Is Syria Facing a Yugoslavia-style Breakup?
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on July 19, 2012
“This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday, following the Damascus bombing that lacerated the inner circle of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. “And for that reason it’s extremely important that the international community […has] to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right — to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.” Panetta’s concern is understandable, because the escalating civil war means that Syria is not only no longer under the effective control of the Assad regime, but that its outcome is increasingly beyond the control of the U.S. and its allies or any other international powers. Needless to say, Panetta’s prescription for maximum international pressure on Assad to step down appears to be wishful thinking. The same may be true for the Obama Administration’s idea of a “managed transition” in which the opposition cooperates with a regime that remains intact after Assad has been removed.
Russia remains firm in its opposition to Western efforts to press for Assad’s ouster. “If we are talking about a revolution, the U.N. has no business here,” said Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, according to Businessweek. “Assad won’t quit and our Western partners don’t know what to do.” Indeed, the latest violence in the capital renders even more remote the soft landing envisaged by Panetta and by the best-case peace scenario of U.N. Special Envoy Kofi Annan. The denouement of the Assad regime is likely to be nasty, brutish and not especially short.
(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)
No prudent investor would bet on the regime’s ability to restore the status quo ante through mustering even more violence than it has unleashed until now — indeed, having seen the writing on the wall, much of the Sunni elite that had backed the regime has begun to peel away from Assad. Meanwhile, the loss of Sunni elite support more clearly sets limits on the ability of a regime dominated by the Alawite minority–with support from Syria’s Christians and other even smaller minorities–to rule over all of a country with a Sunni majority of more than two thirds. Indeed, losing the Sunnis would strip the regime of its Baathist ideological narrative of Arab unity. The Assad family’s styling of its regime as guardians of an Arab nationalism willing to stand up to Israel–even as Arab leaders in America’s thrall capitulated–always served the domestic political function of legitimizing Alawite minority rule in a majority Sunni country. But even if its pan-Arab narrative has collapsed, the regime’s sectarian core interests (and fears among Alawites, Christians and other minorities of a gruesome fate should Assad fall) has kept the core of the regime intact until now. With its back to the wall, the regime is likely to strike out more brutally than ever — and should it be dislodged by force of arms in the coming months, it would be naive to discount the possibility of more months of large-scale sectarian retribution.
While a massive onslaught against the rebellion is to be expected in the coming days as the regime looks to halt and reverse the insurgents’ momentum, if and when that fails the question becomes whether the regime has a Plan B.
Opposition activists and some analysts have long suggested that the Assad loyalists may come to accept their inability to control all of Syria, and instead circle the wagons in their own strongholds — north Damascus, for example, as opposed to the southern, mostly Sunni suburbs of the capital where fighting has raged this week — or even more dramatically, into an Alawite rump state along the coast, supported by Russia whose naval facility at Tartous it would include. In other words, that the regime would look for either a Yugoslavia-style breakup of Syria into separate statelets, or else for an institutionalized civil war such as the one that continued for 17 years in neighboring Lebanon in which the territorial breakup of the state was less clearly defined than in Yugoslavia, with different neighborhoods of the capital, Beirut, held by rival armies.
Some see a pattern of ethnic cleansing emerging in attacks on Sunni neighborhoods aimed at securing the territory of the Alawite statelet. And the Telegraph reports that Syria’s Kurdish leadership is already far advanced in plans to set up an autonomous Kurdish zone protected by its own military force along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan — a development nurtured, in fact, by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis finds the Alawite state scenario unconvincing. “Once the regime loses Damascus, it’s finished,” he answers. “The Alawite mountains are not sufficient basis for a nation state. It has no separate economy of its own, and the regime hasn’t planned for this. Such an entity wouldn’t have an external backer — Iran wouldn’t be in any position to provide the necessary support. Once the Sunnis own the capital and the income from the oil fields, they’d make short work of any remaining Alawite resistance.”
Once the regime departs the capital, it essentially vacates the structure of power it has established until now, Landis argues. There’s no structure for Alawite power once that happens. And that raises the danger of even more vicious fighting ahead, spearheaded by the Shabiha units of pro-regime thugs often led by men no older than 21.
Still, even if it weren’t the final outcome, it’s quite conceivable that Syria’s civil war passes through a potentially protracted and bloody phase in which rival power centers control different pieces of territory, along lines not unfamiliar to Bosnia or Lebanon.
Like Yugoslavia, the Syrian nation state was an invention of the victorious Western powers in the wake of World War I. Those same Western powers saw no benefit in trying to prevent the unraveling of their handiwork in the Balkans seven decades later, but in Syria — where the geopolitical and security stakes are vast, region-wide and far more perilous — they’re desperate to preserve the Syria they created in the 1920s, and with a strong central state to boot. Whether such an outcome is still possible, however, remains to be seen — and will be decided among the Syrians themselves.
PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow Motion Civil War
Read other related stories about this:
- Looking for a Syrian endgame The Washington Post
- Assad could already be using chemical weapons in Syria, say reports. Meanwhile, the country prepares to break up The Telegraph
- An Alawite State in Syria? The National Interest