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Syria Is Splitting Apart Along Sectarian Lines

The international community has given tacit support to the ongoing sectarian split in Syria, argues analyst Lorenzo Trombetta. Moving forward from the September cease-fires established in Fou’a, Kafraya and Zabadani by the U.N., Turkey and Iran, it seems the only path to peace in Syria will involve partition.

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BEIRUT – There is a partition taking place in Syria on a community, ethnic and above all sectarian basis. All regional and international players involved in the conflict have given their tacit consent, with some of the local actors agreeing too. Even efforts by the United Nations to reach a political solution to the conflict seem to corroborate the idea that the end of hostilities can be achieved only through the establishment of cantons along sectarian lines.

The historic territory of present-day Syria has, since long before the Baathist rise to power in 1963, witnessed examples of both peaceful coexistence among different ethnic and religious communities and harsh conflicts based on political and economic explanations, most often with a religious tint. Now, however, it seems that Syria’s territorial pattern is to be made of homogenous, uniform areas, forsaking its colorful historical character.

Escalating violence has made the political and sectarian polarization more dramatic. In the meantime, it deflects attention from an ongoing process that’s not likely to end soon: the ethnic and sectarian cleansing of adjoining locations in the different areas of influence across Syria. This phenomenon is not just limited to Syria. In the past decades, Lebanon and Iraq – both of which share borders with Syria – have been torn apart by internal conflicts that caused, among other effects, territorial partitions along community identities.

A similar divide took place in the distant past. Climbing up to the Lebanese Kasrawan Mountains, there are several Shiite villages among a multitude of Maronite sites. In this area, up until the 14th century, Shiites were a predominant sect, but when the Mamluks took control of the Levant, tens of thousands of Shiites were killed or dispelled south toward the Bekaa Valley, while their lands were reassigned to the Sunni Turkmen settlers.

Same Script, Different Cast

In Syria today we have a situation of same script, different cast. The Sunni communities of central Syria (Homs) and the Qalamoun Mountains (Qusayr, Zabadani) are paying the highest price of the ongoing division – not to mention the Christians from Jazira, in Syria’s northeast, and those from areas currently under the control of ISIS, who left their homes without any hope of ever returning. Similarly, Druze, Shiites and Christians of the Idlib area have suffered persecution for not submitting to local warlords, each pursuing his own personal interests. Focusing on ethnic divisions in the mostly Kurdish-inhabited northeast, according to Amnesty International, thousands of Arab civilians have been reportedlyforced to leave, and their homes promptly burned down. In southern Syria, the line separating Druze and Sunni communities has become even more definite, renewing the long-time division between farmers and cattle raisers, based in the upland and in the valley respectively.

In this context, the international community – gathering both governmental and non-governmental actors – has so far agreed to the logic of separation. They base their de factoconsent on the similarity of the recent and ongoing crimes in Syria with those that happened in Kasrawan some seven centuries ago. Nowadays, the populations of three small cities – Zabadani, Fou’a and Kafraya – share a similarly unlucky fate: the age-old story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Predominantly Sunni Zabadani – once a pleasant vacation spot – sits alongside the highway connecting Damascus to Beirut. For Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsor, controlling Zabadani is essential to ensuring the much-needed connection between the two aforementioned capitals. Peaceful demonstrations started in Zabadani early on in 2011. And then, like elsewhere in Syria, protests evolved quickly into an armed rebellion after Assad’s almost immediate violent crackdown. Revolt leaders and protesters quickly stiffened in their positions, while local civil activists were unable to contain rising extremism. Expelled from the city’s urban area in February 2012 by Assad loyalists and Hezbollah attacks, local opposition fighters retreated to the mountain regions, but later on, under the leadership of al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups, they managed to make a return to the city. Last summer, however, they were forced to surrender after a siege conducted by fighters from Hezbollah and the Syrian army during a wider-range operation aimed at “debugging” the Qalamoun region of elements opposed to Assad’s rule. Local fighters sought the help of their fellow militants in Idlib and of regional sponsors. The northwestern coalition answered the call and, in response to the military pressure on Zabadani, it tightened its grasp on Fou’a and Kafraya.

Fou’a and Kafraya are 300km (180 miles) away from Zabadani. Located in the Idlib area, just 30km (18 miles) away from the Turkish border, most of the residents in the two rather small towns practice Twelver Shia Islam (the same Shiite branch as Hezbollah and Iran). In May 2015, the pressure on Fou’a and Kafraya intensified, when Idlib’s urban area fell under the control of an anti-regime coalition of fighters supported by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with a jihadist-al-Qaidist duo – Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, a combination gaining approval in that part of Syria – holding the leadership.

