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Is Partition a Solution for Syria?

The roots of Syria’s intractable civil war rest in sectarian differences and a legacy of colonialism that divided a region’s people, favoring a few elites and suppressing dissenters. Today, the violence continues unabated. The bitter feud that divides Syria’s minority Alawites and Christians and the majority Sunni has similarities to the Hindu-Muslim division in British India. Author and South Asia and Middle East expert Dilip Hiro examines the intriguing parallels. The 1947 partitioning that produced India and Pakistan could point the way toward a solution for Syria and stop the bloodletting: creating an Alawite-Christian state between Lebanon and Turkey, with Sunni rule over the rest of Syria, along with the necessary population exchanges. For now, the Sunni rebels are a loose-knit coalition, increasingly attracting jihadist and Al Qaeda support, united only by hatred for Syria’s Alawite regime. Brutal repression by the Assad regime is unlikely to quell the rebellion, far less heal the sectarian divide. A stalemate in fighting and ongoing revenge– these do not bode well for Syria as one nation. – YaleGlobal

Is Partition a Solution for Syria?

Following footsteps of India and Pakistan, Damascus may find peace in partition
Dilip Hiro
YaleGlobal, 31 July 2012
Sectarian exodus: As helicopters attack Aleppo, Syrians run for cover (top); families flee to safety (below)

LONDON: The Indian subcontinent is about 5000 kilometers away from the cockpit of the Middle East’s latest upheaval, but analysts would do well to examine the subcontinent’s recent history to gain insight into Syria’s intractable conflict. At its root, the Syrian imbroglio is a sectarian one, produced by a mix of age-old conflict between Sunnis and Shias, and an old imperialist policy of divide-and-rule. The 1947 partitioning of British India into India and Pakistan eased communal violence dramatically. And so Syria, too, could be on the way to a solution by partition.

Taking into account the intensity of violence, the level of the armed opposition’s organization and the duration of fighting, the International Committee of the Red Cross ruled on 15 July that a civil war is raging in Syria. Of the 23 million Syrians, 3 million are Alawites, a sub-sect within Shia Islam, with the Sunnis being 16 million strong.

The partition of British India was accompanied by roughly 1.5 million deaths and transfer of some 12 million people across the newly demarcated international border.

Whereas the longest conventional war in the past century between Iraq and Iran lasted nearly eight years, the civil war in Lebanon dragged on for more than 15 years. Unlike conventional armed conflicts between sovereign states, civil wars do not always end formally with a document cosigned by the warring parties.

Several scenarios for Syria fall into two categories: clear-cut and protracted. The most optimistic and least violent one has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad voluntarily relinquishing power in favor of a transitional authority headed by his deputy – following the example of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh last December – until fresh elections are held. This proposal has the backing of the United States, Britain and France, and would satisfy the Syrian opposition who refuse to deal with Assad under any circumstances. 

The most optimistic scenario for Syria has
al-Assad voluntarily relinquishing power in favor of a transitional authority.

Another clear-cut scenario would entail the regular Syrian military defeated by the opposition Free Syrian Army, or FSA. In theory, the FSA can achieve this by “controlled demolition” of the Assad regime, stripping it of one powerful layer after another, until it’s left with the exclusively Alawi militia nicknamed Shabiha – or ghosts. In practice, such a process rarely goes according to the plan, particularly when more than 100 rebel formations, lacking a central command and control, are fighting the government.  

Such a multifarious coalition of anti-Assad groups, united only by their hatred of the Alawite-dominated regime, probably could not cope with the aftermath of the collapse of the centralized Baathist state. Even the US Pentagon, with its vast resources, backed actively by the anti–Saddam Hussein opposition, struggled to tackle the chaos that befell Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

The post-Assad period could witness ethnic cleansing of Alawites and their close allies, the Christians, and clashes among various anti-Assad armed militias for supremacy, with Al Qaeda– affiliated groups finding a rich ground to flourish as they did in the post–Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Religious Strongholds in Syria. © 2012 GeoCurrents Map. Design: Debbie Campoli/YaleGlobal. Enlarge Image

A protracted scenario is more likely. A study of how the unrest has escalated can aid forecasting the likely future. The initial peaceful protest, which started in March 2011, escalated into armed resistance in the face of brutal suppression unleashed by the regime. The fledgling FSA, fostered by Turkey and operating along the border with Syria, evolved into a fighting force, aided by weapons bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and intelligence supplied by the spying agencies of Turkey, the US, Britain and France. By the middle of this year, rebel forces had set up bases in the countryside, large towns and certain neighborhoods of large cities such as Homs before launching attacks in Damascus and Aleppo.

Having recovered the neighborhoods in Damascus and its suburbs lost earlier to the rebels, regular forces are now fighting to expel their opponents from the southern and eastern sections of Aleppo, the largest city of Syria. The rebels, lacking an air force, have little chance of beating back the expected onslaught by loyalist troops.

The next phase will likely see the rebels focus on Daraa in the south, Deir al Zour in the east, the Homs-Idlib corridor in the northwest and rural areas around the two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus. On the other side, regular security forces along with the Shabiha militia will tighten their grip on the population centers Aleppo and Damascus, and the coastal plain between the Alawiyin Mountains, running north to south, and the Mediterranean.

Among the half dozen Mediterranean ports, Latakia is the largest. And the second largest, Tartus, is the site of Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean. By gradually shifting its power base to Latakia, the Assad regime could continue a protracted civil war with assistance from Iran and Russia.

The end of such conflict can be achieved by carving out an Alawite state wedged between Lebanon and Turkey.

