Sunday, 17 November 2013

Syria Policy - An Alternative Policy to Simplistic Bombing

The party's leadership were all too keen to start flinging the bombs in line with Cameron's Atlanticist program but have they exercised their minds over a more comprehensive solution to the Syrian debacle since? The answer is "no" because no sooner were they thwarted on the bomb run (a frustration which ironically produced Syria's chemical disarmament), than the leadership returned back to stony silence on the Syrian conflict. The fact that the US doesn't have a strategy and the Tories  don't have a strategy doesn't mean that we do not need to be similarly clueless. With Ming Campbell exiting the stage in 2015 (at least from the Commons) the party's foreign policy stance will be even more threadbare than it is currently. 

In some ways though the current Syrian schemozzle dates back to actions of a previous Liberal administration, that of Lloyd George which in the midst of World War I cooked up a secret deal with France known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. This was followed by the San Remo conference in 1920, that furthered muddied the waters. Haggling over the future of the Mosul province ended up with the Kurds being denied independence, with the Kurds being delivered into an ill-starred Iraqi "kingdom" rather than being carved out as a separate mandate. All of this was to keep the nascent oil discoveries in Mosul out of Ataturk's hands. Subsequently the ineffectual actions of the French in the late 1930s, ended up with Turkey grabbing the Sanjak of Alexandretta from the French Syrian mandate and forestalling the creation of an Alawite  (a sub-sub sect of Shiaism) entity along the Mediterranean coast which would have obviated the Alawites ending up in (and controlling) the post-colonial entity that was Syria.

The Alawites are a mere 12% of the Syrian population but dominate the administration (with other minorities, such as the Druze and Christian groups, and even the Shias) because the French trusted them in the Mandate military over the Sunnis.

The ultimate result of this is the Syria we have today in which an Alawite minority (and their coalition of other minorities) led by the Assad government are engaged in a life and death struggle against Sunni forces to avoid the almost inevitable ethnic cleansing of Alawites et al. that would follow a Sunni victory. In Syria the actions of Assad have to be seen in the light of the 1400 years of oppression suffered by the Alawite sect. 

Ironically the tide has turned in Assad's favour since the chemical disarmament. We should not discount though that the Gezi Park uprisings in Turkey weakened Turkish resolve to tacitly support Syrian rebels, which also helped to give Assad a boost. The West has also seemingly been less anti-Assad leaving Saudi Arabia as the lone supporter of note for the rebel forces.

Is Assad regaining total control of Syria's historical territory in the best interests for the long term or does it just delay an inevitable outbreak of the same problem all over again at some future date? In the meantime there has been a massive death toll, displacement of population and damage to a nation, which despite some oil resources is not rich by any means. This is not a Kuwait that can pick itself up from a debacle and dust itself off. 

It might seem strange to advocate a Bosnian solution but frankly the Bosnian solution is one that works. Syria is in many ways a repeat of Bosnia, but without NATO intervention to bring about the ultimate resolution. In the end of the the Bosnian War, the outcome was ethnic separation and a rejection of post-WW1 border delineation along random lines. Syria needs the same as part of a peace negotiation. Syria needs to be broken up and the ethnic groups that were so blithely overridden in 1920-22, and again at independence, need to be given territory for their own self-determination.

Who should power this evolution? Certainly not the Americans for we should remember an important thing, which is that the US hates partitions... Bosnia's solution was ethnic borders and that was only engineered through the European intervention.. I worked for a US thinktank in the early part of last decade and the guru who ran it was rabidly opposed to the breakup of Yugoslavia. I asked an economist who worked with me there "what's up with him?" and he said "he is a Lincolnian".. that pretty much said it all.. the US is scarred in a deeper way than one might imagine by its civil war. And retrofitting the justification for one part of a nation denying another part a desire for their "own way" requires one to oppose breakup of nations ad aeternam..

Most of us who know anything of the history of the Middle East would agree that Britain and France badly executed their split up of the Ottoman Empire's Arab extensions. However the US is again rabidly determined to avoid the breakup or Iraq and Syria, when setting the Kurds free and making space between the Sunni and Shias in Iraq makes sense and likewise in Syria. 

Assad is fighting like hell's fury to hang on because he doesn't want to be Paletinisanised in a post-Alawite regime when what should really happen is that the Alawite territory (amusingly called Alawitestan) should be created while the Kurdish part of Syria should be attached to an enlarged Kurdistan. Since 2012, much of Syrian Kurdistan has been controlled by Kurdish militias as part of the Syrian civil war and in November 2013 representatives from Kurdish, Arab Christian and other smaller minorities declared a de facto government in the region. 

Neither should one forget the interests of the Druze, who have gone backwards in status from the days of the French Mandate when they had been doled out some hope of self-determination that never eventuated as they were corraled into the Baathist state. The Druze are a monotheistic ethnoreligious community, found primarily in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan. Druze beliefs incorporate elements from Abrahamic religions, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Pythagoreanism, and other philosophies. Druze is an offshoot of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam, and thus ripe for persecution in any sort of Sunni-dominated state, should Assad fall. 

The central Sunni Arab section of Syria would become its own state. As to whether it descends into Wahabi/Al Queda-inspired fanaticism depends upon how the US manages its client, Saudi Arabia, which has shown itself over and over again to be lukewarm on constraining radical strands. Nobody else panders to them in the same way the US does, so whatever evolves there is up to the US. 

The old map below is a fascinating example of the ethnic patchwork from the days of the French Mandate. It includes the now Turkish province of Hatay, where an Alawite majority were railroaded by a rigged 1938 plebiscite into annexation by Turkey, weakening for the Alawites, their own claims to an independent state post-Mandate. And lo and behold, that is what happened with the Alawites being forced into a Greater Syria construct. 

And here is the key to the ethnicities:

So what of partition? The US would instinctually oppose such ideas.. One almost gets the feeling the US prefers the ethnic mishmash of the current Syrian make-up as a counterbalance to a Saudi-inspired Sunni (read Wahabi) state. But frankly who cares what they want. They have been authors of so many botch-ups in the Middle East that they are now beyond enumeration. Ironically the break up of Austro-Hungary into nation states was an invention of Woodrow Wilson who, notably, was a Southerner (from Georgia) and thus not freighted with Lincolnian baggage... Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.

The Russians should make common cause with the Europeans on this and sideline the US if they want to be a dog in the manger. The Alawites should have their homeland on the coast (just as the French had pondered pre-WW II) with Latakia (the Russian naval base) as its capital. The Druze should likewise be freed from the danger of Sunni oppression in a post-Assad regime by getting their own state. There are roughly 700,000 of them in a part of the country that could make a small new state. As for the Kurds in the far north-east corner, they would obviously make more sense combined with the Iraqi Kurds in a standalone Kurdistan. Strangely the US has fought this concept tooth and nail to avoid offending Turkey, while Turkey is equally furiously cutting deals with the Kurdish powers-that-be in Iraqi Kurdistan to secure energy supplies, be it oil or natgas. The US yet again is stuck in a time warp while its client-states have moved on.

Having said that not everyone in the US is unprepared to ponder the inevitable we did however find this fascinating map that was published by the New York Times recently.

Is breaking up Syria difficult? After so much devastation it would certainly be better to have a series of new states in the area that are not engaged in fratricidal civil war than rebuilding a pacified Syria just to have it explode again in ten years from now for exactly the same reasons. Was it preferable to have Bosnia broken into constituent parts or have it as a bloodbath... if only Bosnia had been preempted by such a breakup then a vast mass of lives and destruction would have been saved. The exact same goes for Syria. 

And if you need any reminding of why we need to have a policy on Syria that is more than just a visceral follow the US leader, I found this tongue-in-cheek poster on line, which despite its bluntness pretty much sums up the disgraceful, unthought-out response of the bulk of the parliamentary party in late August's vote.


  1. Hmm... Besides the good intentions - to attempt to analyse what's happening and to come up with a solution rather than ignore the problem, I think you've got a lot wrong here.

    I want to pick up on three main areas: the motivations of the party leadership in the way they voted, your analysis of what's currently happening in Syria and your proposed solution.

