A front-page story recently in the New York Times echoes increasing speculation in the media that Syria is “lurching” towards civil war. (You have to love journalists sometimes: countries always “lurch” toward civil war; they never gallop or careen toward civil war or mosey on over to it or sidle up to it.) For this, we have to give the Times some credit. I mean, how long was it before they finally called the civil war in Iraq under American occupation a civil war? But that was understandable, of course: they didn’t want to imperil their objectivity by departing from the Bush administration’s language. Oh, no.
Anyway: now that Syrian military defections to the protestors’ side are numerous enough that one actually now finds different military units battling one another, Syria can indeed be said to have reached a state of civil war. In this respect, Syria’s uprising now, among Arab Spring revolts, more resembles Libya or Yemen than it does Egypt or Tunisia. And that raises the question: could Syria break up into separate states—at least temporarily, at least de facto?
[Note: This article was written in November 2011. See these more recent articles from this blog on related topics, especially with respect to the Kurds and the Arab Spring: “The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?” (Dec. 2011), “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012” (Dec. 2011); “Get Ready for a Kurdish Spring” (March 28, 2012); “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles” (April 1, 2012); “Turkish Delights Hide Ugly History” (April 4, 2012); “Syria’s Kurds Are Setting Up a Quasi-State—How Long Can It Last?” (July 23, 2012), and “Liberation of Syrian Kurdistan Infuriates Turkey, Iraq, and the Free Syrian Army—in Fact, Everyone but Assad” (Aug. 4, 2012).]
For one thing, Egypt and Tunisia never reached a state of civil war or imperiled unity for a few reasons: relative ethnic homogeneity across local regions, no recent history of partition in the colonial or postcolonial period, and also a stronger unified hold on the military. This last factor was also true of Syria until recent days.
Yemen, on the other hand, differs from Egypt and Tunisia in its recent history of partition: the Arab Yemen Republic absorbed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to form the new Republic of Yemen a mere 21 years ago, in 1990, and South Yemeni separatism is a major feature of the anti-government uprising there, including especially how it is playing out regionally. Libya, too, has fairly strong regional identities—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east—but they are pretty much all Sunni Arabs, and the popular uprising against Qaddafi unfolded and resolved itself so quickly that the geographical division of the country—with a temporary rebel capital in the Cyrenaican city of Benghazi—never had time to line up with political divisions. Put another way, it turned out Tripolitanians hated Qaddafi as much as Cyrenaicans did; it just took a while for them to work up the nerve. Not all Libyans are Arab, but the country’s Berbers had enough anti-Qaddafi allies among Arabs that their revolt did not end up dovetailing with the longstanding grievances they share with their brethren in Algeria and Morocco.
But what about Syria? Well, Syria does have a recent history of partition, it does have strong regional identities, and it does have ethnic and religious differences with the potential to override national identification as the iron fist of the central government loosens (what I call the post-Tito effect, drawing on the Yugoslavian example). Let's take a look at the dynamics of Syrian geography.
First, unlike Tunisia or Libya or Egypt, the shape of modern Syria is recent and is the product of complex colonial and local interests. Here is a map of French Syria in 1924—after France, Britain, and Italy had picked over remnants of the Ottoman Empire to consolidate their own empires in the aftermath of the First World War:
French Syria, as this map shows, was divided into “states” of Aleppo, Damascus, Lebanon, Jabal Druze, the Alawite State, and the Sanjak of Alexandretta. The Druze state was designed to protect the Druze minority, while Alexandretta became the independent Republic of Hatay for a year in 1938-39 when a Turkish invasion expelled the Arabs and Armenians that dominated the area, followed by a sloppy, rushed referendum that absorbed the area into Turkey, of which it is today a part. Christians in French Syria had patches of territory through Aleppo and Damascus states but had their strongest and most cosmopolitan and European-connected presence in the form of the Maronite Arabs of Lebanon (who are Catholic, as opposed to the mostly Orthodox Christians in the rest of Syria). This concern for fellow Catholics led the French to establish an independent Lebanon in 1943, with a painstaking balance of power between Druze, Shia, and Christian groups embedded in its Constitution—the idea being that Lebanon would be a refuge for Christians in the Holy Land. Christians in the rest of French Syria outside Lebanon were not protected in this way, but France took pains to help establish an independent Syrian Republic in the 1930s in which France still played a political role and in which those Orthodox Christians were at least not persecuted. Christians, making up 10% of Syria’s population, are today fairly well integrated into Syrian society, certainly compared to other Arab countries. Christians and Muslims are protesting side by side in the streets of Syrian cities. Here is a map of the current distribution of religious groups in Syria:
As you can see, Druze and Christians do not have much of a territorial base as against the Muslim majority—Lebanon having been established partly to provide a more solid homeland for these groups. The major denominational division in Syria, then, is between Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and Sunnis, who share that faith with the vast majority of the Arab world. The Assad regime now under threat from its populace is an Alawite dynasty allied with Shia-dominated Iran, and it has its fingers in Lebanese politics mostly via Lebanon’s Shia communities.
