Drawing Lines in the Sand: Why Partitioning Syria May be the Only Means to Managing an Enduring Civil War (Part 2)

By October 1, 2018 No Comments

The below is Part Two of Two of one of the winning essays from our inaugural “Langley Hope Academic Excellence in Security and Defence Commentary Award Programme.” Stay tuned in the coming weeks for the publication of more winning and noteworthy submissions.

Part Two: Empirical Analysis

Syrian Cantons Homogenizing From the Enduring Civil War

With the above framework of the Syrian civil war in mind, the most prominent voices in the partition debate focused on the security dilemma that arises as a result of ethnic tensions, suggest that in order to achieve sustainable peace, ethnic factions must be completely partitioned into separate cantons under a federal state framework. The notion of a security dilemma is certainly one of the most fundamental theoretical ideas in international relations. Herz, who originally coined the term, argued “Groups and individuals who live alongside each other without being organized into a higher unity… must be concerned about their security from being attacked… dominated or annihilated by other groups and individuals. Striving to attain security from such attacks, they are driven to acquire more and more power in order to escape the effects of the power of others.”[1] As such, fairly recent “[e]mpirical evidence has supported the ethnic security dilemma, with case studies and cross-national results demonstrating consistently that partitions that separate ethnic groups maintain peace for at least five years.”[2] Notably, a comprehensive empirical study conducted in 2007, which reanalyzed data of all civil wars from 1945 to 1999, suggests that de jure partitions – meaning complete separation from one state into an independent state – has a strong pacifying effect after a civil war.

Nevertheless, the current situation in Syria in which President Assad shows no indication of devolving power suggests that the complete secession – de jure partition – of three contiguous cantons from Syria is not feasible at this point in time.[3] Rather, it may be such that the most viable alternative to the violent reestablishment of Alawite hegemony in Syria is a de facto partitioning of the state, in which, as O’Hanlon proposes, would result “in autonomous centralized cantons under a weak federal government.”[4] In that case, the right model to be implemented in Syria is neither one that resembles such attempted in Afghanistan, nor Iraq, nor Libya, but rather that of Bosnia. Surely, it is far from being a perfect model, but it nonetheless is where the Western Alliance and Syria must start. We only need to look back “two decades ago [where] we watched similar killing take place in Bosnia for a couple of years until international outrage and battlefield dynamics converged to make a solution possible. NATO finally bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian militias, then pushed him toward a peace deal that created a ‘soft partition’ of the country.”[5] By all means, it was not a flawless outcome. But nearly two decades later, Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in Bosnia have not gone back to war.[6]
Of course, Syria is certainly not divided neatly into easily identifiable ethno-sectarian cantons. Gambill acknowledges that prior to the onset of the civil war the division of Syria as it stood entailed provinces that were not homogenous (see Appendix A). However, according to ethnic demographic data compiled by RAND Corporation (see Appendix B and C), with the enduring civil war, it is observed “that like Iraq… the refugees fleeing the fighting congregate in their ethnic enclaves, eventually creating ethnically-cleansed regions.”[7]

With this being the case, James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, proposes that the partition of Syria into three cantons would “include an Alawite region around Damascus [in the northwest]… ruled by the Assad regime…. It would also have a central portion that hopefully over time would be run by a moderate Sunni regime, obviously after subduing the Islamic State and various al Qaeda factions. Finally and most controversially… a Kurdish enclave in the [northeast]”[8] (see Appendix D). Furthermore, Syria’s central cities – Damascus and Aleppo – which are relatively heterogeneous at this moment, would be shared amongst the ethno-sectarian factions, as such was done in certain places in Bosnia, and of course minority rights would undoubtedly have to be enshrined in a deal that ultimately codified this arrangement[9] (see Appendix C).
Kaufmann would argue that partitioning Syria along such identifiable demographics is the most feasible solution because “the more intermixed the pattern of settlement of the hostile populations, the greater the opportunities for offense by either side; and it becomes more difficult to design effective measures for community defense except by going on the offensive preemptively to ‘cleanse’ mixed areas of members of the enemy group and create ethnically reliable, defensible enclaves.”[10] In Kaufmann’s frame of analysis, the current security dilemma unfolding in Syria suggests that such conflict is unresolvable; therefore, partition of the warring factions, and in turn the establishment of homogenous political cantons for each ethnic group certainly becomes unavoidable. This process of federalization and devolution of power that would result in de facto partition of Syria would, with time, allow for the opposing parties of the civil war to establish a peace agreement – similar to Bosnia’s Dayton Accords – and then, under a federal framework focus its abilities to waging the continuing war on ISIS and other affiliated violent non-state actors. If a similar process does not occur in Syria, Kaufmann would argue that, “the process of war will separate the populations anyway, at much higher human cost.”[11]

