Syria: the Danger of the Transformation of the De Facto Partition into a Permanent Status

EPC | 11 Jul 2021

The parties controlling the areas outside the authority of the Syrian regime tend to perpetuate their presence in an attempt to create an alternative authority in those areas, taking advantage of the external protection provided by the regional and international parties, and from the situation of freezing the conflict that is taking place in Syria, in addition to possessing the resources through which they can provide services in their areas of control, which makes them a de facto authority in the absence of any prospect for a political settlement in Syria. However, this reality that has been going on for many years has produced a divisive reality in Syria, which seems likely to turn into a final form that is difficult to change, as long as this change does not comply with the political and security calculations of regional and international actors in light of the existing balance of power and their subjection to the equations of conflict and the current rules of engagement.

This paper aims to shed light on the current "de facto" partition map in Syria, read the factors driving it, and anticipate its consequences.

War and the industry of partition

The map of control in Syria has changed many times, depending on the balance of power and the implicit and explicit understandings that took place between the parties involved in the conflict. At the beginning of the crisis, there was a possibility of a division based on ethnic and sectarian lines, that is a Kurdish state in the areas east of the Euphrates, an Alawite state in western Syria, and a Sunni state in the middle. The civil and military dynamics have contributed to the delineation of the initial borders for those states.[1] However, this possibility was abolished by Russia’s direct entry into the conflict line in 2015 by helping the Syrian regime control the so-called “useful Syria” that extends from Aleppo to Daraa, and its entry with Turkey into the Astana understandings that produced the de-escalation zones, including the fourth region which includes Idlib, on which a number of understandings and agreements took place between Russia and Turkey that made its continuation outside the authority of Damascus a fait accompli. At the same time, it was not possible to change the situation in the areas of eastern Syria that enjoy US protection, which went towards organising themselves through the so-called Kurdish-controlled "Autonomous Administration".

The de facto authorities

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, QSD) in eastern Syria, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and some military factions in Idlib have been able to control areas of the Syrian geography and establish administrative and authoritarian structures commensurate with their perceptions. Those parties managed to realise those perceptions not by their representation of the environments they control but rather by the power they possess, in addition to taking advantage of their external alliances, which have greatly contributed to their consolidation and transformation into a reality.

In Idlib and the northern areas controlled by Turkey, at the beginning of the crisis, the communities established local administrative councils, in coordination with the political opposition and the emerging armed factions at that time. After HTS took control of Idlib, and Turkey occupied the areas of Al-Bab, Afrin and Tal Abyad, two types of administration were formed: the first took the form of local administrative structures that operate under the supervision of the Turkish authorities, and the second is in Idlib through the so-called "Salvation Government" affiliated with HTS, with a less influential presence of the Syrian Interim Government, which is affiliated with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces.[2]

HTS was able to secure the resources necessary to form an alternative authority to official institutions and provide services that make it a de facto authority, through its extensive control over the networks smuggling people to Turkey, imposing fees on businesses, in addition to smuggling operations with regime-controlled areas, and its monopoly of trading in some materials, such as fuel, through companies owned by senior officials in the HTS.[3]

While the government associated with the HTS does not benefit from foreign aid directly, because the majority of this aid is managed by civil society groups associated with international relief agencies, what this aid provides has contributed to achieving a kind of stability in the HTS-controlled areas, and supporting its presence as a de facto authority.

These facts have contributed to empowering the HTS authority and strengthening the building of ruling structures that perpetuate the reality of Idlib’s separation from the state, which the HTS seemed to be working on accelerating. This was explained by its leader Abu Muhammad al-Golani in his recent meeting with tribal actors in Idlib, by confirming that the HTS is working on building institutions in preparation for the next stage, in parallel with the HTS attempts to polish its image abroad as a moderate force fighting terrorism in its region. Perhaps the most recent of those institutions is the formation of recruitment divisions in and around Idlib to recruit young men who wish to join the HTS. This institution is similar to the recruitment divisions of the Syrian state, but the difference is that recruitment is voluntary and not compulsory.[4]

In the northeastern regions of Syria, the “Autonomous Administration” was established as of 2012, in the Al-Hasakah Governorate, and expanded after the expulsion of Daesh (Islamic State, ISIS) to include the areas of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor and Manbij. The large resources that fall under the authority of the Autonomous Administration allowed it to build a huge institutional structure and provide many services to the areas under its control.

