Is Syria past the point of repair?

Why putting it back together may prove impossible


Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters

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.

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Is Syria past the point of repair?

  1. That is the intent of western corrupt politics, is to make these countries non-repairable. Just look at Somalia and Libya. Not many in Libya feel they are better off today than they were with Gadaffi.

    Syria terrorists are typically the same demographics as 9/11 terrorists, Sunni/Saudi/UAE of origin there for Islam Sunni fascist supremacy. Yet an American presdent with Saudi buddies support terrorism in Syria. Go figure.

    Its why Gadaffi had to go. He didn’t soak up USD/Euro fiat money, didn’t have massive debts in the one of the most solvent banks in the world, did not ship oil for fiat fraud money and had 144 tones of gold. I say had as I be the kitty is raided and why gold has backed off a bit in price as its unloaded.

    Its by design these countries are smashed beyond easy repair. Its covert warfare, support terrorism to toss a country into chaos.

  2. When Al Qaeda rebels are considered the “good guys”, that’s probably a clue that you’re beyond repair.

    • They’re only considered the good guys by die-hard anti-Assad journalists like Petrou.

      • As well as the US government.

        • Indeed. But Petrou never contradicts USG.

  3. And yet it’s Assad’s side that’s currently insisting that any agreements made in the upcoming peace talks Geneva be put to a referendum by the Syrian people, while the opposition is totally against that and can’t even decide if they want to come or not.

    It sure seems right now like Assad is the one who’s confident that he would win majority support in a vote, while the opposition is putting all their hopes into military victory, so much so that they can’t even bring themselves to pay lip service to “supporting democracy”.

    It’s about time for the West to stop letting Saudi Arabia control their foreign policy, and I’m glad that at least a few countries are gradually coming around.

  4. Dear Mr Petrou,
    Your final statement about Lebanon is weak.
    Do you honestly believe that Lebanon is done with its civil war? This volcano is not extinguished, but merely asleep with violent bursts every now and then.
    I grew up in that forsaken country and lived all the civil war there.
    I can tell you that it’s the most stupid civil war of history so far. 30 years of fighting and zero change in the end. The same tribe leaders and their offspring still battle over silly scraps of land. The divisions are as deep as ever and nevermind the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the complete destruction of its cities. The same monkeys that started the war are still in place and nobody really won.
    No sir, the real problem of the Arab nations is the notion of Nation which has been been imposed by the Europeans (namely France and the uk) upon tribal societies that have actually never really ruled themselves. The Turks did that for them.

  5. Given that Syria ( and the Middle East generally ) was “put
    together” in the first place, perhaps history is speaking.

  6. you said it, in the last paragraph the last hundred years

  7. How many of you guys are so -pro-assad and are not even syrians…Assad is a war criminal, This is it ! You guys don’t realize that 80 % of syrian people are Sunni and we have lived under alaouite slavery for nearly 50 years. How dare you guys give your “opinion” on the syrian civil war and back assad (just because you hate muslims)

    • The only reason I’m giving my opinion is to counter the loud opinions given by our leaders, which almost got our country into another war.

      Frankly, my overriding opinion is that our foreign policy should have little in common with that of Saudi Arabia, because they are a society whose values are anathema to ours and they are actively battling us. Only they do it subtly, in a way that’s not immediately obvious – by generously funding schools that teach intolerance and fanatical absolutism all around the world, and funding terrorists (but never officially of course, no, it tends to be “private” funding from one of their many princes).

    • I wish it were otherwise, but the Syrian Sunnis are obviously unable to resist kicking the sh*t out of everybody else. People like that deserve to be slaves.

  8. Syria has been around since the beginning. It’s currently having some problems, but it’s not about to disappear. Leave them alone and let them sort it out to their liking.