Kerry Warns, ‘It May Be Too Late’ to Keep Syria Whole

By Patrick Goodenough | February 24, 2016 | 4:54am EST
Secretary of State John Kerry testifes before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry warned Tuesday that Syria could end up partitioned if diplomatic efforts to end the violence and reach a political settlement do not bear fruit.

“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria, if we wait much longer,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Speaking four days before a negotiated “cessation of hostilities” is due to begin, Kerry said he could not guarantee that the effort would work, but it was the best way to try to end the conflict.

If the parties, with their outside support, continue to fight, he said, “this can get a lot uglier.”

“At some point in time, someday, someone’s going to have to sit down at a table and arrive at an understanding about what Syria is going to be,” he said. “But it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria, if we wait much longer.”

“So that’s what at issue here. And I’m not going to vouch for this – I’m not going to say this process is sure to work because I don’t know,” Kerry added. “But I know that this is the best way to try to end the war, and it’s the only alternative available to us if indeed we’re going to have a political settlement.”

Although Kerry was not suggesting partition of Syria would be a desirable outcome, the warning was striking. The administration has long stressed that the goal in efforts to end the conflict is a “whole, unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria.”

(It similarly supports a unified Iraq, despite calls from some quarters for a federation of Shia, Sunni and the already de facto-autonomous Kurdish region – a plan once championed by then-Sen. Joe Biden, and opposed by the Bush administration.)

Despite the repeated inclusion in U.N. Security Council resolutions of declarations that Syria’s “unity and territorial integrity” be preserved, many analysts question the notion of the country surviving the civil war as a unified state.

Some believe that Russia’s military intervention on behalf of the regime may be designed to carve out a rump statelet in the northwest, where most of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Allawite minority live. Russia’s Soviet-era naval station and the Syrian airbase that it is using for its air campaign are both located in that part of the country.

At the same time, the war has raised hopes among many of Syria’s Kurds that it could lead to an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish region – anathema to Turkey which fears the effect on Kurdish nationalism within its borders.

The State Department has played down both the “rump state” and Kurdish autonomy issues.

Briefing media in Munich after the “cessation of hostilities” plan was first announced on February 12, Kerry was asked about the risk that a truce would freeze in place “a situation that effectively gives Mr. Assad a good-sized rump Syrian state, years after President Obama said that he had to leave office.”

“With respect to freezing the current situation, if you will, in this sort of rump state, I disagree completely,” Kerry replied. He acknowledged that with Russia’s help the regime had made gains of late, but said that “does not mean that Assad is secure or safe for the long term.”

And on Kurdish autonomy, State Department spokesman John Kirby told a briefing last Thursday that the U.S. has made clear to Turkey “that we don’t support some sort of semi-autonomous zone for Kurds there in Syria.”

The U.S. has told Turkey, Kirby said, “that the whole reason why the secretary’s working so hard on a political process and a political solution to the Syrian civil war is so that Syria can emerge from this whole, unified, nonsectarian, and a safe and secure environment for the Syrian people to come back to and to live in and to prosper in.”

“We’ve been very clear that we don’t support some sort of separate semi-autonomous zone for the Kurds there,” Kirby repeated.

The present-day borders in the region are the legacy of a secret agreement by British and French colonialists a century ago this year, which divided the disintegrating Ottoman Empire into British and French zones of influence, leading to what would become modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The Anglo-French carve up of the region – the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 – created largely artificial entities that did not correspond to the tribal, ethnic or sectarian realities on the ground, laying the groundwork for tensions and conflicts that continue to this day.

The Kurds lost out in the post-World War I maneuvering, with subsequent attempts at self-determination violently crushed by Turkey and Iran.

More than 30 million Kurds live in today’s Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. They are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation state.

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