Syria’s civil war on brink of being ‘Lebanonized’
BEIRUT: The end of the Syrian conflict now appears very distant indeed.
Recent crucial events – including a string of defeats for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Idlib, Homs and Deraa – are not likely to prove the beginning of the end of the war in Syria, as some observers have suggested, but instead represent the start of a new stage of the conflict. We are in fact witnessing the Lebanonization of the Syrian conflict.
At this point, all the major players in the conflict – including the Assad government, Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and opposition rebel forces – have had major successes and failures, but none of them has been decisive. None of these players seems willing to make major concessions for peace, either.
In fact, their areas of influence are becoming more definite, tied to local and regional powers.
Turkey overlooks Syria’s northern territories, while Jordan gives onto the south of the country. From the west, Hezbollah uses Lebanon as a bridgehead to protect Damascus, the Homs-Hama axis and the ports of Tartus, Baniyas and Latakia. Islamic State has broken into the Syrian west from its stronghold in Anbar, Iraq.
Moreover, each of these spheres of influence is tied to a power under the direct or indirect protection and support of regional and international actors.
Whatever the role of outside powers in the Syrian civil war, all parties in the conflict need a local focus – they need to win over Syrian communities, to establish relations based on mutual trust, economic interests and a shared need for defense.
Islamic State: Limited ambition
Islamic State is strengthening its position in several territories in Syria and Iraq. But it’s worth bearing in mind that these are mostly rural Sunni areas such as Palmyra, Ramadi and western Iraq.
The IS is not able to establish itself in territories that are outside its cultural ambit. Recent attacks by jihadists in areas to the east of Hama, Homs and Suwayda should be seen as a political message to its enemies, rather than a genuine attempt to expand IS influence there.
Islamic State is fully aware of its inability to establish itself in the Ismaili-dominated Salamiya district, east of Hama, or in the Suwayda region, mostly populated by Druze. In these areas, the conditions necessary to establish a connection between incoming jihadists and local people are lacking.
But in the semi-arid region of Palmyra and its surroundings, which is populated by Sunni communities generally hostile to the Assad regime, the jihadists can establish a connection.
Islamic State has been making use of bedouins against non-Sunni communities in central/southern Syria – a classic example of how sectarian divisions and socio-economic interests may come together to drive action.
There is a sharp, long-lasting antagonism between rural people and groups of urban centres, including the smaller ones.
In many cases, this is exacerbated by differing sectarian affiliations. But such hostility is also a consequence of a centuries-old policy – started during the period of Ottoman rule in the area, maintained by French authorities during their mandate after World War I and continued by central government since the republic was established in 1945 – that distributed power and local resources in an unbalanced way.
As formerly nomadic cattle-breeders, the Bedouins are determined to use Islamic State to take revenge against their lifelong rivals, who are sedentary farmers and urban-based landowners. It is a struggle for power, actually, but both parties are taking advantage of pan-Sunni jihadist ideology, with all its paraphernalia of anti-Shiite proclamations, in order to legitimize their actions.
Interests in southern Syria
In southern Syria, meanwhile, Jordan and Israel’s main concern is to ensure that the conflict does not export instability across their national borders. Amman has been conducting a dialogue with all the warring parties for a while now.
The U.S. – supportive of its ally, Israel – has accepted a leading role in the military training of rebels in the Daraa region. Its goal is not to break through enemy lines – very well protected by the government troops, by Iranian Pasdarans and by Hezbollah – and then work toward Damascus, but to make sure that extremist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra do not prevail in the Daraa area.
The Syrian branch of al-Qaida does operate in Daraa and its surroundings. But, in contrast to Idlib, this is an area in which the organization cannot establish a force powerful enough to disturb the balance of power.
In Idlib a different social context guarantees large grassroots support for Jabhat al-Nusra, but in the south the group has failed to prevail. The strength of the Daraa armed groups that oppose Jabhat al-Nusra lies in local tribalism; since early non-violent demonstrations back in March 2011, this has been the true driving force behind people’s mobilization in Daraa and surrounding areas.
The area of coastal Syria and along the Damascus-Hama-Aleppo axis is strongly held by those loyal to the government of President al-Assad, in alliance with Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Here the Alawite sectarian grouping (the branch of Shia Islam to which the elite centred on the Assad family belong) is crucial.
But this is not the only factor that determines the tight dependency between government forces and population.
In Aleppo, Alawite loyalty is negligible. Here government loyalists are motivated both by defiance of the jihadist threat and by simple animosity toward the rebels, who are considered to be mere “country people.”
To the social élite in Aleppo, accepting the protection offered by government troops and their allies must appear preferable to casting their lot in with a “bunch of peasants.”
Hezbollah: cross-border protection
From Lebanon Hezbollah legitimizes its intervention in Syria in two ways: that it needs to protect the Shiite communities in Syria and that it has to maintain a transnational contingent in opposition to Sunni extremism.
The rise of Islamic State has turned Hezbollah’s sectarian orientation into a national/transnational one.
In Lebanon, Shiite fighters pose with two flags in their portraits, the national and the Hezbollah ones. According to their rhetoric, their “martyrs” die in Syria for the defense of Lebanese national interest, for the sake of the Shiite community and for guaranteeing stability in the whole region.