Is the division of Syria possible?
Despite their different political positions regarding Syria, the US, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Israel almost all agree on preserving the geographical unity of the Syrian state. Dividing Syria would adversely affect not only the regime but the whole region, and goes against international agreements.
On the other hand, even if these countries agreed on the unity of Syrian lands, they would still disagree on Syria’s system of government, whether presidential, parliamentary or federal, and may also disagree on the drafted constitution, including the issues of the president’s powers and the rights of ethnic groups among others.
There have been many disappointments with Damascus, even after the opposition’s concessions and its declared acceptance of the current Syrian regime in exchange for its recognition of the basic rights of individuals and groups at odds with the regime, in addition to the exit of Iran and its militias. However, none of these expectations was realized, and it seems impossible that Damascus will realize them, either because it cannot do so or because it does not wish to do so.
Facing this impasse, it will be hard to preserve the unity of Syria as we know it, or rather as we did in the past. The territories west of the Euphrates are a conflict zone, where Americans and Kurds maintain a strong military presence. The Iraqis want to control the areas bordering their provinces, like Anbar. Israel has drawn a buffer zone and placed it under its aerial control, banning Iranian troops and its militias from deploying there. And, finally, the Turks have a great influence in Idlib province, and maintain a present in Afrin and other areas (in Aleppo province) that have come under their influence since Operation Olive Branch in early 2018.
Had the war decisively ended and only one side won, like the Syrian regime, it would have been normal - as in all wars - for everyone to submit to Damascus’ will. But the war is being ended with the support of several powers, and for different reasons. The US aim is to eradicate Daesh and similar terrorist organizations, Turkey wants to prevent Kurdish separatists from establishing a state of their own in Syria or seizing areas of influence there, and the Israelis are fighting both Daesh and the Iranians.
Damascus has not yet shown its ability or desire to change. Indeed many still see it as the same regime that existed before 2011. Moreover, it neither seems to want to break its alliance with Iran despite all the promises and expectations, nor looks interested in changing its domestic policy.
At this juncture, we will probably witness a replay of what happened in Iran after the war of 1990-1991. Back then, in order to preserve the balance of regional powers, the American government decided to keep its troops in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region; and this was the main factor that prevented Baghdad from threatening regional stability.
Will the Syrian regime agree to evict the Iranians and their militias, primarily Hezbollah? Will the Syrian regime stop threatening Lebanon and interfering in its tenuous national balance? Will the Syrian regime renounce its support of its old friends, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Will it abstain from ruining peace plans in Palestine like it used to do in the past?
The answers will depend on the regime’s situation in the near future. Currently, it looks as if it is being rehabilitated after it was about to lose its battle for survival; and as a price for its return to the international community, the powers concerned expect different behavior from Damascus, noting that the regime’s promises on their own will not be enough.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.