Is Fragmentation a Possible Scenario for Syria?
Four years ago, it did not occur to the most pessimistic observers of the Syrian issue that a fragmentation of Syria to small states and kingdoms based on sectarian and ethnic lines would become one of the scenarios in question, when talking about the future of the country. However, the political difficulties, in light of the current lack of a decisive military solution, pushed Syria towards de facto partition, with areas being under the control of different competing parties. Would the current facts on the ground escalate until Syria becomes fragmented into several states, similar to the Iraqi Kurdistan model? Or maybe similar to the Somalien case?
This article seeks to analytically answer the question by exploring the establishment of the Syrian state in the twentieth century, and the possibility of the fragmentation scenario in reality starting with the structural foundations of the Syrian state.
The article addresses the fragmentation scenario from a foundational perspective, without addressing the positive or negative impact of external, regional and international, powers.
The Birth and development of Syria
Artificial Borders and Multiple Nations
Arab Nationalism and the Conflict of Identities
The Future of Syria and Possible Alternatives
Following the distribution of Europe’s Sick Man, the Ottoman Empire, at the beginning of the past century, by the major European powers, Syria became the share of the French Empire. The first of their initiatives, after toppling the regime of the Kingdom of Syria in 1920, and the escape King Faisal, was to copy the European system of the modern nation-state to four independent nation-states in Syria, that are based on homogeneity and that derive their sovereignty from religious and ethnic commonalities. The four states included the state of Damascus, the state of Aleppo, the Druze state, and the Alawi state on the coastal line. France claimed that these statelets were nationally homogenous, although they were not in fact. The Alawi state, for example, included Sunni and Christian minorities, and the state of Damascus included Christian and Jewish minorities. The Kurds were also absent in this map; France had not recognized them as homogenous nation.
In 1922, France announced the establishment of the Syrian Union, which included the statelets of Damascus and Aleppo, under the name of Syria. In 1924, France annexed the Alawi statelet to Syria, and the Druze statelet was only annexed in 1936. That year the French decided to unite the four statelets, under the pressure of national sentiments that prevailed in areas with Sunni majority. The French kept the areas largely under their control, with some local control, the Druze and Alawi regions were administratively and financially independent from the central government. The situation lasted until the announcement of independence in 1946, when all regions became united under its current borders known as the Sykes-Picot borders.
Prior to that, Syria as a country never existed as an independent state as it had been for thousands of years part of greater states, with different ethnic and religious groups with high levels of administrative and social autonomy in return of pledging loyalty to either the Caliph, the King or the Emperor. Therefore, this piece of land did not witness any form of nationalism before its independence in 1946.
The current borders of Syria, which were drawn under colonisation, are not based on the actual geographical, social and historical realities of the region. One can realise just by looking at the map of the world that the lines of the borders of Arab countries are straight lines, which were probably drawn as a result of power-sharing agreements at some stage. In the West, however, borders are more complex and intertwined with mountains and rivers, and based on the geographical nature and community demographics. These borders were an organic development of communities and nations were created as a result of wars, migration and agreements.
Therefore, the current borders of Syria contain several religiously and ethnically heterogeneous communities that have different cultural norms and historical backgrounds, different to others. It is possible to distinguish Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen on the basis of ethnicity, and it is possible to distinguish Sunnis, Druze, Alawis, and Christians religiously.
Religious, sectarian and regional identification played a major role in forming the collective consciousness of these communities and shaping their relationships to the newly emerging state in the early 1920s, as sectarian division was the main basis for forming France’s statelets.
Since the establishment of the state of Syria until the end of Adib al-Shishakli’s era in 1954, the state was governed by urban elites, which were formed during the Ottoman era in the big cities and they were largely land owners, previous Ottoman employees, and not bourgeois industrialists as some claim. For this reason, the administrative experience in the area was mainly limited to the positions occupied by some during the Ottoman rule. Even though Arab Sunnis were dominants among the elites, representatives of all communities depending on their education and class were part of governance.
