Over the past few years, talks about partitioning Syria as a potential solution to ending the conflict have been taking place among diplomats and experts; these ideas tend to gain momentum following significant military shifts or before high profile political talks. The most significant development in this context was the US secretary of state, John Kerry’s, statement about a Plan B that could involve partitioning Syria if a planned ceasefire in February 2016 did not work, or if a political transition did not begin in the coming months.
Although Kerry did not advocate partition as a solution and refused to reveal the details of Plan B, many people interpreted his words as a threat to partition Syria. Some of the supporters of this proposal justify their position with the de facto division of Syria, as different groups control different areas. Others see it as the only way to end Syria’s conflict, as all political attempts have failed, arguing that Syria’s ethnic and religious groups do not want to live together anymore. Partitioning Syria is yet another decontextualized proposal made by people who are not well informed about the Syrian context and who do not even try to become so. Partitioning Syria is not an option because people, locally and regionally, are against it; because it lacks the necessary requirements and because it has many downsides which will be discussed here.
What is the Proposal About?
Despite recent military gains by pro-Assad forces, experts working on Syria agree that there is no military solution to the war. Assad is unlikely to regain control over all territories in Syria, but even if he succeeded, it could easily lead to a long and violent guerilla war, which means that the armed conflict might continue for years to come. Given Syria’s geopolitical importance and the negative ramifications of its conflict, regionally and internationally, a political solution is essential to restoring peace. Furthermore, the failure of previous attempts to find a political solution that all Syrians approve, has motivated efforts to think ‘outside the box’, to find ways to resolve the conflict and restore stability. One group of experts came up with an obvious solution, divide the country and create borders between those who are fighting each other. Their justification: that the odds of restoring Syria to a fully functioning state are slim, therefore partitioning the country along sectarian and ethnic lines would reassure groups within Syria and end the fight to control the state.
There are differing views on how the country should be divided, but there is a common understanding that it would be divided into three regions: an Alawite region in the coastal cities, a Kurdish region in the east, and a Sunni region in the central areas. However, others argue that this kind of negotiated partition is unlikely because of the balance of power in Syria. Therefore, they advocate an ethnic/religious/political partition along unofficial de facto division lines in Syria. In this scenario, the Assad regime will control what they call the ‘useful Syria’; the coastal areas and the Lebanese border, Damascus, Aleppo, and the major cities of western, southern, and central Syria, including key energy infrastructures. The remaining two regions, the Kurdish and Sunni, will be organised according to the groups within Syria that can be realistically controlled. The argument is that the country is already divided on the ground but that the fight could be halted by formalizing the de facto partition, thereby appeasing all parties.
Lack of National and Regional Support
Despite the deep divisions between Syrians all of them, at least in public, agree that partitioning Syria is not an option. The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as a peaceful revolution calling for basic rights and political reform, and, despite the ongoing atrocities against civilians for which Assad is largely responsible, Syrians did not call for partition as a solution. Even Syrian Kurds, who are usually accused of being separatists, clearly stated on many occasions that they did not support a division of Syria. Moreover, the negative reactions to the attempts of the dominant Kurdish party, Democratic Union Party (PYD), to declare a federal system in the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria, shows how little support there is for partition as an option. PYP officials declared in a number of statements that they are preparing for a federal system in northern Syria something they believe should be adopted by the whole of Syria. They are keen to emphasise that they are not lobbying for a Kurdish-only region but an all-inclusive area that would provide representation for Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in northern Syria. Abd Salam Ali, representative of the PYD party in Moscow, stated that, ‘Separation of Rojava [Western Kurdistan] from Syria is not an option. We remain [a part of Syria], but declare a federation.’
Nonetheless, this announcement led to widespread criticism among opposition groups who refused to enter into talks about a federal system in Syria that might lead to partition. ‘Syria’s unity is a red line. This issue is non-negotiable and the idea of federalism is the prelude to the partitioning of Syria,’ the head of the High Negotiations Committee, Riad Hijab, said in a conference call with reporters on 8 March 2016. Seventy opposition armed groups signed a statement rejecting the federal system and vowing to resist any ideas that could lead to the partition of Syria. The Kurdish National Council, one of the Syrian opposition blocs, also denounced the PYD's declaration and claimed that the declaration would ‘undermine the Syrian Kurds’ struggle and their national and patriotic aspirations.’ Furthermore, the Syrian Foreign Ministry rejected talks about a federal system in Syria and warned in an official statement that ‘raising the issue of a union or federation would prejudice the unity of the Syrian land.’
In addition, several regional and international powers released statements rejecting the declaration of the federal system. In a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lashed out at the PYD for establishing a federal region. ‘They want to divide Syria …. with Iran, we support the territorial integrity of Syria.’ Iran and Turkey fear the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, similar to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, believing it would fuel the separatist ambitions of their own Kurds. The Arab League also rejected Kurdish-led moves for a federal system of government in Syria, warning that they would lead to the break-up of the country. The US State Department, responding to a Kurdish bid for autonomy in northern Syria, said it did not recognise self-governed zones inside the war-torn country and was working for a unified, non-sectarian state under different leadership. The strong negative reactions to the announcement of a federal system by the major actors make the possibility of partitioning Syria even more difficult.
The Demographic Challenges
The proposed partition has been drawn up along ethnic and religious lines, however, people living on the ground are not easily divided into these groups. Therefore, transforming these heterogeneous areas into homogeneous ones, based on sectarian or ethnic divisions, will likely create new waves of mass internal displacements accompanied by violence. According to Wael Sawah, a Syrian researcher, the number of Alawites who live outside the coastal areas is larger than the number of those who actually live there, which means,
… that more than 1.5 million Alawites would be forcibly displaced from their houses in Homs or Hama or Damascus and move to an area [coastal cities] where they have neither homes nor jobs. The same applies to hundreds of thousands of Syrian Sunnis who will be forcibly displaced from the homes and cities they have lived in for hundreds of years.
The same applies to the potential Kurdish state. Kurds might be the majority in some areas but the percentage of non-Kurds who will be forced to leave is not insignificant. Tens of thousands of Kurds would also be displaced from other cities, especially Damascus and Aleppo.
Moreover, partitioning Syria along religious or ethnic lines is usually based upon two hypotheses: 1) that all members of the same group have a homogenous, collective identity and views; and 2) that they are supporters of partition. These hypotheses are based on the assumption that Syrian communities, because of the sectarian/ethnic dimensions of the Syrian conflict, are making choices instinctively for reasons of self-preservation. They are acting as a collective, according to their sectarian or ethnic identities, in order to protect themselves and their identities from the perceived threats. In this context, all Alawites are seen to be supporters of Assad and it is assumed that there are no differences of opinion between them. In the same way Sunnis and Kurds are each seen as one group with homogenous views based on their sectarian/ethnic identity. However, this assumption does not take account of the differences within these groups, that not everyone in Syria identifies himself/herself according to his/her sectarian/ethnic identity. In 2011 Syrians took to the streets to peacefully demand greater rights and political reform for a more inclusive regime. Even now a large percentage of Syrians still identify themselves first and foremost as Syrians and not according to their sectarian/ethnic identities, a contradiction of the previous assumption.
There are also clear political differences between these groups explaining why Syrians generally organize themselves along political rather than sectarian or ethnic lines. A good percentage of pro-Assad supporters are Sunnis, and a good percentage of non-Sunnis, Alawites and other minorities, oppose Assad. Moreover, Kurdish groups and activists, such as the Kurdish National Council, ally themselves with Syrian opposition groups against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). As the previous paragraph established, the majority of Syrians do not support partition so any attempt to partition Syria will create more conflict and violence across as well as within groups.
