Is Syria Facing a Yugoslavia-Style Breakup?

Even if the regime loses its grip on growing swaths of territory, the civil war's sectarian dimension could see it opt to retreat into enclaves controlled by its base of Alawite, Christian and non-Sunni support

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AP

Smoke billows over Damascus on July 18, 2012

“This is a situation that is rapidly spinning out of control,” U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Wednesday, following the Damascus bombing that lacerated the inner circle of Syrian President Bashar Assad. “And for that reason, it’s extremely important that the international community [has] to bring maximum pressure on Assad to do what’s right — to step down and to allow for that peaceful transition.” Panetta’s concern is understandable, because Syria is no longer under the effective control of the Assad regime, and the outcome of the civil war is moving increasingly beyond the control of the U.S. and its allies or any other international powers. Needless to say, his prescription for maximum international pressure on Assad to step down appears to be wishful thinking. The same may be true for the Obama Administration’s idea of a “managed transition” in which the opposition cooperates with a regime that remains intact after Assad has been removed.

Russia remains firm in its opposition to Western efforts to press for Assad’s ouster. “If we are talking about a revolution, the U.N. has no business here,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “Assad won’t quit, and our Western partners don’t know what to do.” Indeed, the latest violence in the capital renders even more remote the soft landing envisaged by Panetta and the best-case peace scenario of U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan. The denouement of the Assad regime is likely to be nasty, brutish and not especially short.

(PHOTOS: The Syrian Arms Race)

No prudent investor would bet on the regime’s ability to restore the status quo through mustering even more violence than it has already unleashed — indeed, having seen the writing on the wall, much of the Sunni elite that had backed the regime has begun to peel away from Assad. Meanwhile, the loss of Sunni elite support sets limits on the ability of a regime dominated by the Alawite minority — with support from Syria’s Christians and other, even smaller minorities — to rule over a country with a Sunni majority of more than two-thirds. Indeed, losing the Sunnis would strip the regime of its Baathist ideological narrative of Arab unity. The Assad family’s styling of its regime as guardians of an Arab nationalism willing to stand up to Israel — even as Arab leaders in the U.S.’s thrall capitulated — always served the domestic political function of legitimizing Alawite minority rule in a majority Sunni country. But even if its pan-Arab narrative has collapsed, the regime’s sectarian core interests (and fears among Alawites, Christians and other minorities of a gruesome fate should Assad fall) has kept the core of the regime intact until now. With its back to the wall, the regime is likely to strike out more brutally than ever — and should it be dislodged by force of arms in the coming months, it would be naive to discount the possibility of more months of large-scale sectarian retribution.

While a massive onslaught against the rebellion is to be expected in the coming days as the regime looks to halt and reverse the insurgents’ momentum, if and when that fails, the question will become whether the regime has a Plan B.

(MORE: What Assad’s Regime Lost in a Devastating Damascus Blast)

Opposition activists and some analysts have long suggested that Assad loyalists may come to accept their inability to control all of Syria and instead circle the wagons in their strongholds — northern Damascus, for example, as opposed to the southern, mostly Sunni suburbs of the capital, where fighting has raged this week — or even more dramatically, in an Alawite rump state along the coast, supported by Russia, which has naval facility at Tartus. In other words, the regime could look for either a Yugoslavia-style breakup of Syria into statelets or an institutionalized civil war, like the one that lasted 17 years in neighboring Lebanon. There, the territorial breakup of the state was less clearly defined than in Yugoslavia, with different neighborhoods of the capital, Beirut, held by rival armies.