The Autonomous Administration formed the so-called Executive Council, which includes a group of executive committees similar to ministries, which manage the affairs of transportation, health, communications, customs, defence, education, foreign affairs, and others. The Autonomous Administration manages these affairs in coordination sometimes with the institutions of the Syrian government, which are still operating within a narrow scope, and sometimes in competition with them. For example, there are two tax collection bodies in eastern Syria, and the Autonomous Administration imposes the prices of goods and services individually.[5]

The institutions of the foreign relations, defence, security and education committees are the institutions that provide the greatest support to the de facto separate state from Syria, and the formation of alternative structures that reflect the political orientations of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration in perpetuating and establishing the reality of separation and transforming it into a final reality, provided that this is done gradually and by assuming more of the powers of the Syrian government and marginalising its presence in the eastern regions of Syria, without the need to engage in fierce wars with the government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

In the border areas with Turkey, which are under direct Turkish control, Turkey imposes a model of partition, similar to the Turkish Cypriot model, as it gradually imposed the Turkish language on educational institutions, and opened Turkish universities and schools, in addition to postal and communications services. Recently, the Turkish authorities asked their allies in Idlib to create a general secretariat for the civil registry in the governorate that reports directly to it, and to form local councils in cities, towns and villages that fall under the control of the opposition factions.[6]

Economy is the locomotive of partition

The years of war contributed to pushing the de facto authorities to establish economic arrangements, the aim of which was initially to manage the affairs of the communities on the lands controlled by those authorities. However, over time, they turned into one of the most important operational tools of the de facto authorities in the face of reintegration with the Syrian entity. This drives Syrians in those areas to adapt to the new realities, in light of the emergence of new patterns of displacement and trade.

In the areas of the Autonomous Administration, economic networks were established consisting of leaders in the structures of the Autonomous Administration and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), along with local traders and intermediaries. These networks monopolise vital rentier economic sectors such as oil and gas.[7]

However, the most important variable in this context was the shift to dealing in dollars instead of the Syrian pound. Almost all major economic transactions in the Autonomous Administration areas have come to be carried out in dollars or are indexed according to the current exchange rates. The dependence of the Autonomous Administration regions on oil and wheat, which are largely linked to the dollar, and the strong presence of international actors in the field of aid, contributed to strengthening this trend.[8]

In Idlib, the opposition factions established their own economic offices, responsible for managing financial resources in their areas of control, managing businesses and internal crossings. The factions’ economic networks expanded in local economies and their interest in rentier sectors such as real estate.

In the border strip areas of Afrin, Jarabulus and Tal Abyad, the Turkish lira has largely replaced the Syrian lira, as the salaries of many armed fighters, administrative staff and aid workers in Turkish-administered areas are paid in Turkish lira through transfers made through the Turkish National Post Office (PTT). At a later stage, the Salvation Government adopted this approach in Idlib, and also began to pay many salaries in Turkish lira, which turned into an indicator of important consumer goods and salaries. This was largely reflected in a wide range of matters related to trade and local administration.[9]

The expansion of the use of foreign currencies is one of the factors behind the separation of those areas from the central rule of Syria, by bringing the economy and management of those areas into harmony with the dominant external parties in a first stage, and then perpetuating this reality, so that reintegration into the Syrian state will become very difficult.

The reflection of the division on the social reality

The most dangerous thing about the geographical and political division taking place in Syria is its deep impact on the Syrian social situation, which has become clearly affected by the local and international forces that control each region. This has resulted in social structures that differ in their objectives, such as the structures under the regime’s control, those in the regions under Turkish control, and others in the Syrian south in Daraa and As-Suwayda, areas controlled by the Kurdish Protection Forces (YPG), and areas controlled by HTS, as well as Syrians in refugee camps adjacent to the Turkish borders.[10]

In the opinion of many observers, a majority of the population have adapted to suit the ruling authority in their areas. This means that the Syrian division is actual and real, without daring to declare it. This is clearly shown through the population’s preferences for the authorities to which they are subject, and the nature of the emerging awareness and thinking about the state of division, in addition to their preference to live within the population mass that they engage in living with in the same area, in what has come to be called “demographic harmony”. This was previously expressed by the President of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad in one of his speeches by confirming that Syria, although it lost many of its youth, has gained a homogeneous society, in reference to the demographic change that took place in Syria as a result of migration and asylum.[11]

