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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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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