Some see a pattern of ethnic cleansing emerging in attacks on Sunni neighborhoods aimed at securing the territory of the Alawite statelet. And the Telegraph reports that Syria’s Kurdish leadership is already advanced in plans to set up an autonomous Kurdish zone protected by its own military along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan — a development nurtured, in fact, by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

University of Oklahoma Syria specialist Joshua Landis finds the Alawite-state scenario unconvincing. “Once the regime loses Damascus, it’s finished,” he says. “The Alawite mountains are not a sufficient basis for a nation-state. It has no separate economy of its own, and the regime hasn’t planned for this. Such an entity wouldn’t have an external backer — Iran wouldn’t be in any position to provide the necessary support. Once the Sunnis own the capital and the income from the oil fields, they’d make short work of any remaining Alawite resistance.”

(MORE: On Triumphant Day for Syrian Rebels, Tragedy in One Small Town)

Once the regime departs the capital, it essentially vacates the structure of power it had established, Landis argues. And that raises the danger of even more vicious fighting ahead, spearheaded by the Shabiha units of pro-regime thugs often led by men no older than 21.

Still, even if it isn’t the final outcome, it’s conceivable that Syria’s civil war will pass through a potentially protracted and bloody phase in which rival power centers control on different pieces of territory, in a manner not unfamiliar to Bosnia or Lebanon.

Like Yugoslavia, the Syrian nation-state was an invention of the victorious Western powers in the wake of World War I. Those powers saw no benefit in trying to prevent the unraveling of their handiwork in the Balkans seven decades later, but in Syria — where the geopolitical and security stakes are vast, region-wide and far more perilous — they’re desperate to preserve the Syria they created in the 1920s, and with a strong central state to boot. Whether such an outcome is still possible, however, remains to be seen — and will be decided among the Syrians themselves.

PHOTOS: Syria’s Slow-Motion Civil War

35 comments
mZahza
mZahza

Hillary Clinton has dragged the US into a bloodbath. No matter what we do now this will end up being blamed on the US. What a criminal miscalculation which has led to massive loss of life and no real improvement in the lives of the affected people for their future... 

marcusG
marcusG

It's not remotely true that Yugoslavia was "an invention of the victorious Western powers." Rather, the idea of a union of south Slavic people developed with the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. It was made an explicit war aim of Serbia in the 1916 Corfu Declaration and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was declared almost as soon as Austria-Hungary collapsed, well before the post war talks even began.

Furthermore, post-WWII Yugoslavia was a Federal Republic with six constituent

Republics and two autonomous regions. This provided a legal structure for the break-up, since the government of each Republic was already in place. Syria has no similar structure. Neighbouring Lebanon's civil war is much better analogy for what could happen in Syria.

Scotty_A
Scotty_A

Lavrov makes some interesting comments. This is a revolutionary war. And it is due to Assad's rash behavior. The best thing America may do is either supply humanitarian or military supplies to the insurgents since it obviously is not going to support Assad.

Rick
Rick

If it could happen peacefully, it might be the best thing. Then it would coalesce into a Lebanese-style conferation --or maybe the Alawite and Christian enclaves may join Lebanon

O_Pinion
O_Pinion

Dreadful as the prospect is, maybe these Middle Eastern countries need to kill themselves to a standstill like Europe did in successive wars from the Middle Ages.

harrykuheim
harrykuheim

The Middle East has a dimmer future than Africa does. Remember in the Sixties when all the Evil White guys got murdered and driven out by machete welding mobs? Africa devolved into Civil War, Tribalism, and Chaos...never stabilized, and is a failing Continent today.

The Domino's are falling in the Middle East as well today as Islamofascists topple one Government after the other with Obama's and the UN blessing. The whole area will descend into chaos as fanatical Islamists establish Shria Law and begin preparing  Earth for the coming of the 12th Imam...which of course necessitates killing all Jews, Christians, and any non beleiver...World Wide.

P.S. That includes all you smug Atheists, OWS, Jon Stuart and his audience, and Gays...

