Ignoring the lessons of history, the US is considering a partition of Syria

A tentative ceasefire between warring parties in Syria is set to come to force on Saturday (Feb. 27), but the international community remains skeptical that it will hold. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has warned that if the ceasefire fails, the US might have to consider a Plan B—namely a partition of Syria.
“This can get a lot uglier,” Kerry told the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee.“It may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria if we wait much longer.”
It’s the first time Kerry has spoken publicly about partition—which he is not yet advocating—but there have been plenty of murmurings of this so-called last-ditch solution.
Israel has expressed similar doubts that the ceasefire will hold. Defense minister Moshe Ya’alon suggested that Syria is “going to face chronic instability for a very, very long period of time” that could result in a number of enclaves, such as “Alawistan,” “Syrian Kurdistan,” “Syrian Druzistan,” and so on. Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, went as far as to describe partition as “the only possible solution.”

Some suggest a partition plays into Russia’s hands (paywall); Britain has accused Russia of trying to carve out an Alawite mini-state in Syria.
As countries interested in protecting their own interests consider carving up Syria, the history of partition in the region highlights the problem with dividing people along ethno-religious lines.
Syria is no stranger to partition

This year marks the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, where Britain and France secretly split up the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between themselves after World War I. Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine came under British influence, Syria and Lebanon under French power.

But the preliminary divisions in this treaty highlight the problem of dividing people by sectarian affiliations. For example, the proposals envisioned Lebanon as a haven for Christians and the Druze, while Syria was to be a place for Sunni Muslims. As political economist Tarek Osman points out, these secretion divisions weren’t necessarily a reflection of reality on the ground.
The French and British employed the colonial policy of divide-and-rule for their own economic and ideological purposes. Some go as far as to blame the Sykes-Picot agreement for the current problems in Syria, and the rest of the Middle East, today.
“The artificiality of state formation has caused numerous conflicts over the last few decades,” Henner Fürtig, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at GIGA research institute in Hamburg, told Deutsche Welle. “These questions haven’t been solved for a century and burst open again and again, in a cycle, like now with the ISIS advance in northern Iraq.”
These divisions would later be quashed under anti-colonialist struggles, which called for a united Arab world against imperialist powers, and then later brutally suppressed in the 1980s and 1990s by what Osman describes as the “Arab world’s strong men,” including Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. Osman argues these cracks and divisions didn’t disappear, they came to the forefront at 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Ayse Tekdal Fildis, assistant professor in the Department of Political Sciences at Halic University in Istanbul, also blames artificial divisions imposed by French imperialists, arguing: “The process of political radicalization was initiated during the era of the French mandate, the legacy of which was almost a guarantee of Syria’s political instability.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria used this argument to explain why Syria is imploding, and why Western powers should stay out of Syria.

Others are less convinced with the argument that those borders are the sole factor for the political instability in Syria today.
Sarah El Sirgany, a journalist and fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told al-Jazeera that “to trace every event, mishap, war, conflict or even agreement back to the Sykes-Picot agreement would be giving it more than it deserves.” She argues a lot has happened since then, governments have been overthrown and world powers have shifted, while others point to other treaties as important contributing factors.
Who will own what?

Advocates for partition point to the relative success of the Dayton accords in 1995, which formally ended the three-and-a-half year war in the Balkans. Leaders of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia signed an agreement that preserved Bosnia as a single state, but divided it into two parts. The accord created a federal system; the Muslim-Croat federation would represent 51% of the country, while a Serb republic would hold the remaining 49%.
More than 200,000 died before the peace deal was reached. Bloomberg columnist Marc Champion, who describes the Dayton as an “imperfect solution” to end the bloodshed, calls for a similar temporary partition of Syria. A map created by Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 Project shows how difficult that could be. Each color represents different groups in Syria, which at times overlap.
Syria Ethnic Composition.(Gulf/2000)
Critics warn that a partition of Syria could require the mass displacement of different ethnicities, which could to the kind of horrors during the India-Pakistan partition.

The 1947 partition of colonial India divided it into two separate states; Pakistan, with a Muslim majority, and India, with a Hindu majority. Thomas Carlson, assistant professor of Middle Eastern History at Oklahoma State University, points out that “around 15 million Hindus and Muslims were on the wrong side of the line and were forced to flee for their lives. Hundreds of thousands were killed.”
These borders do not always last. The artificial state of Pakistan could not hold, with isolated East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in a bloody war of independence. The border between Iraq and Syria, established by Sykes-Picot, lasted a long time—from when when it was created until ISIL established its own so-called Islamic State connecting large areas of the two countries in 2014. The Kurds have had their own autonomous region in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003.
The lessons of past partitions suggest those who have the most to lose are minority groups who don’t wield significant political power. While finding peace in Syria is proving to be very hard, dividing people by ethnicity or sectarian affiliation is no quick fix in the long run, either.


