There has been numerous speculation and talk over the last four-years about whether or not the deadly war which has embroiled Syria will ultimately see to that nation break-up altogether.
One recent piece speculating about such an outcome was by AFP. It quoted various analysts who believe that the realities on the ground in Syria will lead to the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad using its forces solely to defend the areas of economic and strategic importance it still controls instead of futilely continuing to try to reconquer the half of the country it has lost to its various adversaries. Indeed it makes much more sense for them at this late stage to dig-in and settle for the economically and strategically important arteries of the state they can hold, defend and survive from.
This clearly constitutes a very important moment in the ongoing four-year war which has devastated the Syrian state and society. We may very well be witnessing a Syria on its death knell, informally fragmenting before our eyes.
But the broader question of what a Syrian break-up might look like is well worth evaluating, given the fact that it is a very real and looming prospect. If Syria does completely fragment in the near future it might be, roughly, along the lines it has already effectively become split.
The Assad regime controls less than half of the country. It has recently suffered major setbacks in the northwestern Idlib province. These were carried out by an umbrella organization (see the ‘Army of Conquest’) of Islamist anti-Assad groups. It is being supported by Turkey, even though the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra Front openly has members high in its ranks. A leader of one of the opposition forces presently operating in Idlib recently told The Guardian newspaper that he could get all the weapons his men wanted from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with the other Arab autocracies of the Persian Gulf region. He claimed that, “The Turks and their friends wanted this [the war] over with” and went on to add that the Turks and the Gulf states are now arming every armed group fighting Assad bar the infamously notorious Islamic State (ISIS). If recent events in Idlib are anything to go by they are clearly gaining ground.
Syria’s ally, Iran, has extended credit lines to Damascus worth billions just to keep the remnants of its economy afloat — four-years of war has seen to it contract and shrink to levels which will be very difficult to recover from any time soon. The Syrian Army in the past year has been essentially downsized into a militia. A militia which is a mere shell of the former 300,000-man strong army and likely doesn’t possess the logistics, strength or even numbers — not to mention resolve and morale — needed to reassert the regime’s control and hold over the rest of the country. Again, more reason to simply cut their losses and settle for what they still have. Which given the state of Syria at present, is essentially the same as coming to terms with the inevitability of a break-up while scrambling to secure vital territories and assets needed to weather the storm such a break-up will bring about. After all, partitions and implosions of war-wrecked states are usually anything but pretty.
Take a look at the present situation in Syria’s Latakia coastal region. The heartland of the Alawite community, from which the Assad family hails, it is increasingly at risk of being infiltrated by violent jihadi forces (Idlib is situated just to its east). The likes of Al-Nusra and, of course, ISIS have gained effective control over very large swaths of Syrian territory. About half the country now — which is a very alarming and distressing reality. If they are able to overcome the defence’s of that region they would more likely than not subject many of Latakia’s Alawite inhabitants to campaigns of slaughter or even genocide. Such Islamists despise the Alawites since they are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam which they perceive to be unforgivably heretical.
The Alawites have backed the Syrian regime throughout the Syrian war for, like the Christian minority in Syria, reasons relating to expediency and survival. They know that if they openly oppose the regime, or any of its policies, they may well be imprisoned. They, therefore, appear to have reasoned that keeping their heads down and hoping Assad prevails over those who would likely massacre them, if they were able to, they will be okay and can continue on with life as they had done before this horrible war.
However, as Syria-analyst Joshua Landis has pointed out, the Alawites have lost a lot of their young men trying to help Assad hold control over Syria. “Maybe close to 100,000 Alawite young men have been killed,” Landis estimated, “There are less than three million Alawites in Syria. So it’s taken a real toll. The other religious minorities that normally support him don’t want to send their kids out to the front. They’re getting killed in big numbers.”
Given this state-of-affairs, coupled with the fact the Syrian Army has been fundamentally down-sized into a cheaper fighting force, we may well see a de-facto partition whereby the Alawites, residing in their own communities with their backs to the Mediterranean Sea, simply hold out in Latakia which is still — especially when compared and contrasted with the rest of Syria — relatively stable and secure. It’s worth remembering that when the French had their mandate over Syria and Lebanon in the early 1920’s they contemplated giving the Alawites their own state (Lebanon was essentially carved out of Syria for the Maronite Christians). If indeed Syria does break-up as a result of this war today we may well see something like a littoral fortress Alawite state in the area the French proposed all those years ago, which wouldn’t be much smaller than the respective states of Lebanon and Israel to its south, become a tangible reality.
ISIS and Nusra hold about half of Syria now and are consolidating the territory they have violently conquered. In the northeast of Syria only the Syrian Kurds are successfully holding out against their jihadi juggernaut. Their communities are mobilised and that Kurdish area has become, for all intents-and-purposes, a regimented autonomous region in Syria. They are clearly ready to repel any future jihadi offensive, like the failed one launched by ISIS against the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani late last year. Other smaller opposition groups (such as the remnants of the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’) cling to other smaller pockets of Syrian territory but are gradually being either infiltrated or eclipsed/killed by these ruthless Islamist groups.
Furthermore a fragmentation of the Syrian state may well see to increased intervention from military forces which share borders with Syria.
In the south, for example, we may well see the Israelis establish a designated free-fire zone along the Israeli-held Golan Heights frontier with Syria or a buffer-zone to stop Hezbollah establishing a Golan front there. It’s highly doubtful the Israelis would, willingly, permit Hezbollah to establish another front in addition to their one in South Lebanon. That being said it has yet to be seen whether Israel might actually seize territory to keep such forces away from the Golan like the “security-zone” they used to maintain in South Lebanon from 1982 until 2000.
In addition to this the Israeli Air Force will likely continue to launch intermittent air strikes against weapons caches it doesn’t want to see passed onto Hezbollah or Hezbollah acquiring, elsewhere in Syria.
Speaking of Hezbollah that militia, having directly intervened in the war on the side of Assad in 2013, is establishing what appears to be a buffer zone in Syria’s west alongside its border with Lebanon, the Qalamoun region. This, they probably hope, will serve as a protective barrier against large-scale infiltration of Lebanon itself by Syrian-based Sunni jihadi groups like Nusra.
In the north those Islamist groups will likely retain control for the foreseeable future. Turkey may, as it has long talked about, intervene militarily against the Syrian military and Assad in the north and establish a “buffer-zone” there, perhaps in direct support of the aforementioned Army of Conquest.
Whatever the ultimate outcome is, it is clear that the war-weary Syrian people likely have, sadly, a lot more pain, suffering and hardship to endure in the coming months and years.