Danyz
Danyz

Um, I'd like to point a few things out to you. Shiites believe in the return of their 12th Iman. Iran, Shiite majority Iraq, and Alowite minority Syria are the main players here. By and large, Shiite Islam is a civil religion in which a fanatical fringe has become inflamed by the events of the last 60 years or so. These events include a 1953 CIA inspired coup that toppled a democratically elected Iranian goverment and the installation of the Shah. The Shah in fact did many good things, such as putting women on more equal footing with men. Unfortunately though, he also made use of the hated Savack, the secret police who terrorized the opposition. This despotic rule fueled the religious extremists who finally toppled the Shah  in 1978. 

The so called Islamofascists you decry are Sunni extremists from other nations such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, etc. Their history and development is quite distinct from Shiite radicals.

Now, these two divisions of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, are by and large composed of people who only want a better life for themselves and their children. Extremists on both sides of course have their own extreme agendas to pursue, but they are mutually exclusive. Radical Sunnis want to restablish the Caliphate, a unified Sunni Islam ruled by one man, the Caliph. But the Shiites would never recognize this authority. (that's basically why they broke from mainstream Islam in the first place.)

The Sunnis, on the other hand, do not believe the mystical Shiite 12th Iman will return to rule over them.

 

In other words, by indicriminately meshing the two groups, you show that you really don't know what you're talking about. It's this type of irrational hysterial that is the real enemy, regardless of which side of this growing dispute you happen to be on. I would hope that you calm down and try and see that basically we are one tragically divided humanity.  There is nothing positive to be gained by fanning the flames of hatred here.

harrykuheim
harrykuheim

Um, I'd like to point out that you are on their kill list too...no matter how Smarmy and understanding you are.

Danyz
Danyz

Moslems and Jews together created a brilliant civilization in Medieval Spain. Imagine the civilization they could create in the Mid East if they worked together. Not very likely to happen, given the rampant unreason and emotion here, but at least a theoretical possibility. Look, you're probably a nice person except for your spine tingling fear. Try and look at this from a human perspective. Make friends with people from other cultures. They will expand your mind and heart.

peymon
peymon

Oh, stop painting the middle east in your garish and bloody Book of Revelations palette.  The religion is far more complicated than your religion-soaked fatalism would have you think.  It wasn't "Islamofascists" who effected revolutions in Egypt and Lybia, it was ordinary Arabs, yes many of them devout Muslims, but despite your prejudices, that fact by itself hardly qualifies them as radicals.  If the people of these Arab countries decide through democratic processes to try out the Muslim Brotherhood or other relgious-minded political parties, that's their prerogative.  Democracies have to allow for democratically-made mistakes, like say reelecting Bush in 2004, or they wouldn't be democracies.  The only intervention the international community is entitled to is efforts to buttress the democratic institutions that'll ensure that if the Muslim Brotherhood and company don't deliver on their promises, theycan be ousted peaceably and democratically.  But neither you nor I nor anybody else get to dictate to these people, who shed their own blood up and down the Arab street to win their freedom, what specific form or shape succesor governments should take.

What is Foreclosure
What is Foreclosure

I would rather the USA support the Assad family than have terrorist rule Syria as a whole, even Israel are probably sending aid to the Assad Family right now..not sure why Russia aren't sending more troops! and yes they do have troops in Syria right now

polnick
polnick

 Normalization of Syrian life will return if the newly organized Freedom Fighters were stopped from receiving weapons from outsiders. Russia and China cannot be blamed for attempting to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of the opposition. They know that Syria will become the home of a giant American military base. Iran, Russia, and China will then be the next to be democratized. 

Khagaraj
Khagaraj

NYT is gloating over the newly acquired bomb making skills of the Syrian rebels.We are so shortsighted in supporting these vicious bomb makers.Have we completely forgotten how many of our soldiers have been brutally killed/mutilated by the same guys with their highly effective IEDs ?

Samian
Samian

History repeats itself.  Remember how democratic those "freedom fighters" in the 1980s Afghanistan turned out to be?

George Kafantaris
George Kafantaris

Forget China. 

And forget Russia. 

The Arab world has been rebuked for the third time. 

How many more would it take to realize that these countries are not their friends; that they feel none of the Arab pain. 

