September 28, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 887

Pro- And Anti-Assad Camps Share Concerns Over Syria's Possible Disintegration Into Separate Sectarian, Ethnic Entities

September 28, 2012 | By N. Mozes*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 887



"Everything in Syria these days is fragmented or divided. The regime is divided and crumbling, the land is divided, [and] the opposition is splintered and fragmented. Nothing is united... Aleppo is practically a separate [region], the Kurdish north is nearly independent, Damascus is isolated, the road to Al-Latakia is unsafe, and Homs is rebelling against the regime..."[1] This is how 'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, described Syria, 60 years after its independence and 18 months into a violent struggle between the regime and its opponents. This situation has aroused concern in Arab and Muslim countries, and in the world at large, for Syria's unity and geographical integrity.

The idea that Syria is disintegrating into separate ethnic and sectarian entities is not new; at the 1920 San Remo conference, after World War I, France, who held the mandate over Syria and Lebanon, decided to split the territory into six national entities on a sectarian basis. Except for Lebanon, these entities remained separate until they were united under the French Mandate in 1936.

Throughout the years Syria has seen sectarian and ethnic tension, primarily from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Kurds. The MB objected to the secular character of the Ba'th regime, led by the 'Alawite Hafez Al-Assad, and to the marginalization of the Sunni majority in favor of an alliance of sectarian minorities. This resistance peaked in the city of Hama in the early 1980s, and was mercilessly suppressed by the Assad regime. The Kurds also tried several times to rise up against the Ba'th regime, demanding self-rule or at the very least recognition of their national identity and rights; the regime responded in a similar manner.

The current uprising against the Assad regime began in March 2011, as part of the wave of popular protest that swept over many countries in the Arab world. Opposition activists stressed that the uprising was a socio-political protest expressing the will of all of Syrian society, regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity. However, as the struggle escalated and became armed, with both sides sticking to their uncompromising stances and treating the conflict as a life-or-death struggle; as efforts to resolve the crisis by political means failed time and time again, while the role of Islamists and of foreign elements with their own agenda grew, and as the regime became increasingly unstable – there was increasing talk of an inter-sectarian struggle, and increasing concern that Syria could split along sectarian and ethnic lines into several smaller states. Lending poignancy to this concern is the memory of the civil war in Lebanon and the fall of the Ba'th regime in Iraq, which left these countries scarred and under constant threat of sectarian strife. It is perhaps true that most of the statements on these issues, both from the regime and its allies and from the opposition and its allies, are aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the other side, whether inside or outside Syria, and at warning of the ramifications of the other side controlling the country. Nevertheless, in light of the yawning chasm of hatred, the unending cycle of violence, and the breakdown of confidence among the various groups in the country, these statements could indicate the beginning of a real rift in the country. This report will discuss a number of scenarios for a possible division of Syria.

Balkanization of Syria[2]

Arab World Concerned For Integrity Of Syria

As mentioned, concern for Syria's geographical integrity has grown with the escalation of the violence there. In August 2011, some five months after the outbreak of the unrest, and as reports of massacres by the regime proliferated, calls began to be heard to preserve Syria's unity, similar to the calls that were heard in the past regarding Iraq, when there was talk of its partition into three separate entities: Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni. Qatar, for example, urged the Syrian regime to stop the bloodshed, cease the use of force, and heed the people's legitimate demands for reform in order to "preserve Syria's security, stability and national unity."[3] On August 7, 2011, Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz likewise called on the Syrian leadership to enact swift and comprehensive reforms, lest Syria "be dragged into the depths of anarchy and loss..."[4] The secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 'Abd Al-Latif bin Rashed Al-Zayani, later clarified that this statement by the Saudi king "underscored Saudi Arabia's concern for the security, stability and unity of Syria."[5]

