Dividing Syria: A difficult mission

There's no agreement to divide Syria, mainly because Washington and Moscow lack the power on the ground to impose borders in the Middle East

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011 against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, some have predicted the country’s division along ethnic and sectarian lines due to fears over the wellbeing of minorities. The uprising turned into a civil war, then into military interference by foreign powers such as Iran, Russia and Hezbollah.

Foreign and local jihadist groups - such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham - emerged and resided in Syria. Some 12 million Syrians have been displaced, a third of them seeking refuge abroad.


Talk of dividing Syria has resumed because U.S. officials have recently said they are not ruling out such a scenario. Some consider this the beginning of a new division of the Middle East, this time as agreed by the United States and Russia rather than Britain and France. I do not think there is an agreement to divide Syria, mainly because Washington and Moscow lack the power on the ground to impose borders in the Middle East, old or new.

Russia and Iran have been trying for a while to implement a less difficult mission, which is enabling Assad to govern areas under his control. However, they have not even succeeded at this yet, let alone at creating new entities that will compete for resources and borders.


An example of chaos and war is Iraq, Syria’s neighbor. Since 1990, Iraqi Kurds have lived in a semi-autonomous region following the war to liberate Kuwait. What has prevented the establishment of a Kurdish republic in northern Iraq is not Baghdad, Turkey or Iran - the three parties usually opposed to Kurdish independence - but the international community, specifically the permanent U.N. Security Council members.

The council refuses to give the Kurds the right to independence. No one wants to change the map of the region due to the uncontrollable chaos and divisions that may ensue. Regarding Syria, the international community may have become convinced that division is better than a failed state. Executing this may have been possible during the first two years of the revolution, but this has become harder today due to mass displacement of people.

I do not think there is an agreement to divide Syria, mainly because Washington and Moscow lack the power on the ground to impose borders in the Middle East, old or new.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

For example, after ISIS occupied the city of Manbij, many of its residents fled. When militias affiliated with extremist Syrian forces went there to expel ISIS with international support, they expelled many residents for ethnic reasons, and around 200,000 escaped.

It is also impossible to ignore the regional factor, and the fears of countries such as Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Syrian ethnic and sectarian components have extensions in these countries, and any acknowledgment of entities based on ethnic considerations will threaten their territorial integrity.

Turkey strongly opposes attempts at Kurdish self-rule along its border. Even Iran, which does not border Syria, fears that such attempts may stir separatist sentiment among its own Kurdish population of some 8 million.

Regarding Syria’s Alawites - the sect to which the Assad family belongs - many of their young men have fled the country to escape mandatory military service, and thousands of families have sought refuge elsewhere out of fear of vengeful acts.

To divide any country, citizens must be able to return to their areas. This happened in Yugoslavia following the civil war and its subsequent division into four republics upon international sponsorship.

The situation in Syria, however, is like a broken vase that has scattered into small pieces. Maintaining the state via a new political system under international sponsorship would also be difficult, especially amid the Iranian and Russian occupation of Syria on Assad’s behalf.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Aug. 2, 2016.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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