    Firstly - although there was much to criticise about the party leadership's approach to the vote in parliament, I don't think charges of warmongering are fair. Those involved with foreign policy and/or who have been following the situation must have been despairing about what was happening. The government's chemical weapons attack on Ghouta (and yes, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that it was the government) demanded a response from a party who thinks the Rwandan genocide should have been prevented, that thinks Saddam's genocidal acts against the Kurds were shameful, and that has seen humanitarian intervention prevent bloodshed and bring peace to some conflicts (Sierra Leone and Bosnia). They may not have known what to do, but to say that they were looking for an excuse to bomb Syria for the sake of it just doesn't make sense. They failed to make a good case for war to a very suspicious public (which lobbied a suspicious parliament fairly effectively), but the final policy on which parliament voted was a watered down mishmash designed to ease the concerns of those suspicious of the government's motives. Perhaps it didn't deserve to pass, and those who argue that there is a slippery slope to war have a point, but much of the opposition to the government's policy was based on a lack of understanding of what was happening in Syria, and what Russia and Iran are trying to achieve.

    We should be in no doubt that the entry of the chemical weapons inspectors and the decommissioning process is a direct result of the US's threat of military action. Chemical weapons disarmament was a small price for the regime to pay to ward off the threat of military intervention for the foreseeable future and to massively bolster its position in advance of any peace talks. The chances of anything useful coming out of peace talks now is much diminished: the regime believes itself to be winning the war, and of no more need of compromise now than at any time since the start of the uprising. The moderate opposition - the only part of it that might ever have had a chance to make a peace deal stick - have been utterly devastated by the withdrawal of support, by the removal of the credible threat of force that had previously hung over the regime, and have been massively undermined in the eyes of the Syrian population.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I must say I wouldn't ascribe malevolent intentions to either our MPs or indeed even David Cameron. I think we have here a classic example of lack of criticaility in examining a "demand for action" form the US. Like in the Westerns of old the first response of the gun-slinger is to reach for the gun. This is the classic outdated reaction of the US. Clegg and Cameron fell for it. The best proof of the lack of genuineness here is that the French were ready to go with the US and did NOT exactly because the vote here failed to go their way. There was no mention of Russian mediation or even of the Russian plan until over a week later. If we cast our minds back to the time there was an emergency Sunday night vote because of the urgency. And yet the urgency of the US was gone when the sun came up. Funny that.

      Our party should have waited for the inspectors.and they didn't because the US demanded otherwise. This is one of the best reasons for us to cast a whole cynical glance over the Special Relationship and its Atlanticist camp-followers in the Tory (and Labour) parties and say "enough" to what is clearly an outdated and potentially self-injurious relationship with what is clearly a "needy and desperate" partner.

    2. I agree we should re-examine the special relationship, and agree that the timetable ignored the inspectors - though there was good reason for that.

      But I think you're mistaken in your view of the US response and our reaction to it. Britain and France have, as with Libya, been leading on this, trying to encourage the US to get involved. Obama has been doing everything possible to avoid getting into a war in Syria. Now, I don't ascribe particularly positive motives for this. He's worried it'll be unpopular with voters and difficult to do. What changed was that US authority was challenged by a massive chemical attack on civilians. With British and French encouragement, Obama finally felt forced to act.

      I agree that the British vote forced his hand, and made things difficult for the French, but it was the Russian intervention that removed the casus beli / provided an excuse to step back that caused him to call off the potential attack.

    3. I would beg to disagree on the US role here. France and Britain (et al.) did a splendid job on Libya with the US lending some tactical support. In fact the Americans were notable for their non-committal attitude.

      I don't think there is any evidence for anybody particularly doing anything positive on Syria (unless hand-wringing counts as positive action) before the bombing idea came up (which was entirely a US concept). Kerry was driving the issue and added an element of a "ticking clock" to the whole exercise as if the Syrians had to be bombed within a few days or.... what? It is the typical US oscillation from somnolence to hyperactivity and back again. Obama's international reputation could be scraped off the floor like a piece of old dried gum. If he imagines he has any reputation to salvage he is deluding himself. Even when the Russians came up with their disarmament plan, Kerry was still pooh-poohing it. Just goes to show that the US still operates under its "bomb first, ask questions later" policy that has failed so many times before.

      The attraction now is that Britain as the one that abstained from bombing can join with others who did not (excepting those who sinned in their minds like the French) and make some overtures on the peace front. The West is afraid of even broaching the subject in case the Turks suggest they help with the refugee burden.

    4. When the US finally decided it had to act, it did then move swiftly to the 'unleash the bombs' position. And the UK and France were not pushing this option in public because, well, we don't have enough bombs. Britain and France were pushing the US to 'do something', but must have known full well that 'do something' meant either ramping up weapons supplies to the rebels or bombing.

