Twelve years on, Syria still in shards

On March 15, 2011, the Syrian people rose up against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Over a decade later, the country remains fragmented into four zones of influence, each with its own distinct reality.

Twelve years on, Syria still in shards

Syrian opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime demonstrate amid ruins in the northwestern province of Idleb, held by the jihadist group HTC, on Aug 28, 2020. (Credit: AFP file)

They used to take turns, day and night, searching for slogans and rushing to write them on placards. They joined hundreds of thousands of Syrians from all over the country in the streets of Deir ez-Zor (East Syria) — filled with hope, apprehension, and fear. They captured these moments on their phones, hoping to share them with the world.

Among this small group of friends who thirsted for change back in March 2011, Bassem* is one of the few who stayed in Deir ez-Zor.

“Some died under the regime’s bombardment, and others managed to flee to Europe. I have almost no one left from this group,” the 30 year old told L’Orient-Le Jour.

Twelve years on, Syria is much like that group of friends: ruined, fragmented, divided. The Assad regime violently crushed the popular uprising and the situation descended into an armed struggle, with Islamist and jihadist groups gaining control over parts of the rebellion.

Prior to 2011, the Syrian government had absolute power throughout the country, but this masked stark socio-economic disparities among the population.

Today, Syria has been forever changed.

Regardless whether they reside in Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo or Hassake, whether they are under Russian, Iranian, Turkish, or American occupation, Syrians are grappling with different realities.

While they share common traits, these zones of influence have their own dynamics that push them further apart.

As time passes, the gap between them widens. Moving from one region to another is sometimes impossible, despite their geographical proximity.

“Crossing the Euphrates to the other side, which is controlled by the regime and Iranian militias, to visit our friends and relatives, is unthinkable,” laments Bassem from the eastern part of Deir ez-Zor province, which is under the control of the Kurdish autonomous administration.

Four zones of influence

The fragmentation of Syria dates back to the early days of the popular uprising.

“Until mid-2012, a number of territories were outside the regime’s control,” explains Joseph Daher, a senior researcher at the University of Lausanne and a professor affiliated with the European University Institute in Florence.

“Political fragmentation became more pronounced with the Syrian regime’s withdrawal from Kurdish-majority areas and the emergence of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) which gradually established its political structures,” Daher says.

By 2012, the Free Syrian Army (then the primary component of the Syrian rebellion) was at the gates of Damascus, while Aleppo was divided into two parts: the rebel-controlled areas in the east and the regime-held areas in the west.

With the assistance of Moscow and Tehran, who have ensured the regime’s survival, loyalist forces brutally repressed the rebels and fully regained control of Aleppo in December 2016.

Over the years, Syria has been reshaped by four main areas of influence. These include Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and the coastal areas, particularly Latakia. The Syrian government now controls almost two-thirds of the country, mainly the western and central areas up to the Euphrates river.

The northwest area is partially dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has a significant presence in most of the Idlib province.

Meanwhile, rebel groups affiliated with Ankara control the northern border with Turkey. In the east, Kurdish forces supported by the international coalition against the Islamic State (Daesh) hold sway.

“These areas differ in their political ideology, governance system, and access to certain goods,” says Abdulla Ibrahim, a research associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva (IHEID).

Growing discontent

In Assad-held areas, there are those Syrians who did not join the uprising, those who have had to endure the constant bombings, lost their loved ones and witnessed their homes reduced to rubble before falling into the regime’s hands.

Areas such as East Aleppo, Homs, and Deraa, the birthplace of the revolution, held out until ultimately succumbing to Assad’s regime.

In Latakia — the stronghold of the Alawite community — Damascus, and Aleppo, where members of the Sunni business bourgeoisie reside, and Sweida, with its Druze majority, a large portion of the population has remained loyal to the Syrian regime.

Discontent has been spreading throughout these cities in recent years, however, due to the ongoing economic crisis.

Manal,* a 31-year-old Damascus resident, had wished to see the revolution spread to her city. Her hopes were soon dashed.

As a young woman, Manal had only ever known the Assad regime and its five-decade-long history of political repression.

She recalls how, in her youth, her friends would secretly confide in her about the regime’s past practices and crimes, but her family shielded her from these conversations to protect her.

Despite her fear and trepidation in 2011, Manal was filled with a sense of excitement and anticipation about what the future held. Her dreams of a new dawn for Syria were ultimately crushed.

Twelve years later, Manal is no longer surprised to see Russian forces patrolling the streets of Damascus.

The economic landscape has also shifted dramatically. Fuel shortages have worsened due to the surge in prices of oil products exported by Iran to Syria, brought on by the resumption of Western sanctions against Tehran. Electricity cuts, the devaluation of the Syrian lira, rampant inflation, and a collapse in purchasing power have further compounded the dire situation.

