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Is the Partition of Iraq and Syria Still Avoidable?

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There is an ongoing debate in the US administration to determine if Iraq and Syria are indeed heading to total, unavoidable, and possibly permanent, fragmentation. Some officials cling to the prospects of preserving Iraqi unity while they grade the Syrian situation as yet “undecided”. However, realities on the ground seem to be heading in a direction that is not backing this view.

New realities, and possibly new borders, are in the process of being created. No one can make any solid predictions at this point as things are changing rapidly. Nonetheless, it is possible to detect the process of fermentation and spot its emerging forces and the way they act and react in different phases of the process. Barring a grand regional bargain, the one fact that is becoming clearer by the day is that these forces are mostly past the point of conciliation and a regional bargain is not likely.

When there is a distance between the inner ability of a specific society and the goal of reaching an acceptable social contract to preserve its unity, external players can enter to help fill this distance. In this case, external forces widen the gap instead of bridging it. Yet, there are signs that the relevant parties understood that the situation in Syria, for example, should come to a political end. There are certain efforts going on silently now aiming at reaching a reasonable endgame in Syria.

But the general rule remains unchanged. The warring communities of Iraq and Syria’s population will always exist, and the factors that may help to de-sectarianize the two societies are getting weaker, the most likely scenario, if efforts to reach an endgame fail, is the continuation of the ongoing fragmentation for a long time to come. The social cracks in the two countries will deepen and expand their parallel culture that is being formed now.

Yet, there is something peculiar about this process: It does not run out of surprises. John Kerry was meeting with Bashar Al Assad in Damascus almost exactly five years ago. No one was thinking then of the partition of Syria and ISIL did not exist. Time seems to be running faster in the Middle East. All delayed bills hidden behind the surface gathered in one moment and knocked on the doors of a region that seemed to have forgotten them for a long time.

But is it really inevitable that this process ends with the partition of Syria and Iraq?

In Syria, Kurdish forces in the north are currently shaping a course of events that may lead to an independent Kurdistan. Turkey is standing in bafflement, not knowing what should be done more than what has already been done. It hoped once for very promising changes happening on the other side of the borders only to find, four years later, its worst nightmare emerging there slowly. As Ankara cannot turn the clock back, it may even rush to taking damaging steps.

However, Kurdish forces are vulnerable in other ways as well. They cannot develop their campaign without strong alliances with some Arab Sunni forces. They need to see a different Turkish approach to the North of Syria and they still have a narrow perspective of their potential role based on a limited interpretation of their objective and of how to achieve it.

The Kurds need to build strong bridges with the Arab Sunnis of the North in order to isolate their adversaries-ISIL and Assad. Kurdish forces should avoid any revenge acts against the indigenous populations. It was ill-advised to refuse entry for international inspectors to Tal Abyad after its capture. If crimes were committed, they should be transparently revealed and the perpetrators should be held accountable. It is essential to set a different standard in this war, not only morally but politically as well. Such practices will play a role in future cohabitation in the North of Syria.

A rush to Al Reqqa city without a wider coalition with moderate Arab Sunni forces should be avoided. Such forces are hard to be found now in the North. Yet, there are signs that they are slowly emerging between the cracks in the monopoly of fundamentalists in that region, and the Kurds should help provide favorable conditions for the growth of these moderates when possible. Some FSA units are already fighting with the Kurds. Kurdish forces still need arms and ammunition. More creative ways to provide them with the equipment they need should be explored.

On the other side of the situation in the North of Syria, near future developments may shape the overall dynamics. It has become more evident now that ISIL is preparing for the battle of Aleppo. Higher mobile concentrations of ISIL forces are gathering along the lines between the Islamist opposition and ISIL. Capturing the old city will be a turning point in the situation in that area, if not in all of Syria.

North Syria remains the most complex and challenging spot in the course of events in both Syria and Iraq. Overall, the almost certain defeat of ISIL in the future will not radically change the challenging realities which emerged on the ground. ISIL should not be reduced to a military phenomenon. It is political, cultural and geopolitical. As such, defeating it cannot be a military term only.