As for the rest of us, it is time to see China and Russia as the totalitarian regimes they really are. Inherently, they cannot play a responsible role in the world community; and we should limit our business and political dealings with them accordingly.

Serge Isaac Barou
Serge Isaac Barou

 You're so right about Arab pain... I mean, the Arab pain in the ass for the rest of the world.

Samian
Samian

Right, and I forgot how much the Syrian "rebels" are committed to Jeffersonian democracy... *eyerolls*

harrykuheim
harrykuheim

Obama, his Sycophants, and the idiots at the UN really do beleive these Islamofascists want Democracy.

Obama dithers and Campaigns while Governments in the Middle East topple one after the other.

Go to Military.com or You-Tube and watch Vids of these Islamofascists killing Syrian Soldiers while shouting Allahu Akbar...no mention of Democracy.

Marcel M. Pfister
Marcel M. Pfister

When Syria became a Leage of Nations mandate after World War I it was awarded to be administered by the French Republic, according to the Sykes-Picot agreement. The French awarded states to the two largest cities (Aleppo and Damascus) and states to religious minorities (Druze and Alawites). The Sanjak of Alexandrette eventually was annexed by the Turkish Republic. Greater Lebanon became an independent state. Modern Syria, as we know it was not made by either the French or British, but by the Syrians. Since the early sixties, Syria followed a Baathist state ideologi (Arab, socialist, nationalist). Since the Assad regime came to power, Syria essentially became a state run by an Alawite clan. This is now backfiring as the majority Sunnis are no longer willing to put up with an unelected dictatorship.

bennyhin
bennyhin

I am a non White Christian. Assad is a murderer but he has no hatred for Christians . The majority of Syria's Christians Support Assad. The alternative is the rebels who are made up of Al Qeida and Muslim Fanatics/ Muslim Brotherhood. If the rebels win, Assad's chemical stockpiles will fall into the hands of Muslim Terrorist who will use it against the Western World and Israel and they dont worry about consequences because they love death ( they dont mind commiting suicide). The Christians in Syria are praying that the country does not fall into the hands of radical fanatical Moslems ( the rebels). I beleive God will answer the Christians. As for the current US goverment maybe they are the Great Babylon as prohesisized in End-Time prohesies in the Christian Bible.

Marcel M. Pfister
Marcel M. Pfister

What you're saying is correct. The Christians fear what's coming after Assad. The rest, however, I don't agree with. It is obvious that the Alawites and the Christians will pay a price for having supported the Assad regime over decades. Nobody knows whether a future Syria will be run by religious Sunnis. In fact, Syria has a majority of moderate and secular people from all religions and all walks of life. The Assad dictatorship ran the country into the ground. Today, it is slaughtering its own people. Assad has to go and we are witnessing the end of his regime. And that's just fine with me.

Johannes de Silentio
Johannes de Silentio

You can't be too comfortable with those things clanging around.  Kramer and George Costanza's Dad invented a support undergarment specifically designed for men. It's called the Man-zeer.  You should get one.

FedsMadeSarahPalinClick4Proof
FedsMadeSarahPalinClick4Proof

If everyone is wondering why the commenting online is so locked down it because the truth leaked out about the coup and cover up linked to in my name. Welcome to the police state where Washington controls the media and dominated the online conversation.

Danyz
Danyz

Please put a shirt on. You look like a real dippo.

Rajesh Parashar
Rajesh Parashar

Why Arab world is burning ?. Limited freedom is available to people . Getting money from through oil. All things made power broker mad who want to maintain their control on regime through bullet. History can teach Assad a lot ,but he has lost interest to listen people voice.  

Shawn Disney
Shawn Disney

Why are people so concerned when phoney, artificial impositions like Yugoslavia , South Vietnam,  Palestine, etc.  fall apart?  Everyone is better off without them.

