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After Four Years of War, Syrian 'Partition' Remains an Open Question

Recent analysis suggests that Assad is preparing to seal off Damascus and other vital areas following military setbacks, including coastal stretches with large Alawite populations.
Imagen por Frederick Paxton/VICE News

A recent series of military setbacks suffered by besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government has renewed talk of the country being carved up, as the regime's forces focus on protecting areas under its control in the west. The idea of a de facto partition of Syria has been around for a while, however — experts say that adjustments being made by Syrian strategists are merely catching up to realities on the ground.


Emboldened rebel forces that include extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) and the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra have pushed back regime forces in several key locations. In March, a coalition of rebel groups known as Jaish al Fatah (Army of Conquest), which includes al Nusra as well as relatively moderate factions, won the Northern city of Idlib. Last week, IS — which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, and by its Arabic acronym Daesh — captured the strategic oasis city of Palmyra.

The site of an ancient UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra is located near vital oil and gas reserves and along routes that connect Damascus with Syria's east, including one of the government's last desert bastions, Deir ez-Zur. For many analysts, the loss of Palmyra means it is only a matter of time before already overstretched government troops will be forced to abandon Deir ez-Zur.

Related: Ancient Sites in Palmyra Unharmed, Islamic State Shows in Photo Essay

"Assad's big problem is that he is too weak," Aron Lund, an independent analyst and editor of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Syria in Crisis blog, told VICE News. "He's too weak to do what he's been trying to do for years, which is keep control over places all over the map, like Deir-ez-Zur."

Assad's fight is relying heavily on the support of Iran and its Lebanese partner Hezbollah, and state news agencies reported last week that Iran might extend an additional $1 billion line of credit to bolster his regime's continued viability. The development coincided with a series of high-level visits from Iranian officials. Some experts and diplomats have surmised that Iran, which faces its own sanctions as well as a cash crunch due to a steep decline in oil prices, is likely driving a harder line with Assad.


"The Iranians sort of put down some addition conditions, and said you can't defend all of Syria, you've got to retreat to some lines that are dependable," Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies and editor of the blog Syria Comment, told VICE news. "The government kept these outposts all around that have been knocked off in the past few years."

(Photo by Frederick Paxton/VICE News)

Few believe that Iran would withdraw support for one of its closest allies in the region, and Landis highlighted Tehran's stepped up coordination with Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah has buttressed Assad's forces northeast of Damascus in the Qalamoun region, a mountainous area that spills over into Lebanon, and views the securing of the border area as vital to its own interests. But cutting off pathways to Damascus is also in line with the idea that Assad is preparing to seal off the capital and other vital areas, including coastal stretches with large Alawite populations.

Though the Syrian government only holds roughly a quarter of the entire country, it is believed that at least half of its population remains in areas under its control.

"The division of Syria is inevitable," a Syrian political figure close to Assad's government remarked to AFP earlier this week. "The regime wants to control the coast, the two central cities of Hama and Homs, and the capital Damascus."

Lund suggested that it would be more accurate to say that the regime is realizing that it can fight to reliably maintain control of only those territories.


"I think Assad is in for a really tough summer," he said. "In Idlib, the rebels seem to be on their way to capturing more areas, and you have the Islamic State pushing from the desert area."

Related: Here's How Syria's Opposition Government Essentially Went Broke

This week, Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that his government and the United States had reached "a principal agreement on providing air support" for rebels currently being trained with US backing inside of Turkey. Sources close to the US government told VICE News that Cavusoglu took some liberties with his comments, however, noting that although the US is leading an extensive bombing campaign against the IS in Syria, it remains hesitant to deploy its forces in a way that could lead to confrontation with Assad's army.

Though US officials have highlighted the toll of barrel bombs and alleged chlorine attacks in civilian areas by Assad's military, the US has similarly wavered on the question of imposing a no-fly zone or ensuring safe zones in parts of northern Syria — moves that could safeguard civilians while benefitting rebel forces.

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Al Nusra has meanwhile cemented itself in the north, and any rebel movement into regime strongholds would likely involve the al Qaeda affiliate — a prospect that unnerves Washington's national security establishment.


Najib Ghadbian, the UN representative of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, an opposition umbrella group, told VICE News that he sees Assad "consolidating control over Damascus and the coast." He added that the extremist presence in Idlib is exaggerated, and is hopeful that an interim government that is being established in the city will have some success in providing basic services to locals. But increased aerial bombardments from regime aircraft will make this difficult.

Related: Talking Heads: Who's Supporting Assad?

France, after divvying up much of the Middle East between itself and the UK following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, divided modern Syria into smaller ethnic enclaves in the 1920s, such as states for Alawite and Druze minorities. Few in Syria will endorse the idea of official partition today, except for the Kurds in the north. (IS militants literally bulldozed one of the Sykes-Picot agreement's boundaries that created the arbitrary border between Syria and Iraq.) With this history in mind, Ghadbian doesn't think that a similar contemporary division inside Syria is tenable.

"The French used this divide and rule tactic," he said. "But then they couldn't really sustain it. They couldn't have a viable economy, and eventually all of those states were unified again."

"This can be an outcome of the conflict, a kind of short-term partition," Ghadbian added. "But I don't think it will be a viable long-term solution."

Lund expects some version of what already exists — a geographic split between various factions, depending on their strength and defenses — but he emphasized that few leaders, internationally or within Syria, would likely admit to or formalize any partition, no matter how long the state of war persists.

"Insofar as anyone can see any exit out of this madness in Syria right now, it's probably through trying to clamp down on the fighting to the extent possible, and trying to accept the reality on the ground and accept that Syria has become a country of enclaves and territory ruled by strongmen on the regime or rebel side," he said. "If you already define partition as the regime holding certain areas and the rebels holding others, then why isn't Syria partitioned already?"

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford