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Book Review: Repercussions of the Syrian civil war

A new study published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies maps out scenarios for Syria amid its continuing civil war

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 21 Sep 2015

Al-Harb Al-Ahliya Al-Sourriya wa Ikhtalal Al-Tawazanat bilMashreq Al-Arabi (Syrian Civil War and the Imbalances in the Arab Orient) by Rabha Seif 'Alaam and Mahmood Hamdi Abou-Al-Qassem, Strategic Studies Series — Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Cairo, 2015. pp.35

The Syrian revolution entered its fifth year being a civil war characterised mainly by the participation and influence of several regional and international parties. It has caused the deaths of more than 220,000 people and made more than three million seek refuge in neighbouring countries with about six million others displaced and left homeless inside Syria.

According to a study published recently by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the Bashar Al-Assad regime didn't only lose its monopoly over the full political representation of Syrian citizens, but also lost its monopoly of practising authority over the entirety of Syrian lands.

In the first part of the study, its two authors monitor recent developments on the military field and economic levels, while the second part discusses the repercussions of the war on neighbouring countries, highlighting the Lebanese and Jordanian cases. In conclusion, the study presents a number of scenarios for the near future.

In its first part, the study asserts that Al-Assad's regime succeeded in continuing as a party, albeit not alone. Until now, Al-Assad managed cleverly the sectarian and ethnic conflict through presenting himself as the protector of minorities. He succeeded in transforming the conflict from a bilateral one between a despotic repressive regime and an opposition demanding democratic reforms, into a multi-lateral conflict. Thus, inside Syria, war erupted between Kurds and Arabs, between Alawites and Sunnis, and between Sunnis and Shias. The conflict was also extended beyond international borders — i.e., the Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian borders up to ceasefire line in the Golan Heights.

The regime was also able to drain the opposition in several different locations and through its excessive use of force compelled the Syrian revolution to deviate towards militarisation and religious extremism. Thus, Al-Assad presented himself once again as a better alternative in comparison to the chaos spawned by extremist groups, especially after the victories achieved by the Islamic State group. Through all this, the regime was backed by the support and assistance of the Iranians and Russians, discarding American and Western military escalation in the foreseeable future. That's what the revolution bet on earlier.

On the other hand, Al-Assad's regime was affected by the collapse of centralised power and the slipping away of several geographical areas out of his control, soon filled by opposition forces and armed factions. The regime also faces "the fall of its ethical legitimacy ... and of the monopolised right of collective representation of the Syrian people," to quote the study. This was due to human rights abuses committed on a large scale, the increase of violence and unlawful killings, using chemical weapons against civilians and setting-up irregular armed groups, which the regime calls the National Defence Army, with Alawite affiliation, tasked with armed engagement with the opposition.

As for the political opposition, the study asserts that it is difficult to consider it a political alternative that has the capability to impose stability on the ground. This is because it is isolated from realities of the conflict and doesn't have a central command. There are even some factions engaged in the conflict according to external supporters' and financiers' agendas. Despite the success achieved by efforts to unify the opposition in an all-embracing frame, such as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, formed in November 2012, one of its most important weaknesses is its inability to control the military entities facing the Al-Assad regime on the ground.

The study devotes considerable space to the military conflict which has moved from duality to multiplicity. About 60 percent of Syrian lands slipped out of the regime's control. In areas under the regime's control its laws are carried out, while in areas dominated by other forces, whether Free Syrian Army battalions or groups thought to be attached to Al-Nusra Front or areas controlled by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), each one enforces different laws over the inhabitants of such areas. For example, Sharia law tribunals were set up and apply hudud (Islamic penalties) in some areas.

In the second part, the study focuses on the repercussions of the civil war on the cohesion of the Arab Orient countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan. In Lebanon, there is a sharp division that is on the verge of infighting between those refusing the Al-Assad regime and their opponents Hizbullah — especially after this group's formal declaration of its participation on the side of Al-Assad forces in the civil war. As well as the severe economic recession in Lebanon caused by the war, Syrian refugees fleeing the raging battles poured into Lebanon. The tourism sector suffered immensely due to the turbulent security situation, with occupancy rates in the tourist sector falling nearly 50 percent.

The Lebanese Army was obliged to intervene because of lawlessness on its borders with Syria. Moreover, the participation of Hizbullah in the war increased sectarian strife between the Shia and Sunnis. At the same time, demonstrations and festivals sponsored by Salafists in Lebanon in solidarity with the Syrian revolution developed into groups and networks seeking to recruit Muslim Sunni youth to engage in the fighting in Syria. In addition, several battles erupted between the Lebanese Army and extremist Islamist groups after these groups abducted Lebanese soldiers in order to bargain for the release of prisoners.

The study concludes by presenting four possible scenarios for exiting this ordeal, putting into consideration that international consensus is necessary. The first scenario is coordinating the efforts of Al-Assad's enemies and negotiating with Iran and Russia to overthrow him. The second is Al-Assad's regime building up strength and regaining control over the entire country. The third is the continuance of the armed conflict and the beginning of division of the country. The final scenario is that the influence of hard-liners is expanded to the extent of swallowing up Syria.

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