After years of war, the country lies in ruins and is unable to provide for its population.

“Around me, some people eat only once a day,” Manal says. “I used to think this was an exaggeration, but now I see it among my relatives.”

She works two jobs and earns up to $200 a month, which she considers a “very good income” compared to that of most Syrians, whose salaries as civil servants amount to less than $20. What she earns is barely enough to support her family and pay for medicine.

​​According to Ziad Majed, a political analyst and professor at the American University of Paris, political, social, and economic discontent has been spreading in the Damascus-controlled areas for years, fueled by poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities, and the failure of the state and its services.

“The crises related to the lack of electricity, petrol, gas, the devaluation of the lira … All this makes people suffer. At the same time, a business elite is getting richer and accumulating wealth, which feeds the frustrations," he tells L’Orient-Le Jour.

Since 2011, regime loyalists have taken advantage of the war. Businessmen have captured resources such as oil to enrich themselves.

Syria has become a narco-state, with those close to the government pulling the strings of captagon trafficking.

Since 2019, protests have erupted in some of the regime-held cities due to worsening living conditions.

Last December, a massive demonstration took place in Sweida, which remained under regime control. Syrian forces quelled the protest by firing on protestors with live ammunition.

“The main challenge for Damascus is the deteriorating socio-economic situation, which is not a political challenge but rather a humanitarian and security issue,” Ibrahim said, “which is all the more relevant given the absence of opposition in the areas controlled by the regime.”

Black hole

In the northwest of the country, held by HTS and rebel groups affiliated with Turkey, the situation is no better.

Despite the country’s fragmentation, Ibrahim says the Syrian people are united in their misery and despair.

“When 90 percent of the Syrian population lives in poverty, the geography reflects only shades of gray.”

Idlib is predominantly controlled by HTS and has become a place of refuge for civilians fleeing regime bombardment, as well as a dumping ground for jihadists seeking to assert their authority.

In recent years, HTS has attempted to improve its image and gain credibility in the eyes of the West.

HTS has set up its “salvation government,” divided into ministries, established a police force, provided services, and levied taxes, all in an effort to portray itself as an institutionalized and unified opposition that is popular with Syrians.

There are concerns about serious human rights abuses and corruption among the group’s leadership, however, which has led to most of the population challenging its authority behind the scenes.

Governance and management issues exacerbate the dire situation on the ground.

“The worst situation in the country is in the northwest, where over half the population is internally displaced, with many living in camps,” Daher says.

More than four million people, including a million children, are crammed into this governorate. Unfortunately, this area is a black hole for humanitarian aid, and Russia’s repeated vetoes at the UN Security Council have significantly limited the cross-border aid mechanism designed to provide assistance to these areas without going through Damascus.

Currently, only one crossing point at the Turkish border, compared to three in the past, is authorized.

In Idlib, where 90 percent of the population relies on humanitarian aid, only 60 percent of their food needs and less than 30 percent of their medical needs were met in 2022.

The economy of northern Syria is under increasing pressure from all sides, worsening an already dire situation.

Since the spring of 2020, the Turkish currency has been in circulation in the area, but its devaluation against the dollar has added to the economic challenges facing northern Syria, affecting employee salaries and the prices of goods and services.

As a result, affordable housing has become increasingly difficult to find for displaced people like Mohammad, who was forced to flee his hometown of Maarret al-Naaman in the south of the province after the regime retook it in January 2020.

He explains that high rents are making it difficult for him to find a place to live, “which is why millions of people are living in camps.”

Amid numerous ongoing crises, the aftermath of the Feb. 6 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria created chaos in Idlib province.

“It was the area closest to the epicenter, but also because the structures are less solid,” explains Daher, highlighting the dilapidated state of infrastructure becasue of incessant bombing campaigns by the Russian air force that persists to this day.

The earthquake caused 6,000 deaths in Syria, with more than 4,500 of these occurring in areas controlled by jihadists and rebels.

Possible Turkish-Syrian normalization

The earthquake also impacted the northern areas bordering Turkey, where Ankara has established a strong presence. Turkish currency is in circulation; Turkey runs the region’s hospital and postal services, and schools teach in Turkish.

A major supporter of the Syrian opposition, Turkey has been backing rebel groups in the region since 2016. That year, Turkey launched its first of three subsequent military operations in Syria.

The objective was to remove the Kurdish militia of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organization.

The operations were putatively aimed at combating Daesh.

According to Majed, Turkey has attempted to alter the demographics by driving out the Kurdish population, particularly around Afrin.

“In addition, [Turkey] has structured the military forces of the opposition and compelled Syrian refugees to return and settle in these areas,” he says.

Over the years, the Turkish government has significantly altered its policy, from welcoming “Sunni brothers” to tightening restrictions around Syrian refugees.

