By Ethan Abbott – @eth_abbott
Roy Murray Contributed to this article
Prior to the beginning of the crisis in Syria, in January 2011, Assad gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal. During this interview, he described the events that were unfolding in the Arab World at the time as a “new era” in the Middle East that would force Arab rulers to accommodate their people’s rising political and economic aspirations. Mr. Assad talked in length about desperation in Arab societies. Yet he did not make the slightest mention of the “conspiracy” that was brewing against them. Soon, it was February 2011, and protests erupted in central Damascus after a policeman was caught beating a citizen. Over two thousand Damascenes chanted: “The Syrian people cannot be humiliated”. They refrained from mentioning the regime or the president at that time. Pronto, the Interior Minister at that time appeared amongst the crowds and promised to punish the policeman responsible; he sweet-talked the Damascenes, quickly deflating the tension.
Not long after that, protests erupted in Daraa after reports emerged that the intelligence services (“mukhabarat”) had arrested children accused of writing anti-regime graffiti. In the aftermath, officials did not follow the same technique as their counterparts in Damascus. Rather, the Intelligence head decided to intimidate the locals who appealed to him. Discontent grew into unrest, and the events started to spiral out of control. Assad needed to intervene by the end of March 2011 – The scale of the tensions was such that only the President himself was able to deflate them. Assad made a public appearance in Parliament, laughed at the events, and labeled them as a foreign conspiracy. To a rapturous applause, he also vowed to fight his enemies – it was the spark.
Syria’s rapid descend into chaos came as a surprise not only to Assad, but also to the West. Very few expected Syria to be next in line after Libya. Despite the fact that Assad appeared as though he worked hard to nominate himself next after Gaddafi by taking an anomalous stance on Libya; despite the fact the West had disdain for Assad since his hostile stance towards them in Iraq, Western powers weren’t ready to completely rule him out as a potential partner. Until his stance towards the events in Syria became obvious, the Americans still harbored hopes that they could forge a reasonable understanding with Assad. They hoped he could abandon what they perceived as a rogue stance, taking a more mature approach towards the West that would defuse much of the polarization of the Middle East. Such arrangement would have surely been in the interest of the Syrian people. Avoiding the sanctions, and opening up the country, it would have brought much relief to the situation of many Syrians. However, since the Syrian regime had long ensured its survival by portraying itself as the last bastion against Western Imperialism, this deal would have meant a slow, but inevitable sleep-walk into a permanent demise for the regime.
Nevertheless, one would assume that such a deal should not have been alien to Bashar; at least it wasn’t for this father. Hafez Al-Assad came to power in 1970, on the back of the “Black September” events. At the time, Defense Minister Assad refused to militarily support the Palestinians in Jordan. Hence, the Syrian troops already deployed there by the commander in chief sustained heavy losses. Just when Hafez was about to be punished by the Baath party for his insubordination, he led a coup and seized power; what is widely known as the ‘corrective movement’ in Syria. Hafez’s actions were looked upon positively by the Americans and he was seen in good light. After the 1973 war, for three decades, Hafez maintained a truce with Israel, whereby he would talk war but make peace. Further, in 1991, Hafez capitalized on Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait by sending an entire Syrian Army division to provide moral support for the Americans. This turned out to be one of his smartest moves; for his efforts, Hafez received a free hand in Lebanon.
On the other hand, Bashar did not recognize his father’s modus operandi, which stipulated selective positive action towards the West. But it is only odd – particularly in the case of Bashar – not to appreciate the importance of maintaining rational ties with West. He just simply could not have ignored that; after the death of Hafez, there was much uncertainty in Syria, until Madeleine Albright appeared in Hafez’s funeral, taking a public walk with Bashar, and reinforcing Washington’s endorsement of the would be President. This was quickly followed by endorsements from the international community, giving young Bashar the confidence and authority to step into his father’s chair. He did not reciprocate, making his first and most costly mistake in 2003.
Following the invasion of Iraq, instead of taking the lead in stabilizing Iraq and the region, Assad facilitated the growth of Islamists in Syria, and their mobilization to Iraq where they brought much pain to the American troops. In fact, he ended up, almost openly, hosting jihadist training camps. These were tough times that the Americans found difficult to forget; the bitter taste they left made it impossible to forgive either. Assad further cemented his reputation by turning from a “partner” of Iran, which his father was, to a “client of Iran”. He also transformed Hezbollah from a proxy tool into a full blown political entity from which he was inseparable. The alarm bells were now ringing in Washington.
The reality is that Bashar and Hafez, despite acting differently, both strived to project equal contempt towards the West. However, the difference is that Hafez acted rationally on the international stage, appeasing the West just enough to keep them content. Bashar, on the other hand, did not inherit his father’s statesmanship; instead, he went rogue. This would come to haunt him later.