      As for Obama's reputation, I don't think it's that that was being 'protected'. I don't think Obama was that bothered either: he has been fairly consistent at keeping foreign affairs at arms length, withdrawing from military conflicts as much as he feels he can do safely, and avoiding other entaglements. He knows he has plenty on his plate domestically, and knows that most Americans don't care about foreign affairs. No, the reputation being protected wasn't his, but that of the US. That of a military and economic superpower that has been defeated (more or less) in 2 recent wars with minor powers, that had attempted (very half-heartedly) to take a diplomatic lead on Syria, had laid out some 'red lines' that had repeatedly been crossed and was now faced with a blatant demonstration of its powerlessness. The Syrian regime was demonstrating that WMD are handy things to have, and that if you're willing to use them, you're safe. That American threats are hollow. The impact is not just on 'rogue states' changing their calculations as to what it's worth sacrificing to get their hands on such weapons. Of far more relevance is the damage to US alliances. The Gulf countries in particular have been looking at the US and thinking 'we can't rely on them any more', which swiftly leads to 'it's time to diversify: buy weapons from Russia and cosy up to China.'

      Britain's abstaining from bombing has dramatically weakend our diplomatic hand (though I accept that may be a perfectly reasonable sacrifice to make for the principle of not launching another illegal war, if that's how you see this). I think Kerry poo-poohed the Russian plan because he didn't know what else to do. He was so stunned by it, didn't know what to do, and assumed that it was nothing more than a delaying tactic. Which, in a sense, it was. But the Russians do appear so far to have been able to 'deliver' Syria re: disarming, and so the US has the excuse it needs to turn its back on the conflict again. While it escalates further.

      Britain can make any overtures it likes on the peace front: it has no cards to play. There is no credible threat of force. There is no credible threat of giving moderate rebels the arms they need to defend themselves from the regime and al-Qaida. There is nothing Britain has that Russia or Syria wants. There is no reason for Syria to make any concessions. The Syrian opposition knows this, which is why its representatives will either boycott any talks or instantly lose all credibility if they attend them. And because they know that the talks have nothing to offer Syrians on the ground, they have no leveredge over the armed opposition groups.

      I do however think that negotiations with Iran could lead to something. I'm not predicting that they will, but unlike Russia, Iran has serious interests at stake in this conflict, and is suffering because of it. There are things Iran wants and it's possible that Iran might be interested in alternative ways of protecting its interests to supporting the Assad regime. But with the threat of force against Assad removed, and the military initiative moving in the regime's favour, even with Iran it's become less and less clear what point the Iranians would see in abandoning their current policy.

  2. Secondly - concerning your understanding of the divisions in Syrian society and of the process that has lead us to this point. You say that "Assad is fighting like hell's fury to hang on because he doesn't want to be Paletinisanised in a post-Alawite regime." This is incorrect. From day one of the uprising, when it began as a multi-faith, multi-ethnic peaceful reform movement he has been fighting with overwhelming violence to retain his family's mafia-like control over 'his' state. Christian and Alawite opposition protesters were murdered and tortured with a viciousness that outstripped even that used against the majority Sunnis. With the release of criminals and Sunni jihadist agent-provocateurs from prisons, the persecution and murder of mildly-critical opposition figures, the sacking of provincial governors who met with protest leaders, etc., to the describing of all opponents of the regime as drug-addicted/foreign/wahabi extremist terrorists, the regime has deliberately fostered sectarianism and eventually succeeded - at least partially - in turning this into a sectarian civil war. But even now, there are large parts of the opposition who oppose the actions of the state and al-Qaida allies alike. Although Kurds form a majority in the northeast of the country, and possibly the Alawites do in the west and possibly the Druze do in the south, most Kurds, most Alawites and most Druze live as minorities outside of wherever you might draw the borders of a balkanised Syria.