Certainly there are evident shortcomings to partitioning Syria that ought “to be measured and set against the potential to achieve a negotiated solution.”[12] By all means, critics will attack this claim on several grounds by first arguing that ethnic partitioning of a state generally does not reduce suffering and death but actually increases them. However, a study conducted by Chapman and Roeder analyzing 72 nationalist civil wars between 1945 and 2002 demonstrates that states to de facto partition experienced a resumption of violence within two years only at a rate of 50%, and all 72 cases of civil war were more likely to see a rise in the level of democracy post-conflict.[13] Nevertheless, critics of the partitioning theory suggest that striving to reintegrate ethnic groups at conflict with each other is a moral duty of the state, and in turn, a more practical approach than conceding to partitioning. Although this may be the case with some states, this claim, however, cannot be asserted to all civil wars, certainly that of Syria, as Kaufmann suggests that “the security dilemma generated by intermixed populations ensures that ethnic wars always separate the warring communities; this process cannot be stopped except by permanent military occupation or genocide, or by not [having] the war in the first place.”[14] Despite the negatives addressed, the partition of Syria can be utilized with “good effect to move warring parties to opposite sides of the battle space. For a population that is already almost 50 percent displaced, frankly, there is not much to lose.”[15]

An Assad Control Regime in a Federal State Framework

“Assad must go.” Three words declared by President Barack Obama in August 2011, and notably, have come to define the very policy imposed on Syria. But this repeated sentiment by many Western leaders that President Assad relinquishes his reign of power as a requirement in finding a transitional solution to the civil war should certainly be seen as irrational given the prevailing conditions on the ground. Surely, the United States and its allies must have learnt from their relatively recent failures in such interventions in regime change – Libya and Iraq for example. With that said, drawing on a fundamental lesson from Libya and Iraq, it becomes apparent that the removal of President Assad from power and reformation of Syria in the image of Western norms and values is not enough in the easing of tensions within the civil war.[16] Critics attack this claim suggesting, “It would be immoral to accept anything less than Assad’s immediate departure, given his vicious attacks on the people of Syria.”[17] Undoubtedly, Assad is a repressive dictator who should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. If, according to RAND Corporation, “there [was] a practical way to remove [Assad] from power and ensure that Syria would be governed decently and inclusively after his departure, that would be far preferable…. However, that option does not exist in the real world.”[18] Thus, the most viable option at this time is to ensure that President Assad remains in power. That being the case, Lustick would argue that efforts to overcome the hostility of the civil war would then require the control regime of Assad to compromise at the level of central government rather than mere decentralization of authority within a regional framework.[19]

In other words, if President Assad remains in power under a federal framework encompassing Syria’s three cantons, his “central state needs to create incentives for potentially separatist politicians demonstrating that working within the system yields political advantages, both for their personal careers and for the groups they claim to represent.”[20] This would not only allow such cantons to have more of a personal stake in the future of their country as a whole, but it also allows for a greater claim of ownership of national policies in such a way that if the other two cantons “are represented at different levels of government, [then the Assad regime] cannot decree or implement policies without their consent.”[21] If, however, ethnic groups within Syria remain excluded from the influence of the central government, there will surely be “more room for confrontational and extremist agitation, especially if the central government”[22] continues to subject the cantons to unfavourable and unreasonable policies.

Moreover, it is argued, “In addition to improving the quality of governance, regional autonomy contributes directly to conflict reduction: By making government more responsive to the concerns of disgruntled minorities, potentially secessionist groups will be encouraged to feel confident of representation and protection for their most vital concerns.”[23] This entails, however, that President Assad recognizes and integrates the other two cantons – Sunni and Kurdish – within a legal and peaceful framework of political cooperation, which can be achieved because, unlike some scholars and politicians suggest, the Kurds do not actually seek or desire secession from Syria. Rather, they have an aspiration to “be part of a democratic, decentralized and pluralistic country where everyone can live with their own culture.”[24] In fact, in 2013, the Kurds declared the foundation of an autonomous Kurdish region in the northwestern part of Syria – Rojava – along with a published working constitution, and even parliamentary elections. As such, functioning as a robust autonomous canton since January 9th, 2014, has brought hope that the Kurdish model of grassroots democracy established through de facto partition could be implemented throughout Syria.
The problem nonetheless lies in President Assad’s fear of loosing his reign over Syria as a whole. However, as several scholars have claimed, granting separate regions autonomy will ease the ethnic tension and reduce the likelihood of conflict. This regional autonomy under a control regime of decentralized power can therefore be expected to have a more pervasive pacifying impact in post-conflict Syria, specifically because it allows for the other cantons to be a part of the central decision-making.[25] This will ensure that Alawites, along with Sunnis and Kurds, who comprise a regional majority within their own canton, will continue to live with their identity intact, without fear of being overwhelmed by the other, as each will have a stake in the future of their country.[26]

