As Divisions Entrench, Is Syria Headed for Permanent Split?

Syrian refugees gather at the Turkish border following clashes between Daesh and Kurdish armed forces near Kobani. Sanliurfa, Turkey, June 26, 2015. (Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As the Syria conflict rages into a fifth year, it bears little resemblance to its origins in peaceful protests for democratic change in 2011. The crisis was first transformed by Iran and Hezbollah’s military interventions in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Then came the deep fragmentation of the opposition and advance of Daesh (also known as Islamic State), which declared its caliphate a year ago and established the eastern city of Raqqa as its capital. The Assad regime is holding on to most major cities and densely populated areas, while Daesh is mainly controlling deserts and less populated areas. The abject and protracted nature of the conflict requires a significant reassessment of international efforts seeking an end to the fighting.

The optimism of the Assad regime of two years’ ago, when Hezbollah openly started fighting alongside the Syrian army, shows clear signs of fatigue. The regime is pressed on many fronts. Daesh strengthened its position to the east when it captured the ancient Roman city of Palmyra last month and the regime was forced to retreat westwards. To the north towards Tukey lies an Islamist alliance called Yaysh al Fath, or Army of Conquest, which is a coalition of the al-Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda associates supported and supplied by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. When this group conquered the city of Idlib in March, it likely sent shockwaves through the regime. The Islamist alliance is now in control of much of the northern territory towards Aleppo, where they are fighting against both the regime and Daesh elements trying to expand westwards.

Northeast of Damascus, al-Nusra is holding several strongholds, and along the northeastern border with Turkey the Kurds have made advances on Daesh by taking the city of Kobani. To the south towards the border of Israel and Jordan the Southern Front is an alliance of secularists and moderate Islamists formed out of the Free Syrian Army in 2014. While struggling to gain Western international support, it is making gradual advances towards Damascus. The key strategic battle is over control of the road linking Damascus to Deraa, the capital of the south, and where the uprising started in 2011. The regime’s assistance from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, in cooperation with Hezbollah, has not proven decisive in this situation. On the contrary, some indications suggest that the regime is preparing a withdrawal similar to that seen before the defeats at Palmyra and Idlib.

The regime is obviously losing ground at the moment. The army is struggling with defections and difficulties to recruit much-needed soldiers. Hezbollah has suffered severe losses during its engagement in the crisis and it is questionable whether it still has sufficient resources to continue the battle in Syria and maintain its self-proclaimed role to protect Lebanon, particularly against Israel. Are the recent regime defeats decisive, or are these just the normal ebbs and flows of a hopelessly protracted Syrian conflict?

There is a strong case to be made for the latter. Until April 2013, the opposition forces seemed to have the upper hand in the conflict, particularly in the northwestern region. The rebels controlled large swaths of territory in the Homs province, including the city of Homs itself, and government forces seemed unable to retake what they had lost. At that time, I was investigating coping strategies among Syrian refugees and host populations in Bebnine, a village in North Lebanon, and several interviewees speculated that Assad’s strategy would be to divide Syria and create an Alawite state in his core areas.

That was until Hezbollah publicly moved into Syria to fight alongside the Syrian army, shifting the balance of the conflict and causing a major setback for the rebels’ fight against the regime. Hezbollah engaged in the battle for Qusayr, only 10km (6 miles) across the border in Syria. Qusayr is a strategic city of 30,000 on the main road linking Damascus with the coastal region of Syria. The coast is a core area for the Alawite sect, and the port city of Tartus allows Russian supply of oil and weapons. Qusayr is of strategic importance for Hezbollah’s weapons and supplies and fighters from both sides use this route in and out of Lebanon. Governing Qusayr further facilitates control northwards towards the Homs province.

After retaking Qusayr, the regime was able to move on to take control over Homs and much of the surroundings. In May 2013 a Lebanese official I interviewed remarked on how Assad’s strategy had changed, from trying to divide Syria, to one of controlling the vital lines to all its major cities.

“He is trying to link Homs to Damascus and to Hama and Aleppo. Before this link was cut and he focused on Baniyas and Tartus, now I believe he is trying to control the arteries of the Syrian map…the moment he has taken Qusayr he is controlling the line between Homs and Damascus,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.

The fight for Qusayr revealed the strategic importance of cooperation between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Hezbollah’s structure of small elite militia combined with the Syrian army’s more heavy weapons and airpower proved very successful and enabled the regime to turn the tide of the uprising against them. As we now know, the battle for Qusayr was not decisive, but it gave the regime momentum to consolidate control over strategic areas, including Syria’s economic centers and most populated areas. The regime’s military victories, combined with its agreement to hand over chemical weapons to international inspectors, strengthened its negotiating position and more or less stalled the process in Geneva attempting to solve the conflict.

The current battle for the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus mirrors the fight for Qusayr two years ago. The motivations are exactly the same: to cut the rebels’ supply lines from Lebanon to Damascus and destroy bases in the mountains used for regrouping and mounting attacks against the regime and its allies. For the regime, the mountains also have the same strategic value as Qusayr in providing access to the coast and to the important cities of Homs and Hama, and all the way to Aleppo.

The government alliance has made successful advances in the mountains and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nassrallah, announced victory in the Qalamoun battle at the end of May 2015, claiming to control 90% of the territory. This claim is, however, disputed by opposition groups. It has certainly not been a swift takeover for the regime and Hezbollah, with the battle lasting on and off since the end of 2013. In the beginning of July this year, the regime alliance retook Zabadani in the southern part of the mountains, a town of strategic significance along the Damascus-Beirut highway, which has been in rebel hands since 2012, but it is questionable whether this is a decisive victory for the outcome of the war.

The reality on the ground is now corresponding more to the situation before Hezbollah’s active engagement in the crisis in 2013. Syria is a firmly divided country in which Assad at best can only aspire to control his core areas: the coast, and perhaps Homs and Damascus. The rest of the country is now controlled by rival warlords and non-state actors, of which Daesh still appears to be the strongest, despite ongoing air raids by the US-led coalition against the jihadists. In the midst of this confusing picture the regime is focusing more on defeating opposition rebels than fighting against the advancing Daesh.

When Saddam Hussein was toppled in neighboring Iraq in 2003, Assad turned a blind eye to Sunni extremists entering that country from Syria to destabilize the new Shia majority regime. The same extremists, now named Daesh, are using the identical route back into Syria, which seem to suit Assad well, highlighting the regime’s need to protect Syria from Islamist extremism and its ability to hold a divided sectarian society together. Witness accounts further claim that Assad has repeatedly failed to confront Daesh strongholds, while government forces fight other opposition groups in the same area. Some go as far as claiming the regime has assisted Daesh, for example when government forces bombed Maera and Tal Rifaat in June before Daesh stormed in to take control of the area. This is purported to be an Assad scare tactic, whereby the public is required to support his regime or face the alternative of absorption into the extremist caliphate.

Despite the pressures and de facto division of Syria, no party seems closer to accepting a negotiated solution to the crisis. The question now is how the international community can prepare for this divided “post-Syria” reality and avoid a repeat of all the failures from Iraq, which has experienced continued violence and instability. A good place to start is perhaps to avoid dismantling governance structures and service delivery that are still functioning after four years of war. Both the Syrian government and international humanitarian actors have been forced to cooperate with local partners and an emerging NGO sector to provide service in areas periodically affected by violence and war. As a result, such local governance structures have been strengthened and can provide a basis for future Syria reconstruction even if the country should cease to exist and end up fragmented along sectarian lines and divided among warlords. 

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.