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Syrian class divisions growing during civil war, helping Assad regime

Syrian rescue workers and citizens gather at the scene of destroyed buildings following reported airstrikes by government forces on the rebel-controlled part of Aleppo's Maadi residential district, on June 21, 2015. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has targeted the economic infrastructure in rebel-held areas in order to advance the case that life is better in government-controlled parts of the country.

Karam Al-Masri/AFP/Getty Images

Syria is dissolving not only along sectarian lines, but also class lines, with a new report warning that the country's economy has collapsed by more than 50 per cent through four years of bloody civil war.

A leading expert on Syria said the class divisions have been intentionally sowed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has targeted the economic infrastructure in rebel-held areas in order to advance the case that life is better in government-controlled parts of the country.

"The class division is huge and becomes more important every day," Joshua Landis, director of the centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The Globe and Mail. He said many middle-class and upper-class Syrians are supporting the regime out of fear of what might come after it. "The lower class is with the rebels, and those who are better off are terrified of these people coming in and taking over their cities because the first thing they'll do is come into their homes and take their cars and televisions."

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Prof. Landis, who spent four years living in Damascus before the civil war erupted in 2011, said the class divide has helped the Assad regime – which is dominated by the minority Alawite sect of Shia Islam – survive despite international sanctions and the loss of swathes of territory to an array of rebel and jihadist groups, the largest of which is the Sunni extremist group known varyingly as Islamic State, ISIL, and ISIS.

The government has lost control of roughly two-thirds of its prewar territory, but much of the area captured by the various rebel factions is desert, or countryside inhabited mostly by the rural poor.

Aleppo, the country's largest city before the war, is a battleground, divided between government forces and an array of rebel groups including both ISIS and the more moderate Free Syrian Army. But the country's other big cities – Damascus, Homs, Latakia and Hama – have remained relatively calm through four years of war, apparently choosing the relative stability of the regime's control to the chaos and extremism they see in rebel-held areas.

"Part of Assad's strategy has been to bomb the crap out of rebel areas and destroy their economy, while he keeps paying salaries and keeps services running in the areas under his control," Prof. Landis said. "The strategy is to make a black-and-white picture … and in some respects it has worked."

Iran has helped keep the Assad regime afloat, Prof. Landis said, by "pumping in a lot of money" to help its ally maintain the appearance of normalcy in government-run areas.

Canada and several Arab states are part of a U.S.-led coalition that is bombing ISIS targets in Syria on a daily basis in an attempt to crush the extremist group in both Syria and neighbouring Iraq. A spokesman for a Syrian Kurdish militia claimed Monday that the air strikes had helped the group make rapid gains against ISIS, pushing towards the eastern city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the self-declared caliphate.

Coalition warplanes do not target regime-controlled areas, nor do they officially co-operate with the Syrian military.

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A report to be published Tuesday by the London-based think tank Chatham House paints a grim picture of the national economy, which it estimates has contracted more than 50 per cent since 2011, though "no statistical analysis can adequately convey the scale of human devastation that the war has wrought." The report says inflation has shot up 51 per cent since the war began, while the Syrian pound has lost more than 80 per cent of its value.

An estimated 3.5 million Syrians have fled the country over the same period, contributing to a growing refugee crisis across the Middle East and, increasingly, the nearby European Union. A third of Syria's remaining population is internally displaced.

The Chatham House report also points to the increasing fragmentation of the country. "A war economy has emerged in which groups such as ISIS, the Kurdish PYD [militia] and rebels in the northwest and south have established autonomous economic spheres," it reads.

Prof. Landis said the international community was exacerbating the situation – and ensuring a continuation of the civil war – by insisting that Syria must remain a single state.

"You've got this de facto partition and this grinding war in the different fronts and everyone is trying to figure out if Assad is going to collapse. Will ISIS take Damascus if he collapses? Or al-Nusra [another jihadist group] and al-Qaeda?" he said. "The strategists are trying to figure this out, but they don't like any of the options they see."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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