Syria: Nation divided into three parts

A Free Syrian Army fighter flees after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade. Picture: AP
A Free Syrian Army fighter flees after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade. Picture: AP
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MORE than two years into Syria’s civil war, what was a highly-centralised authoritarian state has effectively split into three distinct parts, each boasting its own flag, security agency and judicial system.

In each area, religious, ideological and turf-power struggles are under way, while battle lines tend to ebb and flow, making it impossible to predict exactly what Syria will look like once the combatants lay down their arms.

But the longer the bloody conflict drags on, analysts say, the more difficult it will be to piece together a coherent Syrian state from the wreckage.

“There is no doubt that as a distinct single entity, Syria has ceased to exist,” Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said.

“Considering the sheer scale of its territorial losses in some areas of the country, Syria no longer functions as a single, all-encompassing unitarily governed state.”

The geographic dividing lines that have emerged over the past two years remain fluid, but the general outlines can be traced on a map.

The regime holds a firm grip on a corridor running from the southern border with Jordan, through the capital Damascus and up to the Mediterranean coast, where a large portion of the population belongs to president Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect.

The rebels, who are primarily drawn from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, control a chunk of territory that spans parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces in the north and stretches along the Euphrates river to the porous Iraqi border in the east.

Tucked into the far north-eastern corner, meanwhile, Syria’s well-armed Kurdish minority enjoys semi-autonomy.

Those contours provide the big picture view. The view from the ground, however, is slightly muddied.

While Sunni rebels control large parts of the rural regions in the north, the government still controls provincial capitals there, with the exception of Ar-Raqqah city and parts of Aleppo. The regime also still retains some military bases and checkpoints in the overwhelmingly rebel-held countryside, but those are besieged and isolated and supplies for troops have to be air-dropped.

The opposition movement itself is far from monolithic, and there have been increasing outbursts of infighting between al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists and moderate rebel groups, as well as between Kurds and rebels of a radical Islamic bent. That violence holds the potential to escalate into a full-blown war among opposition factions.

The Assad regime has made headway in recent months in the strategic heartland of Homs, clawing back territory long held by rebel fighters. Those gains have helped the government secure its grip on Damascus and the pathway to the coast. They also have reinforced opposition claims that Mr Assad’s military is driving out local Sunni communities to try to carve out a breakaway Alawite enclave that could become a refuge for the community if the regime falls.

For now, Mr Assad’s overstretched and war-weary troops appear unable to regain the vast territories they have lost to rebels and jihadists, who control oil wells and other key resources such as dams and electricity plants in the north and east.

Black al-Qaeda flags that carry the Muslim declaration of the faith fly over many areas there, marking their turf distinctly from the three-starred green, black and white flag flown by the various rebel brigades that make up the loose-knit, western-backed Free Syrian Army.

In the north, fighter brigades have set up sharia courts that dispense their own version of justice based on Islamic law, including, in some cases, executions of captured regime soldiers and supporters.

In the north-east, Kurdish flags flutter proudly over buildings after the country’s largest minority carved out a once unthinkable degree of independence. Kurds, who make up more than 10 per cent of Syria’s 22 million people, were long oppressed under Baathist rule. Now, they have created their own police forces and own licence plates, and have been exuberantly going public with their language and culture. Schoolchildren are now taught Kurdish, something banned for years under the Assad family’s rule.

“While there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar al-Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, has said. Those comments appeared to leave open the possibility that, while Mr Assad has lost control of large parts of the country, he may be able to hang on and even expand his core territory in future.

This view has been reinforced with steady regime gains in and around Damascus, and in Homs province, a strategic linchpin linking the capital with predominantly regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast. Homs is a crossroads, and if the regime were to secure its hold on the city – where a few rebel-held districts are holding out – it would put it in a stronger position to strike out at the opposition-held axis running through the middle of the country.

Already, the government has been successful in clearing key routes leading to the Alawite community’s heartlands of Tartus and Latakia. Recent visitors to Tartus speak of beaches dotted with swimmers and nightclubs packed with revellers.

“It’s like stepping into another world, completely sealed off from the rest of the country,” said one Syrian in Beirut, who recently arrived from the coast and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Despite the geographic split into three regions, none of the sides can speak of confidently retaining the terrain they control.

In the capital, people live in constant fear of a repeat of the so-called “Damascus Volcano”, when rebels briefly overran several neighbourhoods in an assault in the summer of 2012.

Mortars launched from rebel-held pockets around the capital constantly crash into the city, killing and wounding people. In those rebel areas, regime warplanes swoop down at random, dropping bombs over targets that often kill civilians instead. The rebels have proved they are able to strike back, despite significant advances by the military.

The conflict has laid waste to Syria’s cities, shattered its economy and killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011. The bloodshed has fanned sectarian hatreds, and many fear the divisions now entrenched in a country where Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druse and Christians co-existed for centuries will make it hard for people to reconnect as citizens of a single nation. Syria’s partition into mini-states is an ominous scenario. Any attempt at an official breakaway could trigger a wave of sectarian killings and have dangerous repercussions in a region where many religious, ethnic and tribal communities have separatist aspirations.