Commentary Magazine


In Syria, Partition Is Not the Answer

The Six-Day War in 1967 may have brought Israel victory over its Arab neighbors and shaped the modern Middle East, but it did nothing to stem the Palestinian desire to carry out terrorism against the Jewish state. Factions led by Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian terrorists consolidated on the Jordanian side of the Israel-Jordan boundary and used the area as a launching pad for anti-Israel violence. But as the movements picked up steam, the Palestinian encampments began behaving as a state within a state, brought Israeli retribution, and eventually destabilized Jordan enough for the Jordanian monarchy to force Arafat’s expulsion.

Arafat and his crew went to southern Lebanon, where they played the encore, once again creating a state within a state, destabilizing their sovereign host, and sparking regional armed conflict. Eventually Arafat would lose his base in south Lebanon as well, but there a new terrorist movement would sprout in his place. Hezbollah, fierce and bloodthirsty and determined to kill Jews, followed the script. First, the group developed and consolidated an area of influence. Then it began destabilizing its host state and sparking regional war.

This history, and the very clear pattern that has been established by combining weak states with transnational terrorist movements, should weigh heavily on the debate over what to do about the Syrian civil war. It’s why one scenario–partition–would likely only produce a brief spell of quiet as a prelude to more violence and state collapse. And it’s what should make Tom Friedman’s latest proposal, in which he anticipates a fragmented Syria and calls on the Obama administration to secure whatever part of that postwar state it can, a nonstarter:

Thus, the most likely option for Syria is some kind of de facto partition, with the pro-Assad, predominantly Alawite Syrians controlling one region and the Sunni and Kurdish Syrians controlling the rest. But the Sunnis are themselves divided between the pro-Western, secular Free Syrian Army, which we’d like to see win, and the pro-Islamist and pro-Al Qaeda jihadist groups, like the Nusra Front, which we’d like to see lose.

That’s why I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad’s forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army — including the antitank and antiaircraft weapons it’s long sought. This has three virtues: 1) Better arming responsible rebels units, and they do exist, can really hurt the Assad regime in a sustained way — that is the whole point of deterrence — without exposing America to global opprobrium for bombing Syria; 2) Better arming the rebels actually enables them to protect themselves more effectively from this regime; 3) Better arming the rebels might increase the influence on the ground of the more moderate opposition groups over the jihadist ones — and eventually may put more pressure on Assad, or his allies, to negotiate a political solution.

Friedman’s suggested course of action is unworkable more than it is unlikely. As I wrote in May, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are on pace to lose only parts of the country. Assad has enlisted the help of Hezbollah, and as a result will gain more control over land in Lebanon and be better able to entrench his loyalist power base. If the war ends in a stalemate, I wrote, the divided country would probably be a menacing presence from day one:

Such a division would collapse whatever nominal independence Lebanon has because the Assad regime, buoyed by its military alliance with Hezbollah, would control areas that border on Lebanon. It would give Syria renewed control over Lebanese territory and expand Hezbollah’s reach as well. That might be a fair trade for Assad, but it wouldn’t be for Western interests. If Assad loses territory in Syria’s north or east, those areas may become Islamist operating bases near American allies–Iraq and to some extent Jordan to the east and southeast, Turkey to the north. The latter is a NATO ally with a predilection for funding some Islamic terror groups while fighting others.

Again, the watchword here is destabilization. Jordan thought it could host Palestinian militants while still ruling over them. It was wrong. The Palestinians even briefly declared themselves independent of the monarchy before their expulsion. Lebanon had the same experience with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah. If al-Qaeda prospers in some part of Syria, it will probably follow the same pattern, first by securing a state within a state and then expanding, destabilizing the entire country.

That’s why Friedman’s advice to accept partition would be a long-term mistake. Unless the U.S. installs a puppet regime it is willing to go to war for in the moderate rebel section of the postwar partitioned Syria, those moderate rebels won’t fare much better against the al-Qaeda affiliates just because the West fabricated a “border.” The impulse to want to bring an end to the bloodshed is understandable, but pretend sovereignty and pretend peace won’t make that happen.

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