Naturally, it is Syria's neighbors are most concerned about the possibility of an uncontrolled collapse of the central regime there and the country's disintegration into several entities. To judge by the number of statements, it is Jordan who feels the greatest concern. Its king, 'Abdallah II, was the first Arab leader to publicly hold Assad responsible for dividing the country along sectarian lines. In an interview with the CBS, he said: "...If he [Assad] can't rule Greater Syria [6] then maybe an Alawite enclave is plan B... That would be, I think for us, the worst case scenario because that means the breakup of Greater Syria [7]... If Syria then implodes on itself, that would create problems that would take us decades to come back from." About one month later, the king uttered another warning: "The sectarian violence in Syria does not threaten Syria alone. The conflict may spread to neighboring countries that have a similar sectarian makeup. Signs indicate that this danger is getting closer and closer..."[8]

'Abd Al-Bari 'Atwan, editor of the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, stressed the importance of King 'Abdallah's remarks: "...Jordan's King 'Abdallah II is a seismograph, or a precise lens showing us the plans being concocted for this region. He was the first to warn against the 'Shi'ite Crescent' and the need to establish a 'Sunni Crescent' to confront it. This prophecy from six years ago is coming true on the ground... We must take these warnings very seriously, because he does not make groundless remarks... This warning is the first substantial indication of the seriousness of the possibility that Syria might be divided on a sectarian and ethnic basis..." 'Atwan warned that "...No country is immune to [this danger], including Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf states, and especially Saudi Arabia. If Syria sees the establishment of an 'Alawite state, a Sunni state, a Kurdish state, and a Druze state, then we should all expect [to see] the establishment of a Hijaz state, a Najd state, an 'Asir state, and an Al-Ahsa state [in Saudi Arabia], and maybe even a Copt country in Egypt. And let us not forget Lebanon..."[9]

Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon are indeed afraid of a power vacuum and a state of anarchy in Syria, which could turn this country into a base for terrorism against them. Turkey's and Iraq's greatest fear is that an independent Kurdish entity might emerge in Syria, which could incite the large Kurdish minorities within their own territories. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said there was no predicting what the future might hold. "Perhaps a Kurdish state will be born in southern Turkey, Northern Iraq, or Northern Syria, and perhaps Syria will be split into two states. All of these scenarios are possible."[10] According to reports, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who has likewise expressed concern for Syria's unity,[11] has met with representatives of Syrian Kurdish movements in order to prevent northeast Syria from becoming a base for terrorism against his country.

In the course of August 2012, the fear seemed to spread to other parties. On August 15, Saudi Arabia convened an emergency Islamic Solidarity Summit in Mecca to discuss the situation in Syria, which stressed the need to preserve this country's unity, sovereignty, independence and geographical integrity.[12] At the Conference of Non-Aligned Countries, which took place in Tehran, Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi called on all members of the Non-Aligned Movement to support the Syrian people's demand for freedom and to promote a non-violent transition to democracy there, so as to prevent a civil war or the division of the country.[13] At a conference hosted by the Arab League on September 11, 2012 in a bid to unite the Syrian opposition, Egyptian Foreign Minister Muhammad 'Amr said that Syria's unity and integrity were a red line not to be negotiated over, and that his country was committed to preventing Syria from falling into the abyss of partition or of a sectarian or ethnic conflict.[14]

Countries outside the Arab and Muslim world, chiefly Russia, also expressed concern over the possible collapse of central government in Syria, and especially over the ramifications this could have for the minorities there. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that if the Syrian regime fell, several countries in the region would work to establish a Sunni regime there, which could adversely affect the Christians and other minorities in Syria, as well as the stability of Lebanon and Iraq, which likewise have a heterogeneous population.[15] Lavrov's deputy, Mikhail Bogdanov, warned against the "Somalization" of Syria, namely a takeover by radical Islamist groups that would try to impose shari'a law. He suggested trying the Lebanese model in Syria, namely an agreed-upon sharing of power among the various sects.[16]

These statements possibly represent a Russian attempt to take advantage of Western sensitivity to the issue of minority rights, in order to undermine the Syrian uprising by warning of its possible repercussions. However, the idea of applying the Lebanese model to Syria appears to have found supporters in the West as well.[17]

