Territorial partition is an intuitively attractive solution to armed conflicts that polarize combatants along ethno-sectarian lines. The more intense the fighting becomes, the greater the likelihood that fighters and civilians alike will begin to mistrust the present and future intentions of the members of rival communities. And if the authority of the state actually collapses, leaving the political arena in a condition of anarchy, relations among different communities will start to exhibit the dynamics of a security dilemma, in which any action undertaken by one community to protect itself directly or indirectly threatens the security of others (Posen 1993).
Scholars who claim that ethno-sectarian conflicts generate security dilemmas suggest that the detrimental impact of these dilemmas can be ameliorated by a strict demarcation of the territory governed by rival communities. Clarity about territorial boundaries enables all parties to recognize when one side is preparing to launch an attack, thereby making it possible to distinguish offensive from defensive activities. Furthermore, clearly defined boundaries enhance the credibility of inter-community deterrence by indicating precisely what zones each party has the strongest interest in defending. So long as inter-community boundaries remain ambiguous, on the other hand, armed conflict is likely to break out again later, either inadvertently through the operation of the security dilemma or deliberately due to irredentist expansionism.
Chaim Kaufmann (1996, 149) thus asserts that "the safest [outcome] is a well-defined demographic front that separates nearly homogeneous regions." This assertion is backed by evidence from 27 cases of ethno-sectarian civil wars from 1944 to 1993, which indicates that all of the conflicts in which fighting ended successfully did so by granting some kind of "autonomy" to "a regionally concentrated minority" (Kaufmann 1996, 160-161). Warfare is also shown to be much less likely to recur if each community enjoys borders that are easily defensible, and if the post-war cantons are as homogeneous as possible in demographic terms—so that the majority community in the newly autonomous region "does not fear [any "rump" minority] as either a potential military threat or a possible target for irredentist rescue operations" (Kaufmann 1996, 162; Johnson 2008).
Kaufmann's argument has been rebutted by David Laitin (2004), who points out that regionally concentrated enthno-sectarian communities display a notable propensity to engage in warfare, both against the state and against one another. On the basis of twelve pertinent cases, Laitin (2004, 358) demonstrates that the act of "unmixing" a country's population into homogeneous cantonments has no association with the subsequent outbreak of armed internal conflict (see also Sambanis 2000, 465). More important, there is strong evidence that even if ethnic unmixing has the effect of reducing civil wars in the short run, populations usually mix back together again as time goes by—and without precipitating any resumption of fighting (Laitin 2004, 361-362). Laitin (2004, 364) further suggests that regionally concentrated communities often spawn post-war leaderships that "have visions of a homeland far larger than their current base, and have ambitions for fulfilling an historic mission of reaching those [more extensive] boundaries." The rise of such leaders makes a resumption of fighting pretty much inevitable, although it may in fact diminish the incidence of "residual low-level ethnic violence" (Sambanis 2000, 481).
One might also wonder why the creation of regionally concentrated ethno-sectarian entities would weaken militants inside the resultant majority community, who can be expected to push for a continuation of the struggle even after some sort of settlement is reached. James Fearon (2004, 407) observes that it is almost always a mistake to assume that communities are unitary actors, and the creation of a new homeland that is largely free from the moderating atmosphere of countervailing cultures seems like fertile ground for the emergence of radical cadres committed to retribution and expansionism. Proponents of resurgent warfare will be more apt to prevail if there exist "lingering territorial disputes" among the partitioned entities (Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl 2009, 118). Other sources of post-war conflict in recently partitioned entities can readily be adduced (Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl 2009, 101).
Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the existence of ethno-sectarian cantons will quickly attract the attention of powerful external actors. Under some circumstances, relations between the newly partitioned entity and outside "coethnics" will work to dampen conflict, as for example if the new canton finds itself assured that it will be protected from future threats (Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl 2009, 95). But at other times external actors can be expected to aggravate tensions, whether intentionally or unintentionally, in pursuit of their own interests. Connections between a newly created canton and coethnics in a neighboring state have even been shown to increases the likelihood of civil war at a later date (Cederman, Gleditsch, Salehyan and Wucherpfennig 2013; Forsberg 2014).
In light of such considerations, partitioning Syria into a cluster of autonomous, ethno-sectarian cantons will contribute little to the peaceful resolution of the ongoing civil war. The boundaries that separate the new cantons from one another are almost certain to be ambiguous and fiercely contested, leaving it impossible to discern whether communities on either side of the border are preparing to strike or instead taking steps to defend their respective domains. Disputes over the precise demarcation of the new boundaries are unlikely to remain unresolved without further fighting among the affected parties.
It is equally hard to imagine that the leaderships of the resulting cantons will give up irredentist ambitions. Can we expect the PYD to settle permanently for control over the three small, isolated and vulnerable districts that it presently commands? Will the displaced residents of Jabal al-Zawiyyah and the Ghab valley be willing to abandon all hope of returning to their former villages and farmlands? Is it reasonable to assume that the elite of Aleppo will accept a permanent severing of links to Hamah and Latakia?
Perhaps a prospective Sunni-dominated canton in northern Syria can rely on the Turkish armed forces to protect it from future encroachments on the part of an 'Alawi-led south and west, and will make no attempt to expand its boundaries to protect itself from future attack. But it is hard to believe that Ankara will commit itself to the defense of the environs of Aleppo in perpetuity, particularly if—as seems most likely—this territory harbors a variety of radical Islamist militias.
Proponents of partition emphasize the dynamics of the security dilemma to argue that setting up autonomous, homogeneous homelands can play a crucial role in bringing ethnic civil wars to a close. Unless the new cantons enjoy easy and effective defensibility and are constructed in such a way that attacks can quickly be distinguished from defensive measures, however, the security dilemma that confronts the leaders of these entities will remain highly dangerous and liable to spark a rapid resumption of outright warfare.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, Idean Salehyan and Julian Wucherpfennig (2013) Transborder Ethnic Kin and Civil War. International Organization 67 (April): 389-410.
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Forsberg, Erika (2014) Transnational Transmitters: Ethnic Kinship Ties and Conflict Contagion 1946-2009. International Interactions 40(March): 143-165.
Johnson, Carter (2008) Partitioning to Peace. International Security 32(Spring): 140-170.
Kaufmann, Chaim (1996) Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars. International Security 20 (Spring): 136-175.
Laitin, David D. (2004) Ethnic Unmixing and Civil War. Security Studies 13 (Summer): 350-365.
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Sambanis, Nicholas and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl (2009) What's in a Line? Is Partition a Solution to Civil War? International Security 34(Fall): 82-118.