    1. War involves a lot of polemics. There is no denying Assad's vile history and unsuitably as a leader. What he thinks of his opponents must be taken with a grain (or a ton) of salt and frankly I wouldnt give Assad the time of day BUT there is no denying that a Sunni/Wahabi regime would be a bloodbath which adds an extra piquancy to the struggle for defence. It is not disputable that the minorities have rallied to the Assad camp (and not all Alawites are fans of his either) because this is a life or death struggle for the minorities). Just as Turks expelled the Greeks and Armenians and the Syrians expelled Aleppo's Jewish community,, so would the Syrian minorities under a Sunni/Al-Quaeda regime face massacre and mass-expulsion making the refugee dislocation thus far appear as nothing in comparison.

    2. The minorities haven't rallied to the regime's defence. The Druze have pointedly remained neutral. A few prominent Alawites have joined the opposition, as have many Kurds. A lot of Christians have joined the opposition, although kept a relatively low profile.

      Of course, it's fair to say that most Alawites and Christians 'back the regime'. And it's also fair to say that if ISIS gets its way and takes over Syria, they'd be slaughtered / driven out. But it's only relatively recently that the religious extremists among the opposition have become so dominant. They may now reasonably fear and expect extermination if Al-Qaida wins, but that was not looking like a possibility until relatively recently.

      You also underestimate the degree to which the minorities' support for the regime is based on loyalty/sect/region, etc. The minorities' leaderships have always been heavily implicated in the regime (the Sunni leadership is still pro-regime too). The minorities are trapped between fear of the extremists and fear of extermination at the hands of the regime if they speak out. Make no mistake, Christians and Alawites who do speak our are treated as badly by the regime as they are by Al Qaida. And for that reason there is incredible pressure among minority communities not to speak out, to shut up friends or relatives contemplating speaking out, etc.

  3. Which leads us to the third point - your 'solution' of partition. I have to concede that this is looking like a far more plausible possibility now than it was even a year ago, but the only real argument that can or should be made in its favour is that 'it is the most likely way to bring about a lasting peace'. i.e. We should not be supporting it for ideological reasons or out of concern for international law. A self-ruling Kurdish region in the northeast may be a lasting success, along the lines of the Iraqi-Kurdish one (although as the Iraqi-Kurdish state had its own post-'independence' civil war, it's not like it's as good a model as some might think, and I wouldn't bet on the leaders of Syrian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan agreeing successfully to a merger). However, I think that's really the only one of the 'post-Syria successor states' that would be viable, and even that wouldn't actually solve the wider problem. It would still leave a majority of Syrian Kurds living outside of the new Syrian Kurdistan. Likewise, a majority of Alawites live outside of the coastal enclave and a lot of Druze live outside of Suweida governorate where you propose to create a Druze state. It also doesn't deal with what happens to the Christian minorities (~10%), the Shia minority, the Ismaili minority, etc. The extent to which the Yugoslav partitions worked was down to the formalising or accepting of something that had already happened. Slovenia was mostly Slovene, Croatia quickly ethnically cleansed most of its Serbs, the Serb part of Bosnia eliminated virtually all Croats and Bosniaks and the remainder of the state killed or drove away most of its ethnic Serb citizens. Partition didn't prevent war or genocide, it served as the basis for a peace agreement based upon the consequences of war and genocide.

    Although no doubt Syria is becoming more divided, it is still an awful long way away from being ethnically 'pure'. If newly created states are not going to be pretty much ethnically homogenous, then what is the point of creating them? If the Sunnis who make up 40% of the population of 'Alawistan' and over 50% of its capital, Latakia, live as second-class citizens in an Alawi-nationalist state, then in what way has this solved the problem?

    1. Unfortunately the dislocation required for the creation of the nation states is already under way. It is now just a case of them having somewhere to go (other than Turkish refugee camps). The Latakia "Mandate" would be eminently viable. It would be something like a new Lebanon, and hopefully more homogenous. The Druze area would be very poor indeed and the Druze do have two areas (the other being on the Lebanese border. Maybe the Druze state would have two parts.. maybe it would include part of Lebanon that is Druze (there are 250,000 Druze in Lebanon.

      As for Syrian Kurdistan, an international solution is EXACTLY the means by which we avoid the creation of two Kurdistans. The new Kurdish state must be made up of the Iraki and Syrians parts (even if the Iranian and Turkish parts remain under "foreign" control). A good example for US opposition to irredentism was US blocking of Moldavia merging with Romania after the USSR broke up. The same ethnic groups here should not be allowed to run their own fiefdoms. Of course the Western Kurds do not want to be part of Iraq, they would find merging with Eastern Kurdistan a more attractive prospect as Kurdistan freed of Iraq would be its own petrodollar state. Surely more attractive than a "broken" Syria.