The Economic Challenges
None of the proposed mini-states have sufficient resources to be self-sustaining and, as a result of partition and its political implications, hostile neighbours will make imports extremely difficult resulting in a resources war. Economics will play an essential role in any plan to partition Syria, however, dividing it along ethnic and religious grounds doesn’t take into consideration the resources needed for these mini-states to survive. Moreover, Syria is a small country and natural resources are not equally distributed between the regions, which will likely create another struggle for resources.
The proposed Alawite state would produce mainly non-strategic agricultural crops, fruit, some vegetables, olives and tobacco. It has good water resources, two ports, an oil refinery and a medium level of industry - although it lacks oil and gas and essential crops such as wheat. In theory, this state could benefit from the ports and the refinery to generate money for imports, however, the anticipated hostile relations with its neighbours make this unlikely.
By comparison the proposed Kurdish state benefits from oil fields and a good stock of wheat and cotton although it would need to import electricity, vegetables, fruit, medicine, and other industrial goods. Imports via either the Sunni state or Turkey would be difficult and even importing goods from the Kurdish region of Iraq would be problematic due to high costs and the tensions between Masoud Barzani, the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and the PYD over leadership.
Finally, the proposed Sunni state would have large industries and a variety of agricultural crops, but it would not have access to oil or ports.
It is likely that the pre-existing tensions between these three proposed states will make trade negotiations a challenge and undermine the potential for investment opportunities. As each state struggles to meet the demands of its population and begins to look elsewhere a battle for resources will ensue.
It is worrying that some politicians believe that the partitioning of Syria would provide a solution because on closer inspection the project is flawed. Those who advocate it clearly see the potential short-term benefits but appear to ignore the severe consequences of this quick-fix for Syria, its population and the entire region.
All indicators suggest partition would be extremely difficult to implement, creating mass displacement and destabilizing the region rather than restoring stability. Thus the political cost of dividing Syria could be significantly higher than the costs involved in pressuring the warring parties, especially the Syrian regime, to begin a political transition in the hope of building a civil, democratic, inclusive and united Syria.
 See: Wintour, P. (2016) ‘John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of “plan B” if peace talks fail.’ London: The Guardian newspaper. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/23/john-kerry-partition-syria-peace-talks. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: http://www.alarabiya.net/ar/politics/2015/12/05/أكراد-سوريا-يرفضون-عودة-الدولة-المركز%25D. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: ‘Syria’s Kurds set to announce federal system in Syrian Kurdistan’ posted by Ekurd Daily, Editorial Staff on 16 March 2016. Available at: http://ekurd.net/syria-kurds-to-announce-federal-2016-03-16. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: ‘Syria’s main opposition rejects federalism proposal’ posted by Ekurd Daily, Editorial Staff on 8 March 2016. Available at: http://ekurd.net/syria-opposition-rejects-federalism-2016-03-08. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: http://www.dw.com/ar/فصائل-مقاتلة-سورية-ترفض-فيدرالية-الكرد/a-19127856. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: ‘Turkey, Iran discuss terror and future of Syria’. TRT World Reuters posted 19 March 2016. Available at: http://www.trtworld.com/mea/turkey-iran-discuss-terror-and-future-of-syria-70962. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: ‘Arab League rejects Kurdish federal region in Syrian Kurdistan’ posted by Ekurd Daily, Editorial Staff in Kurdistan on 21 March 2016. Available at: http://ekurd.net/arab-league-rejects-federal-syria-2016-03-21. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: Alexander, D. (2016) ‘US rejects self-governed zones in Syria after Kurdish autonomy vote.’ Reuters posted 17 March 2016. Available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-idUSKCN0WJ2SS. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 See: http://daharchives.alhayat.com/issue_archive/Hayat%20INT/2013/1/9/لماذا-لا-يمكن-تقسيم-سورية-.html. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.
 Op cit.
 See: http://www.moaar.gov.sy/site_ar/syriamap/lattakia.htm. Last accessed on: 30 August 2016.