It was no surprise then that the events of March 2011 were seized upon by the West as an opportunity to neutralize what they perceived as a fast evolving rogue state in the Middle East. The West began by sending multiple warning messages to Bashar, affording him far more precious time than they did for Mubarak et al. Many found it incredible to hear Hilary Clinton saying the following as late as March 27, 2011:
“There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”
Despite sounding conciliatory, this was becoming last chance saloon for Bashar. Indeed, this statement was followed by a number of months of “final warnings” that Assad “may start” to “may soon” to “will” lose legitimacy. All the while his brutal crackdown was in full force.
Labeling the events as a foreign conspiracy, and refusing to acknowledge the deficit in his rule, Assad took things personally and proceeded with his crackdown. Defying everyone, and everything, he quickly grew into International isolation, becoming ever more dependent on Iran. Thence, as his foes took up arms, and the conflict was militarized, Assad’s survival mechanism became the constant financial and military backing of Iran.
But this was all new to Syria, to Syrian citizens, and to the Syrian Army; Iran had never historically been a guardian, mentor, or sponsor of Syria. In truth, the Syrian social fabric and cultural texture shares no affinity with that of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This cannot be more evident than in this BBC video report from the 50’s in Syria. Throughout this report, it is obvious that Syrians lean more towards openness with the West, yet their only fear was what they perceived as the existential threat emanating from Israel. The video makes it clear that Syria wasn’t a fertile region for “rogue”, extremist ideologies. Rather, it was a place of moderation. Further, it tells us that Syria always had a tendency to connect with the West. The Iranian adoption of Syria was done – by force – for the first time under Bashar.
Over the past decade, Iran came to be known by the West as a threat to stability in the Middle East, particularly with the ever-growing concerns over its nuclear programme. In fact, just a few years ago, it was easy to identify the single most worrisome threat for the West – Iran. Today, however, the calculus is different. With the rise of the Islamic State, the West is being helplessly dragged into a choice of the lesser evil between two devils. On the one hand, a fascist ideology – ISIS – that wants to eradicate all those who do not subscribe to its doctrine; on another hand, a state actor – Iran – that is pursuing an aggressive project for regional and international hegemony through a sophisticated network of foreign proxies. This is the choice between “Iranianism” and an extreme manifestation of “Islamism” – The Islamic State.
But, it should not be viewed as such. The reality is that by weakening one of the two “devils”, the West will be empowering the other – a disastrous outcome for them. Equally flawed, is the idea of propping up, and strengthening, existing authoritarian regimes in the region to counter both threats. In reality, promoting regressive regimes, be it dictatorships or monarchies, is the root cause of the hopelessness and deprivation which precipitated this crises in the first place. Indeed, it is paramount for the international community to stop the fascist, genocidal project of the Islamic State. However, the alternative does not have to be Iran; nor does it have to be propped up repressive regimes such as the Saudi and likes. Instead, the alternative can be Russia. Before frowning upon such thought, one must not underestimate or marginalize Russia’s ability to deflate crises in the Middle East. Contrary to common perception by some, it has good relations with almost every country in the region. From Saudi to Iran, and from Syria to Egypt to Israel, despite taking a clear side in the region’s conflicts, Russia has managed to keep everyone marginally satisfied.
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill stated: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”. Stretching the events onto today’s dynamics, a fascist actor such as ISIS should be combated at any cost. It is hence time to re-evaluate Russia’s role in stopping the slowly unfolding train crash that is the Middle East. One only needs to look back eleven months for a vivid example.
Just hours away from American air strikes, Russia brokered the chemical weapons deal that averted what could have spiraled into an incessant war on an international scale. The deal did not compromise America’s objectives; in fact, it achieved for America and allies far more than what Obama could have achieved with air strikes. The Russians proved their ability to deliver. Such approach can undoubtedly be replicated and applied to a more complex deal at present. We know very well, from history, that Assad would inevitably succumb to Russia’s will. More than ever before, Assad now depends on Putin for political, financial, and military survival. Further, Assad knows that he can’t stall against the Security Council, a member of which is Russia. For example, Assad obliged when the Security Council asked him to leave Lebanon, and when Russia asked him to drop his chemical weapons arsenal, proving that Assad understands exactly the importance and sensitivity of Security Council resolutions. Assad may not know, however, that he cannot be rehabilitated in the international community, regardless of the situation on the ground, and regardless of the outcome of negotiations with Iran. Hence, there is scope for Russia to friendly-force Assad out of office in return for future immunity and other guarantees which can be discussed in time. Nevertheless, after being hoodwinked in Libya, they will require certain guarantees about their interests in Syria, for the present and future. These will ultimately be the price for a diplomatic solution in Syria.
The failure of Geneva talks earlier this year wasn’t because of the wide gap between the Syrian protagonists; we always knew that such a huge gap existed. Rather, their failure was due to the irreconcilable differences between world powers which weren’t addressed prior to the talks; hence, they were doomed to failure in the absence of an international deal brokered ahead of the talks.