Ferocious fighting continued in Zabadani and the surrounding areas until September 25, when a final agreement was announced. The truce, established by Turkey and Iran, with the U.N.’s supervision, would last six months. It established: 1) the withdrawal of all militants from Zabadani, giving priority to wounded ones; 2) the evacuation of wounded and civilians from Fou’a and Kafraya; 3) a ceasefire around the two Shiite towns, surrounded by Idlib militants; 4) the prohibition of barricades or military bases across the front line and the prohibition of besieging civilians. Hopefully this last point, if properly enforced, will be of great relief for the remaining populations of Fou’a and Kafraya, where about 10,000 civilians are still in their homes. It is totally irrelevant, however, when it comes to Zabadani, which is under the full control of Hezbollah and where most inhabitants have already been expelled, deported or killed.

The U.N. has repeatedly highlighted its efforts to achieve the agreement, with the mediation of Iran on behalf of the Assad loyalist coalition, and of Turkey (and partly Qatar) for the anti-regime coalition. The International Red Cross provided vehicles and personnel for the evacuation of wounded people, militants and civilians, which took place between September 27 and 29, and only partially affected the local rebels – mostly militants affiliated to Ahrar al-Sham.

According to the agreement, the few rebel fighters evacuated from Zabadani were to be resettled in the Idlib area or in some other region with a Sunni majority. Most of them were sent to Idlib. On the other hand, the Shiite civilians in Fou’a and Kafraya, who had been thus far stuck in their hometowns, were to be moved to Latakia – the coastal bastion of Assad’s Alawite minority – or to one of the Shiite suburbs of Damascus, such as Sayyida Zaynab, under the control of Hezbollah or Iranian militias.

On an international and regional level, the agreement seems to be satisfactory for all parties involved. Russia has agreed to respect the truce, giving up attacks on the areas of Fou’a and Kafraya. The U.S. has refrained from any direct intervention in the process, leaving the U.N. to facilitate negotiations. Thanks to Hezbollah, Iran has accomplished the clearing of the Qalamoun Mountain area and of the Syrian-Lebanese corridor, while a very popular Saudi preacher in Idlib region reportedly referred to the agreement as a “memorable victory.” The negotiations were closed by Turkey, which, at its final steps, had to deal with the kidnapping of a group of Turkish workers in Baghdad by pro-Iranian Shiite militants. The Turkish workers, of course, were released immediately after the Zabadani-Fou’a-Kafraya deal was implemented.

On a national level, Assad’s government was forced to concede – politically, diplomatically and territorially – to both Hezbollah and its Iranian backer. In return, the regime did away with a pressing military threat to its center of power, Damascus. The armed opposition factions, represented by Ahrar al-Sham andal-Nusra Front, appointed themselves as the stronghold of the Sunni community against “Iranian colonialism,” thus connecting two very distant arenas through politics and rhetoric.

The communities of Zabadani, Fou’a and Kafraya have not quite taken advantage of the truce. They saw their rights trampled on and their requests neglected. Local actors, for their part, revealed inadequate negotiating skills – in the presence of more influential parties. Zabadani’s displaced are in even worse conditions than their counterparts in Fou’a and Kafraya: Having left their homes and their lands, maybe for good, many of them are clumped in refugee camps in the suburbs of Damascus, under close surveillance by the Syrian military. They feel humiliated, deserted and again besieged, their hometown now in ruins. Even parts of the surrounding woods have been set on fire, exactly as happened in the Kasrawan mountains back in 1300.

The Zabadani-Fou’a-Kafraya truce may appear a success if compared to previous cease-fires, which had short duration and were applied to very limited areas. It may also look like the proposal of “freezing” local conflicts, promoted by the U.N.’s special envoy for the Syrian crisis Staffan De Mistura, was successfully put into action.

Yet, when looking back at September’s agreement, it seems the wellbeing of local communities is being set aside for the interests of bigger powers. In fact, it appears the power holders see the Syrian patchwork of identities as theproblem, not the solution. The only path to peace, it seems, will involve partition.

Top image: Free Syrian Army rebels hold a revolutionary flag during a demonstration in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo on Sept. 21, 2012. The country has already been shattered by nearly five years of civil war, and with no solution in sight, some players on the ground and observers outside have concluded its fate will be to break it up along sectarian or regional lines, in a best-case scenario, tenuously held together by a less centralized state. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)

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