While the West is critical of Russian airstrikes for hitting moderate Syrian opposition groups, both have resolved to take action against ISIL. But doing so now, when the war has come to be defined as Sunni versus Alawi – and other minorities – will only feed Sunni resentment and bolster the popularity of ISIL. What neither side will countenance is the only feasible option: dividing the country into separate ethno-sectarian cantons.
A key first step is to create two arenas: one a coastal strip dominated by Alawis, Christians and sections of the urban middle classes; the other a Sunni zone, much of which is already controlled by opposition groups. Only with a safe and defensible canton will Alawis be willing to see Assad fall. They will then focus their energies on defending their enclave, perhaps with foreign assistance. Likewise, once the Sunni zone has been established, the West can assist ISIL’s Sunni opponents without bolstering Assad, and thus without making heroes out of ISIL.
In other words, intervention only becomes possible with the creation of a federal Syria operating under a power-sharing, or consociational, system.
Western policymakers and intellectuals have always been allergic to partition or ethnic power-sharing because the idea that politics should be based around ethnicity and sect cuts against cherished ideals of Enlightenment ‘civic’ nationhood. This ideal collided with ethnic reality in the former Yugoslavia, and the result has been the de facto ethnic cantonisation of Bosnia and Kosovo. Had the West been less stubborn, many lives could have been saved.
So too today. The creation of an Alawi-minority coastal canton is a sine qua non for cutting the Gordian knot that is the Syrian conflict. Kurdish, Alawi and Sunni federal units should maintain their defensive capabilities as long as mutual distrust remains high. No one pretends that power-sharing societies like Lebanon, Bosnia, Northern Ireland or Iraq are bastions of inter-ethnic comity. However, those that criticise its shortcomings should compare current arrangements against likely alternatives, not sunlit utopian uplands or a prelapsarian innocence. We must remember that, like democracy itself, ethnic power-sharing is the least worst option when a deeply-divided country has descended into ethnic conflict.
Over time, as Brendan O’Leary and John McGarry remark, power-sharing institutions based on ethnicity or sect will ‘biodegrade’. That is, as the underlying mistrust and ethnic separatism upon which ethnic power-sharing is based fade, a more ecumenical and civic understanding of nationhood can emerge, with unitary institutions replacing consociational ones.
Some aver that power-sharing entrenches ethnic division, but this puts the cart of politics before the horse of social change. In the Netherlands, power-sharing arrangements between Catholic, Protestant, socialist and liberal segments decayed in the 1960s when these identities lost their relevance. In the Canadian province of Newfoundland, the denomination-based system for allocating government posts also disappeared in the 60s, and the province’s citizens voted out separate schools for Catholics and Protestants in 1998.
When a country has been rent by violent conflict along ethno-sectarian lines, the first imperative is to divide the combatants into safe and defensible political units under their own democratic governance. Population transfer is happening already as groups head for areas where they feel secure. World powers should pressure their clients to protect minorities, or if they cannot, to facilitate orderly transfers with compensation. Inter-ethnic mixing and liberal nationhood is a long term goal, and should only arrive when populations are secure and ready to yield power to the centre.
The migrant crisis in Europe has led to frantic calls for some kind of ‘action’ against ISIL. Obama and Putin agree on little, but both are wedded to the dangerous fiction that Syria should remain a unitary state while ISIL is attacked. Yet these are precisely the obstacles to a solution. Attacking ISIL in the name of a united Syria under Assad’s control is a recipe for disaster which can only prolong the tragedy that is today’s Syria.
Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is an editor of Political Demography (Oxford, 2012) and author of a Demos report, freely available, entitled Changing Places: the White British response to ethnic change. He may be found on twitter @epkaufm.