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Analysis

Syria's long war inflicting deep social divisions

AMMAN, Jordan — As Syria's protracted civil war stretches into its third year, there are worrying signs that the brutal conflict is inflicting deep and dangerous social divisions that may take decades to heal.

The first months of 2013 have seen significant rebel gains as government troops slowly cede more and more territory to the insurgents fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.

But the military superiority of al-Assad's troops, along with the hesitation by Western nations to increase assistance to the armed wing of the opposition, has led to deadlock.

With no political solution in sight, worst-case scenarios loom for Syria.

"Now we are left with three potential outcomes, none of which are desirable," said Nadim Shehadi, an analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

"One is a military victory by rebel forces, which will likely lead to a period of chaos. The other is an outright military victory by the regime, which no-one wants to see," he added.

"But what we are left with now is the worst possible outcome - an ongoing stalemate that will continue to tear the country apart."

Despite the reported trickle of thousands of automatic weapons, bullet caches and mortar shells over the Jordanian and Turkish borders, experts say rebels lack the heavy arms and surface-to-air missiles required to counter the regime’s aerial superiority.

“The rebels are playing a cat-and-mouse game. Every time they capture a town or village, the regime’s bombings force them to withdraw,” said Mahmoud Irdaisat, the head of the Jordan-based Strategic Studies Centre at the King Abdullah II Defence Studies Academy.

"It is a fine insurgency strategy, but they cannot turn the tide until they challenge the regime in the air," he told dpa.

The arms gap is creating divisions within the opposition, admitted Mohammed Abu George, the commander of a rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalion based near Damascus

Regular meetings of the Higher Revolutionary Military Council - an umbrella group for the FSA and other rebel forces - often devolve into disputes over weapons, bullet caches and even petrol rations, he said.

"Some battalion leaders get access to all the arms and funds, while others barely have enough bullets to arm half of their fighters," Abu George added.

"Sometimes I feel we are fighting each other more than the regime."

Analysts warn that these disputes are pitting various armed groups against each other, and could transform what was once a popular revolt into an ever more drawn-out and bitter conflict, which has so far left some 70,000 dead.

"Even if the tide is against al-Assad, it seems likely that rebel infighting will increase over spring and summer, as new conflicts arise over control of territory and supply routes," says Aron Lund, an expert in Syrian opposition groups and researcher at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs.

"For nearly 40 years, the regime favoured and pitted minorities and ethnic groups against each other and now these divisions and distrust are being reinforced by war," said Oraib Rintawi, the head of the Amman-based al-Quds Centre for Political Studies.

Emerging ideological differences are also seen driving wedges between opposition groups, with rows over international involvement and visions of a post-al-Assad Syria.

The frictions came to the forefront last week when Abu Mohammed al-Jaulani, the chief of the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist rebel group in Syria, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The allegiance drew a backlash form various opposition groups. The opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib urged al-Jaulani to retract the statement.

"Al-Nusra's pledge of allegiance isn't helping the opposition. It adds to the tension and is likely to negatively affect international attitudes," said Lund.

As the war drags on, Lund warns that jihadist groups within Syria may begin jockeying for the funds and arms being provided to Islamist hardliners by individual donors and Arab Gulf countries - triggering an “inter-Islamist” conflict.

However, analysts say unpredictable developments may “break” the deadly stalemate.

The economic cost of the conflict may lead the regime to collapse from within, while a reported US-Jordanian proposal to establish buffer zones in southern Syria may provide rebel forces with the needed advantage to counter Damascus’ aerial power.

Yet until the world takes drastic action, analysts say Syria’s future unity remains at stake.

“Each month the conflict continues adds a year to the reconstruction process,” Shehadi, of Chatham House, said.

"At this rate, it may be decades before we see Syria one whole again."
 

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