Syria vs Lebanon: affinity, divergence and possible way out for two civil war models

Image for post
Image for post

by Massimiliano Frenza Maxia

February 2019

From many observers we are hearing that the Syrian civil war is going to end. This statement is correct, at least if we consider the Bashar al-Assad regime alive and survivor to the 2011 Arab Spring and to the rise of the Islamic State. Today in Syria the rebels are confined in few zones, the Daraa district on the south and Idlib on the north. The Islamic State is by now bounded on the desert zone of Syrak, militarily defeated and on the back foot. To complete the view there are the Kurdish zone, today tactically allied with the Damascus’s regime, but under the expansionist ambitions of Turkey, especially now with the US gradual disengagement.

In view of this it is fair to say that the war is ending, Damascus is a safe city, Aleppo has been released, and by several media, it’s talking about rebuilding. Certainly all positive elements. Despite this, maybe most correct say that “a war” is just finishing but the Syrian instability is coming up in a new phase, so it been for Lebanon in the aftermath of the Ta’if agreement.

Towards a peace agreement: the current situation

Today Syria is waiting for a peace agreement, sponsored by the victorious powers engaged in the so called Astana Group (Russia, Iran, Turkey). The US attention, probably, will amount to a few recommendations to preserve a sort of factual Kurdish autonomy. The upcoming peace agreement, will be a remake of the Ta’if peace conference, even the outcomes will be similar. The only difficult forecast is to predict if this appointment will take place in this 2019. In the meantime many different media speaks about a re-admission of Syria in the Arab League (the Syria affiliation has been suspended by the November 2011, on the beginning of the Arab Spring riots).

Nevertheless, what remains (or will remains) about Syria, is very different from a united nation, maybe even less than the actual Lebanon post Ta’if Agreement. Let’s look at why:

§ The Syrian Kurdistan, in the best case scenario (for al-Assad and for the Rojava), will remains a federal region with an hard autonomy, in the worst case it will falls under the Turkish control;

§ The major big cities, Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo in particular, are and will remains under the urban clans control, Sunni, Alawi and Christian, all related with al-Assad;

§ The rural areas outside the major cities, inhabited by rural populations, largely hostile Sunni opposing to the city bourgeois, as far as retake to the insurgents, will remains dangerous and instable areas;

§ The desert zones on the Iraqi borders will be destined to remain under the Islamic State control, in a modality not different from the Taliban model in Afghanistan. In such areas the war of attrition will goes on for years. In this situation the Damascus government will remains dependent by the Teheran’s aids.

§ Finally, the Alawi regions, the coastal area that goes from the Turkish to the Lebanon border, increased by some districts in Damascus and in the others major cities, will remains under the al-Assad control, excluding the strategical areas controlled by Russians military forces (the Tartus naval base on the south and the Hmeimim air base in Latakia on the north).

If those just described represent for al-Assad a semi-victory (in the autumn of 2015 the al-Assad’s regime was on the edge on defeat), the causes of the war are far from being solved. The cleavages between the cities middle-class (Sunni and Alawi bourgeois), and the rural class (poor Sunni and Shia minorities) are still relevant. In a few words we can say that the sectarian system is still alive and dangerous.

Syrian and Lebanese models in comparison

The Syria destiny, as well as for Lebanon in post Ta’if Agreement, is to see its national unity be allowed only on the paper. The eight year war has settled the historical tribal sectarianism and has produced furthers. The Baath Party in Haifiz al-Assad era was specifically intended to strength first the pan Arabism (and the nationalism in a second time), to the detriment of sectarianism. That operation has showed various limits. By favoring a system based on power of clientelism, the regime while was publically preaching against confessional subdivisions, encouraging the secularism, factually it ended up to divide the Syrian society: rich Sunni and Alawi against poor Sunni, poor Sunni against Shiites etc. Hafitz al-Assad just come to power filled the Army and the Air Force with loyal Alawi officers. Bashar, besieged in Damascus, have done worse, he handed the country in the hands of warlords witch hardly will not present an hefty bill.

