Partition of Syria as Plan B?: The Case for Caution

This post is the latest installment of our “Monday Reflections” feature, in which a different Just Security editor examines the big stories from the previous week or looks ahead to key developments on the horizon.

Testifying before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility of splitting Syria apart as a way toward peace. He said, “[at] some point in time, some day someone is going to have to sit down at a table and arrive at an understanding about what Syria is going to be. But it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer.” Later in the hearing, Kerry indicated that the US hasn’t given up on the idea of a unified Syria: “Russia, the US, and Iran and our allies all say that we want a united Syria.”

The testimony left the definite impression that Kerry had given thought to the division of Syria as one possible solution to the current turmoil in the country. That was certainly how some heard it: The Guardian reported, “John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of ‘plan B’ if peace talks fail,” and Michael Weiss at The Daily Beast asked, “Does Obama Want to Carve Up Syria?” Bloomberg later reported that Syria had “condemned Kerry’s remarks on the risk of partition in Syria.”

This is not the first time that the world has flirted with partition as a way to solve an intractable war. The same proposal has circulated for years as a way to solve the crisis in Iraq, but it has been repeatedly rejected. And there have been various proposals over the years to reshape the Middle East by redrawing the borders, including by Ralph Peters, Robin Wright, and Joshua Landis.

There are, moreover, historical precedents for the sort of partition being discussed for Syria: In 1947, for instance, the former colonial India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. And in 1971, after a bloody civil war in Pakistan, the country was further partitioned to establish Bangladesh as an independent country. In the 1990s, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia all disintegrated, producing tens of smaller sub-states. Yemen broke up and then reunited (and is presently in danger of splitting once again). Eritrea split from Ethiopia, also in the early 1990s. And most recent of all, in 2011, Sudan split into Sudan and South Sudan.

Several of these historical precedents offer cautionary tales — none more so than the Sudan/South Sudan split. At the time, there was great hope that the partition would end the violence that had plagued the country for decades. The partition took place after the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ended the continent’s longest recorded civil war — a war that is estimated to have cost 1.5 million lives and displaced 4 million people. The agreement allowed the South to hold a referendum on independence in 2011. When the time came, the referendum won the support of 99 percent of the population. But independence did not end the violence. Instead, ethnic divisions bubbled over into sometimes bloody conflict. A recent 45-page UN report found that the “scale, intensity and severity of human rights violations and abuses have increased with the continuation of the hostilities, particularly during spikes in fighting in the middle and latter part of 2015. These have included large scale extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, abductions and enforced disappearances, forced displacement, looting, livestock-raiding and the burning of houses.”

There are reasons to worry that division of Syria could similarly unleash violence within the newly drawn borders. In an argument against partition of Iraq and Syria, Thomas Carlson explains that after the division of India, “around 15 million Hindus and Muslims were on the wrong side of the line and were forced to flee for their lives. Hundreds of thousands were killed.” If new borders were drawn in the Middle East today, there would similarly be many who would find themselves “on the wrong side” of those lines. Those who are likely to suffer the most, Carlson points out, are those who will not get a state of their own — including Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Mandaeans. Ralph Peters, who in 2006 suggested geographic division as a way to reduce conflict in the Middle East, acknowledged that the redrawing of borders in the Middle East would lead to ethnic cleansing, explaining his logic succinctly: “Ethnic cleansing works.” Whether it works or not is debatable, but what isn’t is the violence and displacement that ethnic cleansing entails. That is a cost that cannot be ignored.

Partition also does not solve the problem that has plagued the Syrian opposition from the beginning of the conflict — there are no clear leaders even within the new proposed borders. Syria remains deeply balkanized. The Kurdish region is perhaps the most cohesive, but that is precisely what worries Turkey, which is unlikely to accept an autonomous Kurdish state on its border. As a result, it’s unlikely that partition will lead to the end of the fighting — indeed, it could simply ignite new fights.

There are also significant legal challenges to partition. There are two legal ways to split a sovereign state like Syria. Partition can take place with the consent of the government (as was the case in Sudan). It appears highly unlikely, however, that the government of Syria would be cooperative. Indeed, it has reportedly rejected the suggestion of partition.

In the absence of consent, there’s only one remaining legal mechanism — and that is the approval of the UN Security Council through Chapter VII of the UN Charter. But that, too, brings us right back to the very problem we have faced for years: Both China and Russia have made clear that they are unwilling to allow any significant humanitarian intervention in the country to stop the violence against civilians. It is far from clear that they would react any differently to a plan to carve up Syria. (Although some have suggested that this is what Putin wanted all along and there have been some reports of talks about partition with the Russians since mid-2015; there is no word of where China stands on all this.) If the United States and its allies were to go ahead without Security Council approval, it would represent an extraordinary rejection of the United Nations legal order and its central pledge that, “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

In short, it’s far from clear that partition is a viable Plan B for Syria. Partition may seem like an appealing outside-of-the-box solution, but it is likely to run into precisely the same roadblocks that have prevented other efforts to end the conflict. And, if history is any guide, partition is no guarantee of peace. Indeed, it can ignite the very conflicts it means to forestall. 

About the Author(s)

Oona Hathaway

Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale Law School and Director of the Center for Global Legal Challenges at Yale Law School Follow her on Twitter (@oonahathaway).