Syria’s civil war
The country formerly known as Syria
As sectarian divisions deepen, the war is changing the country beyond recognition
Feb 23rd 2013 | BEIRUT AND IDLEB PROVINCE |From the print edition
“MY COUNTRY is being destroyed,” sobs Ahmad, a student from the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor who joined the protests when they began in March 2011. “The regime is killing us, many of the opposition fighters are becoming criminals and the world is watching it like a film.” He is worried that onlookers may think this is normal, seeing that Syria lies in the centre of a region which is no stranger to wars and strife. Syria, with its chemical weapons, alliance with Iran, shrinking government and spreading militias, has become the confluence where all that is worrying about the Middle East comes together.
Two years ago Syria was a rather sleepy place. The muezzins’ call to prayer and the peal of church bells mingled above the rooftops of Damascus, the world’s oldest continually inhabited capital city, where Syrians liked to boast that Christians and Muslims, as well as people from a smattering of other sects, lived side by side in peace. People bustled through the markets. Women could stay out safely alone past midnight. Men played backgammon on the pavements with their neighbours. The Syrian accent, spread through the region by the country’s soap operas, conveyed hospitality and simplicity to fellow Arabs.
Syrians take pride in their colourful history. Ancient buildings dot the landscape, from crusader castles to the exquisite Umayyad Mosque, the architectural masterpiece of an empire centred on Damascus that once stretched through north Africa and up into Spain.
Since Hafez Assad brought his family to power in a bloodless coup in 1970, Syria has had little to celebrate. An authoritarian state snuffed out discussion and creativity with its ubiquitous Mukhabarat and tortured those who caused trouble. Many Syrians were ready to accept this as the price of stability when Bashar Assad inherited the presidency from his father in 2000.
At first the repression seemed to ease under the new President Assad, at least for those who stuck to the bargain and kept out of opposition politics. Life became a little sweeter in 2005 when Coca-Cola arrived. Internet cafés flourished, as did the software that let Syrians visit banned websites such as Facebook. Posters of the Assads still festooned walls across the country, but schools phased out the compulsory wearing of military uniform.
Mr Assad’s stance against Israel and its main backer, America, through his alignment with Hizbullah (the Lebanese Shias’ party-cum-militia) and the regime in Iran, was popular with most Syrians. They had nothing against citizens from hostile countries: “We differentiate between the government and its people,” was a standard refrain during the American-led invasion of Iraq. But they pitied their brothers and sisters in Egypt for being ruled over by Hosni Mubarak, whom they saw as a wrinkled yes-man of the West.
Today that Syria is no more. The uprising, which is now a full-blown civil war between Mr Assad’s forces and the opposition, has brought new freedoms. Young Syrians are no longer afraid to deride the regime openly. Even within the security forces, people discuss politics. “We all say things we wouldn’t have dared talk about in our own homes before,” says Aisha, a mother of four from Idleb province, in the north-west. Neighbourly bonds have sometimes grown strong amid the bloodshed. Altruistic bravery is common. Women risk their lives to smuggle medicine to rebel areas through the regime’s checkpoints, because the soldiers are less likely to search them. In Damascus people sleep ten to a room, welcoming relations who have fled from more dangerous areas.
But these gains have come at a terrible price. War is tearing Syria apart. For months the country has been divided between Mr Assad’s forces and the rebel groups. Neither side has victory within its grasp. The rebels control swathes of land in the north and east, where the regime shells towns and villages and sends its aircraft to bomb military and civilian targets. The regime is determined to consolidate its grip along a north-south axis from Damascus through Homs and Hama (the country’s third- and fourth-biggest towns) to Latakia, the port and region that were home to the Assad family and its Alawite sect.
At present, there is no chance of a political opening that could lead to serious negotiations between the opposition and the regime. The circle around Mr Assad refuses to contemplate his exit. Until recently the political opposition, which since November has been gathered under an umbrella calling itself the Syrian Opposition Coalition, had refused to negotiate unless Mr Assad goes first. He, meanwhile, has taken comfort from the solid financial and political backing of Iran. Russia, which supplies Mr Assad with money and weapons, has sometimes hinted that it will put pressure on him, only to step back at the last minute—possibly, Western diplomats speculate, on the personal command of Vladimir Putin. They believe that Russia’s president is determined to frustrate the West, especially America, and to prevent it from forcing change, as it did in Libya. A joint call from Russia and the Arab League for a negotiated settlement does not mean that calculation has changed.
