Home/Daniel Larison/Partitioning Syria Would Be Folly

Partitioning Syria Would Be Folly

Bret Stephens wants to partition Syria:

The best option is to partition the country. The idea isn’t new, and critics point out that partition plans have been known to fail, that drawing boundaries is messy, that new borders won’t necessarily solve (and could aggravate) internecine rivalries, and that outside actors—Turkey above all—would have the grounds and the means to object.

All this is true, but it needs to be weighed against the likely alternative, which is some variation of the diplomatic efforts now taking place.

Stephens touts “success” in the Balkans as proof that this can work. That conveniently omits two important details: during the Balkan wars, many people in the seceding states actually wanted Yugoslavia to be broken up, and in order to be “successful” the break-up of Yugoslavia required large-scale forced expulsions and killings. It is notable that no one on any side of the Syrian conflict, except perhaps the Kurds, has any desire to see Syria broken up into rump statelets. Unlike in the Balkans, splitting up the country along some arbitrarily-drawn lines would be something outside governments try to impose on the people living there over their objections. This would not only fail to resolve the conflict, but would render all of the successor states illegitimate in the eyes of a substantial percentage of the people living in them. That makes it very likely that one or more of the successor states would seek to reunify the country that had been partitioned, and so it would make a durable peace settlement even more elusive because outside governments would say that the rump statelets’ independence must be preserved. Instead of “pacifying” the country, it would simply make the civil war an international one, and it would almost certainly guarantee that the states carved out of Syria would immediately be failed states and international wards. It would replicate the failure of creating South Sudan, but it would have none of the temporary benefits.

Naturally, Stephens thinks the U.S. should facilitate this one with more military intervention:

As for the rest of Syria, pacification would require a limited but decisive NATO intervention to rout ISIS from its strongholds, equip and aid the Free Syrian Army so that it can lift the siege of Aleppo and march on Damascus, and enjoin Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to deploy a long-term Arab stabilization force. The prospect for any of this happening is directly correlated to the perception of American seriousness—a perception that will only materialize once Mr. Obama leaves office.

A “NATO intervention” in practice means that the U.S. and maybe the French will take almost all of the risks, and it is questionable whether either government would be willing to do that in the future. Regardless, an intervention would expose U.S. and allied forces to all the dangers of being occupiers, and it would leave them holding the bag until the imaginary “Arab stabilization force” arrives. Unlike in the Balkans, NATO forces wouldn’t be accepted as peacekeepers, but would be treated as targets and just the newest participant in the war. Sending Americans to die in order to carve up someone else’s country against their wishes is one of the most bankrupt and abhorrent interventionist proposal yet, and no remotely responsible president would do anything like it.

Partition is a “solution” that is often favored by Westerners because it lines up with an assumption that the political fates of other nations should ultimately be “shaped” by our governments. It ignores the agency of local people except when convenient, and treats their country as an object to be divvied up as seems best to people who will never have to live with the consequences. There may occasionally be conflicts in which partition becomes the least awful alternative left, but it can only “work” to establish a lasting peace when it is accepted by the vast majority of the people affected by the decision and when it creates successor states that are likely to be viable. Neither of these would be true of partitioning Syria, and no one should seriously consider this as a “solution” to the conflict.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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