With news reports that Alawites and Melkite Christians may retreat to the western coast of Syria to establish a rump state, various commentators are wondering if Syria could actually split. Most of these commentators emphasis how hard it would be for an "Arab Syria" to split. What many of these commentators overlook is that Syria is already a rump state which previously was several states that lost some of its minority heavy areas because of demographic geopolitics.
After World War I and the French-Syrian War which saw the French defeat the newly independent, pro-British, Arab monarchy, the French divided their mandate of former Ottoman lands into six mandate states. Most of the states were ethnically based with the Sunni Muslim majority divided into two to create rivalries.
|The not united states of Syria. Map from Wikipedia|
Sanjak of Alexandretta - Majority Turkish with noticeable Eastern Orthodox and Jewish minorities. In 1938 this state declared independence as a secular republic and later joined Turkey (and was featured in the third Indiana Jones movie as some sort of Arab monarchy). Syria still claims this area.
Alawite State - The core of the proposed future rump state of Melkites and Alawites is in fact the old homeland for Alawites. Since the 1960s the rural Alawite majority has been moving into the cities in this region and has now replaced Sunni Arabs as the majority in both cities and the countryside.
Greater Lebanon - Meant to be a homeland for Christians as well as a reserve for Shia Muslims. Christian leaders broke from both France and Syria because they thought it would be the only way to protect their people from a majority Muslim Syria.
State of Aleppo and State of Damascus - The French divided the Sunni Arab majority into two states to play off the cities of Aleppo and Damascus against each other. Interestingly, while the Syrian Civil War is widespread it is not really an Aleppo versus Damascus conflict as much of the most intense fighting has been around Homs and Hama, both in the old State of Damascus.
Jabal Druze - The Druze may be the Mormons of the Muslim world (secret rituals, non-orthodox beliefs such as reincarnation in the case of the Druze) or they may be pagans who hide themselves in a quasi-Muslim veneer. Either way these fierce defenders of their own local autonomy were given their own mandate by the French. Ever since then the Druze have been more or less sitting out national politics while they pay taxes to the central government and are left alone in return.
In the 1930s a series of agreements started the long road to independence for Syria. Arab nationalists desired all the mandates to be formed into one state but the French's long standing ties with Maronite Catholics led them to separate what would become Lebanon from the rest of Syria. Also, as stated above the Turks of Hatay wanted to be part of the Turkish nation-state and pressured the French to keep them out of any agreements with what would become the Syrian government.
Today the ruling Baath Party still pays lip service to reuniting all of Syria's old lands (Syria only recently recognized Lebanon as independent) and the in-government Syrian Social Nationalist Party works both in Syria and Lebanon to reunite the countries. However, the downfall of the secular, minority-friendly Baath regime may cause minorities to press again for the reestablishment of separate states.