From 1954 onwards, a new generation of Syrian politicians, who belonged to the middle class and educated in schools established by the French mandate, started to emerge. Conflict over governance started emerging as well between older and younger generations through competition between the political parties that emerged in the early 1940s. These parties included the People’s Party, the old National Party, al-Baath Party, the Syrian National Party, the Communist Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood group. The new generation of parties included higher representation of religious, sectarian and ethnic groups in Syria. It also included members of the military establishment, which expanded rapidly in the early 1940s as Syrians were allowed to join the Military Academy in Homs.
However, all successive governments, since independence till this day, have not been able to integrate all the different Syrian communities and create a sense of national unity through development and citizen awareness programs. They have also failed to make great national accomplishments able to create a sense of national unity that could have countered the strong sense of identifications among the different local communities. They also have not succeeded in creating a social contract between the different components of Syrian society, which is necessary to guarantee rights and duties of citizens.
Moreover, Arab Nationalism, adopted by al-Baath Party as an ideology and a way to shape its internal and external policies, has proved to be an unrealistic and impractical project that lacks coherence and value necessary to unite Arabs. Arab nationalist policies have also alienated and marginalised non-Arab components of the society and deprived them of their basic human and citizenship rights. What was perceived as a banner for unity and mobilisation turned into a trigger for conflict and struggle that led to the destruction of the bases and foundations required for the formation of Syrian state institutions.
On the contrary, since al-Baath party seized power in 1963, the state became an opponent to its communities, including coherent traditional local communities, and civil society organisation. The state ensured the dismantling of the bases of formation for these communities and organisations, and sought to erase its culture, through altering demographics in the region. Authorities sought to create conflict and rivalries between these communities to be able to remain in control and tighten its grip, utilising the differences between the communities. This led to widening the gap and created an emotional detachment between these communities, the central government, and civil society organisations. This contributed to the creation of different and varying identities with different and opposing demands and interests that are in conflict with citizenship and a shared homeland.
Despite the fact that Syria has been separated from the Ottoman Empire for almost a century, the Syrian state has been incapable of creating forms of governance that accommodating to multiculturalism and pluralism existing within its borders. It has also failed in creating a unifying Syrian identity that is inclusive of all varying local communities.
This failure cannot simply be blamed on political elites, as it requires a reconsideration of the viability and suitability of the modern European model of the nation-state in our countries, which are multinational. Several nations found themselves divided between different countries, which forced them into living under the sovereignty and policies of those states, and found themselves in conflict and in opposition with the states in which they live. In addition to that, the model of the central governance of the European nation-state has developed over time under specific historical and ideological circumstances that do not exist in the Arab World, as they carry different civilizational, historical and cultural elements. The imposition of this model has created grave social contradictions that constituted extreme polarisation in these societies, which hindered its organic development and contributed significantly to the creation of dictatorships.
For any future political system to succeed in Syria, it must take into consideration the multiculturalism and plurality and the multiple ethnicities that exist within it, and must take the interests and fears of all components seriously. This cannot be achieved through sectarian and ethnic quotas and distribution of political positions, similar to what is happening between opposition groups and similar to Taif Agreement in Lebanon. This can be achieved through employing an institutional system that provides wide margins for self-administration and relative independence for local communities, such as the system of administrative decentralisation. This system would allow local communities to manage their own development and progress in their areas. Decentralisation is also one of the most important methods to dismantle and prevent dictatorships, as it distributes the exercise of power.
The challenge to that is finding a system of local governance that is accommodating to the culture and traditions of the society and at the same time contributes to the distribution of power. This is to prevent the monopolisation of power by a central government, without causing the dismantling of the Syrian state and transforming it to rival and competing cantons.
On the other hand, the future Syrian government must cooperate with neighbouring countries to liberalise its borders by facilitating the movement of people, money and goods across borders. This would decrease the effect of official borders, and would allow the different religious and ethnic groups spread around neighbouring countries to enjoy social and economic connections without limitations. This would also lead to the development of border areas properly.
The continuation of Syria as a political unit with its current borders is dependent on the ability of the future political system to provide practical solutions that guarantee a general sense of justice among all of the state’s components. This can be achieved through resolving the serious problems, which led to a serious crisis, as those problems accumulated and were often ignored. This success is also dependent on the state’s ability to tackle injustice, to be able to push communities towards positively contributing to nation-state building and the future.