Ola Rifai - University of St Andrews, https://twitter.com/olarifai
A number of international and regional developments have emerged during the last couple of months and might have some direct implications on the Syrian drama. In June, Turkish and Jordanian officials were speaking to the media about their governments’ serious plans of setting up buffer zones inside Syria that would protect their national security, minimise the fighting zone, and more importantly provide a safe haven for some moderate militias. By late July, Iran, a major player on the ground and a vital supporter of the Assad regime, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) with the P5+1 which paves Iran’s way on to the international arena as a partner rather than a punished adversary. A partner who is capable, though might not be willing, of swinging the balance in the opposition’s favour. Indeed, such developments could be interpreted as good signs toward a political solution to end the Syrian conflict. This is not to say that June and July witnessed any progress on the ground, instead, violence and sectarian and ethnic polarisation have been escalating. Sunni militias repeatedly targeted Kafraya and Fw’aa (villages in the suburb of Idlib dominated by Shi'ites) in response to the regime and Hezbollah shelling of Zabadani (southwest of Syria), and thousands of Arabs were driven out by Kurdish ethnic cleansing in the northwest of the country. In mid-July, a leader in Ahrar al-Sham militia (Salafi militia at odds with ISIS) was killed in a double suicide bombing near Idlib, shortly after he announced the group’s determination to fight ISIS which celebrated its first birthday on June 29 while beheading secular activists. Nevertheless, one could argue that such incidents took place during the ongoing war, though on a different scale, and hence they do not mark any remarkable change. Yet, there seems to be an emerging element on the ground which might indicate a watershed in the conflict. It’s the widening in the ‘grey category’ of Syrian people. This grey category is used to dub Syrians who neither support the regime nor the opposition. The terms, al-fy’a al-ramadyyiah ‘the grey category’ and al-ramadyyin ‘the grey people’ were coined by Syrians since the onset of the uprising in 2011 (which turned into an armed struggle for power). At first, the grey category consisted of Syrians who although conceive the regime as a dictatorship, they did not support the uprising out of fear of chaos, violence and retaliation. Those mainly were apolitical urban Syrians from the middle and upper class. A typical answer for the ‘grey people’ when asked about their stances vis-à-vis the uprising: ‘we are neither with these [in the opposition] nor those [in the regime]’. Remarkably, the grey category expanded with the escalation of the violence, the sectarianisation of the conflict, the failure of the political opposition and the radicalisation of the military one. It included some anti-Assad Syrians, mostly secular and highly educated, who were disappointed by all these factors. As a former member of an opposition party put it: "I am of course against the Assad regime but no opposition faction represents me, and hence I have chosen to withdraw’."
Interestingly, with the acceleration of the conflict there seems to be an extraordinary expansion in the grey category. An expansion that this time included loyalists of the Assad regime as well as anti-Assad Syrians in rural areas whom at some point were the incubator environment for radical militias. Currently, corruption, destruction, violence, the rise of ISIS, the growth of mercenary mafias and the deterioration of the financial situation and humanitarian crisis have provoked many opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime to de-radicalise their stands and lean more towards the grey category. For some who have an anti-Assad stand in rural areas, which are under the control of various Islamist militias, bad governing and corruption has triggered them to oppose these militias. As an elderly man in the suburb of Homs put it “they [the regime and the various militias] are worse than each other”. In this light, some Syrians who were loyal to the Assad regime are now questioning its capabilities to safeguard the country after losing ground to ISIS and other militias. Arwa, a 32 year-old loyal to Assad supporter says “... the regime could not protect Syrian land, it’s now controlling less than half of the Syrian territory […] there is corruption and betrayals inside the regime. We, surely, do not support the militias but we do not support a regime that surrounded cities in our country, today it is the turn for Raqa, Palmyra and Idlib. Tomorrow it might be Tartus, who knows”.