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The Russian proposal to create ‘de-escalation areas’ in Syria has triggered further fears of Syria’s fragmentation, with the ‘de-escalation areas’ seen as providing the building blocks for the ‘federalisation’ of Syria supposedly envisaged by the draft constitution for Syria which the Russians circulated to the participants of the Astana conference a few weeks ago.
These fears are by no means unfounded. There are many factors within Syria that work against the reunification of the country into a unitary state. However I doubt the Russians are one of them.
The political map of Syria today is divided into a patchwork of areas controlled by a variety of armed groups. Though the Syrian government now firmly controls all the major population centres and what is sometimes called ‘useful Syria’ (the densely populated and wealthy area of western Syria), its control of the countryside even in those parts of Syria which it nominally controls is often tenuous, with even many of the local militias nominally allied to the Syrian government and the Syrian army by no means always responsive to the Syrian government’s control.
This process of fragmentation has been made worse by the Syrian government’s practice of trying to supplement the Syrian Arab Army’s shortage of manpower by raising new armed formations often paid for by prominent businessmen to supplement those of the regular army. Whilst these formations do come under the Syrian Arab Army’s chain of command, in practice it seems they have drawn men and equipment from the army’s regular units, thereby to some extent privatising the army, and making it less responsive to the government.
Over and beyond these problems, the territorially greater part of the country is still controlled by armed Jihadi groups hostile to the Syrian government, especially ISIS in the east and Al-Qaeda in the west.
In addition to these groups, one of most powerful and politically ambitious militias in Syria – the Kurdish YPG – operates completely outside the Syrian government’s control, and is quite obviously motivated by a political agenda of its own. Its relationship with the central government in Damascus is to put it mildly a fractious one.
Lastly there is the fact that Syria has become a major field of conflict between the Great Powers five of whom – the US, Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran – actually have troops in Syria. Of these Russia and Iran are allied to the Syrian government but have their own interests and agendas, whilst the US, Israel and Turkey are implacably hostile to it.
In this situation concerns about whether Syria will hold together and whether the Syrian government will be successful in restoring its control over the whole country are fully legitimate and those concerned for the future of Syria are fully entitled to express them.
Before giving up all hope for the unity of Syria it is important however to say that there are three factors that still work for the continued unity of the country.
The first is that every opinion survey I have seen shows that this is the wish of the Syrian people, who have consistently resisted attempts to divide them on ethnic, religious and sectarian lines.
The second is that except in those areas controlled by ISIS the Syrian bureaucracy continues to function across most of Syria with its wages continuing to be paid by the government in Damascus. This means that the Syrian government continues to have a presence in most of Syria, even in places which for the moment are outside the control of the Syrian army.
The third is that for all its weaknesses the Syrian Arab Army is by far the strongest single military force directly involved in the Syrian war, and with the backing of Russia and Iran its superiority over the various Jihadi groups has become decisive. This means that unless the hostile external powers – the US, Israel and Turkey – intervene in Syria to prevent its victory, the Syrian Arab Army will eventually sweep all before it, though it may take time before that happens. As I have discussed previously, the Russian presence in Syria makes that sort of external intervention dangerous and in the end unlikely.
This however points to Russia’s key role in determining the extent to which Syria will remain united. Since it is the Russians whose military intervention has tipped the balance of military power in Syria decisively in the Syrian army’s favour, if they were ever to come down heavily in favour of Syria’s ‘federalisation’ there would have to be a high possibility it would happen.
I have already set out my reasons for doubting that the notorious ‘draft constitution’ the Russians proposed a few weeks ago is really intended by the Russians to be any sort of blueprint for Syria’s future, much less for its ‘federalisation’.
The Russians do have long established links with the Kurds extending far back into the Soviet period. They have made it fairly clear that they would like to see some sort of political and cultural space improving on the status the Kurds had in Syria before the war granted to the Kurds.
However I doubt they intend this to be pushed to the point where it would seriously endanger Syria’s unity. On the Kurdish question my views are essentially the same as those of the independent analyst Mark Sleboda. I suspect that both the Russians and the YPG understand that there are limits to how far the Kurdish question can be pushed, and that both understand that it is ultimately in their interests to settle for something much less than the sweeping autonomy for the Kurdish areas that some fear and others hope for.
What I am quite sure of is that the plan for ‘de-escalation areas’ does not threaten Syria’s unity. It is quite clear that the ‘de-escalation areas’ are intended as a temporary measure to bolster the ceasefire and to eliminate Al-Qaeda. They do not create, and are not intended to create, the territorial building blocks for a future Syrian federation. Indeed the memorandum about them the Russians signed in Astana with the Iranians and the Kurds actually excludes that possibility, limiting their existence to just 6 months, though with the option of keeping them in existence for longer.
The big question about the plan for the ‘de-escalation areas’ is not whether setting them up would threaten Syria’s unity. It is whether the plan for them is realistic and workable, and whether they will be set up at all. With Al-Qaeda and the other Jihadi groups opposing them, the plan’s success ultimately depends too much on President Erdogan for anyone to be confident about it.
Whether Syria will remain in the end a unitary state is unforeseeable. However on balance I think it will, and I do not share the fear of some that Russia is actively working towards fragmenting Syria and turning it into some sort of federation. I think the Russians are realistic enough to see the problems involved in doing that, and I don’t see why they would think that doing it is in their interests.
I think it is a mistake to read too much into the tactical manoeuvres the Russians engage in in Syria – such as floating a draft constitution and proposing the establishment of ‘de-escalation areas’ – and to try to construe from them a Russian strategy to remake Syria. I doubt such a strategy exists, or that the Russians actually are much concerned about the precise nature of the constitutional or political arrangements Syria will have after the war.
However I am sure that the Russians would far prefer Syria to remain united under a government which is both stable and strong – so that Syria can defend itself external aggression and from Jihadi terrorism and provide protection for the big network of bases the Russians are building there – without needing help from Russia. That points to Syria remaining a unitary state, and I am sure that that is what the Russians prefer.