Bob Djukic
Bob Djukic

As a former Yugoslavian, I can report that you are profoundly and tragically WRONG on all counts. As much as Yugoslavia was initially (in 1918) an artificial concoction, it turned out that for much of its existence it was an extremely viable, legitimate and surprisingly stable and self-sustaining country, a place where ethnic siblings of different religions and cultural backgrounds could live side-by-side in peace, harmony and mutual respect, a tolerant federation of nations living in great prosperity and even technological and scientific sophistication.

In international context, Yugoslavia was a factor of stability and cooperation during the entire cold war era, a place both superpowers perceived as useful and constructive tampon zone between the two military blocks, a much loved and respected champion of international justice and anti-colonialism.  Even some of the most rabid nationalist champions of the newly independent Yugoslavian nations now concede as much.

In historical terms, existence of Yugoslavia was a critical factor in delaying Hitler's onslaught against USSR and - with 29 of Wehrmacht's divisions tied up in Yugoslavia for four years - may have been a small, but extremely critical, possibly even decisive,  factor in the Allied victory against the nazis.  After all, somewhere between 1.5 and 1.7 million Yugoslavians (mostly Serbs, but also many Croats. Moslems and Slovenes as well) perished during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia -- more than ALL American, British and French war casualties - military and civilian - COMBINED.

Yugoslavia, of course, had its fair share of shortcomings: stifling state bureaucracy, socialist inertia, economic backwardness and regional imbalances, pockets of ethnic and religious primitivism, long-term inability to function economically,  suppression of national voices and ethnic identities (which can be at least partially justified in view of the ethnic carnage during the World War II), etcetera. All these things contributed mightily to Yugoslavia's demise. But the country would never have fallen apart if the Americans and Russians had not agreed that they no longer needed it. The collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing ethnic barbarity -- committed by ALL parties in the conflict - was a direct and immediate result of CIA's and KGB's intervention in the region.  This, as the subsequent events now amply demonstrate, turned out to be a tragic and fateful mistake, in more ways than one.

The mention of South Vietnam and Palestine in the same sentence as Yugoslavia makes absolutely NO sense whatsoever.  These three have absolutely NOTHING in common.  South Vietnam was for all practical purposes merely an American military banana-republic, while Yugoslavia won its cherished independence at horrifyingly high price and great human sacrifice.  In fact, one of the reasons CIA found Yugoslavia intolerable was that Yugoslavia would pledge allegiance to absolutely no one, and that it fiercely insisted on remaining independent and strictly neutral throughout its entire existence.  Alas, in the unipolar, sole-superpower world, being independent and/or neutral can be a death sentence. These days, it is only sycophancy and blind obedience that keeps nations and peoples alive.

marion_77
marion_77

you are lost my friend, war is no joke, and soon it will be knocking at your front door, see how you feel then, children are dying, are we better off without them, think before you open your stupid gob!

Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

The US has been vociferous in demanding a regime change and co-opted the Saudis to create a new Government led by the Sunnis. Balkanization of Syria is a very real possibility. Afterall, this is what the Allawaites wanted from the French in the last Century. But, such a prospect could repeat itself in saudi arabia, Bahrain etc where the Shias are a majority. There is very little doubt that the Shia Sunni war has started and it will play out throughout the region. The world should brace itself for turmoil for several years. What emerges will be something like Europe, when one travels a 100 miles and crosses three Countries. Western Powers created Countries arbitrarily, where ethnic differences were ignored. What is happening is a natural step, though painful

José Antonio
José Antonio

That is not a bad idea. It would disassemble what the bloody British did when they left the Middle East, after dividing the cake with their friends and allies...

kawliga
kawliga

Nobody wins in a civil war where religion determines your fate.   In the end the "religion" with the biggest gun wins.

rory2012
rory2012

Why the US and the West are so surprised that Syria will be spin out of control? Isn't that what you are hoping  and engineering for?Why you are shed with a crocodile tear now?

Doris Ao
Doris Ao

Please let peace calm the people in Syria.