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How Five Years of War Has Fractured Syria Into at Least Four States

In 2011, there was one Syria, ruled by a ruthless dictator. In 2016 there are several warring quasi-states, from which millions of people are fleeing.

by Sam Heller and Avi Asher-Schapiro
Mar 15 2016, 10:55am

Ciudadanos sirios opositores ondean banderas durante una protesta contra los ataques aéreos que rompieron el alto el fuego. Escena en la ciudad de Douma, al noreste de Damasco, el 11 de marro de 2016. (Imagen por Mohammed Badra/EPA)

Five years after the start of the Syrian war, Syria is not only a destroyed country — it's also the world's most pressing crisis, pitting Russia, Iran, and their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, against the US and its allies in the Arabian Gulf, and among the Syrian opposition. Syria is also where the gravest jihadist menace to the West since al Qaeda, the Islamic State group (IS), has set up a so-called caliphate. But the ceasefire that came into effect last month, fragile as it is, has offered some hope that diplomats from more than a dozen countries and representatives from Syria's myriad warring factions might succeed in converting it into a more sustainable peace.

One of the few things that Russia, Iran, the United States, and Saudi Arabia publicly agree on — besides the danger posed by IS — is that Syrians need to find a way to coexist and eventually work together to reassemble the divided country.

But there may not be a lot left of the Syrian state and society to piece back together. On the ground, what had been Syria often looks like four entirely different countries or more – or, maybe, no country at all.

Syrians originally took to the streets to demand political reform in March 2011, but the government's escalating repression turned a mostly peaceful protest movement into a nationwide insurgency and subsequent civil war, in a whirlwind of violence and extremism at the heart of the Middle East.

The conflict has also come to resemble a sectarian cataclysm. The regime has been shored up by an array of mostly Shi'ite foreign militias, while Sunni jihadists from many nations have insinuated themselves among the hundreds of merging and splintering factions that make up the armed opposition.

"The division inside the country is real, but not complete"

But the war is much more complicated than the sectarian head-to-head at its center. Other parties have intervened opportunistically to carve out sections of the country for themselves.

After the regime withdrew from large sections of northern Syria in 2012, members of the Kurdish minority filled the void and erected a quasi-independent "Autonomous Administration." Meanwhile, the jihadist organization that would become the self-proclaimed Islamic State infiltrated the opposition before declaring open war on all Syria's warring parties. It announced its "caliphate," a borderless jihadist dominion in much of eastern Syria, and joined it to a vast chunk of Sunni Iraq.

Syria's people, meanwhile, have paid a terrible price. More than 4.5 million Syrians — around 20 percent of the country — are now refugees. An additional 6.6 million are displaced within the country itself. The civilian death toll now stands somewhere between a quarter to a half million people.

That devastation is mirrored in the map of Syria. What was once a single country ruled by an authoritarian, ruthless central government has been mostly divided into four fractional states, all dysfunctional to varying degrees.

The map shows who controls what in Syria as of the February 2016 ceasefire. Darker shade indicates solid control by a faction, while a lighter color indicates a strong presence but not necessarily territorial control. White areas are either deserts or very sparsely populated. (Map by VICE News)

"The division inside the country is real, but not complete," said Syria analyst Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis blog. "You have different forces governing different areas, but in many ways they remain interdependent and connected, even if they are hostile to each other, through communal ties, the informal economy, and residual state institutions."

In just one example, Kurdish forces have managed to link what had been isolated cantons strung across the border with Turkey to form a contiguous territory that spans much of northern Syria. But they also hold other isolated enclaves, including a single Aleppo city neighborhood sandwiched between the opposition and the regime and subject to regular shelling whenever the opposition wants to retaliate for Kurdish actions elsewhere.

In Kurdish areas, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD — the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK — has created a political order modeled on the "Democratic Confederalism" of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan, a sort of leftist communalism mixed with Kurdish nationalism. But even as the Kurds have set up their own governing councils and courts, they have tolerated the continuing functioning of Syrian government offices and other state institutions in Kurdish areas.

"They're really only able to do this because the regime doesn't attack them," said the International Crisis Group's Noah Bonsey. "The regime is paying state employee salaries and running many of the schools. Even there, when you have the most successful proto-state structures, you aren't able to act independently."

IS has likewise approximated a functioning government, albeit a vampiric one that drains revenues from its subjects via an assortment of taxes and fees. It maintains a terrifying order with unaccountable courts and a jihadist variation on the intelligence apparatus of the Saddam-era Iraqi security state.

All Sides Are Supposedly Violating Syria's Ceasefire — That Doesn't Mean It's a Total Failure

In areas under regime control, the institutions of the Syrian state have remained mostly intact, but public services have become increasingly threadbare as the state faces a financial crisis. Civilians are more likely to seek redress from predatory local bosses and gangs than from the actual government. Experts refer to this process as the "militia-ization" of the Assad regime.

"I don't think it's the rise of new institutions that's the biggest obstacle [to national unity]," Bonsey said. "I think it's rise of militias in general – it's the breakdown of old institutions. Even in regime areas, the footprint of the state has shrunk dramatically, and the role of pro-regime militias is ever-expanding."

Meanwhile, in opposition areas, governance exists at only the most rudimentary, local level, as towns are served by improvised local councils that receive donor support but are only tenuously connected to any provincial or national structures.