So far, the step of unifying the Islamists in North and South Syria has progressed remarkably since the beginning of 2015. Yet, this new phase of opposition evolution carries its own problems. There is, for example, the presence of Jabhat Al Nusra (JAN) which cannot be written off at present, and which promises to turn into a real regional problem, even bigger than Assad, in the future.

Establishing a branch of the Army of Conquer (AC) in South Syria is another complication as it creates a second consolidated magnet in an area where the Free Syrian Army (FSA) used to enjoy a leading role. It is obvious that a substantial infusion of military equipment should be provided to FSA forces in the South of Syria to enhance the coherence of this relatively moderate force and enable it to preserve its leading role which will be badly needed in the future.

The overall picture in Syria indicates that the already divided country has different forces struggling to control as much strategic areas as possible. While the South should not be allowed to slide into a similar situation like the North, the most probable scenario is a consolidation of the small pieces of the mosaic into larger pieces of mosaic. Short of a political comprehensive deal signed by all relevant parties, these forces scattered North and South will keep holding their territories regardless of any decision taken by Assad. Moscow has recently joined in a multilateral intensive deliberations focused, behind the scene, on trying to find an endgame to the Syrian crisis. The new effort is extremly important as it includes all relevant parties without exception. Yet, its results are still very much uncertain.

Barring a relatively quick political solution, Assad, who has been turned into a de facto militia chief, will end up controlling part of Syria, while in the rest of the country a host of other forces will continue to fight with each other and with the pro-Assad remaining forces in the West. It will be a long time before we see a unified Syria if we ever see such a thing again.

In Iraq, the control of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of urban centers in Central Iraq will potentially be the most threatening development happening recently. These forces will not easily leave in the future what they captured now by force. Prospects for even a longer term civil war are being created now even faster than before. That will inevitably help, preserve and expand ISIL in Iraq. A defeat for pro-Iran forces in Syria will certainly lead to sharpening Tehran’s will to control Central Iraq.

Prospects for preserving the unity of Iraq are diminishing rapidly. As much as it is possible to read in statements coming out of Pentagon officials, it is obvious that Washington is trying to hedge its bets, particularly in Iraq. It is understood that in Central and Western Iraq, a Sunni Peshmerga is needed to defeat ISIL. If Baghdad resists, it will be Amman that will do it.

And Amman is warming up to do it.

Jordan is looking closely at providing the Arab tribes in Syria and Iraq with assistance. These tribes extend through the desert between Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The project is an expression of loss of hope in preserving the unity of Syria and Iraq. Jordan denies categorically any intentions of supplying the tribes with arms. Amman PM said recently that any Jordanian assistance to Iraqi tribes will be provided “only through Baghdad”.

Former CIA Director General David Petraeus recently warned of the danger of the Shia militias and called for arming Anbar tribes. The militia responded by attacking the General even on personal levels and reminded the Iraqis that Petraeus “is not an American official”. However, Petraeus views left the question of how to arm the tribes unanswered. Shia pro-Iranian forces in Baghdad have one answer: the Sunni tribes must join the anti-Sunni Shia militia – the Popular Mobilization – to be armed.

However, statements attributed to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter show that the possibility of a fragmented Iraq is well in the minds of Washington officials. “What if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible? That is an important part of our strategy now on the ground. If that government can’t do what it’s supposed to do, then we will still try to enable local ground forces, if they’re willing to partner with us, to keep stability in Iraq, but there will not be a single state of Iraq”, Secretary Carter allegedly told Congress members.

The government in Iraq does not seem to be able to do what it is supposed to do. Political and military pressures of extremist forces are preventing Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi from doing what it takes to preserve the unity of Iraq.

Admittedly, there is still sometime available before Iraq reaches the line of no return, yet time is passing fast in the Middle East. Faster than anywhere else in the world. Syria will remain fragmented for a long time to come, not because anyone in the world wants that, but because facts on the ground say so.

Will this be a sufficient reason for the relevant parties to accept a reasonable compromise?