By Robin Wright
WITH startling candour, the director of the CIA, John Brennan, last week questioned a long-standing premise of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
“I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again,” he told the CTC Sentinel, which is published by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
“There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction, so many continued, seething tensions and sectarian divisions. I question whether we will see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly.”
Brennan is known as a straight shooter, but he is usually more circumspect in his public assessments. For 13 years, Washington has insisted that its immutable goal is restoring the Middle East’s modern order within the countries created by European colonial powers a century ago. Since 2003, the United States has poured a trillion dollars into salvaging Iraq, and in the past two years it has spent hundreds of millions on military air strikes and humanitarian aid in Syria. But the toxic realities have produced a strategic rethink in recent months, especially on Syria. Brennan is not alone.
“What is increasingly apparent amid all this misery is that Syria as a nation is increasingly a fiction,” James Stavridis, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and current dean of Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, wrote in Foreign Policy. “Large chunks of it are ruled by disparate actors with no allegiance and often bitter enmity toward what remains of the sovereign state. Like Humpty Dumpty in the children’s nursery rhyme, the odds of putting Syria back together again into a functioning entity appear very low.”
Since the 2011 uprising in Syria devolved into a civil war, the country has disintegrated into four zones. One zone falls under the control of President Bashar al-Assad and his regime; it stretches along the Mediterranean coast in the west, from the southern border with Israel and Jordan to the northern one with Turkey. A second is held by a disparate array of opposition militias in non-contiguous chunks in both the north and south. A third is Kurdish, in the northeast, running along the borders with Turkey and Iraq.
All three zones include numerous competing enclaves that further complicate real control by any of them. The fourth zone is ruled by the Islamic State, largely in the north and east, spilling across the border into Iraq.
That is the simple version. “The CIA still estimates that there are fifteen hundred opposition militias,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, told me this week.
“Some are part of bigger coalitions, but if they don’t like orders they just don’t obey them.”
Landis went on, “The government has the same issues. It is getting weaker. It is defaulting to strongmen in villages, who form their own militias. They are allowed to run their own roadblocks and extort money in exchange for protecting their regions. They’re like mafias. They have become their own powers.”
In the vacuum of authority, Syria is being re-tribalised. “All the little local identities clan, village, tribe, sect all pop up and accrue authority,” Landis said. He has spent a lifetime tracking Syrian politics.
“Who the hell can follow all this shit?”
“No Going Back”, a report issued last week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues that Syrians are still “remarkably” attached to the idea of national identity. But it concludes that the central state “is now in its dying days.” The report was written by the journalist Jihad Yazigi, who founded the website, Syria Report. The war has fragmented Syria so profoundly that, as Yazigi writes, “its various parts are spinning off in different directions, adopting opposing systems of governance that are becoming increasingly entrenched”. The four zones have adopted different school curricula and different currencies.
The only way to keep the country together, Yazigi contends, is by decentralising power from Damascus to Syria’s fourteen governorates each already has its own capital and smaller districts. Stavridis offers an even bolder solution. “It is time to consider a partition,” he wrote.
That requires an illusory peace first, however.
The United States and Russia are trying, again. After weeks of tortuous negotiations, they announced a “cessation of hostilities” that went into effect at sundown on Monday, September 12th. The first step requires dozens of militias, on one side, and the Syrian Army and its backers, on the other, to stop shooting at each other. It must hold steady for seven consecutive days if it is to be taken seriously in Washington and Moscow. Violence has so far abated on some fronts but has not ceased completely.
The second goal is to flood the country, especially the ravaged city of Aleppo, in the north, with humanitarian goods. Syria is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
More than half its population is now dependent on foreign aid to survive. For much of this week, most aid has been stalled on the borders.
If even a modest sense of calm is restored, Washington and Moscow then plan to relaunch diplomacy among the warring parties “to bring this catastrophic conflict to the quickest possible end through a political process,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva, last weekend.
The deal is also supposed to allow all sides to turn their attention to the two other big players in the conflict: the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, an Islamist militia that broke with Al Qaeda at least on paper and rebranded itself in July. If the ceasefire holds, these two groups will become the only legitimate targets for everyone else.
Yet, even as senior US officials publicly try to sell the deal, they acknowledge that Syria a country with the Mideast’s most richly diverse ethnic and religious groups may no longer be salvageable. I put Brennan’s comments to a senior administration official during a media teleconference on September 11. He replied, “What’s happened in Syria over the last five years is such that it is hard to see Syria resuming the status that it had in the past.”
He went on, “The reconstruction of the country, the redefinition of the political compact between the leadership and the people—all that is going to be extremely difficult.”
Over the next decade, he predicted, Syria is going to look different.
“Hopefully, it will look better in many ways,” he said. “But the reconstruction, the disarming of the militias, the reconstituting of trust between the different ethnic and sectarian groups all that is going to take a very long time, and I think it would be foolish to assume that we know what Syria will look like.” *Wright is a columnist for the New Yorker Magazine