In this light, it is significant that some of the conflicts in this year’s Arab spring have been Shia–Sunni conflicts: Shiites rising up against a Saudi-backed Sunni majority in Bahrain, roiling discontent among Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Iraq border area—and that’s to say nothing of Shia–Sunni conflict that is the major feature of Iraqi internal strife. Some have even suggested that Iran and Saudi Arabia are now jostling for hegemony in the new map of the Middle East and might even be itching to settle it once and for all with an all-out Shia–Sunni war. If Iran eventually wants to maintain a Shia corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon, then an Iran-friendly Syria is a crucial link in that chain.
That having been said, is the Syrian uprising playing itself out mostly along Shia–Sunni lines? It remains to be seen, but some tendencies may already be in play. Here is a map showing centers of Syrian unrest in recent months:
You’ll note that a lot of the unrest is occurring in the Alawite regions by the coast, and that Damascus, where there is relatively little unrest, is where the Alawite regime has its headquarters in a largely Sunni area. The center of unrest has been the city of Homs, which sits right at the border of Alawite and Sunni areas, not far from the Christian-dominated mountain areas that separate the former Alawite State from the rest of Syria. In this, it is a symbolic mingling place of the major groups of a multi-ethnic country, almost eerily reminiscent of the battle of Sarajevo as the climax of the Yugoslav wars of succession. This suggests that the main geographical dynamic in Syrian unrest is proximity to the center of power, not religious territories. But now let’s look at a map of Syrian unrest superimposed on a map of ethnic, not just religious, groups (though this map does not show the intensity of different areas of unrest):
The Alawites, then, are as up in arms against the regime as anyone, and if this becomes a regional war in which the regime holds out for a long time defending an area around Damascus (shades of Libya), then what will be left—the capital, some areas of high desert, and the disputed Golan Heights—will not be a very viable state politically.
Second, note that there are also uprisings in Kurdish and Christian areas, but really only mostly in small, hard-to-defend pockets of territory (including Aleppo, where many Christians are concentrated). The Kurds have only tiny slivers of territory to begin with, and they have their backs against the border with Turkey—a state which, needless to say, will not only not give them any help (opposed to Assad though Turkey is) but in fact would bomb Syria’s Kurds as much as necessary to stop them building anything like a Kurdish state (as they do, gingerly, in northern Iraq—and would do all-out if Washington and Baghdad would let them).
This, in my opinion, leaves only the possibility that the former Alawite State—now the Syrian provinces of Lattakia and Tartous—might become nostalgic for the two years it spent as a quasi-independent state under a League of Nations mandate, until French Syria absorbed it thoroughly in 1922.
If Lattakia and Tartous split away, however, it could only be under one of two scenarios: (a) the Assad regime flees to the Alawite homeland at the coast to try to establish a separate state there, or (b) things become so chaotic in Syria as a whole that Lattakia and Tartous attempt to secede as an Alawite State opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus (shades of Slovenia tiptoeing out of the room in 1991 as Serbs and Croats started gouging each other’s eyes out).
In either of these scenarios, we would have a situation where the vast majority of a nation, including its capital, relented and allowed a chunk of the country to secede, taking with it its only avenue to the sea. Would a Damascus-based Syria, whether pro-Assad or anti-Assad, allow this to happen? Well, I would say “never,” except that two of the last four or five newly recognized independent states have been examples of this: Eritrea seceding from Ethiopia and leaving it landlocked in 1993, and in 2006 Montenegro seceding from Serbia and leaving it landlocked. Moreover, South Sudan was so eager to be independent this year that the loss of access to the sea was not even a factor. Besides, Syria does have some oil, and as long as it maintained friendly relations with either Saudi Arabia or Iran—depending on the political orientation of the rump state—then it could get it to market via the sea and do quite nicely.
But this is all premature. We’ll have to see how the Syrian civil war unfolds—whether defensible territories emerge; whether Christians, Druze, Kurds, or anti-Assad Alawites form their own militias; and especially what effect Sunni neighbors’ diplomatic isolation of Assad will have. Syria is not exactly ripe for partition right now, but there seems to be a slight chance that that could change. Watch this space.
Oh, and by the way, here is the old Alawite State flag:
Perfectly serviceable, I think, but they might want to lose the tricoleur.