Competing Islamic courts are the supreme legal authority, but only to the extent that local armed factions will back them up. And while the political opening made possible by the revolution has allowed for a hundred views to compete for public support – ranging from liberalism to ultra-literal Islamism – with no one actually in charge, little holds together.

"When we talk about [IS], the regime or — to a lesser extent — the PYD, we talk about authorities that rule the masses," Ahmad Abazeid, a Syrian analyst whose papers have been published by think tanks like the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, said, speaking from northern Syria. "But the Syrian revolution, as a popular movement, is closer to the opposite. It isn't a standing state or authority as much as it's local communities and popular bases that have adopted [the goal] of bringing down the regime and organizing themselves."

For the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the conflict, the safest place to run is often the faction that claims to be their champion: many Sunni Arabs have decamped to opposition areas, which are almost entirely Sunni; religious minorities have moved to regime areas; Kurds hunker down in the PYD-controlled north. University of Oklahoma professor and Syria expert Joshua Landis had called this process the "great sorting out" of sectarian identities across the region.

A Syrian woman, Om Zeid, outside her home in the Damascus district of al-Qaboon, 23 February 2016. Photo by Mohammed Badra/EPA

But it would be a mistake to view these sectarian enclaves as welcoming spaces, said Mousab Alhamadee, a Syrian writer who says he can't return to his rebel-controlled home in central Hama province.

"In the areas the regime doesn't control, there's chaos," Alhamadee, who's written for the McClatchy news service and various Syrian outlets, told VICE News ."There's no rule of law, and so there's no coexistence. But these areas are a hostile environment not just for minorities, but for a broad swathe of citizens, chief among them the educated. These areas are nearly all controlled by al Qaeda."

"I'm a Sunni Muslim, but I'm wanted by all the Sunni factions in Syria," he said. "They think I'm an apostate."

But it is not as if the country has been neatly quartered by sect. Many Sunni Syrians have also fled to regime areas simply because they're looking for somewhere social services are still half-functional and they don't need to fear the regime's aerial bombing. The small fraction of the country under regime control likely holds a majority of Syria's population.

"It's basically most of the population living under a semi-functional authoritarian regime run by Assad, plus a bunch of peripheral fiefdoms run by militias," said Lund.

The result may be less a stable reordering of the country, and more of a brutal population churn.

"We've had a lot of displacement, but it's not as if things have sorted along lines that have been sustainable," Bonsey said.

But regime officials have rejected federalism and formal partition out of hand. "Take the idea of separating Syrian land out of your mind," said Syria's UN envoy Bashar al-Ja'fari at Geneva talks in February. For the opposition, too, Syria's territorial unity is nonnegotiable.

Lund, the Syria in Crisis editor, agrees. "Syria is not going to be divided in any legal sense, because no one wants that — not inside Syria and not outside it, certainly not its neighbors."

And even if there were political will, Syria's demographic swirl makes partition practically impossible. "Syria is a small country with overlapping ethnicities and sects," said Alhamadee. "It's not possible to partition it geographically on an ethnic or sectarian basis."

Yet even as formal partition seems a political impossibility, continued war allows for the survival of sub-states defined in the most extreme ethno-sectarian terms.

Alhamadee is convinced these sectarian and ethnic fiefdoms can only survive in the chaos of war. "Al Qaeda is an exceptional organization in an exceptional environment, and the situation can't remain like this," he said, referring to the the Nusra Front, Syria's al Qaeda affiliate and one of the most powerful opposition groups in Syria. He argues the PYD's Autonomous Administration is also a product of Syria's chaos.

Watch the VICE News documentary: Inside the Battle: al Nusra - al Qaeda in Syria:

But even as armed factions' political experiments have grown increasingly divergent and extreme, Abazeid said Syria's civilians are still bound together, even across the front lines.

"There are still national links within Syrian civilian society across these areas," said Abazeid. "Civilians move between them with relative ease, in comparison to the sharp military borders between combatants. It's because of that that Syria is still regarded in the collective imagination as a single country and the fundamental national identity for most of the people, despite the social collapse and disintegration the country has witnessed."

Syrians can also draw on a shared cultural experience, tradition of coexistence, and a common history that all defy the crude ethnic or sectarian divisions of the war.

"For just one example, it's very difficult to prove that the majority of Syria's population are Arabs," said Alhamadee. "Take me, for example, I might not be Arab. I'm not sure of my ethnic identity. I speak Arabic, but I'm Syrian. The Syrian Kurd is closer to me than the Gulf Arab."

These shared elements of Syrian culture "haven't disappeared as a result of the war," said Bonsey at the International Crisis Group. "In many cases they've just been pushed back as this political and sectarian consciousness has come to the fore. But that doesn't eliminate some of these ties that were there previously."

The result may be a country that cannot hold together but, at the same time, is impossible to pull apart. Syria has been divided between rival political projects that are irreconcilable but can't possibly survive on their own. Meanwhile, Syrians are in many ways still a single people, even as hundreds of thousands flee to become refugees outside their war-torn country.

As for when that Syrian identity will be able reassert itself amid the rubble, no one knows. "I don't know how long it takes," said Bonsey, "for some of that balance to be restored."