Why is the West So Obsessed with Protecting the Territorial Integrity of Syria and Iraq?

This week, UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond asked, “Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the north-west of Syria?” 

Obviously, the Russians are not committed to the Syrian peace process and want an Alawite state. Their national interest is in keeping their client state, Syria, and the Russian bases within it, in existence. The Russians have little interest in a peace process to create a more democratic -- and certainly Sunni Arab (74% of the population) dominated -- Syria, where they would probably lose both their client and their bases. The easiest way for the Russians to do this now is to cut off the Alawite portions of the state and thereby create an Alawite majority/plurality state. 

The U.S., and the rest of the West, needs to understand what these Russian interests are, and try to make the best of the situation. Thanks to the U.S.’s fecklessness in the region, we have already allowed Russia to take a dominant role in Syria, and there is probably little chance of us pressuring them to leave. Besides, the creation of a separate Alawite nation is not necessarily in opposition to Western interests. The West has long sought to promote peace; boost the number of democratic nations; and also protect minority rights (whether religious, gender, ethnic, or tribal) throughout the Middle East. Some revamped borderlines, including the creation of an Alawite state, may well maximize these Western interests.   

Syria was one of the many Middle Eastern states that were created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Unfortunately, the post-World War I Sykes-Picot lines were drawn solely for the benefit of the colonial powers, and not based on the idea of creating stable, united, and democratic nations. So, the end result of Sykes-Picot has been the creation a Middle East plagued by violence, genocide, and persecution. And with the Obama Administration’s decisions to: 1) pull the U.S. from the region; and 2) favor Islamist Iran, which has long sought to promote instability throughout the rest of the region and thereby boost Iranian power, things have gotten even worse.

Dividing Syria into different nations -- whether officially or de facto -- might help ameliorate the bloody civil war that has (so far) reportedly killed up to 470,000 Syrians and driven millions more into exile. An Alawite state in the west of Syria would satisfy the Russians, but also protect the Alawite and Shia population (13%) from slaughter at the hands of Sunni Islamist groups. (Perhaps an agreement could also be reached with Putin to remove Assad, and replace him with another, less bloodthirsty, Alawite.) An Alawite state could also include Syrian Christians (10%), who mostly live near the Alawites, and also are endangered by the Islamists. A Kurdish state in the north would be positive for the West, since the Syrian Kurds (10%): 1) have proven to be the most effective fighters against ISIS; 2) are largely secular; and 3) have had some success creating a region where other minorities are protected. A Druze state, in a portion of the south where they are a majority, might also be a good idea. The Druze (3%), as a minority, generally do not discriminate against other groups, have faced threats from the Syrian Sunni Islamists, and have long been known as fierce and competent fighters. 

Syria’s division would also impact Iraq. The remainder of the Syrian state is Sunni dominated, and should probably be added to the Sunni portions of Iraq to create one state. “This 'Sunni-stan' has economic potential as an oil producer (subject to negotiations with the Kurds, to be sure) and could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad.” This would also allow the West to “empower viable Sunni leaders, including tribal authorities” to fight against ISIS, in a replay of what happened in Iraq in 2007. Currently the Sunni Arabs who dominate in those regions so fear being controlled by Shia Iraqis, Alawite Syrians or Shia Iranians that they will not oppose Sunni ISIS. Of course, by separating Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and Sunnis from non-Sunnis in Syria, this should also decrease the religious violence and discrimination currently occurring in Syria and Iraq.

If the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq are separated from the rest of Iraq, this will also result in the creation of a separate Kurdish state in the north, since Sunni Iraq is between Iraqi Kurdistan and Shia Iraq. (Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan could also unite as one state). Once again, the West would benefit from a Kurdish state; Iraqi Kurdistan “is a uniquely strong, stable, and democratic house” that generally has a good record of respecting minority rights.

Two nations will object to these map changes in Iraq and Syria. Iran wants to maximize its control over the Middle East. But contrary to the belief of President Obama, the U.S. does not have national interests in empowering the Shia Islamist Iran. Turkey would also object. But the concerns of that undemocratic, discriminatory Sunni Islamist regime should be immaterial to the West, especially since the Russians would be happy to stick it to the Turks by backing a Kurdish state. 

It is time to redraw the lines in the Middle East to ameliorate violence and promote democracy and human rights. I hope the next U.S. president will have the courage and foresight to do so.

Adam Turner serves as general counsel to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he focused on national security.

This week, UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond asked, “Is Russia really committed to a peace process or is it using the peace process as a fig leaf to try to deliver some kind of military victory for Assad that creates an Alawite mini state in the north-west of Syria?” 

Obviously, the Russians are not committed to the Syrian peace process and want an Alawite state. Their national interest is in keeping their client state, Syria, and the Russian bases within it, in existence. The Russians have little interest in a peace process to create a more democratic -- and certainly Sunni Arab (74% of the population) dominated -- Syria, where they would probably lose both their client and their bases. The easiest way for the Russians to do this now is to cut off the Alawite portions of the state and thereby create an Alawite majority/plurality state. 

The U.S., and the rest of the West, needs to understand what these Russian interests are, and try to make the best of the situation. Thanks to the U.S.’s fecklessness in the region, we have already allowed Russia to take a dominant role in Syria, and there is probably little chance of us pressuring them to leave. Besides, the creation of a separate Alawite nation is not necessarily in opposition to Western interests. The West has long sought to promote peace; boost the number of democratic nations; and also protect minority rights (whether religious, gender, ethnic, or tribal) throughout the Middle East. Some revamped borderlines, including the creation of an Alawite state, may well maximize these Western interests.   

Syria was one of the many Middle Eastern states that were created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Unfortunately, the post-World War I Sykes-Picot lines were drawn solely for the benefit of the colonial powers, and not based on the idea of creating stable, united, and democratic nations. So, the end result of Sykes-Picot has been the creation a Middle East plagued by violence, genocide, and persecution. And with the Obama Administration’s decisions to: 1) pull the U.S. from the region; and 2) favor Islamist Iran, which has long sought to promote instability throughout the rest of the region and thereby boost Iranian power, things have gotten even worse.

Dividing Syria into different nations -- whether officially or de facto -- might help ameliorate the bloody civil war that has (so far) reportedly killed up to 470,000 Syrians and driven millions more into exile. An Alawite state in the west of Syria would satisfy the Russians, but also protect the Alawite and Shia population (13%) from slaughter at the hands of Sunni Islamist groups. (Perhaps an agreement could also be reached with Putin to remove Assad, and replace him with another, less bloodthirsty, Alawite.) An Alawite state could also include Syrian Christians (10%), who mostly live near the Alawites, and also are endangered by the Islamists. A Kurdish state in the north would be positive for the West, since the Syrian Kurds (10%): 1) have proven to be the most effective fighters against ISIS; 2) are largely secular; and 3) have had some success creating a region where other minorities are protected. A Druze state, in a portion of the south where they are a majority, might also be a good idea. The Druze (3%), as a minority, generally do not discriminate against other groups, have faced threats from the Syrian Sunni Islamists, and have long been known as fierce and competent fighters. 

Syria’s division would also impact Iraq. The remainder of the Syrian state is Sunni dominated, and should probably be added to the Sunni portions of Iraq to create one state. “This 'Sunni-stan' has economic potential as an oil producer (subject to negotiations with the Kurds, to be sure) and could be a bulwark against both Mr. Assad and Iran-allied Baghdad.” This would also allow the West to “empower viable Sunni leaders, including tribal authorities” to fight against ISIS, in a replay of what happened in Iraq in 2007. Currently the Sunni Arabs who dominate in those regions so fear being controlled by Shia Iraqis, Alawite Syrians or Shia Iranians that they will not oppose Sunni ISIS. Of course, by separating Sunnis and Shias in Iraq and Sunnis from non-Sunnis in Syria, this should also decrease the religious violence and discrimination currently occurring in Syria and Iraq.

If the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq are separated from the rest of Iraq, this will also result in the creation of a separate Kurdish state in the north, since Sunni Iraq is between Iraqi Kurdistan and Shia Iraq. (Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan could also unite as one state). Once again, the West would benefit from a Kurdish state; Iraqi Kurdistan “is a uniquely strong, stable, and democratic house” that generally has a good record of respecting minority rights.

Two nations will object to these map changes in Iraq and Syria. Iran wants to maximize its control over the Middle East. But contrary to the belief of President Obama, the U.S. does not have national interests in empowering the Shia Islamist Iran. Turkey would also object. But the concerns of that undemocratic, discriminatory Sunni Islamist regime should be immaterial to the West, especially since the Russians would be happy to stick it to the Turks by backing a Kurdish state. 

It is time to redraw the lines in the Middle East to ameliorate violence and promote democracy and human rights. I hope the next U.S. president will have the courage and foresight to do so.

Adam Turner serves as general counsel to the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). He is a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee where he focused on national security.