Opinion: Syria edges towards disastrous partition

syria ethnic mapBy Patrick Seale

The two-year-old Syrian civil war has reached a critical juncture. Either the antagonists will persist in their life-and-death struggle or they will seek some sort of a compromise — imperfect, of course, like all compromises — but which would end the bloodshed and save the country from partition and ultimate destruction as a major player on the Middle East scene. That is the choice facing both the regime and its enemies.

External powers have contributed to the present calamity. They, too, must decide whether to press forward in the hope of making gains which would bolster their own position or whether, on the contrary, they should encourage the various warring factions in Syria to put down their guns and come to the negotiating table.

The one mildly encouraging factor in a very bleak overall situation is that the US and Russia seem, at last, to be coming round to the view that the best way to prevent a disastrous partition of Syria, which would be a formula for unlimited guerrilla warfare, would be to preside jointly over a democratic political transition.

A first step towards such an outcome would be to stop the killing by imposing an arms embargo. A second step would be to marginalise diehards who refuse to compromise and bring together patriots from all camps who wish to save their country.

We are still, alas, some way from such a happy solution. The immense human and material damage of the past two years will not be forgotten — or forgiven — easily. The death toll has crept up to around 70,000. More than a million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries. Several million more are internally displaced. The cost to the country has been incalculable.

Syria has been a major player on the Middle East scene for the past five decades. Its demise — for that is what we are witnessing — is bound to have far-reaching consequences. How will Syria’s collapse affect the power structures of Middle East politics? And what does the future hold for other players involved in the conflict?

Neighbouring states — Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar — have all been drawn into the struggle, one way or the other. We are living in a period of great regional uncertainty, but who will dare predict what the outcome will be?

It seems that the Syrian rebels, who rose against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, may have been influenced by the western intervention to overthrow Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. They may have been misled into believing that, if they rebelled, the West would rush to their aid. This was probably their biggest error.

The rebels are still bitterly complaining about the lack of external support for their revolution and are pressing for more. Some Syrian opposition fighters are now being armed and trained by western instructors in neighbouring countries, but not on a scale which might tilt the balance decisively against the regime.

At the start of the conflict, Al Assad seems to have been misled into thinking that his nationalist stance and his opposition to Israel would protect him from a popular explosion of dissent. In retrospect, perhaps his greatest mistake was a failure to understand where the explosive forces lay in Syrian society itself. If he knew they were there, he failed to act to defuse them.

At the start of the conflict, Al Assad seems to have been misled into thinking that his nationalist stance and his opposition to Israel would protect him from a popular explosion of dissent. In retrospect, perhaps his greatest mistake was a failure to understand where the explosive forces lay in Syrian society itself. If he knew they were there, he failed to act to defuse them.

Who are the foot-soldiers of the Syrian revolution? First of all, they are semi-educated, urban and unemployed — victims of Syria’s population explosion in recent years. When I wrote my first book about Syria in the 1960s (The Struggle for Syria), there were four million Syrians; today there are 24 million. Syria is not a rich country. Compared to the Gulf states — or indeed to Saudi Arabia, Iran or Turkey — it is very poor indeed. There are large numbers of young people in Syrian cities today for whom there are no jobs.

In even worse shape are the rural victims of the worst drought in Syria’s recorded history which, from 2006 to 2011, forced hundreds of thousands of peasants to leave their land, slaughter their animals and move to poverty belts around the cities.

In 2009, the UN and other agencies reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the great drought. To save their lives, and the lives of their children, they fled to the cities.

In retrospect, it is clear that Al Assad and his government did not do enough to help the drought-stricken peasantry or to create jobs for the urban unemployed. Their urgent priority should have been to launch major programmes to help these two categories of victims.

Syria could probably have secured financial help from Gulf states or international organisations if it had asked for it. Instead, the regime focused on promoting tourism, on rehabilitating the old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, on a nationwide network of museums; on encouraging the use of the internet and other social media. These policies, admirable in themselves, benefited a small new affluent class, but did little for the desperately poor in the cities and the countryside, who most needed help.