Billionaire Wisdom: 8 Insights From a Quartet of the World’s Most Effective Entrepreneurs

Billionaire Wisdom: 8 Insights From a Quartet of the World's Most Effective Entrepreneurs
Until very recently, taking on grand challenges was off-limits for most people. Historically, going big meant huge capital outlays and multi-decade bets.

It meant staging personnel in dozens, sometimes hundreds, of countries. Assembling the astounding array of talent required an infrastructure for hiring, retaining and retraining it as technology evolved. But with the wealth of crowdsourcing tools available to today’s entrepreneurs, the entire playing field has shifted.

Technology lets companies to scale up in size as never before. Small groups can have huge impacts. A team of passionate innovators can alter the lives of a billion people in an eyeblink.

A quartet of entrepreneurs have harnessed technology to build multibillion dollar companies that forever changed the world: Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and Google CEO Larry Page.

Each of them mastered a rarely discussed skill fundamental to bold pursuits and enterprises with exponential growth: the ability to think at scale.

Based on my in-depth interviews of these men and other sources, I have distilled eight strategies for business success:

Related: How the Next Five Years Will Revolutionize Business

1. Take risks but mitigate them.
richard branson

Richard Branson
Image credit: Richard Branson via Instagram
Just about everything Sir Richard Branson has done has involved taking brazen risks. But he also runs his Virgin Group empire like a competitive ecosystem, letting some companies live, others die and always ceaselessly experimenting.

He is quick to rapidly iterate his ideas and quicker to shut down a failure. While Branson is known to have started tons of companies, he has also shed ones that didn’t work for him.

Branson understands that risk mitigation is critical.

“It looks like entrepreneurs have a high tolerance for risk,” he told my co-author Peter H. Diamandis in an interview for our just-published book, Bold. “But, having said that, one of the most important phrases in my life is ‘protect the downside.’ It should be one of the most important phrases in any businessperson’s life.”

It was a “big, bold move going into the airline business,” Branson said of his launch of Virgin Airlines after initially starting Virgin Records. But Boeing allowed for him to “give the plane back after 12 months.”

“That meant I could put my toe in the water, I could see whether people liked the airline,” he said. “But if it didn’t work out, it wasn’t going to bring everything else crashing down.”

Added Branson: “I’d be able to look my record company bosses in the eye and we’d still be friends because they’d still have jobs.”

“Protecting the downside is critical,” Branson said. “Make bold moves but make sure to have a way out if things go wrong.”

Related: Richard Branson on Taking Risks

2. Rapidly iterate and experiment until things are right.
jeff bezos

Jeff Bezos
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson | Flickr
Jeff Bezos is a busy man. He isn’t interested in small shifts in direction or polite progress. He wants to effect change on a massive scale, tapping customer-centric thinking for the long term.

The Amazon CEO also understands that the only way to really succeed is via experimentation. He knows that this approach will occasionally produce spectacular mistakes. “Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional,” he wrote in a 2014 Amazon shareholder letter

Staff at his company “believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right,” Bezos added.

“When this process works, it means our failures are relatively small in size,” he wrote. “Most experiments can start small.”

“And when we hit on something that is really working for customers, we double down on it with hopes to turn it into an even bigger success,” Bezos said.

Related: Google, Fidelity Invest $1 Billion in SpaceX to Spread Internet Access Across the Globe

3. Be driven by passion and purpose.
elon musk

Elon Musk
Image credit: Heisenberg Media | Flickr
Nothing is more important than passion and purpose for Elon Musk, who also heads up Space Exploration Technologies and SolarCity.

“I didn’t go into the rocket business, the car business or the solar business thinking this is a great opportunity,” Musk told me in an interview.

“I just thought, in order to make a difference, something needed to be done. I wanted to have an impact. I wanted to create something substantially better than what came before.”

4. Think long term.
Google X chief Astro Teller told Wired how he imagined wheeling a time machine into Google CEO Larry Page’s office, plugging it in to demonstrate that it worked only to have his boss ask why it needed a plug and wouldn’t it be better without having to draw from an electric power source?

This was to illustrate Page’s focus on 10x thinking, which Teller has referred to as making something 10 times better.

For Page, the answer for him and Googlers always sits at the intersection of long-term planning and customer-centric thinking.

“We always try to concentrate on the long term,” Page told me in an interview. “When we first looked at YouTube, people said, ‘Oh, you guys are never going to make money with that, but you bought it for $1.4 billion. You’re totally crazy.'”

“We were reasonably crazy, but it was a good bet,” Page said, noting YouTube’s revenue growth.

Added Page: “Our philosophy is that the things that people use often are really important to them and we think that over time, you can make money from those things.”

Related: Google Co-Founder Larry Page to Step Back From Duties to Focus on ‘Bigger Picture’

5. Emphasize a customer-centric approach.
Branson’s fiery devotion to fun is relayed to his dedicated clientele and fervent fans. The net effect is a business strategy based on experimental customer-centrism. If Branson thinks a particular service might be beneficial to his customers (and fun), he tries it out.

This is why Virgin Atlantic offers free seat-back TVs, onboard massages, a glass-bottomed plane and stand-up comedians.

