Assad’s Divide and Conquer Strategy in Syria

Divide and conquer is a political-military-economic term policy of maintaining control over one's subordinates or opponents by encouraging dissent between them. We have long read about the divide and conquer strategy of colonialism by the British in India, the French in Africa, and the Israelis in Palestine. Imperialist and reactionary forces have espoused this strategy to control Syria, embedding it in the country’s collective memory.

While it may be true that every leader pursues their own self-interests in their own way, the Assad regime, from father to son, has been the most effective in adhering to the policy of divide and conquer to dominate Syria.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, the regime has continually adhered to this tactic. While the Syrians were chanting " Syrians stand united", the regime found new ways to sow discord between Syrian regions and among people of the same region from different religious sects. The Syrian regime succeeded most of the time due to the unprecedented violence used specifically against members of the Sunni community, and which later facilitated the emergence of extremist groups embracing sectarian rhetoric that further served the regime’s strategy of division.

Some of the most affected regions by the divide and conquer policy were the governorates of Daraa and Suwayda. During the past nine years, the regime exploited every opportunity to trigger feuds among the two governorates. In fact, in most cases, Assad’s regime was responsible for crafting those feuds. This strategy was even used years prior to the start of the revolution to initiate quarrals between the two regions. The events that took place in the Suwayda desert in the year 2000 were named the “Bedouin clashes” by the regime to foster permanent strife that it can control.

Since the beginning of the revolution that started in Daraa and spread to other cities and towns, the regime has used sectarian and religion as a to create a rift between Sunni-majority Daraa, and Druze-majority Suwayda. The Syrian regime set up blockades and military barracks in some areas of Suwayda to launch military attacks against Daraa. And when the Free Army responded, the regime exploited the situation further to incite sectarian and territorial feuds between the two provinces.

Suwayda was involved in the revolution from the beginning and lawyers from the province Suwayda’s free lawyers were renowned for their agility and their support of the revolution. The people of Sawayda helped to protect displaced the residents of Daraa from Al-Assad’s oppression. However, as the revolution evolved, protests significantly declined in As-Suwayda, and residents began taking a neutral approach towards the uprising. It was estimated that more than fifty thousand young men refused to join the military service and the regime forces in the province.

When the Syrian regime failed to significantly penetrate the province, it resorted to bringing in support from Lebanon who tried to establish sectarian militias under the names of the Salman Al-Farsi and Abu Ibrahim's forces. However, the province’s youth rejected and expelled them from Jaramana and Suwayda when they spoke ill of the Syrian revolution.

After Jabhat Al-Nusra attempted to enter Druze villages during the Dama battle (Dama is a village in the Suwayda Governorate) between Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Syrian regime’s forces, in which Sheikh Al-Balaous and young men from Suweyda fought alongside the regime, Balous accused the regime of withdrawing its forces and leaving the As-Suwayda to fight alone.

Subsequently, Al-Balaous turned against the regime and called on young men in Suwayda not to fight alongside the regime and the Iranian militias. Al-Balaous began shifting his rhetoric from a local sectarian one to a national one. As a result, the Syrian regime assassinated him in September 2015.

The Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research and Democratic Republic Studies Center recently published a study that concluded that the Assad regime "used the existence of ISIS in the province of Suwayda to frighten residents of the uncontainable savagery of the terrorist organisation and to quell the protest movements while draining the power of the civil factions.” The study also addressed the coordination between the Syrian regime and ISIS where the former supplied the latter with arms through its militias and smugglers.

In July 2018, ISIS committed a series of terrorist bombings in several areas in the province of Suwayda which claimed the lives of around 250 civilians. During this period, Assad’s regime failed to send forces to deter ISIS and instead sent military planes to bomb the battle lines.

Almost two months before this terrorist attack, under an agreement sponsored by Russia
between ISIS and the Assad regime, Iranians and local Palestinian organizations in the Yarmouk camp, approximately 1,600 ISIS fighters moved from southern Damascus to eastern Suwayda to join hundreds of ISIS fighters in East Suwayda.

Moreover, the Governorates of Daraa and Suwayda recently overcame the sectarian strife which had increased due to kidnapping gangs that operated during the revolution. Those gangs are linked to the Syrian regime and operate under its supervision but there are no attempts to end such acts.

Although Russia has always tried to appear as a mediator that eases tensions whenever there is a dispute between the people of Suwayda and the regime or pro-Russian associates, in reality Moscow has always tried to take control of the strings of discord.

Today, the revolution has regained its life from Suwayda. The youth are out again demanding the disbanding of the regime and saluting the revolutionaries all over Syria. The people of

Suwayda await solidarity from Daraa, Idlib and other Syrian regions. They also waiting for Syrians to come out in support of their demands in a unified spirit. Did the new generation of revolutionaries learn from the mistakes that were made by their predecessors? Will the Syrian regime along with the Russians and Iranians be distracted by the consequences of Caesar’s Law which will impede the use of their divide and conquer policy? Or is the Syrian regime still capable of sowing the divisions it has been feeding on for the past fifty years?

The Syrians must be careful because a leopard cannot change its spots, and Al-Assad grew up wearing his father’s spots.