Western governments have struggled to keep up with what is happening inside the country. Fearing another Middle Eastern adventure in the wake of Iraq, the American administration has been reluctant to do anything beyond calling for Mr Assad to go. At a congressional hearing earlier this month Leon Panetta, the outgoing secretary of defence, and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, revealed that they had recommended arming the rebels. Although this plan had the backing of Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, and David Petraeus, then head of the CIA, the White House vetoed the idea. Though Britain and France would like to ease the European Union’s arms embargo, some European states, including Germany and the Nordic countries, are set against doing so. On February 18th, at a meeting in Brussels, the EU endorsed a compromise resolution to provide more “non-lethal aid”. Members of the Syrian opposition grumble that even the West’s pledges of cash to the political opposition have not been honoured.
Opposition fighters, divided into numerous groups, varying from large battalions of a thousand to handfuls of men, get far fewer weapons than they had hoped. Gulf countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have supplied mostly light weapons, many through private donors. Libya has chipped in. But the rebels are equipped mainly with AK-47 rifles, home-made rockets and kit captured from Mr Assad’s arms depots and barracks.
The din of battle
The UN reckons that 70,000 Syrians, mostly civilians, have died. The true figure is probably far higher: thousands have gone missing or have been locked up. In the past few weeks an average of 5,000 people have fled every day. The UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says the number now exceeds 860,000, but many more have left uncounted. The number displaced within the country is higher still. More than 4m Syrians now lack fuel, electricity, a telephone line and food.
A hardened and increasingly sectarian underclass on each side—disenfranchised mainly Sunni rebels and the regime’s mainly poor Alawites—is bearing the brunt of the battle. Middle-class Syrians and secular activists are leaving in droves. A lawyer in Tal Abyad, a border village north-east of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, bemoans the fact that armed rebels have displaced the civilians who sought to administer his town and the area around it. Yet the hundreds of rebel groups, despite their efforts to co-ordinate, have failed to jell into a coherent army with a chain of command. Each of them wants to stake out its own patch. Opposition groups seem keener to court their financial backers than to lighten the burden of local civilians.
Sometimes the rebels turn on each other and fight. Islamist groups have clashed with the Kurdish militias that control the north-east of the country, where most of Syria’s Kurds live. Syria will be harder to put together again after the war ends.
Mr Assad and his family, conscious of their minority status in a mainly Sunni country and thus determined to keep Syria broadly secular, insist that the rebels are Islamist extremists, as dangerous to the West as they are to the Arab world. In fact, few of the protesters who started the uprising two years ago were very devout. Alawite defectors are still helped to flee the army. The rebels have mostly left Christians alone. Nor have they slaughtered Alawites, despite the massacres carried out by Mr Assad’s thugs against Sunni villages around Homs. Salafism, the strict version of Islam that has gained ground elsewhere in the Arab world, never found fertile ground in Syria.
But this is changing, too. Western intelligence sources say that jihadists are now arriving in Syria by the busload. Jabhat al-Nusra, the most devout Syrian battalion, which shares al-Qaeda’s worldview, is getting stronger. In December an armed group trashed a Shia prayer house in Zarzour, a town in Idleb. Though many Syrians reject the jihadists the war is becoming religious.
The war has made many Syrians more sectarian in outlook. Alawites have been drafted into the regime’s security forces and militia. “We see that Alawites are stuck,” says Abu Adnan, a rebel fighter in Latakia province, “because Bashar is trying to tie all of their fates to his.”
Both middle-class Syrians and religious minorities are increasingly worried by the way even moderate opposition groups talk of an “Islamic state” to replace Mr Assad’s regime. “We’re bringing back the rule of the Sunnis,” proclaims a fighter in Aleppo’s Tawhid battalion. “We’re the majority, so it’s only fair.” Alawites have reason to be afraid. It is hard to imagine them moving back to mixed cities such as Homs.
Many Syrians have for years looked to mildly Islamist Turkey as an example. “But they aren’t an Islamic state,” grumbles a rebel fighter. “We want something stronger.”
Spot the jihadist
Many Christians are emigrating, having seen what became of their brethren in Iraq and Egypt. Alawites in Damascus say that Maher Assad, the president’s ruthless brother and commander of the Republican Guard that is at the core of the regime, should take over to become their saviour and protector if Bashar is killed.
Beneath it all is the brutalisation of Syrian life. Disputes that have nothing to do with the uprising are being settled with guns. Assassinations and kidnappings have become more frequent. By arming loyalist neighbourhood committees, the regime is dragging more civilians into the war. “I see how my men have become used to killing,” says a rebel commander with Farouq, a large battalion that has brigades spread across the country. “Soon we won’t even realise it is wrong.”
Thousands of homes, factories, schools and hospitals have been razed. Doctors, teachers and engineers have fled. Many Syrians worry that the war will finish only when no one is left to fight. “I just want it to end so I can get married and get on with my life,” sighs the rebel commander. “I am worried that when this is done there won’t be a country left.”
From the print edition: Briefing