Even among the Alawites, who were the Syrian component that paid the most to maintain the status quo, the idea of ​​staying within Greater Syria is no longer tempting except that many of their military leaders believe that they could obtain economic opportunities in these circumstances. This Alawite mood depends on the continuation of the current situation. If it changes, the Alawites will accept the dismantling of Syria and claim a region that is ready after the displacement of the largest number of the Sunni population in Baniyas, Latakia and al-Haffah, although Sunnis still constitute nearly half of the population of the Syrian coast, according to some estimates.[12]

Catalysts for segmentation

1. Russian policies in force in Syria

 In the arenas of conflict in which it is engaged, Russia adopts a policy of freezing the conflict, with the aim of preserving the regional gains achieved, pending the occurrence of developments that may be to its advantage in those arenas. Russia has started to follow this policy clearly in the Syrian domain,[13] as active operations stopped more than a year ago. So much so that Russia began to think of stabilising this reality by offering to Turkey to open crossings between the two parties’ areas of control, to ease the economic crisis that the Syrian regime is going through.[14]

This policy contributes to perpetuating the reality of the existing division in Syria, and its transformation over time into a final fait accompli which is impossible to change except through a major war for which Russia does not seem ready, especially after Turkey in the areas of northern Syria and the US in eastern Syria set up fortifications and built defensive structures that are difficult for the Syrian regime forces, even with the help of Russia, to bypass and liberate areas outside their control.

The policy of freezing the conflict is considered the final stage in the tactics used by Russia in managing the conflict in Syria, and its attempts to create balances between the Iranian and Turkish roles, through the Astana and Sochi meetings, which ended with semi-independent regions, with the distribution of influence over Syrian territory.[15]

Russia has rushed to use those tactics because it believes that any measures that will result from them will be temporary, pending an understanding with the US on the final solution. On the basis of this solution everything that has been built with Turkey and Iran would be dismantled. However, until an understanding with the Americans is reached, Russia can benefit from its understandings with Turkey and Iran in reducing the costs of its presence in Syria and consolidating its influence.

2. Policies of internal players

a. The Kurdish Autonomous Administration: the war against Daesh, and the subsequent gathering of the Daesh families in al-Hol camp, constituted a valuable opportunity for the Kurds to allow the outside world to open up to them, and to obtain international recognition, albeit not declared, that has become a reality by virtue of the dealings of many countries with the “Kurdish Autonomous Administration” through its official channels, in order to retrieve their citizens who were affiliated with Daesh. The Autonomous Administration is trying to exploit this approach to establish its existence as an independent authority.[16] The Autonomous Administration has mobilised all its resources in order to achieve this goal, taking advantage of the experience of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the experience of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the international field. Besides, the fact that the presence of bases for the international coalition and the US gave the Kurds a margin of safety that helped them enable their presence. Apart from the assertions issued by the Autonomous Administration that separation from the Syrian state is not among their goals that are limited to the right of autonomous administration and the application of the federal system, their political practices aim primarily to achieve separation without getting involved in confrontations with the Syrian regime and its allies. This is evidenced by the Kurds' rejection of all the formulas proposed by the regime's government and the Russian mediation.

b. The Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda in Idlib: in Idlib, the Muslim Brotherhood and HTS aspire to obtain an independent entity, very similar to the model of the Gaza Strip. The Russian-Turkish understandings that stopped the war in Idlib are benefited from, and the Brotherhood is investing in the foreign relations of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces to support the "interim government" that is trying to appear as a legal and logical alternative to the government of the Syrian regime in areas outside the regime's control.[17] HTS seeks political recognition, and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, has changed his political rhetoric to woo the US and the West. The HTS also seeks to empower its government (the Salvation) and its institutions in competition with the "interim government" affiliated with the opposition coalition.

c. The Syrian regime: the Syrian regime’s wrong approaches to addressing the crisis contribute to perpetuating the state of division and transforming it into a final reality. Despite its inability to reunite Syria and end the division by force, the regime exacerbates matters through its political and media discourse as it describes its opponents in eastern and northwestern Syria as traitors, agents and terrorists, and its insistence on a military solution and the closure of all doors to political solutions, which pushes its opponents to adhere to secession, because other alternatives mean their annihilation.

These local actors benefit from the support provided by external parties to their positions, in order to fit the current situation of division with the interests of the supporting parties, namely Turkey and the US. Besides, the hardening of the regime's position is only a reflection of the Russian and Iranian positions.

