Rather than negotiating with an opposition of permanently changing legitimacy, the Syrian regime intends to take back control over the full state territory by making local agreements with tribes and militias following fierce military action. Yet, in the face of foreseeable reductions of external military support and insufficient national capacities, the regime has no choice but to regain the trust of its population. However, it is highly unlikely that the regime will apply sustainable strategies to do so.
The Syrian regime together with its Russian allies and Hezbollah in Aleppo are getting used to win against any armed opposition group on the battlefield – reaching a comprehensive political deal with the opposition more unlikely from day to day. At the same time, the newly established Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which includes Fatah al-Sham (former Nusra front) and other jihadist factions, has hijacked most of the remaining armed rebel groups in the province of Idlib. This undermines the legitimacy of those rebel factions, which are willing to negotiate with the regime and adds to the regime’s advantage. That, in turn, further lessens the regime’s need to politically negotiate with the opposition.
However, the Russian army has already begun a troop reduction and Hezbollah will have to refocus on Lebanon in the near future. That leaves the Syrian regime to handle a deeply divided country on its own. Eight Million Syrians have already fled their homes. Half of them fled the country. Many people in former hotspots of the rebellion in 2011 like Hama, Homs, Raqqa, Deir-Azzor, or Eastern Aleppo are alienated from the regime and its supporters. In those parts, the infrastructure and houses are devastated; most inhabitants are traumatized by destruction and violence. In those mostly Sunni areas, many incidents of sectarian violence left the survivors with feelings of irritation and hatred towards what they consider an illegitimate Alawite regime.
In fact, many Syrian Alawites and Christians support the opposition while many Syrian Sunni Muslims support president Bashar al-Assad. Eventually, the line diving the Syrian population does not run along religious or ethnic grounds, but along economic characteristics. Accordingly, while the urban middle and upper class of bureaucrats and merchants depend on the regime’s survival, Syria’s economically and politically marginalized people still have nothing to lose. Aleppo, for example, was divided between the wealthier western side and poorer Eastern side. Nevertheless, in those parts of Syria that were alienated from the regime, the dominant narrative of the war was a sectarian one: Sunni Muslims against an illegitimate Alawi regime and their Christian, Druze, and Kurdish supporters. In the areas that did not oppose the regime, the narrative of preserving Syrian unity in the face of terrorism was more common.
Eventually, the Syrians are divided along two narratives in their perception of the war: 1) a war for a united Syria, and 2) the struggle of religious groups to rule the country. Both narratives were maintained by the regime already in 1970, when Hafez al-Assad took over. On the one hand, the Assad regime has successfully created a narrative of the Syrian Arab nation that is per definition multi-ethnic and multi-religious. On the other hand, it has maintained sectarian sentiments not only through preserving sectarian identities as legal categories, but also through portraying itself as the protector of Syria’s minorities against radical elements within the Sunni majority.
The openly anti-Alawite jihad of the Islamic State militia and other Salafist Jihadist militia allowed the regime to increase its legitimation based on both discourses. Now, after years of unrest, massacres and deadlocks, many opposition supporting Syrians begin to reconsider their position; public opinion seems to shift in favor of the regime as the best option for a pluralistic and diverse Syria. However, the situation is highly fragile as it is based on hopes concerning the regime’s potential ability to respond to those. In order to do so, Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s inner circle will have to come up with a coherent long-term strategy which they did lack since the escalation of the war.
In this volatile situation, maintaining the fear of sectarian violence and portraying the Baath regime as a bastion against sectarianism will only continue to foster unrest that is bound to occasionally reappear. As a consequence, this strategy is in need of military means to enforce stability, which will, in turn, increase the existing cleavages among Syrians. Yet, the regime is not in possession of the adequate means (financially, militarily) to apply those repressive strategies.
The need for reconciliation has been raised by various pro-regime actors in 2015. Eventually, this strategy translated into deals with local tribes and militias in order to administer the area. Government media have been keen to portray those deals and the return of refugee groups to areas like Eastern Aleppo and Daraya as indications of the regime’s ability in fostering peace. However, in order to engage in more comprehensive reconciliation, the regime has to go beyond the strategies it is used in the past. Above all, it has to ban the suspicion about supposed terrorists that try to stir sectarian violence from its rhetoric. Additionally, it must uphold the ceasefire without circumventing it by randomly declaring raids such as in Wadi Barada as directed against terrorist groups. Eventually, both the regime and the opposition must clarify the identity of the groups they consider to be excluded from any national reconciliation accord. However, as Fatah al-Sham (former Nusra front) is currently hijacking the remnants of the armed opposition in the province of Idlib and in parts of Ahrar al-Sham, it might be more useful to solely exclude Fatah al-Sham and Daesh from the ceasefire agreement. The creation of Tahrir al-Sham blurred the line between the latter two organizations and others, who do not necessarily pursue a Sunni sectarian agenda on the basis of a Sharia state. In the end, the regime has to offer credible amnesty for those who are willing to lay down their arms.
Yet, revelations like the torture and mass killings (more than 13.000 alleged killings) in the regime’s prison in Saydnaya might cause blowbacks to those willing to reconcile. As a consequence, the regime might remain stuck in the dilemma between the need to sustain the sectarian discourse on the one hand and eradicate its roots on the other hand in order to push for sustainable reconciliation.
About the author
Maximilian Lakitsch is peace and conflict researcher at the University of Graz. Prior to his position in the university, he worked in various research, peace and development NGOs in Austria and in Lebanon. His theoretic work extends to Conflict Theory, Peacebuilding, Religious Conflicts and the MENA region with a focus on Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. Maximilian studied Theology, Philosophy and International Relations at the University of Graz and at the American University of Beirut.