The Brave New World of 'Syrianization'

04/01/2013 09:14 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

Co-written by Sam Lucas

It has become common to refer to the fragmentation and destruction of a state into smaller, often hostile regions, as "Balkanization," having occurred with enough frequency in recent history in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq that the term has become localized. Indeed, "Afghanistanization" and "Iraqization" are now perhaps overly utilized terms in political science lexicon. One of the things the more recent use of such terms have in common, it seems, is reference to governments that quickly disintegrated in the face of significant opposition. While it can be argued that the Syrian government is in the process of disintegrating, it has not been swift, and the outcome is anything but certain. But the nature of its gradual destruction, and the possibility that the Syrian state itself may disappear, prompts us to differentiate the term "Syrianization" from the others, to describe a new phenomenon in state disintegration.

Syria's experience differs from Afghanistan and Iraq in a number of fundamental ways, of course. Apart from the absence of a single large state actor leading the opposition, in Afghanistan and Iraq there was also no effective government in place either immediately prior to, or shortly after, hostilities began. The Assad government has now lasted more than two years since the opposition movement first emerged. The formation of armed groups from such a multitude of places and with support from such a variety of regional states did not occur in Afghanistan or Iraq. The Syrian army is battling many different groups with many different objectives, even though most of the opposition shares a common religious affiliation.

The Syrian National Council -- the body created to oppose President Assad on a political level -- has its own charter and governing principles. So two governments, two armies, two territories and essentially two peoples are co-functioning in a fractured Syria. As such, we are witnessing the "Syrianization" of a country, slowly disintegrating into three distinct countries: 1. The predominantly Sunni territory which is likely to be in the north and south, and will in essence bifurcate the country geographically; 2. The predominantly minority area composed of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shia, based from the center to the northwest; and 3. The predominantly Kurdish territory in the northeast, adjacent to the Kurdistan of Iraq.

As a result of the ongoing disintegration of Syria, and the undefined nature of what is evolving, clashes between the competing groups will not only increase but are likely to become continuous in the medium and long term, either until a federation evolves (should that prove possible) or separate countries are established. It seems less likely that a truly functional government can be derived from a federation given the diverse nature of the composition of each sub-region that is likely to evolve. One could certainly argue, in the case of Iraq, that although it remains one country on paper, in many respects it functions as three separate countries. This implies that a formal breakup of the Syria we have known since its independence in 1946 could occur, with unknown and presumably unwelcome consequences for all of Syria's bordering states.

The current torrent of refugees -- focused primarily on Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey -- would in all likelihood eventually be reversed if a federation or break-up occurs, but this could be years away. In due course, a reconstruction process will naturally need to begin, the timing and nature of which will be defined by the political alliances of each sub-territory. Turkey and the Gulf states should have the most influence in the predominantly Sunni area. In the second territory, Iranian, Russian and (ironically) Western support is likely because of the religious composition of the area. And Iraqi Kurdistan, in conjunction with western governments, would be the likeliest source of support for the Kurdish region. This serves to emphasize what strange alliances the Syrianization process has already made, and should make in the future.

In essence, not only are borders likely to be redrawn as a result of what is happening in Syria, but the very nature of how diplomacy is conducted and business is done is also likely to fundamentally change. The past two years have already seen the assertion of American, Iranian, Iraqi, Turkish, and Russian power -- whether through soft or hard means -- on a protracted basis in Syria. New variations of alliances will likely emerge on regional and international levels in due course -- a subject we will address in a forthcoming article. For now, suffice it to say that the battle for Syria has helped define the evolving diplomatic and military battleground of the 21st century -- between the status quo post World War II powers and the powers of the emerging world.

In short, we are coming full circle by creating a new de facto Sykes-Picot reality that in one sense redraws the borders of the region and at the same time makes the concept of borders irrelevant. Although some might be inclined to believe otherwise, the geopolitics of the Middle East have not yet been reshaped by the events of the past two years -- but it is about to be. The Syrianization model will not be restricted to Syria, but is likely to be replicated in some fashion not only in the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world. This implies the creation of new states on the basis of religious and ethnic affiliation, rather than as a result of borders that were created based on geography, or the whims of foreign powers. The battle for Syria demonstrates that what started as a peaceful call for change can lead to the disintegration of an entire country, and creation of a new geopolitical reality. If it can happen in Syria, it can and will certainly happen elsewhere.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm based in Connecticut, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk." Sam Lucas is a research analyst with CRS.