Bashar Al-Assad: There Is A Plot To Divide Syria

Since the beginning of the uprising, the regime has taken advantage of the concern over the possible repercussions of the Syrian crisis, and accused the West and its allies of plotting to divide Syria. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, some seven months after the onset of unrest, Assad warned of the consequences of this plot: "Syria is the hub now in this region. It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake... Do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?... If the plan is to divide Syria, that [means] dividing the whole region..."[18] Several months later, in a speech before the Syrian parliament, he claimed that Syria's enemies had attempted to harm it, first through a popular revolution and then with assassinations and terrorist attacks, but had failed; consequently, they had turned to sparking a sectarian war that would divide and fracture society.[19]

Syrian Mufti Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun said, "The West wants to partition Syria as it did in Yugoslavia, and just like it destroyed Iraq and Libya."[20]

Are The Kurds Preparing To Establish A Kurdish State In Northeast Syria?

There are indications that the concern for Syria's integrity is not completely groundless, especially in the case of the Kurdish region in northeast Syria. In early July 2012, an agreement was signed between the two major Kurdish bodies in Syria: the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is close to the PKK, and the Syrian Kurdish National Council, with the blessing of Massoud Al-Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The latter organization was established in October 2011 by 15 Kurdish parties that oppose both Assad and the PKK. According to the agreement, the two sides will stop fighting each other and establish a joint supreme Kurdish body that will banish remnants of the Syrian regime from the area and establish independent rule. Furthermore, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party will confine itself to managing the affairs of the Kurds in Syria (implying that it will cease to support the PKK).[21]

Such a joint body has indeed been established, though reports have it that its makeup heavily favors the Kurdish Democratic Union Party. This body enacts a kind of self-rule in most of the Kurdish areas in Syria, which the Kurds call "Western Kurdistan." This is manifest in the flying of the Kurdistan flag, the teaching the Kurdish language, which was forbidden under Ba'th rule, and the erection of checkpoints manned by armed Kurds.[22]

Preparations by Syrian Kurdish leadership for the post-Assad era also include training thousands of Syrian Kurdish youths in Iraqi Kurdistan, which Kurdish officials claim is for defensive purposes, "in order to fill the security vacuum that will ensue following the collapse of the Syrian regime."[23]

Syrian Kurds flash sign for victory in the Kurdish town of Jinderes, near Aleppo[24]

Kurdish self-rule in northeast Syria was enabled thanks to the diminished presence of Syrian forces throughout Kurdish territory. According to Kurdish spokesmen, these territories were "liberated" after battles with regime forces or after those forces avoided confronting the Kurdish rebels.[25] However, there are reports that the withdrawal of regime forces is actually part of a deal struck between the Syrian regime and the Kurds,[26] most likely in return for the latters' commitment to prevent their region from becoming a base for attacks on the regime by its opponents. The existence of such a deal would explain the regime's decision to withdraw its forces from an area of strategic importance that borders Turkey – a country which supports the Syrian revolution and hosts the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – as well as the Syrian regime's apparent confidence that the Kurds will not take advantage of the situation. The existence of this deal is plausible in light of the regime's cooperation with the PKK and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which supports the PKK.

Bahoz Erdal, commander of the military wing of the PKK, denied the existence of a deal between Syria and the Kurds, claiming that the reports to this effect are part of Turkish propaganda meant to justify military intervention in Syria. He added that "Kurdish political and civil society organizations [taking over] several cities... was chiefly meant to prevent these areas from becoming a battleground between the regime and the FSA."[27] This statement is characteristic of the Kurdish conduct throughout the Syrian crisis. Despite the bad history between the sides, the Kurds did not ride the wave of protest against the regime, and their areas remained relatively calm compared to other regions in the country. Protests did take place in the Kurdish areas, but they were not widespread, and the Kurds prevented them from becoming militarized, probably due to their fear that the regime would retaliate if it survived the crisis. Furthermore, reports claim that the Kurds are preventing FSA militants from entering their areas,[28] and that violent clashes have occurred between the FSA and PKK following mutual kidnappings.[29] Moreover, many Kurdish organizations refrained from joining the Syrian National Council (NSC) due to its refusal to meet many of their demands and due to their fear of the Islamists in the council.