    2. Ideologically the two Kurdistans should join, I don't dispute that. But what you have now is 2 leaderships. Linked to each other to an extent, but more or less in charge of their own areas. The two main groups in Iraq fought an inconclusive civil war. If a merger looked like a likely prospect, it's hard to see the Syrian Kurdish PDK abolishing itself, and hard to see the Iraqi Kurdish groups sharing power effectively with it. You might have a unified territory on paper, but they'd remain independent of each other for the foreseeable future I would expect.

      As for population transfers, I think you understimate how far this still 'has to go' before we get close to having homogenous national units. What you're effectively advocating is for the creation of millions more refugees. I'm not sure how you would do this, and I certainly don't think we should do this. If you think we should just 'wait until the process finishes naturally', then that's not really any different to saying 'let them fight it out and ignore the war'. And of course, that assumes that the war will continue to see minorities 'sorting themselves', which I don't think is a given. With the rebels on the back foot, the regime is recapturing territory and is fairly confident of it's hold over most of western, central and southern syria as well as much of Aleppo. i.e. it controls an area which includes millions of people who would be excluded from the Alawite/Druze/Kurdish states you advocate for. If the dictatorship can retain control of these areas, despite the sunni inhabitants, why would they give that up?

      And don't forget also that there are still probably millions of Sunni Syrians who back the regime - at least as much as the Christians and Alawites anyway. They certainly don't want to live in an extremist dominated 'Sunnistan'.

  4. All this talk of ethnic-division is to make two colossal mistakes. The first is one that you accuse the Americans (and others) of - that of thinking that outsiders can set the terms and impose solutions. I don't see that carving what is historically an ethnically and religiously mixed area into confessional and sectarian statelets is really any different in principle to what Sykes and Picot did. The second is that it attributes many of the country's problems to sectarianism when they are in fact caused by other things. The problem is not that society is ethnically and religiously mixed. The problem is dictatorship, corruption, great-power political competition, resource depletion, economic collapse, demographic change, religious extremism, etc. If an Alawi state is going to be run by a corrupt, family-based mafia (which has lost access to many of its sources of wealth and patronage), how is this state going to function? How is it going to work for its Alawi citizens, never mind its Sunni, Ismaili, Christian and Shia citizens?

    The division of Syria into 'nation states' would require immense amounts of bloodshed and/or a political solution forced upon the country by outsiders and enforced by a massive military force. And if we haven't been able to reach a political agreement so far, why do we think we might achieve one around such a contentious solution as partition? And if we're considering massive military intervention to impose partition, why not consider it to enforce a peace process that sees elections held in devolved regions, that puts the Assad regime on trial for crimes against humanity, that seeks to shut off the foreign funding and weapon smuggling routes sustaining the Al-Qaida affiliates and which guarantees a minimum level of peace and security to all its citizens?

    1. The parallel is the Turkish process of 1922-4 where there was a total expulsion of the Greeks from Turkey and likewise the Turks from Greece. At least having a homeland for the Alawites, the Kurds and Druze would ive them somewhere to go besides ending up washed up in the European Community. What tolerance would there be for 3-4 million people being expulsed into the sea as happened at Smyrna with the Greeks in 1922.

    2. I don't think that process was necessarily a positive one, but leaving that issue aside, why do you think it would happen like this, and not like India/Pakistan (resulting in years of unstable neighbours, nuclear proliferation, cross-borde support for terrorist insurgencies, civil wars and further divisions, etc.)? Or like the partition of Palestine (resulting in years of unstable neighbours, cross border support for terrorist insurgencies, failed states, proxy militias, etc.)?

      Why would the million or more Christians, Druze, Alawites and Kurds living in Damascus want to move? And that is assuming that Damascus is part of 'Sunnistan'. Actually, your post-Syria multiple states theory doesn't really give anywhere for the Christians to go.

      And for good reason. The map of 'obvious' ethnic/sectarian differences that suggest partition as a solution is actually a load of cobblers. Syria is thoroughly mixed. Even now.

  5. I said that the only reason for supporting partition was if you saw it as being a 'least bad' solution; a means of bringing about an end to the war. I also said that it is looking more plausible than it has previously. The most likely outcome however I would guess, is that the regime takes the political cover afforded to it by the decommissioning process to build up its Hezbollah/Iran/Iraq backed NDF militias and gradually starves and bombs its way back into control of the parts of the country it needs to consolidate its power in a stretch running from the north in Aleppo to south, forgetting about Raqqa and the northeast for the time being. It serves the regime's purpose to have al-Qaida/ISIS and the other groups fight it out (or even for al-Qaida/ISIS to consolidate its control over the area: it reduces the opportunities for, and interest in outside support for the rebellion, and it completely kills off any hopes of a viable peace process. It probably makes sense for the regime to try to retake Deir Ez-Zur in the medium term too. As the moderate opposition forces are crushed between the regime and its foreign allies, ISIS and the other extremist organisations and the starving of its supplies of weapons and ammunition, the prospects for any kind of solution other than a complete regime victory slip further and further away.

    As much as I hate to say this, it may now be too late to think that a surge in support for the opposition (financial, diplomatic but most of all in the form of modern military equipment and training) can do much to change the dynamic. But that, and/or military action against the Assad regime are the only 2 things which might credibly change the balance of power enough to convince the regime and its backers to consider negotiations. I've gone on about much of this because I wanted to make one final point about your proposed solution, which is that you don't actually present a method for getting to it. Partition in the Balkans was brought about by military force - including western military intervention. Dayton formalised a military stalemate. The Syrian regime thinks it is winning, and has a strategy to win back control of most - if not all - of the country. Without western military support it is inconceivable that moderate opposition groups in Syria can defend and manage a partitioned Syria, let alone become strong enough to actually grab enough of it to make the Assad regime interested in agreeing to a formal partition. And obviously the religious extremists aren't interested in a state based upon nationality in any case. There is simply no way to get to your proposed solution other than a massive diplomatic, military and financial international intervention.

  6. I suspect you are right that the opposition are on the run and have few friends besides the Saudis.A curious side benefit of this war might be that it has stretched and exhausted some of the resources, both financially, manpower-wise and in matériel of Al Qaeda.

    Assad will end up back on the top of this ant-heap with a country that is severely devastated. There must have been a massive loss of economic capacity through damage, dislocation and skill loss. The international community will be suckered into saying "phew, narrow escape for us" and LIKE ASSAD putting off considering the eventual outcome until the rancour resurfaces in a few year's time. That is why now is a perfect time to broach the eventual end-game for Syria and state what would be an eventual outcome that the West would favour. If this is signalled then it is more likely that returning refugees will gravitate to the areas where eventually they will have their homelands and a slower and lesser traumatic process of "coagulation" of the ethnic groups will occur. The goal of the West should be to avoid creating another ticking time bomb and start the process towards the multi-state solution.

    Indeed the promise

    1. I think this war has given al-Qaida a massive injection of funding, manpower, territory, prestige, etc. And that will only continue. As the regime focuses its attacks on areas held by more moderate groups, and allows ISIS-run Raqqa to serve as a warning to anyone thinking of defecting, the extremists will only grow stronger. They thrive on violence, and the war in Syria has already strengthened al-Qaida in Iraq and Lebanon.

      Your proposal doesn't make any sense given that you think Assad is winning. Assume we do broach the subject of the eventual endgame... What then? We say 'let's divide Syria'. Assad, now re-establishing control across the whole of the country, with the possible exception of a small chunk of Syrian Kurdistan, and with the diplomatic support of Russia and the military support of Hezbullah, Iraq and Iran will reply 'er, no'. What then? If the UN didn't agree on a military intervention to try to end the war, it's not going to agree to one that would start a new one against the victorious Assad regime. Especially not when the Russians have backed the winner. IF there is going to be an intervention to bring about partition, why not do it now? If you can't now, then you won't be able to when Assad has won. If you can now, then it begs the question, why go for partition when there are other, better solutions that don't involve uprooting millions of people who are not currently refugees or IDPs? A federal Syria perhaps makes sense, but not partition.

