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Thinking of Syria as Two States


Elizabeth Arrott

Elizabeth Arrott

Recent developments in Syria’s civil war point to the solidification of two distinct geographical areas. With rebels tightening their hold in the east and north and the regime making gains in the center, Syria is beginning to look like two neighboring states, dealing with two different circumstances. 

Syria’s civil war has continually been fought across geographical lines that include but also transcend the continually reported sectarian divisions in the country. The regime, having recently taken back the town of Qusayr with the decisive backing of the Lebanese Shite militia, Hezbollah, now controls a large and crucial corridor from Damascus to coastal governorate of Latakia. While acting to ensure the safety of Alawites in their traditional homeland, maintaining this corridor is crucial for the regime as it allows for the uninterrupted shipment of Russian weapons and increasingly, food stuffs and supplies.

To further solidify his hold on this area, Bashar al-Assad’s forces are now in the process, again backed by Hezbollah, to take the central Sunni districts of Homs. The city, located at the crossroads of the country’s north-south and east-west highways is also home to much of the country’s oil processing infrastructure. According to a number of credible sources, found here and here among others, the regime is also actively cleansing Homs and the surrounding countryside of Sunni families and replacing them with Alawites.

While many analysts have pointed to the possibility of a coastal state exclusively for Alawites, it has overshadowed the discussion of the short to medium term reality of a Syrian regime state in the geographical locale mentioned above. This Syrian state, with rebels largely on the defensive around Damascus and the predictable fall of central Homs this summer, will become the premier achievement of al-Assad in 2013. These developments will herald the creation of statelet that has been in the making since the end of last year. With widespread defections among the rank-and-file of Syria’s army, the regime has been forced to rely on the use of irregulars, special forces, the widely feared shabiha and increasingly, Hezbollah.

Given these circumstances, the regime does not have the numbers to take back the entire country nor to police the recaptured cities and towns. Instead the coast, capital and control over the conflict’s narrative in these and adjoining areas have become the main issues of state concern. The state and its supporters have and will continue to coalesce around the belief that they are fighting a foreign-orchestrated and backed terrorist movement that threatens the Baathist regime and the protection of minority rights and a pseudo-liberal way of life. For the foreseeable future, this narrative and the statelet that supports it will continue to survive, bolstered by the consistent supply of Russian arms, Hezbollah fighters and Iranian money.

Now compare this reality with that of Syria’s northern and eastern regions, increasingly prone to Somaliesque instability. Politically, the opposition is represented by a divided and bickering group of dissidents, exploited by their external backers. These leaders-in-exile are further encumbered by continual and public disagreements with the organization’s military wing, a slow moving plan to funnel arms to rebels by the United States, and political competition between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On the ground, their military forces have been outperformed by an array of less than moderate rebel groups ranging for the Salafist battalions of Ahrar al-Sham to the al Qaeda aligned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This is not to mention the prevalence of foreign fighters among the latter group, which they have no qualms with exploiting.

Rifts between Western backed groups and the Islamic State have come to the forefront as of late with the July 11 killing of Abu Bassir al-Ladkani, a top member of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command. While calls for revenge have yet to materialize into tangible action, this act points to increased tensions between radical rebel factions and the undersupplied mainstream group. It also brings into question how rebel groups will interact and divide their territories after the foreseeable fall of Aleppo. With rebels having choked off regime supply routes to Syria’s largest city, given the fall of Khan al Assal and the ongoing and successful “Ramadan Offensive” this may come sooner than many have expected.

Arab-Kurdish relations have also soured this month, characterized by an ongoing joint operation by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid to take the oil rich city of Rumeylan in Hasakah Governorate from the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD). The PYD’s force, known as People’s Defense Units (YPG), has been duking it out with the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State since July 16, after al-Nusra fighters attacked a Kurdish women’s defence unit in Ras al-Ain. Economic factors have created a united front on both sides of this divide, while historical grievances and mutual suspicion has ensured its spread across the north eastern area of Syria.

In contrast to the situation in Syria’s regime dominated core, the hinterland, seen as its own state, is increasingly divided along ideological and ethnic lines. The loyalties of civilians and fighters shift from one group to another, rebel battalions engage in looting and in some cases worse, tensions simmer and with the increasing prevalence of the Islamic State, harsh interpretations of Islamic law are being introduced. Seen as a failed state, it is clear that increased external aid, engaged political guidance and the arming of moderate groups are of great importance to the stability of rebel areas. International powers would not stand idly while an allied government dealt with a food shortage, a crisis of internally displaced persons, the rise of radical Islam and the brash and public disregard for minority rights. The same respect, and in some cases stern guidance, allotted to fellow states should be provided to Syria’s moderate opposition.



Alexander Corbeil
Alexander Corbeil

Alexander Corbeil is a Substantive Analyst with The SecDev Group focusing on conflict and instability in the developing world. He has written on the topics of radicalization, sectarianism and terrorism in the Levant and Iraq for a number of publications and is also a contributor to Sada: Middle East Analysis. You can follow Alexander @alex_corbeil

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