“Unless you’re customer-centric you might be able to create something wonderful, but you’re not going to survive,” Branson told me.

“It’s about getting every little detail right. It is running your airline like you would an upscale restaurant — the kind where the owner is there every day,” he added.

“Virgin Atlantic started out with one plane,” Branson said. “On paper, we should not have survived. But because we were customer-centric, people went out of their way to fly us.”

6. Broaden the view by tracking probabilities.
Thinking in probabilities (a business has, say, a 60 percent chance of success) rather than deterministically (if I do A and B, then C will happen) doesn’t just guard against oversimplification. This type of thought process protects an entrepreneur against the brain’s inherent laziness.

Musk strives to broaden his view by thinking in probabilities.

“Outcomes are usually not deterministic,” Musk told Kevin Rose in a 2011 interview. “They’re probabilistic.”

Added Musk: “The popular definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result — that’s only true in a highly deterministic situation.

“If you have a probabilistic situation, which most situations are, then if you do the same thing twice, it can be quite reasonable to expect a different result,” he concluded.

7. Be a rational optimist.
elon musk

Larry Page
Image credit: Niall Kennedy | Flickr
Larry Page famously said in a keynote address to Google’s I/0 conference in 2013, “Being negative is not how we make progress.”

“I’m tremendously optimistic,” he said. “I’m certain that whatever challenges we take on, we can solve with a little bit of concerted effort and some good technology. And that’s an exciting place to be.”

Page observed that this meant his company’s “job is really to make the world better” and that the world needs “more people working on this. We need to have more ambitious goals.”

Said Page: “The world has enough resources to provide a good quality of life for everyone. We have enough raw materials. We need to get better organized and move a lot faster.”

8. Rely on fundamental truths.
Musk urges entrepreneurs to seek direct, blunt, critical feedback from friends. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s really important to solicit negative feedback,” the type that “helps you recognize as fast as possible what you’re doing wrong and adjust course,” he told me.

“That’s usually what people don’t do,” Musk said. “They don’t adjust course fast enough and adapt to the reality of the situation.”

Often, he says, people do things because “others are doing them” or they spot a trend. They see “everyone moving in one direction and decide that’s the best direction to go.”

At times “this is correct, but sometimes this will take you right off a cliff,” Musk said.

Considering fundamental truths “protects you from these errors,” Musk concluded.


This City Just Unseated New York City as the Billionaire Capital of the World

This City Just Unseated New York City as the Billionaire Capital of the WorldBeijing just surpassed New York City to become the city with the most billionaires in the world. A hundred billionaires are based in the Chinese capital compared to New York City’s 95, according to findings from theHurun Global Rich List, an annual wealth ranking from the Shanghai-based Hurun Report.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are still the first and second wealthiest people in the world, with net worths of $80 billion and $68 billion, respectively. Zara founder Amancio Ortega comes in at number three with assets totaling $64 billion, followed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ($53 billion). Mexican business magnate and investor Carlos Slim Helu rounds out the top five with a net worth of $50 billion.

Related: These Are the World’s Top 10 Young Billionaires

The two wealthiest people in China are Wang Jianlin ($26 billion), the Chairman of the Wanda Group — a luxury commercial property company and the world’s largest movie chain operator – and Li Ka-Shing ($25 billion), the 87-year-old Chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings, investor and philanthropist.

For the first time, China has overtaken the U.S. as the country with the most billionaires. The five-year-old list reports that there are now 2,188 billionaires around the world, 50 percent more than in 2013.


Taxman Gets More Teeth to Track Non-Filers of I-T Returns

Taxman Gets More Teeth to Track Non-Filers of I-T Returns: ReportNew Delhi: Aimed at further arming the taxman to go after those who do not file their income tax returns (ITRs), a new database of multiple addresses of such erring assessees has been set up by the Income Tax Department.

Under the special drive called ‘Non-Filers Management System’ (NMS), the department, in such cases, used to send intimation letters or notices to the addresses mentioned in the PAN database which many times went undelivered as the information therein was quite old.

A new technology enhancement by the systems wing of the department has added to the NMS electronic database the address used by a person or his/her associate in the income tax return or annual information return (AIR) filed by him/her.

While an ITR is supposed to be filed by any person who has taxable income, an AIR is stipulated to be filed by a specific category of people undertaking high-value transactions.

The NMS database is run by using technology intelligence tools to track erring taxpayers who either forget or just skip filing their returns.

“The department found that the addresses provided in the Permanent Account Number database were no longer valid in many cases as the assessee had changed location. Hence, a new pool of data has been provided to IT sleuths by electronically collating the address which such an assessee uses in his ITR or AIR or may be by the entities connected with such a person.”

“In some cases, the department found people have reported income returns from one head but skipped doing so from other such avenues and hence the NMS notice tells them to do so and comply with norms,” an official said.

The department is particularly enthused by the NMS drive as recently, over 11 lakh taxpayers filed their I-T returns for assessment year 2014-15 after the department tracked them through this programme.