While more than 3.6 million refugees have been granted temporary protection in Turkey, the situation for thousands of them has gradually worsened. Blamed by some Turkish citizens for the country’s economic crisis, refugees have become a significant issue in the upcoming May general elections.

Human Rights Watch issued a warning last October that the Turkish government intends to transform the territories under its control into a “refugee dumping ground.”

Hundreds of thousands of prefabricated buildings are being constructed to accommodate some of the refugees who left everything behind to take refuge in Turkey.

In a significant shift in its Syrian policy, recent months have seen the Turkish government move closer to its arch-enemy. This development has also hinted at the possibility of normalization with the Assad regime.

Migration to Europe

The Kurdish autonomous administration is apprehensive that it will bear the consequences of this rapprochement.

Kurdish forces, who control significant areas of the northeast where important oil fields are located, are the main components of the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Integral to Washington’s counterterrorism campaign against Daesh, SDF forces managed over time to gain ground in driving the jihadist group out of the area until its territorial defeat in 2019.

“Security has gradually improved,” Majed notes. “There are occasional attacks by IS cells, but this does not affect Kurdish territorial control.”

In January 2022, about 100 jihadists carried out an assault on a prison in Hassakeh controlled by Kurdish forces, before the latter managed to regain control of the facility a few days later.

In Deir ez-Zor, where the Kurds control the areas east of the Euphrates, the autonomous administration is also trying to repel the infiltration of Iranian militias with a strong presence across the river.

In Tehran’s eyes, this area is an important crossing point for fighters, goods and weapons from neighboring Iraq. The area is plagued by instability, with both pro-Iranian and US facilities being targeted.

“Iran and its local and foreign militias are so strong there that the Russians cannot push them out of the area,” Omar Abu Layla, founder of the website Deirezzor24, tells L’Orient-Le Jour. “Until a few days ago, they were bombing US bases on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River while two missiles targeted the US base in Green Village.”

Even within the SDF-held territories, tensions run high.

While some areas are predominantly populated by Kurds, like Hassakeh province, others located in the province of Deir ez-Zor or Raqqa — Daesh’s former capital in Syria — are predominantly Arab.

The authorities have fanned the flames of resentment which have divided the populations.

As early as 2015, NGOs had warned of forced displacement of Sunni populations from areas that had fallen into Kurdish hands.

The Kurds have been accused of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

While Bassem, who lives east of the Euphrates, is an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime, his freedom of speech against the Kurdish authorities remains restricted.

Despite this, the 30-year-old considers himself better off economically than his neighbors west of the river. Unemployment and lack of prospects remain rampant.

“This has led to a large migration from the areas east of the Euphrates to Turkey and Europe,” Abu Layla says. “The region lacks basic necessities and does not encourage its inhabitants to stay there.”

“While the SDF has deepened its presence at the institutional level, the fear of a confrontation with the Turks, the question of whether the Americans will withdraw, and the management of oil and wealth in the area are constant concerns,” Majed says.

Reviving memories

Ibrahim notes that, despite the popular uprising that erupted 12 years ago, Damascus and its allies remain militarily stronger and more unified than their opposition in northern Syria, which has not yet been eliminated.

After being ostracized regionally and internationally for years, the Assad regime viewed the earthquake as a perfect opportunity to return to the Arab fold. This was evidenced by Assad’s official visits to Oman. The Syrian head of state also received foreign ministers from Egypt and Jordan and had a direct phone call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

For Daher, “The [Syrian] government’s management of the earthquake has allowed it to reassert control over Syrian society, as it had previously done during the COVID-19 crisis.”

The fear of violating the Caesar law is impeding rehabilitation efforts in Syria. The law, implemented by Washington in the summer of 2020, imposes sanctions on any individual, company, or institution that engages in trade with the government in Damascus or contributes to reconstruction efforts in the country.

Although there may be a degree of normalization at the regional level, Majed notes that there is still a long way to go at the international level.

“The absence of a unified political front or organized body to represent the majority of opposition to the regime has also resulted in a stagnant political process,” he says.

As a result, Syrians find themselves living in separate realities.

Those who have managed to escape dedicate their lives to preserving the memory of their loved ones who were killed, disappeared or are unable to speak from where they are.

Nedal, who left Deraa in 2012, remembers making a promise with fellow prisoners that, if he ever got out, he would never forget the revolution.

“Those who died, died for a new Syria, a democratic land of freedom and dignity — a Syrian which I have never ceased to defend since.”

* First names have been changed

This story was first published in French by L’Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

They used to take turns, day and night, searching for slogans and rushing to write them on placards. They joined hundreds of thousands of Syrians from all over the country in the streets of Deir ez-Zor (East Syria) — filled with hope, apprehension, and fear. They captured these moments on their phones, hoping to share them with the world.Among this small group of friends who thirsted for change...