The West can craft a deal with Russia that would be the nucleus to stabilizing the Middle East. This deal would be mutually beneficial. On the one hand, Russia would satisfy its national security concerns by maintaining the Syrian Army as a long term partner. On the other hand, the West would be guaranteed that Syria is neutralized from being an Iranian satellite and a sponsor of terrorist organizations. The West understands the value of maintaining the Syrian army as guarantor for stability. Indeed, David Cameron made an important statement at the 2013 G8 Summit in Belfast, where he stated that the future of the Syrian military and Security forces would be guaranteed if Assad went.
On a national level, such a deal would afford legitimacy to a transitional Syrian leadership, enabling Syria to embark on a “Second Republic” whereby they can elect their own parliament, and appoint a transitional government on the basis of unanimous consensus amongst national parties and the international community. Such government would thence focus on stabilizing the country, affording the needs of deprived areas, enabling the return of refugees, and embarking on a state wide national reconciliation agenda. Rebels and military defectors would be integrated into the army through a systematic and transparent disarming, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process, forming a solid force against extremism. Thus, the institutions of the state can be maintained, and the Syrian Arab Army can be utilized as the most effective force against the Islamic State; after all, three years into the war, it is the most well trained, and combat ready force in the region vis-à-vis insurgent warfare.
Time is of the essence, and it is paramount that Syria is stabilized as soon as possible. Against time, there is an ongoing process of “Shia’tisation” transcending the Syrian Army, the significance of which cannot be underestimated. Power is being shifted from regular forces to militias such as the National Defense Force (NDF), under the direct command of Iranian generals. Interrupting this process is essential in saving the institutional nature of the Syrian Army. Further, the army is going through significant transformations that need to be addressed. Since the inception of the crisis in 2011, the structure of Syrian Army has been continuously damaged with incremental loss of the chain of command. The result was that whilst the chain of command below him was being systematically destroyed, Assad took a higher position in power. Hence, replacing Assad and ensuring the continuity of the Syrian Army as a unit would require a leader of Assad’s statute. Given the absence of such a personality on the Syrian scene, a military council can assume command, comprising of a number of personalities whose collective volume matches Assad’s.
This cannot be achieved by employing force as that would create a sudden vacuum with inevitable infighting within state ranks. Rather, it can be achieved within the scope of an internationally brokered agreement by world powers. Advocating an alternative solution whereby the West builds a new “national army from moderates” is indeed no more than a fantasy as was recently described by Barack Obama. These “novo-armies” were put to the test, most recently in Iraq, and were subject to embarrassing failure, if not ridicule. Nor is the notion that vetting rebels is a viable solution whereby moderate, nationalist brigades can then be turned into state actors and form a national army. Recent events have proven that absence of religious fundamentalism is not the exclusive pre-requisite for creating reliable, professional forces. Ultimately, they could behave in a rogue manner regardless. One day, a group of nationalist rebels backed by a superpower more than likely took down a civil aircraft using an advanced SAM system supplied by their patron. Indeed, those pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine are nationalists, yet they went rogue, doing exactly what the whole world feared would happen in Syria with advanced weapons “falling into the wrong hands”. Building a national army cannot be achieved overnight by following a ready recipe; there is an essential element of history in it that cannot be bypassed.
Employing a “Stabilized Syria” with substantial armed forces as a reliable partner brings with it other advantages too. The West should be able to capitalize on such partnership and neutralize the “Islamic State” in Eastern Syria, in addition to Northern Iraq. The latter is quite important, as the West is withholding advanced weaponry from the Iraqi army in order to extract concessions from Iran, such as the replacement of Maliki. But, this shouldn’t be very relevant. Regardless of what becomes of Maliki, it is inevitable that Iraq will always have a Shi’ite government. Extending this fact, whether we like it or not, this will inevitably give Iran a certain degree of leverage. At worst, complete dominance, such as in the case of Maliki, and at best, some partial degree of dominance if he was replaced with a more moderate figure. Nevertheless, Iraq is, to an extent, an Iranian satellite state. But Syria is a different case; Syrian doesn’t have to be an Iranian satellite state as its social fabric is distinctly different.
Nonetheless, if Iran were to be given the upper hand (in Syria) in order to neutralize the Islamic State, the result would be complete Iranian hegemony of the region. On the other hand, if ISIS, as a subsequence to inaction, was allowed to evolve and keep the Iranians busy, it can lead to disastrous unintended consequences, such as the extension of their escapades into vital Western interest in the region (think GCC, Jordan). Hence, stabilizing Syria and rehabilitating the Syrian Military strikes the right balance; it creates a long term sustainable partnership in the region that bears no Islamist nature and has the ability to combat terrorism, all the while driving Syria away from Iranian hegemony
Although time is running out, it must be emphasized that there is still a small window of opportunity to engineer events in such a way that they evolve into an outcome that is conducive to everyone’s interests. The mistakes of the last three years do not have to destine the aspirations of the Syrian people into terminal failure; there is still a chance. Churchill – again – once said: “It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required”.