x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sectarian fears and regional loyalties pull Syria to pieces

As Syria moves closer to the brink, different elements of the population are considering their options and looking across borders.

As Syria suffers under the repression of President Bashar Al Assad's regime, which launched cross-border attacks this week against Turkish and Lebanese territory, a key question is whether the country can remain united. The dynamics of fragmentation have taken hold. Even if the leadership falls, it is difficult to imagine Syria remaining politically and geographically as it was.

Several developments support this conclusion. From the start of the conflict last year, Mr Al Assad and his Alawite-dominated military units and security forces functioned on two levels: on the one hand, they sought to crush the rebellion and reassert their control over the whole of Syria; on the other, they paved the way for a potential fallback plan, namely an Alawite withdrawal to the community's mountain areas in north-west Syria and the coastal cities below.

Early on, the military strategy was to control the hinges of the Alawite heartland - in the north at Jisr Al Shoughour and in the south at Kfar Kalakh. The regime's devastation of Homs has been interpreted by some as a further stage in this scheme. The city is of great strategic importance, controlling access between central and northern Syria and the north-western mountains and coast, but also between Alawite-majority areas and that part of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley where there is a Shia majority friendly to Alawites.

The area around Homs is the front line of defence for the Alawites, who have a presence in the city and its environs. It is also a door the community can open and close at will if it ever decides to empty the coastal districts of the Sunni presence, in a Syrian version of ethnic cleansing. There are rumours that the Assad regime intends to move Iraqi and Iranian Shiites into Homs, to change its demographic make-up. This is unsubstantiated, but it suggests that as the conflict escalates, the logic of creating ethnic enclaves could take over.

In Syria's Kurdish areas, things are even more confusing. The opposition Syrian National Council has been unsuccessful in co-opting the most representative Kurdish parties into the anti-Assad campaign. The regime, in turn, has granted considerable leeway to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, to conduct activities against Turkey. The Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party, has backed Mr Al Assad, while 11 other Kurdish parties have formed the Kurdish National Council, which is close to Iraq's Kurds.

In an interview with the daily Al Hayat published last weekend, the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani made an explicit offer to the Syrian opposition. Asked about why he had been restrained in encouraging Kurdish support for Mr Al Assad's enemies, he answered that the Syrian National Council had failed to take a far-reaching stance on the rights of Kurds in Syria.

"The Kurds will not join the opposition if there are no guarantees of a fundamental and radical change in [the Kurdish] condition in Syria, and [Kurds] are recognised," Mr Barzani said.

Mr Barzani's statement came in the context of his broader criticism of politics in Iraq, in particular what he described as the increasingly dictatorial behaviour of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. He warned that unless Mr Al Maliki changed his ways and shared power, the Kurds would seriously consider going in their own direction in Iraq, and that he would put the issue to a referendum.

While there are significant regional obstacles to Kurdish independence, whatever happens in Iraq will have a profound effect on events in Syria. Syria's Kurds can see that even a federal arrangement in Iraq is faltering; and daily they are observing the dissolution of Mr Al Assad's rule. It is unlikely, as a consequence, that they will willingly surrender their quest for some degree of self-rule, whatever the outcome in Syria, whoever triumphs in the end.

The Syrian opposition is of many minds on the structure of a post-Assad state. If the Alawites, sensing defeat, move to establish an entity that they dominate, the instinct of the opposition will be to reverse this militarily, and reimpose the bases of a unitary state. This could hit up against Kurds' determination to expand their autonomy, conceivably through a federal framework.

The centrifugal pressures in Syria will not end there. Under all the likely scenarios that conclude with Mr Al Assad's departure, the country will almost certainly pass through a phase during which central authority will be diminished. This could, effectively, devolve powers to the different communities and regions, each with its own specificities and trans-border relationships. As in Libya, the conflicting interests of the winners may be exposed once the uprising concludes.

Alawites and Kurds will look across Syria's borders towards Turkey, Iraq or Lebanon, to their brethren or well-wishers on the other side who might offer them greater security. So, too might the Druze and Christians, whose eyes will be on their Lebanese coreligionists. As in Iraq, Syrians will have to agree to a consensual social contract, but without the presence of a strong occupier to bolster the centre.

This could be traumatic, but it need not be. Ironclad centralisation is not a default condition for states. New situations impose new thinking. For instance, the head of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Riad Al Shakfeh, has expressed a willingness to discuss federalism in Syria. It will require compromises for societies in and around the Levant to navigate through the looming discord over national identity. That is why the struggle for Syria is indeed a struggle for the Middle East.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut