The popular uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad did not begin as a secessionist one. Those on the street first demanded government reforms, then the end of Assad’s regime—a goal they soon sought to achieve by force. But today, almost three years later, Syria is effectively shattered. And in the year ahead, it may pass beyond the point of repair.
The country is already roughly divided in three. There are territories, mostly in Damascus and in the west of the country, that are controlled by Assad’s forces and are home to Alawite Muslims who share his family’s faith; zones in the north and south controlled by mostly Sunni rebels; and a Kurdish enclave in the northeast. But even this description does not capture the almost village-level disintegration plaguing parts of Syria. Rebels are divided between extreme Islamists, including foreigners and those belonging to al-Qaeda affiliates, and more moderate factions. Disunity among them has reached the point where they have, on occasion, turned their guns on each other.
“It’s kind of like Afghanistan in 1998,” says Bessma Momani, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. “There are all these warlords trying to carve out little fiefdoms for themselves.” This trend is likely to continue.
In areas under their control, jihadist rebels have terrorized the local population, staging public beheadings and torturing those deemed insufficiently Islamic. One Syrian man, a supporter of the revolution from its earliest days, told the BBC that al-Qaeda rebels who had taken over the northern town of Tal Abyad jailed and whipped him because he believed religion should be a private matter. He said they also murdered two brothers, both opposition supporters, for the crime of being Alawites.
A member of the Western-backed rebel umbrella group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, privately told Maclean’s that moderate rebels may have to continue fighting against al-Qaeda forces in Syria, even after Assad is defeated. Other moderate opposition activists hope that, if democracy is established in Syria, extremist voices will be peacefully overpowered by the majority who don’t share their views.
But even if rebels are somehow able to come together, that still leaves a possibly unbridgeable chasm between Syria’s major religious and ethnic communities. There is more than enough blame to go around for this. Assad explicitly made the conflict about blood and faith when he armed Alawite militias to fight and terrorize other Syrians on his behalf. “He created alarm among Alawite communities that the uprising was not simply against his rule, but rather against the Alawites and the Shias. He sectarianized the conflict deliberately to expand it into a broader civil war,” says Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And while the National Coalition stresses its commitment to pluralism, on the ground, jihadist rebels (who reject the National Coalition) desecrate churches and abuse non-Sunnis.
The war will become increasingly about identity, which makes a post-conflict reconciliation difficult to imagine. Assad seems uninterested in one. A leader hoping to again peacefully govern all of Syria would not so freely bombard—including, allegedly, with poison gas—civilian areas outside his control.
Many Syrian Kurds, meanwhile, are waging another war within Syria’s larger civil one. Kurdish fighters in the northeast, most affiliated with a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have clashed for months with jihadist rebels and, in the process, have established a de facto autonomous territory of their own. This reality, too, will not be easily reversed. “The Kurds will never go back to a one-state solution where they basically accept that they live in an Arab state as guests,” says Momani. “If they don’t get independence, the second-best option for them is the Iraqi option, which is some sort of local autonomy.”
Other states have survived civil wars intact. Lebanon, just next door, emerged from more than a decade of fratricide, still scarred and sometimes bleeding, but not disassembled. Syria might achieve something similar. But such an outcome is far from certain. Syria, as a civilization, has existed for millennia; its current borders less than a century. They may not last much longer.