First Published: 2013-02-23

 

Syria’s Fragmentation

 

We are now passing through a period in which fragmenting states force us to discuss Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in terms of Alawites, Druze, Shiites and Sunnis, rather than in terms of coherent states with satisfied citizenries, argues Rami G. Khouri.

 

Middle East Online

BEIRUT - The talk about Syria by knowledgeable friends and colleagues whose views I respect has turned increasingly pessimistic in recent weeks, with expectations ranging across a span of bad outcomes. These range from Syria becoming a Levantine Somalia, where power is in the hands of hundreds of local warlords and tribal chieftains, to a totally fractured state that is defined by a combination of raging civil war and sectarianism that pulls in interested neighbors and perhaps ignites new regional wars.

Speculation about the future of Syria is a growth industry these days, for good reason: what happens in Syria will impact the entire region, given its central role in the political geography, ideologies and security of the Levant region and areas further afield. The events in recent years in Iraq and Libya remind us that developments in one state in this region can have repercussions in neighboring countries, sometimes immediately and sometimes a few years down the road.

The longer that Syria’s domestic war goes on, the more fragmented the country becomes, alongside three other dangerous trends: Sectarianism increasingly becomes the option of choice for Syrian citizens who seek security but cannot get it from the state; revenge killings will become a more likely occurrence after Assad; and, militant Salafists increasingly take root in local communities across the country as they prove to be well-organized and funded adversaries of the Assad regime.

Next month will mark two years since the outbreak of protests against the regime, and the domestic battle continues to rage. Syrians have paid a very heavy price for their desire to remove the Assad regime and replace it with a more democratic and accountable system of governance, but there are no signs that either side is tiring of this fight. At the expense of the wide-scale destruction of the economy and urban infrastructure, Syrians seem determined to keep fighting until one side defeats the other. The chances of a negotiation or dialog to end the fighting and usher in a peaceful transition of power seem pretty slim to me, given the very wide gap between President Bashar Assad and the opposition groups.

The trend on the ground seems to favor the slow advances of the opposition groups, whose access to more sophisticated weapons and control of key facilities around the country sees the Assad regime’s sovereignty footprint shrinking by the week. The regime has now reverted to what has always been its vital core -- thousands of armed troops in just a few parts of the country, controlled by officers from, or close to, the Assad extended family, and disproportionately anchored in the Alawite minority community. This is a recipe for imminent collapse.

The timing and nature of the transition to a new governance system in Syria remain highly speculative. I personally expected the Assad regime to have fallen by now, but clearly its staying power is great. The weakness and lack of unity of the opposition forces -- the coalition, the council, and a thousand local groups across the country -- make it impossible to predict a post-Assad scenario. More and more analysts expect chaos, violence, sectarian revenge killings and deep fragmentation to occur, and these become more likely with every passing month of fighting. Some analysts expect a post-Assad Syria to be dominated by Islamists, whether mainstream Muslim Brotherhood types or more militant Salafists who now play a major role in the military resistance against Assad. Others, including myself, are more sanguine, expecting Syria’s 5000 years of cosmopolitan history and more recent legacy of inter-communal coexistence to shape the new governance system that emerges from the wreckage of the current war.

Syria’s problem, like Iraq’s and Lebanon’s, is that the nature of its pluralistic population means that major demographic groups have strong ties with fellow populations in nearby countries, such as Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Sunnis and even Christians. The main lesson of the current situation in Syria strikes me as being the fragility of the modern Arab state in the Levant region, where countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine in the past three generations have alternated between strong or shattered central governments. These have been either fragmented states or centralized police states since the 1940s, with no chance to live as normal states where citizens agree on the rules and values of national governance.

We are now passing through a period in which fragmenting states force us to discuss Lebanon, Syria and Iraq in terms of Alawites, Druze, Shiites and Sunnis, rather than in terms of coherent states with satisfied citizenries. The slow-motion destruction of the centralized Syrian state will enhance this trend towards the re-tribalization of the Arab Levant, until the day comes when the many distinct tribes can sit down and agree on how to reconnect as citizens of single states, governed by the rule of law that they define themselves in meaningful constitutions.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global

 

Arab leaders meet in Sweimeh on conflicts, 'terror'

No unanimity on Syria ahead of Arab Summit

4 besieged Syria towns to be evacuated under deal

Tunisians demand Muslim marriage decree revoked

Historic Casablanca buildings crumbling in silence

US arrests Turkish banker for helping Iran violate sanctions

Turkey voices opposition to Kurdish flag in Kirkuk

Engineers to carry out urgent maintenance on IS-held Syria dam

Palestinian president meets Trump envoy at Arab summit

UN says over 300 civilians killed since start of west Mosul offensive

Disputed Iraqi province votes to fly Kurdish flag

Germany laments Turkey's 'unacceptable' spying

Syria opposition says no peace deal without US role

Turkey sends delegation to UK over electronics ban

UN chief urges Arab leaders to confront Syria war

Carlos the Jackal sentenced to life for Paris bombing

Arab League set to oppose Trump Israel embassy shift

Tributes flood in for anti-apartheid hero Ahmed Kathrada

US vows to never allow 'Israel-bashing' at UN

Netanyahu ban on MP visits to flashpoint holy site challenged

IS launches counter-attack to defend north Syria town

Saudi intercepts four ‘smuggled’ Yemen rebel missiles

Saudi to set up investment fund to help Jordan

Iran slams Bahrain terror cell claims as ‘delusional’

UN says 30 million unsure of next meal in MENA region

Putin to meet Iran President in Moscow

US, allies talk of post-ISIS future, but have no plan

Al-Qaeda, on the rise again, hits Assad where it hurts

Germany’s Turks cast early ballots for Erdogan referendum

German court convicts Pakistani of spying for Iran

Qatar to invest £5bn in UK within five years

'Kill Erdogan' banner probed in Switzerland, Turkey

Arab League chief urges resolution to Syria conflict

Serious challenges for Arab leaders in Amman

Israel arrests 22 ultra-Orthodox sex offenders

Syrian forces pause offensive on IS-held dam for repairs

Dubai's Emaar Malls offers $800m to buy Souq.com

Iraq launches fresh Mosul Old City advance

US-backed fighters battle IS near north Syria town

Hamas partially reopens Beit Hanoun crossing

Iraq investigates Mosul civilian deaths

In Algeria, everyone wants to be MP, few likely to vote

Yemeni rebel supporters flood streets on conflict’s anniversary

Syria fighting damages IS-held dam posing rising water risk

Iran to symbolically sanction 15 US companies