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Is Syria in the grips of full-blown civil war?

With the regime making military advances and the international community more divided than ever, analysts debate whether the point of no-return of open civil war in Syria has been reached

Nadeen Shaker , Saturday 8 Jun 2013
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Members of the Free Syrian Army chant slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Azzaz (Photo: Reuters)
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With the Syrian uprising quickly fracturing into more camps and divisions, sectarian tensions are widening as a result.

Has Syria now plunged into open civil war?

What began as a peaceful uprising awaiting the same fate of many Arab Spring countries, almost two years later, has descended into societal collapse, some analysts claim.

“The Syria case is multi-layered. It began as a democratic, civil revolution, but then the regime exhibited violence that was countered by more violence from the opposition,” Riham Bahi, international relations expert said at a roundtable held at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Wednesday. The event was moderated by Al-Ahram journalist Ahmad Mahmoud.

Yet, some warn of applying ready-made categorisations to what is both a complex but also simple conflict.

“The conflict is still concentrated in the hands of the regime and rebels who demand freedom. Things have not yet evolved to the level of a religious conflict. There is absolutely no Muslim-Christian conflict, and many senior Syrian opposition figures are Christians,” Syrian journalist Bassel Oudat told Ahram Online.

He adds that class and urban-rural divisions also fail to fuel conflict.

Despite that, the regime has since the beginning channeled the uprising into a sectarian direction. Using the sectarian card, Oudat says, Bashar Al-Assad tried to scare minorities about their fate in case of state collapse.

Alawite minorities, especially, were pegged into the conflict via informal, militia-type recruitment.

“Regime militias were coloured by sectarianism,” Oudat says.

“The regime used a civil emergency body, and called it ‘popular committees’ or militias (shabeehas), paid them a monthly salary and told them that their mission was to defend the state on the grounds that the homeland was in danger,” he adds.

In the opinion of Ashraf El-Sherif, adjunct lecturer at AUC in political science, the uprising was turned into a civil war by a violent and change-intolerant regime, which found no way out except to perpetuate the armed conflict or even make it regional.

“Historically, Assad used sectarian policies that worked towards forming a Mafiosi (Mafia) state that survived hand-in-hand with an intense security apparatus,” El-Sherif says.

Proxy civil-war?

A two-week battle in Qusayr, which ended 5 June with the crushing defeat of the rebels and the regime recapturing the strategic stronghold, refocuses the conflict as a sectarian one.

Walid Kazziha, political science professor at AUC, compares the regional struggle to one most akin to a “civil war” because it involves both domestic and regional players on Syrian lands.

Leading the division are Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which dole out funds to the opposition, pitted against Iran’s funding and Hizbullah guerillas, joined by Syrian Christian and Alawite minority groups.

Kazziha makes reference to "'Holiday jihadists’ who travel from near and far Arab countries, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, or neighbouring Islamic countries to spend a week or two fighting against the regime and then head back home to their countries.”

Even arming both sides of the conflict is part of a broader regional and international game.

“It has become clear that certain powers with the uprising in the Arab world hold off their support in light of the new international situation, where Russia and Iran play the role as the direct partners of the Syrian regime and do not hesitate to lay out for it all the good reasons to stay,” Oudat says.

Future scenarios, more divisions

Describing the US’s ebbing hegemony and the emergence of new superpowers, Bahi says that “the 21st century is an Asian one,” making reference to Russia and China’s active roles in the conflict.

This adds to a further polarisation of the struggle.

“The Syrian conflict is laden with many binaries,” she explains. “It is a revival of the Arab-Iranian struggle; of sectarian strife, prompted by Assad; of the Cold War between the US and Russia, and is part of the escalation of a wider jihadi network, including Al-Nusra Front, which used Syria as a recruitment point for jihadists ... ”

The situation on the ground, according to Oudat, is moving at “an accelerated pace, and towards the disintegration of the state.”

“Reluctance to support a solution to the crisis will lead to disastrous consequences, the least of which is Syria turning into a fascist state after undergoing economic, social and security deterioration,” he adds.

The imbalance of military power between the rebels and the regime on the ground, of which Oudat gives the image of a rifle taking down a tank, will only freeze the situation.

The rebels, Oudat argues, require stronger arms to defeat the regime. On the other hand, the regime has military superiority, according to El-Sherif, but cannot maintain control over recaptured areas because it lacks a dense and constant field presence.

El-Sherif concludes: “The Syrian conflict will continue, it will be bloody and brutal, but will hold a deep political dimension. It will open up a new future open to all possibilities that will not be worse than where Syria is now.”

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