Partitioning May Be a Peaceful Solution

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s November 20, 2013 blog post.

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The goal of building democratic institutions in North Africa and the Middle East could prove to be futile. The Arab Spring uprisings that brought about regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen did not bring peace to the region. The U.S. push for regime change in Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war and tribal and ethnic clashes, may not bring peace either.

Building democratic institutions and unifying Syria may not be possible, with the pent-up demand for a homeland by the differing ethnic factions. The overthrow of Bashar al-Assad may become the catalyst for the partitioning of Syria. This may also be true for other Middle East and North African countries, where uprisings and demonstrations occur almost daily.

President Barrack Obama has stated, “Assad must go” as a result of his military reprisals against demonstrators and rebels, and the use of deadly nerve agents, that have killed thousands of people. Even since the UN inspectors have taken control of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, the U.S. still insists the Assad regime must be dismantled–without an endgame plan. The removal of Assad will not bring stability, since chaos and civil strife will continue. Former national security adviser Zbigniew K. Brzezinski noted that any military intervention in Syria could lead to a large-scale disaster.

In 2011, the NATO incursion into Libya led to the killing of its ruler Muammar Gaddafi by Islamists, which created a giant quagmire in this oil rich country. Ousting Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak led to the election of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was subsequently deposed, placing the country into further chaos. Islamist factions deposed President Ben Ali in Tunisia, which new government is now under siege by secular opposition groups. In Yemen the uprisings brought about the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The U.S. could have learned from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, of how difficult it is to establish democratic institutions; where their fragile governments and citizens are attacked by terrorists almost daily.

The Arab countries all have their issues with religious unrest, which only adds to security concerns in the region. Some of the Arab countries have helped arm al-Qaeda linked Islamists, including Ansar al-Sharia, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State of Iraq, all embedded in the Middle East and North Africa.

In Syria, Islamist factions are fighting opposition rebel groups for control, with both sides being accused of executing their captives, and killing civilians who stand in their way. This chaotic situation will continue, as in Libya where Islamists have destabilized the country. Gaddafi had warned that Libya would be overrun by al-Qaeda, if he was deposed. His minority Warfalla tribe, in the town of Sirte, has already been butchered by the Islamists, and this eastern region is in their control.

Ibrahim al-Jathran, an Islamist militia leader, who recently shut down oil exports, last week announced he had taken over the oil port town of Brega, and the vast eastern region bordering Egypt. He formed the independent state of Cyrenaica (ancient Roman), and established a de facto government composed of tribal leaders from the eastern provinces, with support of his 20,000 strong militia. Libya’s President Mohammed Magerief did not interfere, having only a weak military force. Other Islamist groups are watching the outcome, especially those embedded in the oil producing regions.

Leaders of Syria’s ethnic Kurd’s living in the north, which represent ten percent of the 23 million population, last week announced they have taken control of the oil rich Hassakeh province; installed a civil administration which includes an assembly and administrative councils. They had driven Islamists from most of the towns bordering Turkey and Iraq, where Kurdish tribes have for years tried to establish a semi-autonomous state.

The Alawite Shiite tribe, which represents only seven percent of the population, fears the same fate awaits them as happened in Libya after Gaddafi’s downfall. They will be looking to establish a semi-autonomous homeland for their security, as will the minority Druze and Christian factions.

The Geneva peace conference may not lead to an agreeable inclusive resolution for all factions, and hence we can expect a rush to establish tribal enclaves and semi-autonomous regions for their own protection. The ousting of Bashar al-Assad will not bring the democratic outcome that the U.S. envisions, which will be difficult to achieve in a tribal society.

There is a long history of partitioning in the Middle East, beginning with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, with the creation of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Yemen, and the expansion of Saudi Arabia. After World War II, the partitioning of Palestine gave Israel a homeland, and Jordan more territory. The divisions by the Western powers did not take into account ethnic, cultural and religious differences, which are at the root of today’s conflicts.

Partitioning also took place in Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s, with the breakup of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which added twenty-one independent states.

In Syria, a viable option may be establishing semi-autonomous homelands for the multi-ethnic tribal and religious factions, if the on-going civil war and resulting chaos is to end. In addition, neighboring Arab countries will need to stop supporting the Islamist extremists, who want to take control of the country, in their quest to create an Islamic state ruled under Sharia law.

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