The US-Russia plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons — now embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 2118 — may open a more constructive approach to ending the country’s civil war, because the council is also demanding that the long-planned Geneva II conference on Syria convene as soon as possible. Rightly so: Elimination of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles and a political process to end the war must occur simultaneously.
As a practical matter, efforts to verify, secure and eventually destroy Syria’s huge supply of chemical weapons cannot be implemented without at least a lasting ceasefire. However, synchronizing the two processes is necessary for other reasons, too.
Aside from the human suffering caused by Syria’s ongoing war, we should be aware of the potentially dire regional consequences. Some people now warn of a “Lebanonization” of Syria — the partition of the country into rival fiefdoms and quasi-independent regions. Syria’s fragmentation is not the only plausible scenario.
Indeed, the Lebanon metaphor is too benign. Unlike Lebanon during its 15-year civil war, no regional power today would be able to contain Syria’s war within its borders. As a result, it is much more likely that Syria’s disintegration would call the entire post-World War I (or post-Ottoman) Middle Eastern state system — also called the “Sykes-Picot” system — into question.
Such region-wide instability is not just a theoretical scenario; it follows from developments on the ground. Lebanon’s established political contours already are beginning to blur under the relentless pressure of the Syrian conflict. A zone of de facto control by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces has emerged between Baalbek and Homs, straddling the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Likewise, the fighting has created highly fluid conditions in the Kurdish-majority areas of Iraq and Syria. Since the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq has effectively established de facto autonomy vis-a-vis the central government in Baghdad. Regional and domestic developments could push the Kurdish authorities in Erbil, their capital, toward declaring formal independence.
With its oil income and good neighborly relations with Turkey, such a state would be viable. Indeed, the KRG government has long made clear that it respects Turkish sovereignty and will not interfere with relations between Turkey’s government and its own Kurdish population. And, if only for its own security, the KRG is attempting to extend its power, formally or informally, into northern Syria.
Regional acceptance of a Kurdish state-building project that transcends today’s KRG-controlled borders would depend, among other things, on the scale of the Kurds’ national ambitions. From Turkey’s perspective, a confederation of Syria’s northeastern region with the KRG might be favorable to continuing domestic Kurdish unrest, much less rule by the anti-Turkish Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) along its border with Syria. In contrast, any attempt by the KRG to establish a Kurdish corridor to the Mediterranean would certainly meet resistance, not only from Turkey, but also from other warring factions in Syria.
What would Kurdish independence mean for the rest of Iraq? This is not only a question of territory, borders and oil, but also one that concerns the domestic balance of power. With a Kurdish exit removing the third constituent element — besides Shia and Sunni Arabs — of Iraqi politics, the country’s sectarian polarization would most likely deepen.