(Third in a series of dispatches from Lebanon)
Beirut—The buzz in Beirut about Syria is whether it will be partitioned permanently. There is almost no talk about putting the Humpty-Dumpty back together after tens of thousands of deaths, vast destruction and the apparent determination of all sides to fight on.
The al-Qaeda branch Nusra Front is engaged in fighting near Damascus. The Islamic State apparently conquered the Roman ruins of Palymyra the other day as well as a border post to the west leading into Iraq.
President Bashar al-Assad says he will not stand for the country to be divided and his key on-the-ground ally, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has declared the battle a life and death struggle for itself and Syria.
The situation can’t yet be called a stalemate–in recent weeks, government forces have been on the defensive, though before that, al-Assad’s forces seemed on a roll. Few among observers in Beirut think that the rebels grouped as they are now can actually rule an entire Syria. As for the future of the government, some sort of national unity coalition to include power sharing with Sunni Muslims, would help it consolidate some control, though not over a fully embittered society. The main obstacle to altering the political landscape appears to be the decision of al-Assad, and his main foreign sponsor Iran–for him to stay on no matter what.
So the geographic outline roughly looks like this: al-Assad’s homies, the Alawitre minority, on the Mediterranean coast. Damascus, the mixed city with a big middle class presence, and its environs remains under government control, with the all important (in Hezbollah’s eyes) link to Beirut intact. Sunnis, the country’s rebellious minority, in the center and east. By the way, Christians, a 10 per cent minority, are dispersed in many parts of the country, would have to take refuge in the Damascus region, other areas the government keeps and abroad.
That partition would represent an unstable result, yet it seems the default future. And not only in Syria. Across the border in Iraq, the Sunni rebels are holding fast to much of the center and northwest of the country. Kurdistan already rules itself, leaving Baghdad and the Shiite south in government hands. Syria’s war is in its fifth year; Iraq; in its 12th. What alternatives are there?
Partition talk already two years ago.
Hezbollah doubles down on al-Assad and a single Syria.
Everybody too weak to win.