By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The last weeks have been momentous in terms of relations between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and the world. One by one leaders have lined up to either praise him, or at the very least list the reasons why “compromise” will mean he stays in power indefinitely. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2013 wanted to bomb the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons, ha softened his position, intimating the “Assad must go”, but claiming that nuance must mean a transition period. Speaking at the UN, US President Barack Obama said that “realism” would mean that the US was willing to work with Russia and Iran to discuss Syria. In a vague and flowery speech that presented no concrete or clear messages, which Obama has become famous for, he claimed “Nations succeed when they pursue an inclusive peace” and claimed that in Syria “We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission; information is strictly controlled, the space for civil society restricted.”
This would be an understatement. Half of the Syrian population has become refugees, either internally or externally, and some 200,000 have been killed, mostly by the Assad regime. One wonders if Obama would say the same thing if 60 million Americans had been forced to flee America and 3 million Americans had been killed in war. Just a bit of narrowing of “civil society”? The fact is that the Assad family, which ruled Syria like its own private family estate, had curtailed all these thing for decades. It didn’t start last year, the Syrian revolution that began with the Arab spring was a response to these crushing of liberties, the crushing didn’t come second.
Russian intervention and its supporters
But the new Middle East, in which Iran and Russia are the paramount powers and the Sunni Arab states are fractured, means new realities. Working with Assad is the new reality. Unlike Obama, Russia’s Vladimir Putin pulled no punches at the UN, claiming Assad was the “legitimate” leader of Syria and that the world must fight ISIS (Daesh) terrorism alongside Assad. “We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad’s Armed Forces and Kurd militia are truly fighting the Islamic State,” he said. Putin mocked the concept that Syria could become a democracy, “and so the export of revolutions, this time of so-called ‘democratic’ ones, continues.”
On September 27 several French MPs crossed into Syria via Lebanon to show their support for Assad. Members of the Socialist party, Gerard Bapt, Christian Hutin and Jerome Lambert expressed support for Assad’s “war on terror” against ISIS. This came on the heels of airstrikes France had carried out against ISIS, “I can tell you that all of the Syrians we met said they were relieved by the fact that France is committed to their side,” Lambert said.
The French Socialist support for Assad is part of a well-spring of left wing support for Assad that is common across the West. It is interesting for pairing some on the left in the West with the radical right in Russia and Iran. Most of this “alliance” uses ISIS as a foil for supporting Assad. It isn’t that we support Assad, they say, it’s that we must work with Assad against ISIS. Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi born Israeli-British scholar, claimed “British ministers keep repeating the mantra that Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution. In truth he is a very large part of the problem but also an indispensable part of any negotiated solution.” Thus Assad must be “included” in a strategy to defeat ISIS. Even the Stop the War Coalition has applauded Russia’s intervention in Syria. “It has come from motivated Hezbollah and Peshmerga troops, reportedly being reinforced by Russian units. The only intervention likely to work in Syria just now is from Moscow.”
It’s not just the radical lefties like Patrick Cockburn (“The UK must realise that a deal with Assad’s army may be unavoidable”) and others who seem to have a support for Assad, in addition the radical right in France, as embodied by Marine Le Pen, has also said that “if Assad falls, Daesh will take power.”
All the countries in the region have adjusted to the new reality: Israel has met with Putin over Syria so as not to have a “misunderstandings” as both countries invade the airspace of Syria. Day by day the Russian air fleet moving into Syria grows. Hind helicopters of the kind once used in Afghanistan are coming, as is other ordinance. Russian navy ships are doing maneuvers. Russia has seen in the Iran deal a blank check to go all-in for the Syria gamble.
The Assad-Russia-Iran alignment is not a new phenomenon, but its recent accolades from world leaders is. In the initial stages of the Syrian revolution it almost seemed as if Assad would fall from power. Losing some 80 percent of the territory of the country (although the area he retained was the heavily populated portion of Syria), the tide was stemmed by crucial intervention by Hezbollah. But even Hezbollah was bled white in battles for Zabadani and elsewhere. Everytime Assad’s forces seemed on the brink of disintegration, something intervened to save him. The Failure of the West to bomb Syria gave him a reprieve. But it was really ISIS that sealed the fate of Syria. The arrival of ISIS and its foreign volunteers (see Peter Oborne’s recent report from Damascus), have become the bogeyman around which the entire world seems to shiver.
The big fat lie: The war on ISIS
One has to be incredulous to accept the theory that 62 countries are fighting ISIS and not able to overcome the terrorist militia. There is no doubt ISIS is brutal and evil. It has committed genocide, it has enslaved women in mass rape. But it’s taste for blood and rape is precisely what makes it weak. As a fighting force it is not particularly good. It has been helped by sandwiching the Syrian rebels between it and the regime. Did the Syrian regime really put everything it had into the fight to keep ISIS away from symbolic places like Palmyra? The regime has held onto Deir az-Zor for years, despite being seemingly surrounded by Daesh. ISIS has been defeated by Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria. So what, really is happening in the “coalition” against ISIS. When Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US, France, and dozens of other countries are “fighting ISIS”, which is more believable, that they are really fighting ISIS fully, or that ISIS is a kind of process to carry out other policies? The US pays lip-service in its fight on ISIS, but it has been revealed that it has exaggerated its accomplishments. One reports notes that the year-old war on ISIS includes such things as: “One airstrike struck an ISIL tactical unit and destroyed an ISIL cache, three ISIL fighting positions and one ISIL motorcycle.” Here a “fighting position” is destroyed, or one vehicle, or a “fighting position.” The war on ISIS is not a total war, it is a series of pinpoint strikes much like the Clinton administration carried out on al-Qaeda in the 1990s, that do nothing to retard ISIS abilities. They are for show at Pentagon briefings, not part of a real strategy to defeat ISIS.
