Lowering of US ambition goes to show it's Russia which is in the driving seat now
No sooner than had John Kerry suggested he may be interested in partitioning Syria already the Washington think-tankistan sprung into action to back him up and work out the details. Firing off on the same day we had James Stavridis, Philip Breedlove's predecessor as NATO military commander and a professor of "law and diplomacy", imploring us to "seriously consider partitioning Syria", and Michael O'Hanlon and Edward P. Joseph of Brookings and Institute of Current World Affairs respectively offering Bosnia as "model" for said partition.
The latter proposal is especially entertaining seeing how the US at the time fought the "solution" O'Hanlon and Joseph are now offering up tooth and nail and seeing Joseph (as a UN and OSCE official in Bosnia and Kosovo) was very much a part of that.
Bosnia and Herzegovina today is a very decentralized state divided between its Serb and Muslim-Croat "entities", however this arrangement came about despite US meddling rather than because of it.
In the Bosnian civil war the Serbs aimed if possible to break off and be recognized as an independent state, the Croats desired the same but found it unrealistic and aimed at most for a unified Croat federal unit in a Bosnia that would be as decentralized as possible. The Bosnian Muslims aimed to thwart both the Serbs and Croats and keep them in a unitarian and centralized Bosnia and Herzegovina which they expected to dominate politically and demographically.
The US from the onset got behind the Bosnian Muslim side which the western media had sainted as being under attack of Hitlerites 2.0 (the Serbs) but only aiming at a tolerant, multi-ethnic and civic state for all three of Bosnia's nationalities. (Including the two unwilling ones.) If the final settlement nonetheless delivered a Bosnia with a weak central government it was only because the US in the end did not get its way entirely.
1. During the conflict US assurances of unqualified support for the Bosnian Muslim side critically undermined a number of European peace proposals which could have ended the war early, and one that may have avoided it altogether.
2. In 1994 US arranged for the breaking up of at the time de facto independent Bosnian Croat proto-state and ensured the Bosnian Croats as a whole would not have meaningful autonomy in the post-war arrangement. Differences between Croats and Muslims had led to war which ended in a US-imposed solution whereby Washington pressured Croatia which in turn pressured Bosnian Croats to accept a nominally "federal" arrangement which broke up their territories and assigned them to artificially drawn "cantons" – some majority Muslim, others majority Croat and still other largely mixed. This was formally less than a fully centralist arrangement since the cantons had considerable local power, but it was unitarist in effect since these were not drawn by national key, but in fact scrambled Croat national territory.
3. The US fully intended at the time to bring the Bosnian Serbs into the very same arrangement – to bring their de facto independent Bosnian Serb state to heel and to divide it up between several artificially drawn cantons directly subordinate to the central government. In the end the US did not succeed. Needing to wrap up the war before the onset of the election year and facing a competent negotiator in Slobodan Milošević the US scaled down its ambition rather than risk a still broader and messier intervention. This enabled in December 1995 the Dayton Accords which brought the Serbs under the rule of Sarajevo but as a unified sub-national unit and with very broad autonomy.
The story does not end here. The US, along with the rest of the West, never resigned itself to not getting everything it wanted at Dayton but continued to pursue its erstwhile war goals in peace. In 1997 a conference of western states met in Bonn and arbitrarily "awarded" the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina – whom according to the Dayton Accords was a mere monitor and observer – with sweeping dictatorial powers not seen since the days of absolutist monarchs. Ie he may sack elected Bosnian office holders and rewrite its laws at will.
The succession of "High Representatives" then proceeded to wage a veritable war on the Dayton Accords and to subvert them and gradually increase the powers of central government over the Serb Republic, as well as to scale down the power-sharing mechanisms for the less numerous Croats in the Muslim-Croat Federation.
This was accompanied by western think-tanks, pundits and officials continuously demonize the decentralized arrangement which grants Serbs a measure of self-rule and to argue for greater centralization.
In fact albeit the West's war on Dayton Bosnia itself has let up in recent years the western think-tankistan continues to dutifully churn out arguments why in the "spirit of Dayton" its letter should be usurped further, and to accompany these with dire warnings against the "Daytonization" of Kosovo which is supposedly being pursued by the Serbs living there.
That Washington, which originally aimed to topple the Damascus government has now resigned itself to merely rolling back its influence in a Bosnia-style "soft partition" of Syria, speaks to the fact it has recognized that since the Russian entry into the war it no longer in a position to dictate terms. That newfound realism is welcome as it was welcome at Dayton.
However, whereas a partition (or "soft partition") in the Bosnian case made every sense it is wildly inappropriate for Syria. In Bosnia three distinct ethnic communities organized themselves into three distinct armies and fought a three-way civil war, each carving out and running a de facto independent statelet of their own. Not only was the division between the three sides clearcut, but each was fighting for ethno-national rather than ideological goals.
In Syria only the Kurds, who never really were a part of Syria's Arab ethos, are unified in a single ethnically constituted army and fight for territory and the maximum of political independence attainable. All the other sides of the war are ideological rather than ethnic or sectarian and are in dispute over what type of government should reign in Damascus.
The war is sectarian only in the sense that the Islamist option can only draw from its majority Sunni Arabs, in that Alawites are seen as having profited the most from Baath Party rule, and that with the state army in retreat the militias which spring up to replace it locally are often organized by local ethnic or confessional communities but nonetheless fight as part of larger ideological coalitions.
The fight in Syria is between those who want a Syria that is Baathist or reformed-Baathist, those who want a secular Syria without Assad or the Baath, those who want an Islamist Syria along the lines of Turkey or Egypt under Muslim Brootherhood, those who want Syria as an outright Islamic theocratic state, and those pursuing a global Islamic caliphate. None of these camps wants a partition of Syria or would be satisfied which just a part of it.
Partitioning Syria along confessional lines when it is being ravaged by an ideological conflict is completely tangential to the problem at hand. Consider:
At least four main sectors of the country, including areas where Alawites and Christians now predominate near the coast, Kurdish regions in the north, Sunni Arab strongholds in the center and east of the state, and a shared zone that includes the major intermixed cities—which should stay intermixed as much as possible in any confederation arrangement. An alternative deal could effectively share the major cities between the Alawite/Christian region and the Sunni Arab region, keeping at least Aleppo as part of the latter.
This is absurd. The proposed plan would keep Alawites and Cristians apart from Sunnis when the fight is between Baath loyalists and Islamists. The proposed "Sunni Arab sector" would itself be divided between government loyalists and Islamists and it is impossible to see how loyalist Alawites and Christians could stand by and watch their fellow Syrians fighting for something they themselves believe in and not lend aid.
Partitioning Syria to resolve its ideological civil war is no more feasible than partitioning Spain or Russia in the midst of their ideological civil wars of 1936-1939 and 1917-22. The proposed carving out of a large Sunni Arab region from Syria smacks of nothing so much as a ploy to increase the influence of anti-Assad forces and to award them territories which they had not been able to capture in war, while consigning the so far dominant loyalist camp to a few ethnic enclaves along the coast.