The recent gains by the Government of Bashar Al-Assad, supported by Russian Air Force strikes against the Sunni rebels, provide two interesting points of analysis. One is the future of Syrian conflict and the other is our current doctrine of counterinsurgency. The ability of Syrian government to retake and hold ground stopped the narrative of possible Assad collapse. It appears that all the parties to the conflict at this time recognize that the stalemate between the combatants with no side is strong enough to win the war. The recent calls from several foreign policy voices including Secretary Kerry with regards to the possible partition of Syria, so called plan B, could signal recognition of this fact and could chart a new way forward for conflict resolution.
As mentioned in previous posts on this blog, the country of Syria, just like Iraq, no longer exists. It is a country in the name only. To our detriment, it has taken a long time for our foreign policy establishment to come to grips with this fact. The Syrian borders drawn after World War I simply do not reflect the facts on the ground. To imagine such a diverse country ruled by the minority Alawites (that the majority Sunnis consider non-Muslim) could somehow survive as a country will always be a fantasy. Once the ability of Syrian government to control the whole country was shattered, the only way forward was partition.
The reverse would also be true. Even if somehow the majority Sunnis would be in charge, there is no doubt that the Alawites would be conducting an insurgent campaign to remain free of Sunni influence. Simply put it is a miracle that Syria stayed together as a country as long as it did. The only way forward is to partition Syria. In reality, this would just recognize the facts on the ground. There is no feasible path for the country to remain together given the nature of the insurgency/religious war there. As such, the US should push and make the current plan B, plan A. Partition is the only plan that actually offers a path to peace. There could even be a side benefit of Alawites getting rid of Assad once they recognize how badly he performed. As mentioned in previous posts, partition is nothing new. We have supported such events in Sudan and Yugoslavia. There simply comes a time when the country that is not a true nation state is no longer viable. When that’s the case the way forward is separation.
The second point of analysis is with regards to counterinsurgency and our current counterinsurgency doctrine. The recent Syrian government gains have been possible because of the massive Russian airpower backed up by Shiite militias and Syrian Army. Accordingly, it brings up an interesting point of analysis. The conduct of the Syrian government and Russian Air Force is completely opposite of what FM 3-24 talks about. There is no clear, hold, and build phase or emphasis on economic development per US counterinsurgency doctrine. Specifically, Counterinsurgency operations ultimately support reintegration through the integration of the stability functions in planning and execution. The stability functions are security, governance and participation, humanitarian assistance, rule of law, and economic stabilization and infrastructure (INSURGENCIES AND COUNTERING INSURGENCIES, FM 3-24, May 2014). Rather, just like the government of Sri Lanka in 2009 when it defeated the Tamil Tigers, the government of Syria is relying on massive firepower to suppress the Sunni insurgency. And it seems to be working at least on the limited scale. Perhaps FM 3-24 reexamination is in order.
Of the two points of analysis, the partition of Syria is the more important one as it offers a way forward for conflict resolution. It won’t be easy or popular, but it is the only way to produce peace. There is no conceivable way that the country could stay together given the scars of the past five years, therefore we should push and facilitate the partition of Syria into Sunni Arab, Sunni Kurd, and Allawites (plus others) states. It has been done before and can be done now. The longer we wait and pretend that Syria can survive as a unified state, the longer it will take for the scars of this conflict to heal.