      The scenario I think we are looking at most closely resembles the situation in Iraq after the first Gulf War. A battered and paranoid regime will reassert its control over a broken and impoverished country by unleishing a reign of terror. One that will bring stability of sorts. The question we should be asking ourselves is whether we think that there is a better possible outcome than this, and if so, how we bring it about. I've blogged about this on LDV (, although these articles are a bit out of date now) and argued against partition on LDV too (

  7. You are right there in predicting a battered and paranoid regime. This is the next phase.. The Saddam Hussein regime tottered on for another 12 years before its eventual demise but that was precipitated by the US desire to finish him off. The key difference is that while Saddam persecuted minorities (the Marsh Arabs) their had not been a civil war and indeed the US had not even invaded more than the desert regions in the First Gulf War. Assad will be in an arguably worse place with much more devastation, much more internal rancour, much more displacement and much less money to throw at the problem.

    Whether the international community intervenes positively in the process from now on or sits on its hands when Assad regains control will dictate whether an arrangement can be cooked up that protects minorities who do not wish to return to their homelands (or in the case of the Christians, staying put). What you are proposing is no solution.... we can see that democracy overlaid on ethnic turmoil does not work in Irak. Kurdistan is not an independent nation but rather a de facto nation that is now being enabled by international oil companies. The Kurds are lucky they have oil. I suspect the Syrian Kurds will ultimately have to make common cause and become an autonomous province attached to a de facto nation. A recipe for future problems if ever I heard one..

    As for Alawitestan, Assad and his sect will be smart to start stashing their resources in the coastal provinces and start thinking like the new state exists as protection for a rainy day.

    The Druze are tough cookies (as they have shown over the decades in Lebanon) and will carve out their own niche if the show starts to fall to pieces again.

    The policy here is for the West to try and steer the eventual outcome or once again sit on the fringes and see the chaos return. The real danger for the West is the form that some new Sunnistan might take. Remember that there are many in the US military and defence establishment that pine for the days of "certainty" under Saddam Hussein.

  8. You say that I'm proposing no solution, but haven't shown how you might achieve your solution - even if it was desirable.

    The regime looks on course to achieve a military victory at some point in the next few years. It has a much larger degree of support than Saddam ever had (in the aftermath of the first Gulf war anyway), although fewer resources. There may be more rancour in Syria - although I think you can't really say what difference that might mean - both Assad and Hussein were hated and feared by most. The point is, and the point of Assad's political and military strategy (including the use of chemical weapons) is to re-establish an absolute dictatorship. One in which everything is riddled with informants and secret police services. Where people are falling over themselves to prove their loyalty in exchange for the bread they need to feed their families. It is hard to see an effective internal opposition achieving anything in the medium term.

    As for my solution, multi-ethnic states can and do work (Indonesia, Malaysia, Spain, Switzerland, India, China, Canada, Finland, Ghana, Morocco, Russia, etc.). I'm not saying partition is never a good thing (the splitting of Czechoslovakia seems to have worked out well), just that partition _appears_ to armchair warriors on the other side of the world to offer a solution to a percieved problem, when in fact things are much more complicated, the problems are often nothing really to do with ethnicity, and when the partition assumes that coloured blobs on a map correspond neatly with reality.

    One solution - and probably the most likely one now - to this war, is that the Assad regime achieves victory, and uses terror to keep opponents living abroad as refugees or in silence and in poverty at home. I don't see how your aim - even if it was the right one - can influence things away from this 'solution'.

    My preferred solution it to support those moderate forces trying to defend themselves, and remove Assad. That doesn't mean that we have to follow all the way through with it. It's not our job to remove Assad, although that doesn't mean we have to be afraid of the logic that those we (could) support are themselves trying to do it. The threat of force, and the threat of defeat may be enough to bring Assad to the negotiating table. It may be enough to create a defacto partitioned Syria, which leaves the regime in control of half of the country, and the opposition in control of the other (with or without an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan). But to then throw fuel on the fire by insisting that several million people who have so far remained in their homes have to move would be crazy. And impossible.

  9. I am not a supporter of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan (just as I don't support an independent Moldavia). The UK, France and Russia should sit down with Turkey and Syria and come up with a deal. The deal should be a partition (and rebordering) with neighbours. More carrots than sticks should be employed. Russia is a key element in this as Alawitestan would be a Russian client. The US has no relevance to the process. It is like the quarrelsome guest that turns every party into a brawl.

  10. and a very interesting piece here:

    on the communities in Lebanon, which has relevance to the Druze history (and Golan Heights)..