When one first arrives to the government-controlled part of Syria across the border with Lebanon, one sees a big billboard on the side of the road that reads “Welcome to Assad’s Syria”.
Today, more than any time since Syria’s uprising and subsequent civil war started in 2011, the regime in Damascus acts as the “winner” in control of the country. But in reality Bashar Al Assad’s power is claimed over a country that is divided, not to mention in ruins. Syria is one country, and yet there are many Syrias, not all of them ruled by Mr Assad.
Although the support of foreign allies over the past decade secured Mr Assad’s power, the narrative his government has adopted claims that there is a “conspiracy” of foreign and regional powers wanting to destroy Syria’s sovereignty, which only his government can protect. From early on, its line has been that what has happened in Syria is not a revolution, but a foreign-backed extremist movement to destroy the country.
Many have argued that Mr Assad’s government has intended for this to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its attacks on peaceful unarmed protesters, the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of thousands of women, men and children, many of whom are still missing, as well as the bombing of houses, schools, hospitals and markets only fuelled more anger among Mr Assad’s opponents, opening doors for radical movements that many Syrians wouldn’t have agreed supported otherwise.
The most dangerous act was releasing extremist prisoners who were tucked for years in most notorious prison cells in Syria. Most of them were connected to Al Qaeda or dangerous movements in Iraq. Many of them managed to forge alliances with other extremist movements in the region and beyond, forming branches for Al Qaeda and later creating the brutal group ISIS.
All of this created divisions in Syria that were not only along political lines, but also on ideological lines. As the opposition fragmented, the initial dichotomy between the government and opposition became one between the government and many oppositions. Groups formed left, right and centre. Most had a common goal of getting rid of regime, but they disagreed on the way to do it. Some supported civil disobedience, others the creation of new political parties, others armed factions, others theocratic militias, others political groups in exile overseas seeking western support. Some are secular and some are religious. Some are ethnic; militias from Syria’s Kurdish minority have seized many opportunities in the chaos to try to assert control over majority-Kurdish areas to fulfil their own ethnonationalist dream.
Foreign support, as Mr Assad warns, however hypocritically, has indeed played its role, too. Regional powers have adopted independent views on how Syria’s crisis might end and who to support. Some supported the religious extremists, and others helped the secular groups. The Americans, the French, the British and other European countries also had their own favourites.
The product is a kaleidoscope of completely different visions of Syria, and whatever the outcome of the war, those visions are not going to vanish instantly.
This has divided Syria’s geography, too, as much as it has Syrians inside and outside the country. And so now there are different physical Syrias, in tandem with different psychological Syrias. Aside from Mr Assad’s Syria, there is a “Salvation Government” in the north, backed by the armed faction Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, formerly known as Nusra and formerly affiliated with Al Qaeda. There is a “Syrian Interim Government” backed by Turkey, and Kurdish-controlled territory consolidated with American backing.
Even if, in the midst of all of this fragmentation, one could entertain the notion that there is one, sovereign Syria, and that it is controlled, at least nominally, by Mr Assad’s government, that government, too, is beholden to competing interests. Mr Assad’s regime is backed by Iranian and Iranian-sponsored militias on the ground, and by Russian warplanes in the air. But Moscow and Tehran are at odds with each other in many respects. They each have their eyes on various ports, motorways, pipelines and business contracts. Their proxies sometimes clash in battle.
There is an immense need for a political entity that represents most Syrians, and could work towards a unified, free and democratic Syria – one that grants equal rights to all ethnicities and religions and renders everyone equal under the constitution. There is a need for a Syria that allows all of its citizens to contribute to building on its great potential.
But achieving this, as things stand, is very far away, because, in truth, there is no longer one Syria, and that will be the challenge to address for Syrians going forward. Those in the country who aspired for change a decade ago now find themselves lost, caught between numerous entities that have little relevance to them and whose visions not resemble the Syria they wanted. That is one fact that the great majority Syrians, wherever they are and whatever side of the lines they are on, have in common.