General Issam Zahreddine is something of a legend in Syria. He commands the Syrian army outpost in the city of Deir Ez-Zor on the Euphrates River – a city besieged by the so-called Islamic State since 2013. Syrian opposition forces have put a US$200,000 price on Zahreddine’s head: he is their second most wanted man after President Bashar Al-Assad.
Zahreddine is a member of Syria’s tiny Druze religious minority. Yet he is in charge of a mostly Sunni garrison among a Sunni civilian population that has remained loyal to the government.
Deir Ez-Zor’s story illustrates the resilience of Syria’s religious diversity; it is one of many examples that challenge the prevailing sectarian narrative that characterises the war as a conflict between a Sunni majority and minorities such as ‘Alawites, Christians, Druze and others. Deir Ez-Zor also points to the folly of proposals by some Western politicians to partition Syria along ethno-religious lines.
Partition is their ‘Plan B’ if armed rebellion fails to bring about regime change.
Armed groups fighting to overthrow the government have recently taken a battering from the Syrian army with Russian and Iranian support. This has helped bring about a conditional ‘ceasefire’, offering the country’s long-suffering population a glimmer of hope after five years of war.
The deal – brokered by Russia and the United States and endorsed by the UN Security Council– includes all parties except the most extreme Islamist groups: the so-called Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat An-Nusra (Al-Qaeda in Syria). So far the agreement has seen a dramatic drop in casualties despite alleged breaches by both sides. However, many are sceptical of its long-term prospects.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was clearly apprehensive about the ceasefire – technically, a “cessation of hostilities” – implemented on February 27. He seemed to anticipate its failure by again floating ‘Plan B’ – “It may be too late to keep it a whole Syria if we wait much longer,” Kerry said. The same idea gained brief exposure when Prime Minister Turnbull raised it during his visit to Washington earlier this year.
Kerry’s statement was partly a conciliatory nod to Washington’s agitated allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia – whose proxy forces in Syria have faltered since late 2015. Yet ‘Plan B’ has broader aims than simply placating Washington’s allies. Incapacitating the Syrian state – the original goal of foreign regime-change advocates – would benefit every major power in the region except Iran which, despite the nuclear deal with the West, is seen as a disruptive force in global hydrocarbon politics and a barrier to Western regional dominance.
The goal of regime change – accomplished with disastrous results in Iraq and Libya – is partly driven by the heated competition for ‘leadership’ of the broader Middle East, particularly in the cultural and ideological realms.
With Egypt weak and Syria now set back 40 years, post-conflict Syria offers fertile ground for rolling out profound cultural and ideological changes in the region. Saudi Arabia, which seeks leadership of the Arab world, is best positioned to fill the void. It has shrugged off its parvenu status to eclipse Egypt as the most influential Sunni Arab state.
If regime change via proxies cannot succeed then partitioning Syria is the next best option for the powers opposed to Syria’s regional role. Dividing the country among factions vying for power would create weak entities reliant on foreign sponsors.
In Australia, Syria’s partition has been backed by former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, whose record on Syria includes suggesting assassination as a necessary step towards peace.
However in a surprising rejoinder from the usually ill-informed ALP, deputy Labour leader Tanya Plibersek correctly pointed to the coherent national identity many Syrians hold dear:
“There are generations of people who have grown up with an identity as a Syrian or an Iraqi … Recent polls confirm many people feel a sense of national identity and feel the conflict is soluble’’, she stated.
There are other reasons why partitioning Syria is a reckless option.
Partition along sectarian lines – because that is likely all that the Islamist opposition will accept – plays into ISIS and al-Qaeda’s hands. They would love a Sunni state that reinforces sectarian divisions. Sunnis who do not agree with their vision would then have little choice but to abandon the pluralist values many still support.
Partition would represent surrender to the extremist belief that different communities cannot co-exist in a tolerant pluralist framework – as Syrians largely have for centuries. This pluralism is reflected in the composition of the Syrian leadership – civilian and military. While Assad is an Alawite, his Prime Minister and Ministers for Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs are all Sunni.
There is no reason why partition would be any more ‘accurate’ at drawing ethno-religious boundaries than the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved modern Syria out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1.
While broad sections of the country can be identified as predominantly Sunni, ‘Alawite, Armenian, Kurd or Druze etc, nearly all of these areas are dotted with other groupings. Inter-religious marriage has also been relatively common. Any attempt to redraw Syria’s boundaries is likely to be based on territory now controlled by various militia rather than its pre-war demography.
Even Syrian Kurds – who would likely benefit the most from partition – are not sold on the idea. Many see it as too great a risk given Turkish hostility and would prefer federalism with a degree of self-government.
It is telling that partition is not being suggested as a solution to Iraq’s conflict, which features significant Sunni resentment of the central government. While partitioning Iraq would likely worsen its conflict, Iraq has far clearer ethno-religious divisions, with Kurdish separatism further developed and distinct Sunni and Shi’a provinces. But partition of Iraq is not currently on the agenda of western powers – for whatever reason.
Regime change in Syria and the advantages it promises for its proponents – Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the US and other NATO allies – remains the main game despite the ‘ceasefire’. Under the pretence of ending an unwinnable conflict, ‘Plan B’ is another route to that end.