Beleaguered Syrians in Desperate Search for Common Denominator

The story of two sisters who found themselves on opposite sides of the fighting symbolize the swift disintegration of Syrian society, where the conflict cuts through family as well as ethnic and political lines.

Siham and Hind are two Syrian sisters whose story was related last week in the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Hayat. Their story is not about heroism or sacrifice, nor about victims. It is a simple story, mundane: Siham, 24, regularly took part in demonstrations against the regime, distributed flyers and worked clandestinely to aid the rebel forces. Hind, 35, was a keen supporter of the regime. She argued vociferously in its defense to her sister, to the point where their parents would step in to reconcile them.

“The tension between us was so great that when I changed the channel to Al Jazeera television [which shows images of the war and of the slaughter perpetrated by forces loyal to the regime] my sister would leave the room, and when she switched to [the regime’s] Al Dunya, I would leave the room,” Siham said. “When one of my friends, who had been working against the regime, was killed, I returned home stunned and tormented. My sister, instead of comforting me, said he deserved to die because he worked to destroy the country,” Siham added.

But the story took a dramatic turn after Hind’s boyfriend, who was visiting from Germany, was beaten nearly to death by Syrian soldiers after joining the demonstrations. Hind completely changed her perspective. “She stopped watching Al Dunya and did not leave the room when Al Jazeera was on. She became even more extreme than I am in her loathing for the regime,” Siham said.

This is not just another dispute between Alawi and Sunni Muslims, between religious and secular. Rather, it the kind of tragedy that struck thousands of families in Lebanon during that country’s civil war and provided material for the excellent novels of Lebanese authors Hanan al-Shaykh and Hoda Barakat.

Novels have yet to be written in Syria about the war that is now in its third year, but the media are filled with stories about couples who split up over political disagreements, about fathers who disowned their children for demonstrating against the regime and about marriages based on a shared hatred for President Bashar Assad.

It all comes down to oil

Syria’s social disintegration, compounded by the socioeconomic crisis of the estimated one and a half million refugees who have fled the country and by the sectarian struggle between the rebel forces and the regime, undermine all attempt to find a common denominator that could create a unified leadership.

Last week one of the Internet sites affiliated with the opposition − another term that is hard to define in Syria − published a document illustrating the absurdity of today’s Syria. According to the document, the Assad regime forged an alliance with several leaders of the Free Syrian Army and with Jabhat al-Nusra, the radical Sunni organization that is affiliated with Al-Qaida and which the U.S. administration designates as a terrorist organization − all in order to protect the regime’s oil fields in the Deir Ezzor region and in the Kurdish province of Hassake.

In exchange for a few thousand dollars from Damascus − money that goes to buy arms for the rebel campaign against the regime − the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra promise to leave the oil fields alone.

Another report quotes villagers from Deir Ezzor who say Jabhat al-Nusra fighters seized dozens of oil fields and are battling the Free Syrian Army for control of them.

While the two anti-regime forces were busy fighting each other, meanwhile, the Kurds in Hassake took over oil fields there, parts of which they are selling to the regime for the refineries near Homs. To whom will the rebel forces sell the oil they have commandeered?

Salvation came last week from the direction of the European Union, which in a goodwill gesture lifted certain sanctions on Syrian oil exports. Member states can now buy oil from rebel-held areas. The profits will go toward administrating the liberated provinces and buying weapons. It’s a nice gesture and an important one. But the revenues will also help to fund the Syrian branch of Al-Qaida, which the rebels consider integral to their front an inseparable part of the insurrection organizations and which, through Jabhat al-Nusra, controls the Deir Ezzor oil fields. Will anyone be able to extricate these fields, which produce between 160,000 and 230,000 barrels a day, from these organizations if and when a new regime is created?

The oil export permit is still not benefiting the political opposition, because without a recognized interim Syrian government in place no sales contracts can be signed. For now each organization continues to export “its” oil by tanker, mainly to Turkey.

Ghassan Hitto was chosen in March to head up an interim Syrian government, but he has not yet managed to form a government. After he was picked 12 prominent members left the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition body recognized by Arab and Western countries. The Free Syrian Army, led by Salim Idris, pledged its future allegiance to the new government, but neither Jabhat al-Nusra nor the Kurdish opposition see Hitto as their representative.

The absence of a recognized government in Syria also means there is no destination for foreign funds and arms, or for the initiation of a national reconciliation process. As a result, monies and weapons are being sent, via Lebanon and Iraq’s Kurdish region, in a partisan manner: Saudi Arabia and Qatar each funds its own clients, while private donors from the Gulf states send money to Jabhat al-Nusra.

Syria’s national service

Meanwhile, new Syrian military recruits are creating an alternative type of service in the form of irregular militias that are supported by the regime but whose soldiers do not wear uniforms, are not subject to military hierarchy, do not undergo regular training and whose service duration is flexible. The idea behind the force, whose establishment was motivated by new recruits’ fears of being seen as collaborators in the event of the regime’s collapse, is that the members of these irregular militias will be able to claim that they were not officially drafted and are therefore civilians.

The involvement of Arab states and of Western states that have not decided officially to arm the opposition is itself sowing major discord, with various factions within the military and political opposition attributing their disunity to competition between the foreign entities.

Last week Burhan Ghalioun, the former head of the Syrian National Council − the major opposition body until the Syrian National Coalition supplanted it − called for ending Arab and Western interference in the conflict.

“We cannot liberate ourselves from Assad’s regime unless we free ourselves from being hostage to the superpowers, including friendly states. We took the foreign involvement too lightly because of our great self-confidence,” Ghalioun wrote on his Facebook page. The implication is that in its early days the opposition thought it could unite the ranks and withstand outside pressures.

His call comes too late. No Arab state that has already invested a fortune on Syrian opposition groups would step back now. The dispute over foreign involvement only heightens the difficulty in deciding whether to arm the opposition forces, not to mention determining the appropriate response to any use of chemical weapons.

A Western strike ‏(let alone an Israeli one‏) on Syria could destroy the opposition’s fragile unity without eliminating the chemical weapons stores. It could also lead Assad to use chemical weapons directly and massively. The greater danger is of Russia and Iran galloping into the fray.