The civil war in Syria may have begun in March 2011 with peaceful protests against regime policies, but it is now unquestionably a brutal sectarian conflict characterized by massacres and ethnic cleansing. Naturally, sectarianism was not created by the civil war, only made more extreme by it. All Arab countries, albeit to differing degrees, lack a strong common civic identity that binds together the citizenry in the manner in which Western societies, particularly immigrant ones, have been able to do. The idea that one’s family, tribe, or religio-ethnic community should be superseded by a national identity, national interests, and national laws, is, by and large, alien to the region. This is particularly true in the multi-ethnic Mashriq (that part of the Arab World east of Egypt and north of the Arabian Peninsula) where the new countries of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan were cobbled together by European colonial powers in the wake of the First World War without much consideration for the ethnic and tribal dynamics at play.
The Assad dynasty (father and son), which has been in power since 1963, created a regime based, first and foremost, on the minority Alawi community (10 percent of the population), allied to other minority groups and certain influential sectors within the Sunni majority. The Assads were able to keep the country together and under their control through a mix of repression (during the 1982 uprising in the city of Hama, the regime killed between 10,000 and 45,000 civilians); stoking the fear of minority groups with respect to their future if the Sunni majority was allowed to take power; and coopting influential Sunni elements.
Equally important was the regime’s attempt to portray Syria as the crucible of Arab nationalism and as a sort of initial part of a future pan-Arab state (pan-Arabism being an important part of Syrian Ba’athist ideology). This was designed, in part, to stave off criticism of the minority Alawi regime by trying to de-emphasize ethnicity and religion and focus instead on a common Arab identity shared not only by all Syrians, but by the Arab World as a whole. Not only did the dream of pan-Arabism prove a bridge too far, but, as is evident now in Syria, even attempts to convince Syrians that their common Arab identity (and later shared Syrian identity) superseded any other identity failed, and this partly because of the power of sectarianism (ethnic, tribal, etc.) and partly because the regime clearly favored minority groups at the expense of the Sunni majority despite the noble talk of a shared Arab or Syrian heritage and future.
It is now clear that the Syrian humpty dumpty, with its mix of Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Druze, Kurds, Ismailis, and other communities, cannot be put back together again. As the civil war progressed and became bloodier, it quickly shifted from a struggle against the Assad dictatorship to an internecine conflict between the country’s sects. The idea that these communities, after all the bloodletting that has occurred, can somehow sit down around the negotiating table and agree to share power in a united Syria is wishful thinking, to say the least. Yet, this is the accepted position of the international community.
As can be seen from the example of Iraq, or that of Lebanon, power-sharing between rival ethno-religious communities does not work because such a system institutionalizes ethnic differences and creates even greater incentives for rivalry between communities as they jostle for control over territory and resources.
Despite attempts to create a democratic Iraq with power-sharing between Shi’a, Sunnis and Kurds, that experiment has been a spectacular failure. But the Iraqi case is more complex than that because it also holds lessons for a course of action that could potentially bring stability and advancement to Syria – that of partition. The only part of Iraq that can be considered a comparative success story (though, of course, by no means perfect) is Iraqi Kurdistan, and it has been able to achieve comparative stability and economic growth through a de facto partition from the rest of the country.
Other examples of comparative success in disentangling rival ethnic communities and achieving security, stability, and economic growth include parts of the former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia (which operates as a confederation between separate ethnically-based geographic units) and Kosovo. While none of these cases of partition came about without being predated by significant conflict and bloodshed, and while many of them still contain restive ethnic minorities, the creation of new states through the partitioning of old ones has produced a surprising degree of stability and even peace.
The brutal warfare in Syria is creating mutual sectarian hatreds that will last generations. While there never was a strong shared Syrian identity, it is safe to say that there is none at this point. The Sunni majority may identify with the term “Syrian,” but that does not constitute buy-in to the idea that all citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic are Syrians with equal rights and responsibilities. The Alawis, and probably the Druze, Christians, and Kurds, would be better off in their own independent states separate from the Sunni majority, and the Sunni majority will probably be better off not having to absorb and repress enclaves of minority groups that are likely to fight insurgencies lasting years, or perhaps decades, against a Sunni Syrian government. Partition may not be a popular idea for the international community, but it did ultimately support partition in the former Yugoslavia, and it has acquiesced in the de facto partition of Iraq. In all these cases, partition has ultimately, despite significant growing pains, produced greater security, stability, and prosperity for the people involved. It is time to contemplate this option for Syria and to start developing contingency plans accordingly.