Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1141, 28 March - 3 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

The state disintegrates

If the crisis in Syria is allowed to continue, a key Middle Eastern state may soon disintegrate, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been two years since the start of the Syrian uprising in which nearly 100,000 people have been killed, with the numbers still climbing as the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad continues the military crackdown that is keeping it in power.

More than two million people have lost their homes and livelihoods, and a further two million have become refugees inside and outside the country. Key economic sectors have collapsed, and the influence and control of the armed opposition has expanded since the regime resorted to using heavy artillery and warplanes against it.

The state has lost control over large swathes of the country to the revolutionary forces, and Syria is now split into regions under regime control and others controlled by the armed revolutionary brigades.

Even those regions controlled by the regime are not entirely in its grip, since its authority has also been shaken in many of these regions. Since it is now often unable to maintain security in many areas, the regime has resorted to asking for assistance from local groups called “popular committees”, paying their members monthly salaries.

 The duty of these groups is to defend the state, the regime says, claiming that the Syrian nation is under threat. However, in reality these groups are sectarian militias loyal to the regime whose mission is to defend the latter without regard for legal accountability.

This development has led to the formation of militias outside state control, with areas under the control of the regime now being subject to two forms of authority, one official and under government control and the other ad hoc and outside of any legal framework.

The priority of the regime is to protect itself, and its goals now are confined to securing funds for its war machine and combatants. These goals have forced the state to abandon any obligations not aligned with its main priority, with the regime now fighting solely to remain in power.

Meanwhile, military groups from various backgrounds now control areas of the country beyond the power of the state. The war with the regime has caused them to seek survival over anything else, and they have little interest in founding a modern state since for them war is the priority.

As a result, these groups are in danger of threatening the democratic character of the Syrian revolution, even as the Syrian state is now on its way to disintegration.

The international community has warned that the Syrian state could collapse if the bloodshed in the country continues, and it has noted the importance of not destroying the state as a result of the conflict.

The institutions of the Syrian state are vital for the country’s stability and for that of the region as a whole. Nonetheless, the Syrian state has indeed started to crumble, with this taking different forms in different regions.

Revenge killings and kidnappings are now taking place across the country, with criminals being aware that the state is not in a position to ensure the safety of citizens. Few people now feel secure as a result despite the high security conditions and the presence of security and military agencies.

The police are also reportedly refusing to follow up on complaints or to investigate crimes.

Syria is a mosaic of religious groups and minority populations that have co-existed with each other for centuries, though the Al-Assad regime has not been averse to manipulating the minorities to serve its purposes.

Now, however, the war has led to growing sectarianism among the Syrian people, and the regime has used this as a fear factor to scare minorities of the dangers they will allegedly face if it is overthrown.

The regime has rallied the minorities behind it in the face of a majority that is seeking to overthrow it. As the corpses pile higher as a result of the conflict, it will be difficult to achieve the national reconciliation of this cultural mosaic after the regime falls.

The regime has lost military ground in many regions, especially in the north and south of the country, and recent months have seen the gradual liquidation of what remains of the regime in the form of institutions and the army in these areas.

 Islamists, and tribal and militia groups have taken control of the liberated areas, and these have tried to create parallel institutions to administer the liberated regions and provide services to local people.

However, these nascent structures often do not have the necessary skills or resources to successfully administer entire cities and regions, and this has led to growing instability in some of them.

The regime’s war against its people has torn the country apart, with the destruction of infrastructure being unprecedented and the economy badly damaged. Agriculture is at an all-time low, industry is in a catastrophic situation, and trade and services are the only functioning sectors in an economy that is now being fuelled by a raging war.

Inflation and unemployment rates are both high.

The state institutions are still functioning in the capital Damascus, as well as in coastal provinces where the revolution has not extended since these are the homeland of the president and his supporters. However, in other provinces they have collapsed.

The regime is still able to fund its war machine and pay government salaries in order to maintain the semblance of legitimacy, and it has maintained the living standards of those under its control out of fear of social unrest.

But in areas under the control of the opposition, residents no longer pay electricity, phone and water bills, or taxes and charges, especially since many houses have been damaged and residents have suffered great losses.

An underground economy has now emerged in Syria, with Homs, for example, largely operating on theft. The city is a stronghold of the regime and regime supporters, but districts of the city are living off selling stolen and looted items from other regions under army control, often at very low prices.

The same thing has been happening in other areas, and there is now a thriving black market for stolen luxury cars put on sale after changing their license plates.

Regime militias have even put up roads for sale, meaning that they are charging people to use them with bandits or robbers doing similar things in other areas. Barricades set up by regime military and security forces prevent trucks from passing unless they pay a fee that varies from one roadblock to the next. Since corruption is contagious, some armed opposition groups have started practicing similar extortion.

Kidnappings for ransom are also on the rise everywhere in the country, though the value of ransoms has fallen from $500,000 to $10,000 because most wealthy businessmen have now left Syria. Many of the groups involved in the kidnappings have nothing to do with the revolutionaries, though they sometimes assume their identity.

Smuggling is flourishing from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, and fighters now control most border crossings in the north and east of the country, deciding on a tariff to allow goods to pass or simply asking for bribes.

Meanwhile, regime loyalists and security personnel are smuggling materials from neighbouring states to increase their wealth.

In some areas, there are even ties between the combatants and the regime they are fighting in the form of corruption that serves mutual interests. Commissions are paid to intelligence officials to facilitate the smuggling of weapons, heating supplies, oil derivatives, and other materials necessary to continue fighting and living.

A senior economist at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia has said that Syria is being torn apart and economic condition could reach a point of no return if the fighting continues.

The government will soon be unable to pay the salaries of state employees, and opposition sources and independent experts say that Syria has lost more than $200 billion as a result of the conflict, a sum that will be impossible to recover for decades.

The onset of the collapse of the state in Syria coincides with the existence of two unstable neighbouring states, Iraq and Lebanon, and this opens the door to possible regional chaos that could trigger a sectarian war and open battle on different fronts.

The hesitation of the international community to act to resolve the Syrian crisis means that no prospect of resolution is on the horizon.

The situation on the ground is moving quickly towards the dissolution of the state, and some members of the opposition argue that there is a plot afoot to destroy the country. Regional and international players are ignoring the need to end the conflict before the state itself is torn to pieces.

Such opposition figures warn against dividing Syria on a sectarian basis, which could nevertheless come about as an inevitable consequence of the military conflict. If so, the people of Syria will have to prepare for further conflict even as the state collapses and disintegrates.

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