The end of such conflict can be achieved by carving out an Alawite state wedged between Lebanon and Turkey. This could involve population exchange amid violence as happened in British India in 1947, with Hindus and Sikhs moving out of West Pakistan into East Punjab and Delhi, and the Muslims from East Punjab and Delhi migrating in the opposite direction.

Historically, it was in the interests of imperial Britain to accentuate traditional tensions between polytheistic Hindus and monotheist Muslims. In Syria, minority Alawites – a heterodox sub-sect within Islam shunned by majority Sunnis who were foremost in resisting French rule – were shored up by France during its Mandate over the territory from 1923 to 1941. Among other things, the French Mandate gave preference to Alawite applicants at their military academy in Damascus. Later when they moved the academy to Homs and set up Special Forces units, they continued the policy of preferential treatment to Alawites.

The Homs Military Academy played a major role after Syria's independence in 1946, with many of its predominantly Alawi graduates becoming generals and mounting a series of coups, the last one led by Hafiz Assad – native of Qurdaha, an Alawi village near Latakia – in 1971. He co-opted fellow cadet Mustafa Tlass, a Sunni, and showered his hometown of Rastan with public funds. While reserving top senior civilian and military posts for Sunnis, Hafiz Assad ensured that officer corps of the military, police and intelligence services were dominated by fellow Alawites.

After his death in 2000, Baher’s privatization policy enriched the Sunni business and industrial class in large cities, thus strengthening the regime’s non-Alawite base. But the sectarian composition of the Syrian armed forces did not change. Of 300,000 soldiers in the Syrian armed forces, about 100,000 are conscripts. Of 200,000 professional troops, 70 percent are Alawite, with the rest being mostly Sunni. As Alawites, these 140,000 soldiers know that if the Assad regime collapses, they could be butchered by Sunni victors. Many see no option to fighting for survival.

A viable alternative for them is retreat to an Alawite-majority zone where the Christians, who have allied closely with the Baathist regime, would be welcome. Together, the two minorities form a quarter of the Syrian population, just as the Muslims in British India did in the late 1940s.

There are overarching parallels between the British Raj in India and the French Mandate in Syria. In both cases, the imperial power promoted the minority, Muslims and Alawites, to counteract the nationalist movement led by the majority, Hindus and Sunnis. In the end, Britain conceded a homeland for Indian Muslims.

In Syria, a viable solution lies in partition.  


Dilip Hiro is the author of “The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide”. His most recent book is “Apocalyptic Realm: Jihadists in South Asia,” published in April by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Click here to read an excerpt.


Comments on this Article

19 August 2012
I disagree with the author. To keep the record straight Indian was not divided into India and Pakistan in fact British India was divided into Bharat and Pakistan. Bharat and Pakistan scenario is not a good example to follow in this situation.To fight against injustice is neither a one man's fight nor one nation's, its is a fight of the whole human race.
-khalid , Pakistan
4 August 2012
I am sorry but this is a remarkably short-sighted article, and proof that the good old "one-size-fits-all" approach in dealing with international affairs that we thought was dead and buried, still survives; as a symptom of policy recommendations drafted by people who know about One case - in this case, India-Pakistan - and somehow believe it is applicable to ever other case, simply because the two situations present some superficial similarities.
1947 was largely about national, but also religious identity. Partition may have been the right choice - then again, hindsight is 20/20 - as the conflict was about the very religious intrinsic identity of people. Whether it was the only option is something left for historians to decide.
Syria is a wholly different situation. The conflict is not a religious but a political one, even if there is a large degree of overlap between political and religious identities. This is what fools those who only read the headlines. But the FSA isn't battling "the Alawites', it is battling the Assad regime. Many soldiers in Assad's army are Sunnis; those fellows haven't turned on their brothers in arms; they are working wiht them, to ensure the survival of their regime (and, they fear, their own). If - when, rather - Assad falls, it is likely that the majority will assume power. Alawites will be in a somewhat unenviable situation of being a strategic minority, something they are not acquainted to. But they will learn to live with it. That some Alawites fear for their lives is true; whether they are justified is a different question. Army officers probably should, but this isn't because of their religious sect but because of the insignia on their shoulders.
Other minorities have tried primarily to safeguard their own interests. It is impossible to decide whether who sided with whom entails any ideological overlap or just the short-term needs of survival. But there will be no long term animosity between them, and the Sunni majority to come.
But I find the idea of a Syria split on ethno-religious lines to be hilarious. Thank you for the laughs!
-Mohamed El , Cairo, Egypt
3 August 2012
Mr. Hiro:
Please don' t bring they story of India-Pakistan story here . It was one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. - so much of blood shed, death, and everlasting bitterness and hatred.
-Rao , Canada
2 August 2012
While pointing fingers in the direction of those behind this latest example of sectarian violence in the Middle East, lets not forget the role France has played in this imbroglio. Having said that, what you propose gshank would be the perfect solution in a perfect world. In a very perfect world.
-anelli , NYC
31 July 2012
Interesting concept.
In the India Pakistan case, it temporarily alleviated some tension but lead to further division of East and West Pakistan plus an ongoing dispute over the rightful ownership of Kashmir. The partition has developed into a uneasy face-off between two nuclear powers.
To some extent, I agree that if they cannot live together, let's separate them. Why go half way and lump Shiites and Alawites together. Why not sent the Christians to Lebanon, divide Syria into a Sunni and 'all other' situation and have Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon sent each to their respective quarters in Syria.
The best solution is to have all Syrians think of themselves as proud Syrians first and all other means to divide the population (language, religion, class, etc... ) as distant second. Make all citizens equal, base wealth, positions, appointments etc... all on personal merits. have all people represented and none oppressed.
-gshank , Canada