BEIRUT — More than two years into Syria’s civil war, the once highly-centralized authoritarian state has effectively split into three distinct parts, each boasting its own flags, security agencies and judicial system.
In each area, religious, ideological and turf power struggles are under way and battle lines tend to ebb and flow, making it impossible to predict exactly what Syria could look like once the combatants lay down their arms. But the longer the bloody conflict drags on, analysts says, 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,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. “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 and effectively cleft the nation in three 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 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 northeastern corner, meanwhile, Syria’s 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 swathes of Syria’s rural regions in the north, the government still controls provincial capitals there, with the exception of Raqqa city and parts of Aleppo city. 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 are air-dropped by helicopters or planes.
Moreover, the opposition movement itself is far from monolithic, and there have been increasing outbursts of infighting between al-Qaida 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 armed 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 accusations that 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, Assad’s overstretched and war-weary troops appear unable to regain the vast territories they have lost to rebels and jihadists who now control oil wells and other key resources such as dams and electricity plants in the north and east. Black al-Qaida flags that carry the Muslim declaration of the faith now fly over many areas there, as a way to mark 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 judicial councils known as Shariah 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 northeast, Kurdish flags now 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 percent of Syria’s 22 million people, were long oppressed under Baathist rule. Now, they have created their own police forces, even their own license 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 Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again,” Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, told reporters in Washington last month. The comments appeared to leave open the possibility that while Assad has lost control over large parts of the country, he may well be able to hang on and even expand his core territory in the future.
This view has been reinforced recently with steady regime gains in and around the capital Damascus, and in Homs province, a strategic linchpin linking Damascus 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 neighborhoods 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, which have been largely spared the fighting in other parts of the country.
Recent visitors to Tartus speak of beaches dotted with swimmers and night clubs packed with revelers. “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 Syrian 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. Northern Latakia, for instance, has a notable presence of Islamic extremists, while in the capital, Damascenes live in constant fear of a repeat of the so-called “Damascus Volcano,” when rebels briefly overran several neighborhoods 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 rebel held 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 that have bolstered the confidence of the regime.
Rebels on Thursday sent a wave of rockets slamming into regime strongholds in Homs, triggering a succession of massive explosions in a weapons depot that killed at least 40 people and wounded dozens, according to opposition groups and residents.
The conflict has laid waste to the country’s cities, shattered its economy and killed more than 100,000 people since March 2011. The bloodshed also has fanned sectarian hatreds, and many fear that the divisions now entrenched in a country where Alawites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druse and Christians coexisted for centuries will make it hard in the future for people to reconnect as citizens of a single nation.
Syria’s partition into mini-states is an ominous scenario for a country that sits along the Middle East’s most turbulent fault lines. Any attempt to create an official breakaway state could trigger a wave of sectarian killings and have dangerous repercussions in a region where many religious, ethnic and tribal communities have separatist aspirations.
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi author and columnist, argued in a recent article that at least one of Syria’s neighbors will benefit if the dividing lines harden. “It is an ideal solution for Israel which will benefit from Syria’s division into three weak rival states that will never again represent a strategic threat for Israel,” he wrote in an article that appeared in the pan Arab Al Hayat newspaper Saturday.