Will there be a Syrian state in 2014 or 2015? Unfortunately, it is a legitimate and pertinent question. The Syrian civil war is well into its third year and there seems to be no resolution in sight. Bashar al-Assad’s regime did register some achievements during the past few months and its foreign backers (Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) are steadfast in their support, but the opposition continues to fight on. Assad’s decision in August to authorize the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population in the outskirts of Damascus bears testimony to the threat he sensed to his seat of power.
In the absence of a major change in the current balance of power the civil war may drag on for quite some time. It is also difficult to envisage a clear cut decision, namely a total victory of either side. If the regime does well, it can consolidate its hold over the capital, the coast, the corridor between the two and other parts of the country; but it is difficult to envisage the Assad regime restoring the control it used to have over the whole of Syria, let alone its legitimacy and authority. A victory by the opposition, on the other hand, could result in de facto partition. The regime’s core, and a large portion of the Alawite community, could withdraw to their mountains in the Northwest and hold on to the coast or part of it (possibly with Russian and or Iranian naval bases) and a corridor to the Shiite parts of Lebanon. The Kurds in the country’s Northeast may well create their own autonomous area. This would be a rare case in which the regime leads a secessionist movement.
Such a scenario would have deep roots in Syria’s history. The Syrian state rests on weak foundations. There is a discrepancy between the territory designated by the historic term Syria (sham in Arabic) and the state that emerged in 1945. The French took their time in forming one Syrian state; they chose to encourage sectarianism as a tool against the Arab nationalist establishment in Damascus and Syria’s other large cities. In French eyes, Arab nationalism was a British tool designed to rob France of its historic role in the Levant.
This French policy was facilitated and given greater power by two other elements. One was an Arab Nationalism-Sunni tincture. In theory, all speakers of Arabic who saw themselves as Arabs were equal members of the Arab nation. But in practice, the minorities, Christians and heterodox Muslims, were treated as less than equal. This drove many of them to invest their ultimate allegiance elsewhere, in their own communities, not in the Sunni dominated post-1945 Syrian state. It was in the nature of things for the “compact communities” to join radical parties that sought to transform the political and ideological landscape.
Further, several of Syria’s minorities, the heterodox Alawites and Druze and the non-Arab Kurds were territorially concentrated. This enabled the French to create statelets for them and to encumber the young and weak Syrian state with a legacy of regionalism and particularism. In 1958 the weak Syrian state collapsed under its own weight and for three and a half years merged itself with Egypt.
Through a long and complex process (that cannot be fully described in this space) members of the Alawite minority, through their massive presence in the Syrian officer corps and the Ba’ath Party, were catapulted to power in 1963.One of them, Hafez al-Assad, seized full power in 1970 and managed to build a powerful regime and a powerful state. But even the great Hafez al-Assad had feet of clay. Between 1979 and 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood galvanized the Sunni population to rebel against what they saw as an illegitimate rule by a non Muslim minority. The rebellion was put down brutally and the regime seemed well entrenched for nearly three decades until the events of March 2011 developed into a full-fledged civil war.
The prospect of de facto partition or failed statehood in Syria should also be seen in a larger context. Its two neighbors, Iraq and Lebanon, two other products of the same post WWI order in the Middle East, are in fact failed states. Any policy planners who would like to address such a scenario in Syria will have to examine it within that larger context.
Itamar Rabinovich, noted historian and former president of Tel Aviv University, served as Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.