BEIRUT — Syria has already been shattered by more than four years of civil war, and with no solution in sight, some players on the ground and observers outside have concluded its fate will be to break up along sectarian or regional lines — in a best-case scenario, tenuously held together by a less centralized state.
A true partition would risk yet more mayhem, including ethnic or sectarian cleansing and battle over every bend in the border. But so spectacular is Syria's disaster that many wonder whether its disparate groups can share a unifying national sentiment again.
The sectarian dynamic was evident last week in a U.N.-backed truce deal in the key Zabadani region near the Lebanese border, which reportedly envisions the transfer of thousands of Shiites and Sunni fighters from one area to another.
In all, half the prewar population of 23 million has been displaced and a quarter million killed, propelling a huge wave of refugees to neighboring countries and now to Europe.
The government, dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect, controls Damascus, the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast, other cities and connecting corridors in between. Kurds run their own affairs in the northeast. The militant Islamic State group controls much of the Sunni heartland in the east. Other Sunni rebels control pockets in the north and south. The Druze remain loyal but are starting to talk about autonomy in their southern areas as well.
"What we have today is a partition that no one wants to acknowledge formally," said Ahmad Shami, an opposition activist from the besieged suburbs of Damascus, using his nickname to protect his identity.
The debate in the region and in international capitals has centered on Assad's fate, what might replace his government and whether he should be allowed a face-saving transitional role. But as the highly authoritarian state has disintegrated and the deaths and population transfers have mounted, sectarian hatreds have become so inflamed that the bigger question is impossible to ignore.
"After the destruction and killings that took place, it is difficult for the Syrian people to coexist (in) a central state," said Mustafa Osso, a leader of the minority Kurds who is vice president of the Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed Syrian opposition group. He favors not total partition but federalization.
The idea of dividing the country among various groups is not new. About a century ago, French and British colonists carved up much of the Middle East, spoils of war taken from the Ottoman empire.
Awarded the area to become modern Syria, the French in the 1920s toyed with the idea of ethnically cohesive statelets. They envisioned six areas, including the State of Alawites, a state for the Druze and a State of Aleppo. But in the end a unitary state was established instead.
When Syria became independent, authoritarian leaders kept any notion of rebellions at bay — much as was the case in similarly multi-ethnic Iraq, also created by the colonial powers. Since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq is now divided between a Shiite-dominated government region, a highly autonomous Kurdish north, and a Sunni-dominated region mostly controlled by the Islamic State group.
The Levant was hardly unusual in this: Big-power cartography left its fingerprints all over the world. Many countries found themselves with diverse populations — like Africa's Nigeria, at loggerheads between a Muslim-dominated north and a Christian south.
In some cases a breakup eventually proved possible: Eritrea splitting from Ethiopia, for example, and the more recent independence of South Sudan.
Partition appears more possible along a country's recognized internal borders or in cases where the ethnic or sectarian map is fairly clear.
However things play out here, "Syria as we've known it since it was formed 100 years ago — it's finished, I think," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East policy. "What the international community will have to recognize is de facto partition, and work with different parties to try and stabilize those areas."
In an interview with The Associated Press this weekend, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi referred to the issue, saying, "We are very keen that Syria remains as a nation and as a state and does not divide into smaller states."
After a century of global upheaval, the world community is generally inclined to keep national borders as they are, fearful of any change.
"Even though a lot of newly independent states after World War II in Africa, the Middle East and Asia have borders that were drawn by colonizers, the strong tendency within international law has been to respect those boundaries," said Kenneth Schultz, professor of political science at Stanford University.
Syrians seem to generally share the reluctance.
Dividing the country up would bring to the surface the complication that key cities like Aleppo and Damascus remain too mixed for a simple divorce.
Partition in such mixed areas can open the door to new horrors. Images of Sarajevo — the ethnically mixed Bosnian capital devastated by civil war in the 1990s — come to mind. Or the horrific ethnic cleansing seen when mostly Muslim Pakistan broke off from what had been British-ruled India.
Fears in this direction are already arising in Syria.
Alawites and other minorities such as Christians and Druze have mostly fled predominantly Sunni opposition-held areas. Sunni Arabs accuse Kurds of creating laws that aim to change the demographics and intimidate their communities in predominantly Kurdish areas.
Some are gearing up to reverse their losses. Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi militant linked to al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, suggested that the transfer agreed on in Zabadani would not be permanent, adding that the insurgents are ready to reverse it by force. "Demographic changes are not that simple," said al-Muhaysini, who lives in Syria.
Complicating the situation is that most areas that could form a Sunni region are under the control not just of the Islamic Sate group but a host of other groups, most of them also radicals.
Some believe the components of a looser federated state might in some cases be based on sects that dominate and in other cases simply on the geographical area, which might remain mixed.
Tarek Abdul-Hai, an anti-Assad Druze activist, said people were increasingly thinking in terms of "cantons," a subdivision term used in placid Switzerland. "Impoverishment and fear" were driving people to depend on local allies, "and these are the cantons."
Abdul-Hai said total partition was impractical for the Druze, whose population of a few hundred thousand is not enough to go it alone. But, he added, "reality is not always as one wishes."
"If there is partition, it will begin with the coast," he predicted, because the situation is "pushing the Alawites to rally around a special clear geography to protect themselves."
Alawites undoubtedly fear repercussions in a post-Assad Syria they would likely no longer dominate. The past weeks' Russian deployment, focused on the Alawite coast, is seen by some in this context: while Russia, like Assad, favors maintaining a unified Syria, its actions suggest an effort to shore up the Alawite heartland as well.
In some government-held areas, like Homs and Damascus, people of various sects still proudly co-exist, viewing partition as a danger, not a solution. Assad remains publicly committed to a unified Syria. But he has acknowledged that the army has been forced to relinquish far-flung areas to focus military resources on core areas.
"If Syrians do not move beyond the present and come together, partition becomes a possibility and there are political sides that are working on psychologically paving the way for it," said Mohammad Saleh, an Alawite businessman living in the central Homs province. "We are fighting to come up with a solution."
One man of Alawite background said the brutality of the Islamic State group was driving Alawites and other minorities toward the idea of an enclave as a safe haven. He refused to give his name for fear of retribution.
Schultz, who specializes in international conflict and conflict resolution, pointed to the solution reached in Bosnia some 20 years ago: the former Yugoslav republic's borders have been maintained, but minority Serbs run a highly autonomous state-within-a-state.
"If I thought about a model that could work for Syria it would be the Bosnia model, where you maintain the unity of the state but you partition it into reasonably autonomous areas," he said.
Perry reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.