THE ELIMINATION of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria has become an unhealthy obsession for Western nations, most of which operate under the assumption that the destruction of ISIS is the only thing standing between peace and eternal crisis. It isn’t. Focusing on ISIS’s defeat is a nonstrategy that has been seen before, one familiar to anyone involved in the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq, where a U.S.-led coalition removed Saddam Hussein without a coherent plan for the day after. Our combined experiences in Iraq as senior military and humanitarian leaders prompt us to call for careful consideration of what comes next—before today’s actions lead us down an even more treacherous path.
Whether it’s the deployment of special forces against ISIS or firing Tomahawk missiles against Bashar al-Assad, regardless of which faction is eliminated or who is removed from their position of power, the likelihood of stabilizing Syria is low. The country has traveled too far down a path that no amount of international goodwill can bring back. “Syria,” as it was previously known, is dead. Investing in an attempt to revive the pre-war status quo of a unitary state is a fool’s errand, which will drain immense resources, drag out the suffering of the people and distract the international community from seeking more achievable goals. The limited capacity of the international community (both resources and will), the conflicting geopolitical interests, and the depth of animosity among people on the ground mean that a strategy premised upon a return to the Syria that once was is bound to fail.
Although success in rebuilding countries after war appears elusive, especially considering the precariousness of Iraq and Afghanistan, research shows that when three goals are achieved—legitimacy of the state, security for the people and the provision of basic needs—success follows. Lacking any of these will lead to a cycle of instability and ongoing conflict. Eliminating ISIS or removing Assad can only be justified if establishing a legitimate, stable and functioning state in the aftermath is possible.
We believe lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan indicate that key challenges can only be overcome if the borders are redrawn, allowing the various nations of people to establish their own autonomous administrations with an agreed pathway, backed by the international community, to independence.
Our argument for the breakup of Syria isn’t a call to revisit the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the subsequent Treaty of Sèvres—in which Western nations mapped out the current Middle East, ignoring what the local people wanted—but rather to recognize that borders are not immutable and are a function of an ever-evolving history, culture and politics. The century-long map of the Middle East, for better or worse, served the region during the interwar period and the subsequent postcolonial transitions, but the internal pressures that had been contained by strongman dictatorships, with the support of various foreign governments, can no longer be held back. Persisting with the status quo in Syria without acknowledging these challenges and realistically considering the likelihood of a sustainable peace will lead to a far worse situation.
Breaking up the current Syrian state is the best way the various Syrian groups calling for self-rule can have their demands met. At the same time, doing so recognizes the changing international political environment, which is no longer willing to accept the degree of foreign support that would be necessary to make the status quo work. To make this case, in the following section we consider the strengths and weaknesses of pursuing the status-quo unitary state, versus our proposal of redrawing borders, against the three criteria for successful state building.
IS IT possible for a legitimate Syrian authority to emerge from the ravages of what is quickly becoming the most devastating conflict of this century? Proponents of the putsch against Assad and those waging the war against the Islamic State should have already answered this question, yet evidence of any such consideration remains elusive. The United Nations has been pushing a three-point plan—an all-inclusive government, a new constitution and a presidential vote. But will such a plan be able to deliver a stable Syria? Military commanders have been tasked by President Trump to develop a plan to deal with the Islamic State, but they haven’t received from their political leadership a clear answer to the question: “to what end?” Without considering these questions, any military intervention serves little purpose if all it achieves is to delay a return to an even more devastating conflict. A peace plan backed solely by the weight of diplomacy is only worth pursuing if it is structured in such a way that it leads to a stable and sustainable outcome.
Can the UN peace plan contribute to establishing a legitimate government? For the UN and proponents of its plan, a government is legitimate if elections are held and other states recognize the outcome. Syria, at war with itself for six years, retains an external legitimacy in the eyes of the United Nations and its members because its peers recognize its borders, whereas Somaliland, which has had peace and stability and internal legitimacy since 1988, is not recognized internationally as a legitimate state. This preference for external legitimacy over internal legitimacy is a dangerous idea that is driven by a fundamental misunderstanding of what kind of legitimacy best contributes to stability.