The Syrian opposition, Turkey and the U.S. fear that the emergence of self-rule in the Kurdish areas in northeast Syria could be the first step towards an independent Kurdish state; they are also concerned about the apparent pro-Assad character of this Kurdish autonomy. This due to reports that control on the ground is in the hands of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, which is close to the PKK and has military capabilities,[30] and that this party acts against the FSA and elements close to Turkey,[31] and enables activity by Syrian security mechanisms in the areas it controls.[32] Statements by Morteza Nematzadeh, former cultural attaché in the Iranian embassy in Damascus, lend further weight to these fears. He said: "Transferring Kurdish areas in Syria to the PKK was an act of self-defense by Assad, and a proper response to Turkey's support of the Syrian rebels, by which [Assad] meant to signal to Turkey that ousting him would cause a long term crisis with the Kurds."[33]

Iran's ties to the PKK and its involvement in this matter are another cause for concern, and various reports indicate that Iran is trying to prevent a Turkish military action in Syria by using the PKK. The Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported on understandings between Iran and the PKK, according to which the organization would limit its actions to defending Syria's northern border from Turkish attack.[34] Recent reports also indicate Iranian intelligence activity inside Turkey in cooperation with the PKK.[35]

In an attempt to alleviate these fears, Kurdish elements said: "We are Syrians first. We want self-administration for Syrian Kurds and democracy for all of Syria.[36] In addition, speakers for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party rejected claims of cooperation with the PKK and the Syrian regime, and stressed their willingness to confront regime forces if they attack areas under Kurdish control.[37]

Columnists, Syrian Oppositionists: Assad Will Establish An Alawite Mini-State In The Coastal Region

In contrast to the situation in the Kurdish region, where an independent, or at least autonomous, Kurdish entity indeed seems to be emerging, the situation in the 'Alawite region is less clear, and reports regarding the emergence of an independent 'Alawite state are of uncertain reliability.

Since the start of the uprising, the main elements of the Syrian opposition, chiefly the SNC, have denied claims that the protests have a distinct sectarian or ethnic nature, and have described these claims as propaganda meant to harm the legitimacy of the uprising. They have avoided collectively accusing certain sects of collaborating with the regime, and have characterized the uprising as a popular one encompassing all sectors of Syrian society. However, others in the opposition claimed that, if pressed, Assad would not hesitate to divide Syria in order to ensure his survival, and would establish an Alawite mini-country in the Syrian coastal region, which has a large Alawite population. One of the first to mention this possibility was 'Abd Al-Halim Khaddam, former Syrian vice president and one of the heads of the Syrian opposition abroad. In January 2012, Khaddam claimed that Assad was arming and fortifying the 'Alawite region: "Bashar and his clan have distributed rifles and machine guns in 'Alawite towns and villages, and last month began transferring heavy weapons by land to the coastal region, in order to hide them in the hills and mountains... All the missiles and strategic weapons were also transferred there, as well as some tanks and artillery, because the regime needs them to suppress protestors in the cities. Bashar also planned to send fighter planes to the airfield in Al-Latakia... and is implementing a plan meant to spark a sectarian war... One month ago, Assad told one of his allies in Lebanon of his intention to establish an 'Alawite state, from which he could launch a sectarian civil war."[38] However, Khaddam recently questioned the possibility of establishing an Alawite enclave, "since no [Syrian] citizen would agree to the rending of the national fabric."[39]

Pro-Assad rally in Latakia[40]

Similar statements were made by a senior source in the FSA to the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The regime's strategy is based on uncompromising combat in Damascus and Aleppo, and if it cannot control them, it will establish a separatist ['Alawite] state on the Syrian coast..." He added that the opposition would relentlessly fight this state.[41]

Khairallah Khairallah, a Lebanese columnist for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, claimed that the regime was fighting the opposition in Homs due to the city's location and its status as the main obstacle to establishing a sustainable 'Alawite state.[42] The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai recently reported that the Syrian regime had transferred chemical weapons from a storage facility to Tartus, and estimated that this was done as part of the establishment of an 'Alawite enclave on the Syrian coast.[43]

Various columnists explained that both Assad's allies and his opponents, in the region and internationally, have an interest in Syria being divided. Saleh Al-Qalab, a former Jordanian information minister, said that Russia and Iran have a vested interest in defending an Alawite state if one is established, since it will enable them to maintain their influence in the region.[44] Columnist Mu'ataz Al-Murad wrote that the superpowers have a vested interest in dividing Syrian society, since it will lead to minorities asking for their guardianship, thus granting them a foothold in the country.[45]

Columnists: Small Chance For Establishment Of Sectarian States

On the other hand, there are some who dismiss the possibility that viable sectarian and ethnic states will be established, due to the objections among the minorities themselves and for demographic reasons.

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director of Al-Arabiya TV and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, spoke of the difficulties that Assad would face if he established an Alawite state: the rebels would pursue him wherever he went, and the Alawites would not agree to defend him and establish a state in a hostile environment and under continuing threats. According to Al-Rashed: "Even if there are internal forces who want to dismantle Syria into mini-states, the region will not tolerate this scenario and countries like Turkey and Iraq will not stand idly by..."[46] George Soulage, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Jumhouriyya and a former advisor to Lebanese defense minister Elias Al-Murr, mentioned several strategic factors that prevent the establishment of a stable Alawite state, such as the lack of infrastructure and defense capabilities. According to Soulage, such a state would not receive international or Arab recognition, and would thus remain isolated. He added that Alawites are no longer the majority even in the coastal region.[47]

Suleiman Taqi Al-Din, a columnist for the Lebanese daily Al-Safir claimed that, even though there is a Kurdish area that is independently administrated, a northern Sunni area that includes provinces outside the control of the regime, and a coastal area with a nearly independent Alawite majority, "this is not a sure path to a division that would cause total separation from the mother country, or to the formulation of plans to establish sectarian mini-states…” He added that, though sects in various countries can cause anarchy and strife, it is only superpowers that can create states in conflicted regions."[48]

* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), August 3, 2012.

[2] Image source:, July 23, 2012

[3] Qatar New Agency (Qatar), August 3, 2011.

[4], August 8, 2011.

[5], August 8, 2011.

[6] In saying "Greater Syria," King 'Abdallah is apparently refering to all of present-day Syria, rather than to Al-Sham, a region which historically includes not only Syria but also Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

[7], August 8, 2012.

[8], September 12, 2012.

[9], August 8, 2012.

[10] Al-Mada (Iraq), August 13, 2012.

[11], September 12, 2012.

[12], August 16, 2012.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 31, 2012.

[14], September 12, 2012.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 22, 2012.

[16] Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 11, 2012.

[17] The Italian Foreign Minister said recently that his country was working to promote dialogue among the various sects in Syria, in order to establish an agenda that respects human rights and freedoms, especially the freedom of religion., September 18, 2012.

[18] Sunday Telegraph (London), October 29, 2011.

[19], June 3, 2012.

[20] SANA (Syria), September 13, 2012.

[21], July 31, 2012.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 26, 2012.

[23] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 1, 2012.

[24] Image source:, July 31, 2012.

[25], July 27, 2012.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 26, 2012.

[27] Al-Safir (Lebanon), August 14, 2012.

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 26, 2012.

[29], September 10, 2012.

[30], September 2, 2012.

[31] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 28, 2012;, September 2, 2012.

[32] It was reported that regime forces operate in Qamishli and Al-Hasakah and arrest oppositionists and individuals wanted for military service., September 4, 2012;, September 1, 2012.

[33], August 29, 2012.

[34] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), August 9, 2012.

[35] Today's Zaman (Turkey), August 31, 2012.

[36] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 26, 2012.

[37] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 4, 2012.

[38] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 26, 2012.

[39], September 10, 2012.

[40] Image source:, July 20, 2012.

[41] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 6, 2012.

[42], August 7, 2012.

[43] Al-Rai (Kuwait), September 9, 2012.

[44] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 26, 2012.

[45] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 15, 2012.

[46] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 28, 2012.

[47] Al-Jumhouriyya (Lebanon), July 24, 2012.

[48] Al-Safir (Lebanon), August 18, 2012.

Share this Report: