August 5, 2013 in Nation/World

Syria split in three by war

Primary divisions follow along religious lines
Zeina Karam Associated Press
 

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 underway 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 say, 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 swaths 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.

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