A small port exists at Burj Islam, about 20 km north of Latakia, but this may be too close to the Alawite center; a better option may be a new port, built with Saudi funds at the mouth of the Wadi Qandil, a small stream not far from the Turkish border. This proposed port would be separated from Latakia by the Ras Ibn Hani, the coastal promontory north of Latakia. Because some Alawites reside in this northern area as well as in adjacent Turkey as far as the town of Hatay (Antioch), a relocation program would be required, the goal of international negotiations and feasible only with foreign aid. Such relocations are always difficult, but as was the case in Bosnia, they concentrate minds on an attainable objective.

The war in Syria has become an international conflict sustained by external sources of fighters, firearms, and funds. It is no longer a civil war and this external involvement not only perpetuates it indefinitely but also endangers the future stability of the entire region. Even if the partition plan proposed here requires eventual modification and renegotiation, its immediate benefits make it worth attempting: the allocation of billions of dollars for infrastructure repair rather than weaponry; the return of most refugees to their towns and villages, thus reducing the strain on neighboring states; the abatement of war-related violence and political strain in Turkey and Lebanon; and greater security for an Israel potentially in the path of turbulence. An international conference to negotiate the abdication of rulers and leaders is a non-starter. A geographic solution may help the parties come to their senses.