Will Syria cease to exist as a nation-state?

Guest post by DaveM

If you watch enough Arabic language news and current affairs programmes, you’ll find yourself coming across the same set of conspiracy theories over and over again.

The most common one is of course “The Protocols” or some variation on that theme. It’s the ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ of conspiracy theories, ubiquitous to the point where it’s now part of the background noise.

However with all that’s going on in Syria, another conspiracy has come back in fashion, and it’s the one where some malevolent outside force (mainly Jewish of course) is trying to break the nation-states of the Middle East into mini-emirates. Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah was the latest person to dust this one down and drag it out into the open. Yet it seems to have hit a nerve and has even popped up here, where someone in that LBCi report claimed that Israel had a nefarious scheme to establish a Druze state.

The whole idea of re-drawing borders or the emergence of new states seems to be something of a taboo in the Arab world. I don’t know if that’s connected with a desire for Arab unity or if it’s to do with the realisation that a lot of Arab countries aren’t particularly stable, coupled with the fear of the unknown.

For all intents and purposes Syria no longer exists as a single entity having split into three distinct parts.

This is something which, according to an Al Jazeera report from 11th August, the Syrian rebels are far from happy with.

Zeina Khodr – Al Jazeera: “Here in the north of Syria where the government’s control has been curbed, the country has split because of the battles.

“Saleh Layla who is a combatant in the opposition says that the areas under the control of the armed opposition are the property of the Syrian people. However in actuality they’re also the property of other opposition groups, and the only thing which unites them all is the common enemy.

“Saleh belongs to Liwa at-Tawheed (The Brigade of Unity) and it’s a brigade which has divided the areas under opposition control with groups affiliated to Al Qaeda which want to set up an Islamic state.”

Saleh Layla – Opposition fighter: “I have no problem with anybody who comes to fight the regime, because the whole world is against him. The regime is fighting with Russia by its side which sends it battleships containing weapons.. Iran also stood with it.”

Zeina Khodr: “Opposition squads have declared war on the Kurdish Syrian Party (PYD) which is linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
The armed brigades accuse the Kurds of supporting the Syrian regime and the confrontations have become public after the Party made clear its intention to set up an local interim administration. There’s a fear that this will lead to autonomy for the Kurdish minorities in the northeast of the country.”

Colonel Abdul Jibar Al-Aqidi [Note: here he is at Menag airport with members of Al Qaeda affiliates] “For sure there’s a grave danger facing Syria, there would be problems, if some of the groups which are supported from outside were to think about partitioning the country.”

Zeina Khodr: “Liwa at-Tawheed has sent fighters into the centre of Homs in an attempt to limit the oppositions losses. For the opposition thinks that the regime is attempting to set up a statelet within Syria. Homs lies between Damascus and the coastal territory which the regime controls. The leader of Liwa at-Tawheed says that his forces will continue to fight to prevent the partition of Syria into mini-statelets and that the break-up [of Syria] will weaken the opposition.”

Abd Al-Qadr As-Saleh – leader of Liwa at-Tawheed: “The day in which the revolutionaries on the ground united with one another, that would be the best thing. Of course each of them have differing political orientations from all the others.”

Zeina Khodr: “Prior to them heading off to another battle, the fighters’ morale is high. The fighters are from the north but they say that they belong to the nation. They shout out the names of their country’s boroughs, villages and towns which face the danger of partition.”

Of course the regime isn’t attempting to set up a statelet; partition goes against the entire ethos of the Ba’ath Party. Assad is trying to consolidate his hold over most of the capital city along with the Alawite heartland of the west coast. He only has one plan, it’s regime survival, and he will do whatever it takes to try and achieve it, including war crimes.

While Assad is preoccupied with securing Syria’s western corridor, the Kurds in the northeast, much like their counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan, have pretty much set up their own state, even though they deny it in this Alan TV (Now TV) report from the 13th of August. The first thing you notice is that the Kurds seem to have obliterated any trace of Arabic on their signposts, car license plates and buildings. The second thing you notice is that there are no interviews with any of the Kurdish opponents of the PYD, which has a tight grip on the northeast. I guess this is the price the journalist has to pay to gain access.

Voiceover: “Syrian Kurdish groups have recently announced a democratic self-administration in their regions in the north of the country. This has provoked anger and anxiety among both the Syrian opposition and some of the surrounding countries. Does this announcement mean there’s a desire to secede, and do the Kurds want to separate from Syria? In the following report correspondent Jenan Moussa attempts to answer this.”

Jenan Moussa – correspondent Alan TV: “Most of Syria’s Kurds live in the north of the country. When I was traveling through the Kurdish majority towns I noticed the formation of the beginnings of a Kurdish army, known locally as the People’s Protection Forces or YPG. [Note: They are the armed wing of the PYD, which is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK] The Arabic names of the villages and towns have been replaced with Kurdish ones. Also in some of the Kurdish towns people were seen driving in cars with new number plates which had West Kurdistan printed on them. So the obvious question is do the Kurds intend to secede from Syria?”

Senam Muhammed – Member of the Supreme Kurdish Committee: “The Kurds have never been an element in splitting or seceding from Syria. We always want a plural parliamentary Syria for all of its components. We never were and never will be factor in the breakup or partition of Syria.”

Jenan Moussa: “In the town of Ramaylan, centres for teaching the Kurdish language have opened their doors. The teaching of Kurdish was completely banned when Assad’s regime was in control of the area. There are also institutes solely for women, and there are also centres which teach the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan. At the offices of the oil company in Ramaylan a police academy has just been inaugurated, and in exclusive footage which we got hold of you see a graduation ceremony for some individuals.”