Conclusions

In reality, Syria is divided into three different entities in terms of the nature and form of government systems and institutions, ruling ideologies and ideas, and governing laws. The balance of power between the supporters of the local parties contributed to perpetuating the reality of separation, in addition to the demographic change policies pursued by the warring parties, in combination with the objectives of those parties and international interests in accelerating the path of separation. The Russians and the Americans are the main actors in determining the shape and outcome of the Syrian situation, and the Turks and Iranians are exploiting the Russian and US differences to extend their influence.

Partition has become an established reality, and it is difficult for Syria to return to a unified state in the foreseeable future in the absence of any signs of agreement on a political solution soon. Practically speaking, it could be said that the scene of division in Syria is greater than the apparent picture, as the three regions are candidates for more divisions. In Idlib, there is a division between HTS, which has great control in Idlib, and the Turkish-backed opposition factions that control south and southeast Idlib (Ariha, Balyun, Taftanaz, al-Mastumah, and Neirab), while hard-line factions (Guardians of Religion, Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Din) control the areas west of Idlib (Jisr al-Shughur).[18]

In the regime-controlled areas, the Russians control an area that includes Latakia, Tartus and Homs, where the Russian bases and their air defence network are concentrated, while Iran controls the capital Damascus and the areas around it up to the Lebanese border, in addition to the area west of the Euphrates and large parts of Aleppo.

While the Autonomous Administration areas show an apparent harmony, they contain dynamics that are liable to explode in the coming stages, through Kurdish-Kurdish and Kurdish-Arab conflicts.

It is not expected that major field changes will affect the existing map of division between the three entities, despite the continuation of skirmishes in Idlib, which may result in a slight movement of the borders in favour of Russia and the Syrian regime in the area near the M4 highway linking Aleppo and Latakia.

References

[1] Heiko Wimmen, “Syria’s Path from Civic Uprising to Civil War”, Carnegie Middle East Center, 22 November 2016.

[2] “The reality of the existing local and administrative structures in Idlib governorate during the year 2018”, Omran for Strategic Studies, 31 December 2018.

[3] “How Does Hayat Tahrir al-Sham run its stronghold in the Governorate of Idlib?” Radio Monte Carlo Douliya, 28 June 2019.

[4] Al-Golani rushes arrangements: researchers review ‘internal and external goals’” Al-Souriya Net. 29 May 2021.

[5] “The Autonomous Administration: the nucleus of democratic federalism”, ANF News, 21 January 2021.

[6] “The Turkish regime continues the policy of Turkification in the areas it occupies with its terrorists”, SANA News Agency, 7 June 2021.

[7] “Networks of the war economy in Syria: their effects and what is required in response to them”, Omran Center for Strategic Studies, 10 May 2021.

[8] See: COAR, Cash crash: Syria’s economic collapse and the fragmentation of the state, July 2020, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Cash-crash-Syria%E2%80%99s-economic-collapse-and-the-fragmentation-of-the-state.pdf

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ammar Dauib, “Syria's future between division and unity”, Al-Araby al-Jadeed, 14 May 2021. Available at: https://www.alaraby.co.uk/sites/default/files/styles/large_16_9/public/media/images/9B92F1F4-A872-4A6C-A562-C052AFA2371C.jpg?h=d1cb525d&itok=bN2TiYQc

[11] Omar Kaddour, “What if Bashar won the presidency for real?”, Al-Modon, 25 May 2021.

[12] “The Alawite state controls “useful Syria” and expels a million Sunnis from the coast”, Zaman al-Wasl, 13 March 2016.

[13] “Is Russia prepared for an open-ended conflict in Syria?” the Middle East Institute, 14 May 2021.

[14] Juan Debo, “Assad’s presidential elections: an establishment of the reality of partition”, Annahar Al-Arabi, 13 May 2021.

[15] Ghassan Ibrahim, “The partition of Syria: a pressure card that has been overtaken by reality”, the London-based Al-Arab newspaper, 10 April 2021.

[16] Ibrahim Hamidi, “The “border” is fixed between the Syrian “states” pending a US-Russian “deal””. 14 May 2021.

[17] Abdullah Suleiman Ali, “Syria's "Brotherhood" campaign on the presidential elections is a prelude to the partition project!”, Annahar Al-Arabi, 1 June 2021.

[18] Baraa al-Shami, “Military experts: Idlib has witnessed a major change in the map of the distribution of military control”, North Press Agency, 3 May 2021.

 

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