If Syria talks fail, US might support partition

Standard US refrain is that borders of Middle Eastern states are, with exception of those connected to Arab-Israeli conflict, not malleable.

Kurdish guard in north-east Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli


2016/04/17 Issue: 52 Page: 4


The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian



Even as US Secretary of State John Kerry invests time and energy in working with Russia, US allies and the Syrian opposi­tion to achieve a political solution to the Syrian crisis, he has hinted that there is a “Plan B”: the partition of Syria.

This is not a desirable outcome for most players in the conflict but if the Geneva talks fail, it may be the only realistic option.

The standard US refrain is that the borders of the Middle Eastern states are, with the exception of those connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict, not malleable. In other words, the United States supports the territorial integrity of most states that emerged after World War I. This applies even to Iraq where many Kurds want to extend their autonomous status to inde­pendence.

In recent days, even the idea of a federated Kurdish region within Syria has caused headaches. The Syrian Kurds, under the leader­ship of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have declared a federated state of Rojava (meaning “west” — a reference to it being the western part of greater Kurdistan), which includes three cantons in northern and eastern Syria.

This declaration was denounced by the Syrian government, the Syr­ian opposition, Arab states and the Turkish government.

Ankara is particularly apoplectic about any degree of autonomy for Syrian Kurds because it believes there are strong links between the proscribed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the YPG (the military wing of the PYD). Turkish officials say if the Syrian Kurds get autonomy, Turkish Kurds will want to follow suit. The recent bomb­ing in Ankara, claimed by a PKK offshoot, has made the Turks even more adamant on the issue.

Perhaps more noteworthy was the criticism of the Syrian Kurds that came from the United States, which has been supplying the YPG with weapons to fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and views the YPG as the most effective fighters in Syria. State Department spokesman Mark Toner bluntly stated: “We’ve been very clear that we won’t recognise any kind of autonomous or self-rule, semi-autonomous zones in Syria.”

But how “clear” has the US position really been? In testimony before the US Congress in Febru­ary, Kerry said, “It may be too late to keep [Syria] as a whole Syria if we wait too much longer,” clearly suggesting a “Plan B”.

To dampen speculation that the United States favours partition, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry was describing his “fear of what could happen, not what he wants to happen”.

But can Syria be made whole again? Any serious observer of the Syrian crisis would have doubts. The country is fractured into different zones, some along sectarian/ethnic lines, some along battlefield lines. A map of Syria that portrays these divisions looks like a quilt with many patches.

The Geneva talks have already hit a major snag concerning the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad. For the regime, discussion of the departure of Assad is a non-starter but for the opposition it is a prerequisite. As for the United States, its position remains “Assad must go” but it has evolved to a point that “Assad can stay for an interim period” to prevent the col­lapse of the state apparatus.

Even if Assad were to leave Syria — there has long been speculation that the Russians might offer him safe haven in a deal — the question remains as to what will happen to the Alawites, the members of his sectarian group?

Given so much blood-letting between the Alawites and the Sunni-dominated rebels, will Alawites agree to be under a Sunni-dominated regime, which would be the natural outcome of a “political solution” to the crisis given that the majority of Syrians is Sunni?

Can there be any solution, short of an enclave of their own, where the Alawites would be safe from retribution? Moreover, other groups, such as the Druze, have mostly supported the regime against the rebels even though they have had problems with the Assad family in the past. Will they (in the south) and the Kurds (in the north and east) want to give up their de facto autonomy in the interests of a unified Syrian state when the future is so uncertain?

And for many Christians, the prospect of living under a Sunni-dominated regime is not attractive given the fact that many of the rebel groups are not considered “moderate” and have cooperated at times on the battlefield with the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Many Chris­tians would rather live under the Alawites or the Kurds (or emigrate) than take their chances under a new government.

Washington undoubtedly is aware of all of these problems. Hence, Kerry’s Plan B may not be just a warning but a serious consid­eration.


Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.


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