Shourishe Khani – Chief of Police: “There’s a security vacuum which was left behind by the regime, and the Kurdish people by their own free will created institutions and organisations in order to manage their affairs by themselves. This is (the best?) type of democracy and isn’t considered secession, nor is it considered setting up a nation-state. However it is considered democratic self-administration, and the Kurdish people will continue to build their democratic self-administration despite all the… (challenges).”

Jenan Moussa:“So then why have the Kurds set up specialised institutions for themselves?”

Senam Muhammed: “The institutions which were run by the state according to its interests have now become the property of the people who know their own interests and run these institutions accordingly. The regions are run by its people, by its Kurds, its Arabs, its Assyrians, its Syriacs, and its Armenians.”

Jenan Moussa: “The neighbouring states are frightened of the Kurdish existence in Syria’s north. And the Syrian opposition accuse the Kurds of trying to secede. So what does the Kurdish General Committee say about these accusations?”

Senam Muhammed: “We, as a local administration, announced that it was not and won’t be a threat to anybody. As I said before we will absolutely not be an element in the division of Syria. Secondly there is no threat to the region or to our neighbours, Turkey or anybody else. We don’t represent a threat to them, in fact it’s the opposite as this will be in their interests.”

Jenan Moussa: “Syria’s Kurds would rather negotiate at the moment, however they will not relinquish their weapons and their rifles will remain at the ready in case of any emergency.”

The Syrian opposition have accused the Kurds of assisting the regime. This is something which the PYD have denied; however they do seem to be moving closer to Iran and at the very least there’s some sort of agreement or non-aggression pact between them and the Syrian regime.

Russia Today, a staunchly pro-Assad channel, sent one of their correspondents to Qamashli airport and in his rambling report you see that it’s operating normally with Syria Airlines planes arriving from Latakia and Damascus. The reporter claims they’re carrying humanitarian aid but I’d hazard a guess that’s a euphemism for weapons.

Abu Talib Al Bouhiya – RT reporter: “Right now we’re at Qamashli International Airport which is witnessing a normal movement of Syrian Airlines planes where flights are heading from Latakia and also Damascus towards Qamishli. This area is one of the regions which lies … the North East of Syria.

“At the same time with the cooperation of the army’s forces and other security forces here and there (along with) other forces from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units such as the PKK, there’s an agreement (for them) to run this place. The ministry of transport is working to get this airport operating.

“The normal day-to-day movement involves two to three aeroplanes, there are numerous and various flights both trade and civil. In addition to those there are special flights to send humanitarian aid to this town, especially after the existence of large scale preparations or preparations which will be contributing to the siege on this town in order to prevent foodstuffs from reaching the people of this region. This is coming from the surrounding areas towards Qamashli’s southern axis as well as southeastern axis, the the southwestern axis and also towards the north, i.e., the Turkish border.

“Today we’re at Qamashli International Airport to show you the state of affairs at the airport and the work that’s going on at this airport which lies just 2km from Qamashli.”

If Russia Today is allowed to film in the Kurdish-run areas one can guess there’s some sort of agreement between the PYD and the Russian government.

Syria is no longer a powerful state in the region but has become a broken country, a space in which competing groups backed by outsiders fight each other.

Michael Totten argues that this weak, fractured Syria is its natural state and the strong Syria under the Assads’ rule (both father and until recently the son) was an historical anomaly:

In a word, Syria has become Lebanonized.

That’s not a brand-new development for the country. “Syria before Assad was a playground of foreign intervention,” says Martin Kramer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a regional player in its own right—occupying Lebanon, running his own Palestinian factions, and enabling Hezbollah. But now Syria has reverted to what it was before: a jumble of clashing interest groups and resentful sects pitted against one another, all seeking foreign backers who might tip the balance in their favor. In the long view, fragmented weakness may be Syria’s default condition, and the Syria of Assad père an aberration.”

The obvious analogy is Iraq: both countries were formed as a result of French and British negotiations after the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I. “Historically, there was never a state called Syria,” says Eli Khoury, the CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Levant and cofounder of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation. Syria, like Iraq, was wired together with a minority-backed Baath Party dictatorship. Neither country is an internally coherent nation like Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco. “Syria and Iraq have so far only been governed by ruthless centralized iron,” Khoury points out. “It’s otherwise hard to make sense of these places.” Or as Jean-Pierre Katrib, a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist, puts it: “I don’t see Syria as heading toward transition. I see Syria as heading toward disintegration.”

Weirdly enough there may be an upside to this, at least for Lebanon, as Totten points out:

If Assad loses the Syrian war and doesn’t take Lebanon with him, Beirut will finally have relief from the cascade of disasters that have befallen it for the last 38 years. Lebanon would still have Hezbollah to deal with, of course, but the so-called Party of God would have lost one of its only two allies in the region. “Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size,” predicts Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament from the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli. “They will still have their weapons, but they can’t continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they’ve been aggressive to all these years.” Nadim Koteich, a talk-show host with Future Television, thinks that Assad’s fall would be a bigger problem for Hezbollah. “For decades, they’ve had this huge stable state behind them, along with a corridor for weapons coming out of Iran,” he points out. “They had this enormous machine and all its tools at their back. It will be a tremendous blow for them when they lose it.”

However happy ever after is not something which happens a lot in the Arab world and things tend to oscillate between bad and worse. Obviously bad is the preferred outcome but one cannot afford to be naive.