Than Syria, Lebanon with his confessional constitution, absurdly however his dysfunctional and perpetually on the point of implode system, it represents at least a rare example of renunciation to the hypocrisy. In the land of the cedar, even today the appointment of a senior officer represent a key issue in which all the confessional community must be involved. The Lebanon confessional constitution it represents in the same time a condemnation and a resource. Right or wrong whenever someone or something has called it into question, on the country the violence erupted.

The Muslim sectarianism: a medieval origin concept

The conpet of sectarianism, aim not only in his confessional sense, but also tribal and economic, has always existed in the Muslim world, at least from the crisis occurred post the death of the fourth caliph, Alì ibn Talib, historic event that determined the end of the golden age, lasted about thirty years, and knows as Rashidun era (the Rashidun were: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, Alì ibn Talib, collectively referred as “Rightly Guided Caliph”).

Back to the Middle Age, in the 14th century, the great arab-muslim historian Ibn Khaldun, fixed the concept of ‘asabiyya, an arab word that we can translate in “social solidarity”. The concept of social solidarity who spoke Ibn Khaldun is a convergence of interests of a social cohesion group which run for political power. This definition is, for a middle age arab, perfectly coherent with the concept of umma, the term who refers to the community of muslims. In other words, the various tribal clan, in the aftermath of the caliphate system crisis, had begun to run for the hegemony, but anyway in the homogeneity of the umma. Today the concept, as we have seen, has spread. The sectarianism has changed in clientelism.

The ‘asabiyya spirit, in Syria (as in Lebanon) is a pattern widely recognized in the communities (sunni muslims, alawi, shia ismailites and twelvers, druzes, christians and kurdish), but also in tribes and clans of the city areas and of the rural areas (Sbaa, Ruwala, al-Hassan, al-Assad, Bani Khalid etc). In the same way, even the spirit which join together sunni, christian e alawi bourgeois, against FSA rebels is ‘asabiyya.

On this aspect, in my opinion, there are the principals difference between the Lebanese conflict. In Lebanon in 1975 the first cleavage, was trigger by the PLO invasive presence, and the conflict saw immediately a dispute between sunni muslims and christian militias. This dispute represented a real confessional conflict and only ten year later, in the second half of 1980s, turned into a sectarian and inter confessional conflict (Sunni again Sunni, Christian again Christian, Druzes again Sunni, Shites again Sunni etc). In the Syrian conflict this happens come immediately.


The loyalist Syria government today it depends from the Russian and Iranian aids. It isn’t a country totally governable from Damascus. The Ayatollah regime, in particular, does not intend to operate a disengagement from the Syrian theatre. Through considerable efforts in term of money and loss of human lives, has opened a Teheran-Damascus-Beirut land corridor, necessary for the hegemonic project of a Shia crescent, as well as for ensuring a permanent pressure on Israel.

At the same time, is no better the situation of the loyalist forces. Bashar al-Assad, has in recent years been faced with several crisis, through the use of a myriad of militias connected to local warlords. Those militias, framed in the context of the so called National Defence Forces (NDF), has been used both for offensive campaign against rebels and for control over the regained territories. Today those militias are hardly disarmable and they could turn them into as a weapon with which to exert political pressure to the al-Assad regime. This hypothesis threatens to take an outbreak of a “lebanisation” of the post war scenario, but with a substantial difference. Post Ta’if Agreement in Lebanon the only militia left is Hizb’Allah, in Syria is going towards a multi militias scenario, concurrent with to the central government. In one word, a multy-player environment.

Symptomatic case is those represented by the Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya (Tiger Forces), and Liwaa Suqour Al-Sahra (Desert Hawks Brigade), two private military companies, both pro regime militias, leaded by Suheil Hassan and Mohammad Jaber. The second one in particular is a prominent Syrian businessman, involved in oil and gas industry, close to key figures of the Syrian regime such as Bashar al-Assad himself. Those mentioned represent just some of the pro regime militias which threatening to turn Syria in a certain number of feudal protectorates leaded by al-Assad warlords creditors.

In conclusion, this 2019 just started would throw al-Assad to the victory but within the context of a factual partition of the country, although the form of a state united. Simply put, al-Assad has won the war, but has lost the country.

Master’s degree with honor in Geopolitics and Global Security, Roma La Sapienza University. Master’s degree with honor in History & Society, Roma Tre University

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store