Part Three: Looking Forward

Recommendations and Implications

            Over the last 17 years, Western military forces have demonstrated that indeed they are effective at implementing regime change. But the fall of such regimes failed to foster stability or eradicate jihadist extremism; war persists and blood is still spilt. Therefore, there is substantial reason to believe, as is argued by this paper, “that the departure of Assad could similarly make the situation worse. The Syrian civil war has long since become a militia war pitting dozens of pro-regime militias against an even greater number of anti-regime militias”[27] backed by an increasing Western anti-ISIS coalition. The confusion inherent within the enduring conflict in Syria is mapped out, as best as possible, in a chart composed by Peck and Brown (see Appendix E). More specifically, according to the Carter Center, “[s]ome 7,000 armed groups have formed during more than [seven] years of civil war…. All groups are fighting against the Assad regime and the Islamic State, but different political ideologies and territorial divides have split the opposition into many factions.”[28]
Accordingly, the United States and the Western coalition must adopt a firm stance to the crisis unfolding in Syria and come to the realization that the threat of the civil war and ISIS is not merely the problem of the US, and as such, “Washington must stop behaving as if it can fix the region’s problems with military force and instead resurrect its role as a diplomatic superpower.”[29] Along with a need for increasing international diplomacy, there must be an engagement of regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the Assad regime that may provide the necessary support in order to implement the aforementioned de facto partitioning of Syria. As history shows from interventions in “similar conflicts, parties start to seriously think about negotiations when they realize that no military victory is available.”[30] As such, a negotiation between the Assad regime and allies, along with the Western coalition in the implementation of a de facto partition of Syria, may be in the best interest of all sides. However, due to the nature of the conflict, such a political settlement will surely be more advantageous to Assad because such negotiations leveraged by the upper hand of Russia will guarantee that the Syrian regime will not collapse, and that Assad will not share the same fate of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, Suddam Hussein of Iraq, or Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.[31]
            Thus, recognizing that the Syrian conflict is much “too daunting for any one outside power to solve and too important for regional powers to ignore,”[32] the Western coalition, along with a partnership with Russia must see eye to eye in the stabilization of the Assad regime and pursue a negotiated political settlement that brings about the de facto partitioning of Syria. Once this has been achieved, then this would allow for Assad’s army, along with the current Western coalition and its backed regional moderate rebel forces to turn their attention on continuing the fight against ISIS and other affiliated violent non-state actors in a sequential operation. This strategy “does not mean allying with Assad or treating him as a partner but rather putting the goal of ending the fighting before the goal of toppling Syria’s government.”[33] As such, the conflict management strategy addressed in this paper may prove to become a fundamental component in engaging the Assad regime; thus constraining and enabling its political behaviour and at times substituting for the state as a provider of governance. In doing so could potentially mitigate the bloodshed from an enduring civil war, and only after such a de facto partition is arranged can the next step in the eradication of ISIS and other affiliated violent non-state actors be implemented through military means.


Although Kaufmann’s conflict management theory of partition and Lustick’s theory of the control regime are indeed controversial, a realistic assessment of what is occurring on the ground in Syria indicates that even if the collapse of the Assad regime were to occur, it will not bring peace or stability to the region. For that reason, with the Syrian civil war indicating a stalemate, a process entailing the federalization and devolution of power of the Assad control regime, which would result in de facto partition of Syria into three cantons, is viable, if not optimal at this point in time. Certainly, scholars and politicians “do not take lightly the prospect of inter-communal fighting that [could] proceed [following] the implementation of this plan. However, that prospect must be weighed against the certainty of the carnage we know is occurring with no end in sight, and with such devastating political and geopolitical consequences.”[34] As such, recognizing a de facto partition of Syria would certainly enable the international community to secure its objective of not only mitigating the hostility of the civil war, but it would also make it feasible for refocusing the war efforts to destroying ISIS “with the help of Sunni rebels – rebels whose first concern has been to fight Assad.”[35]

Taken together, it is important to stress that partitioning Syria is not a means to an end in addressing the civil war, but rather a strategy to be utilized in mitigating the atrocities of such. We ought not pretend that there is a simple way forward in Syria without seriously considering the significant risks and costs to both Syria itself, and to the international community. Suppose, rather than asking if separation of ethnic groups through de facto partition is a feasible strategy to manage the civil war in Syria, future research ought to address if there could be sustainable peace after the conflict without partition, and if so, what are the preconditions for such success?



Appendix A: Traditional Distribution of Syrian Ethnic Groups

Appendix A

Figure 1: This map shows approximately the traditional distribution of minority groups in regions scattered throughout the area that became Syria.[36]

Appendix B: Areas of Control of the Principal Syrian Factions

Appendix B

Figure 2: This map shows the approximate areas of control of the principal factions within Syria as of February 8th, 2016.[37]

Appendix C: Ethno-Sectarian Distribution of Population

Appendix C

Figure 3: This map shows the approximate composition of Syria’s population, in which Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population, but Alawite, Shi’a, Christian, Kurdish, and Druze minorities dominate geographic cantons.[38]

Appendix D: Proposed Divisions of Syria into Three Ethnic Cantons

Appendix D

Figure 4: A map indicating the proposed partition of Syria into three cantons, which would include an Alawite region in the northwest, ruled by the Assad regime; a central portion that would be run by a moderate Sunni regime; and Kurdish canton in the northeast.[39]

Appendix E: The Tangled Web in the Fight for Syria’s Future

Appendix E

Figure 5: “The Syrian civil war has long since become a militia war pitting dozens of pro-regime militias against an even greater number of anti-regime militias” backed by an increasing Western anti-ISIS coalition.[40]