One might add that Al Assad’s attention seems to have been focused less on internal problems and more on external threats and conspiracies against Syria — a mindset he inherited from his father, the former President Hafez Al Assad who ruled for 30 years from 1970 to 2000.

One might add that Al Assad’s attention seems to have been focused less on internal problems and more on external threats and conspiracies against Syria — a mindset he inherited from his father, the former President Hafez Al Assad who ruled for 30 years from 1970 to 2000. We must not forget that, after the 1973 war, Egypt’s removal from the Arab line-up — as engineered by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger — exposed Syria and Lebanon to the full force of Israeli power. Indeed, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 attempted to expel Syrian influence and bring Lebanon into Israel’s orbit. In response, Hafez Al Assad worked to form the ‘Resistance Axis’ of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, which was partially able to keep Israel’s regional ambitions in check.

Bashar Al Assad has had to deal with situations at least as threatening as any faced by his father. Had the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 — as planned by the pro-Israeli neoconservatives — been successful, Syria would have been the next target. Syria then faced a series of dangerous crises: The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006; the destruction of Syria’s nuclear facility in 2007 and Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008-09.

when the uprising started in Daraa in 2011, the Syrian regime seems to have interpreted it as yet another external conspiracy against it, rather than a cry of anger and despair by its own much-tried population.

All these acts of aggression were rightly seen by Damascus as regime-threatening crises. It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that when the uprising started in Daraa in 2011, the Syrian regime seems to have interpreted it as yet another external conspiracy against it, rather than a cry of anger and despair by its own much-tried population.

The hope is that the lessons of these many crises will have been learned and that Syrians will now unite to rescue their country from the abyss.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

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  • Hariri Assaoudi

    i said this many years ago even 3 years ago on this blog; unfortunately the bloggers here like 5th and tarzan bil azan hannibully listen to their echoes here

  • Hariri Assaoudi

    i said this many years ago even 3 years ago on this blog; unfortunately the bloggers here like 5th and tarzan bil azan hannibully listen to their echoes here

  • Patience2

    Well, MAYBE partition would actually work. If Turkey would give the Kurds a little land for their ‘stan, AND if the ‘red’ colored area were to disappear with the Alawites moving in with their Alevi bro’s in Turkey, all the hate-and-discontent might well evaporate?? Nah — no! That’s WAY to simple!

  • Patience2

    Well, MAYBE partition would actually work. If Turkey would give the Kurds a little land for their ‘stan, AND if the ‘red’ colored area were to disappear with the Alawites moving in with their Alevi bro’s in Turkey, all the hate-and-discontent might well evaporate?? Nah — no! That’s WAY to simple!

  • ……Mark 13:8………

    For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows…..

    ……..Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…….

    Luke 21:25-26……..

    ……..The Coming of the Son of Man………………

    ……..25 “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26 men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken………

  • Plumbline

    ……Mark 13:8………

    For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows…..

    ……..Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…….

    Luke 21:25-26……..

    ……..The Coming of the Son of Man………………

    ……..25 “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; 26 men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken………

  • IraniAngel

    ohhh no that would cut off IrAngel’s ONLY route to the sea!!!!! this is outright disastrous!!! LOL!

  • IraniAngel

    ohhh no that would cut off IrAngel’s ONLY route to the sea!!!!! this is outright disastrous!!! LOL!

  • Persistent

    If it was to happen as illustrated and one looks at the partioned map, you will see the “central part” has no access to the open sea and render it economically nonviable. Its life line for survival is totally dependent on the politics of neighboring countries. One can say the same thing for a Kurdish state sandwiched between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

  • Persistent

    If it was to happen as illustrated and one looks at the partioned map, you will see the “central part” has no access to the open sea and render it economically nonviable. Its life line for survival is totally dependent on the politics of neighboring countries. One can say the same thing for a Kurdish state sandwiched between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

  • Adam Yonatan Ben Yoel

    Oh no! Then everyone would be safe from persecution and domination. Now that would be crap wouldn’t it?

  • Adam Yonatan Ben Yoel

    Oh no! Then everyone would be safe from persecution and domination. Now that would be crap wouldn’t it?