The “war against ISIS” is so obviously contrived, because how can it be possible that all the countries that fought on both sides of the Second World War in Europe can all be fighting ISIS and can’t defeat it? The US policy in Syria is in tatters and the policy on ISIS is only part of it. A multi-million dollar US program to train Syrian rebels resulted in only five or six men ending up in the field. The rebels promptly gave their equipment to the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda branch.
What is particularly fascinating is how the war on ISIS has made the “war on terror” cool again. When George W. Bush launched a war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11 it was widely ridiculed. Many news organizations, such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC, stopped using the word “terrorism”, claiming it was too political. Instead those who blow up mosques, or cut off the heads of children, all became “militants” and “extremists.” But now, with Assad fighting a “war on terror”, the concept of “terrorism” is back in vogue. Basking in the limelight from the Iran Deal, which has brought Iran back into the fold in the West and will bring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard which is fighting alongside Assad billions in trade dollars, Hassan Rouhani did the tour of talkshows and events in New York in the lead up to the UN General Assembly. “Perhaps political reform is needed. However, is that today’s priority? We believe that it’s driving out the terrorists,” he told NPR. The world must “fight terror” in Syria he has boasted and claimed that Syria must not be allowed to become a “terrorist state.”
These days in the West the Putins and Rouhanis are adored and accepted, seen as good because they are the “other” and not the bad “western imperialist.” Russian intervention is acceptable and palatable, Western involvement is meddling. When Assad fights terrorism it is terrorism, when the US fights terrorism, it is actually fighting “militants.” The same Europe that looks askance at Syrian refugees, driven out by Assad by the millions, has now come to accept Assad’s rule. Russia and Iran have read the western mind well, they know the US and the EU are good at making statements and paying lip-service, but will accommodate whatever facts on the ground dictate in Syria. The arrival of the Russian air force has thus been accepted quietly. There is no read line in the “war on ISIS,” if five million more Syrians have to be driven out, whole cities turned into rubble, it’s all in the name of “fighting terror” and it is acceptable. No need to sugarcoat “humanitarian intervention” as the West did in the balkans, the West accepts muscular intervention when others do it, it just can’t be brought to do it itself.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the lone voices that were the most adamantly opposed to Assad, have come around slowly to his remaining in power. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu went to the UN seemingly with the same message in the past: Assad must go.
“We have the conviction that with al-Assad in charge during the transition period, that transition period would no longer be transitory. We believe that this situation would turn into a permanent status quo. Our conviction on this matter hasn’t changed,” he declared. But hidden in the message was discussion of letting Syrians choose, which will never happen. In the wake of the Iran deal Turkey decided to solidify it’s relations with the US, granting them use of an airbase, and turned its attention to the PKK after the Kurdish HDP party won more than 10% of the vote in elections. Launching a war against the PKK Turkey claimed it was fighting a “war on ISIS.” It even spoke about “buffer zones” and safe zones for Syrian rebels in Syria. But the fact was that like other countries “fighting ISIS,” it realized ISIS was a convenient scapegoat to pursue politics by other means inside Turkey. So the AKP called elections for November and set about attacking the Kurds in order to weaken them in the run-up to the elections. What has Turkey done against ISIS? Bomb some motorcycles, perhaps, like the US.
Assad is here to stay
Barring some unforeseen event in which Assad is assassinated or falls down some stairs, he will remain in power. There are many countries now too invested in him to allow him to fall. It is fascinating turn of events as I’ve written about over the years (see ‘Robert Ford’s Heroic Diplomacy (2011)’; ‘Galloway’s gaffe‘ (2012); ‘Syria’s Rattlesnakes commit suicide‘ (2013); ‘Nasrallah’s Dangerous Game‘ (2014); ‘The end of Syria (2015)’). To watch a leader everyone thought was surely down for the count, re-emerge after four years of brutal war is fascinating, as it is tragic. The Un Secretary General still wants Syria at the ICC, but there is little chance of that.
Assad has sold himself as the shield against Sunni Jihadist terror and chaos. This was his main selling point since the time of his father. Hafez Assad had crushed the Islamist rebellion in Hama, killing thousands. His son thinks the same way but has not been as successful. Over the years the Assads got their claws in the Left in the West by pretending they were not only “socialists” but also that they were “fighting imperialism and Zionism.” The reality was that as a minority Alawite regime, “fighting Zionism” was the only thing they could burnish their credentials with to keep the Arab states from penning their overthrow. So they “fought Zionism”, by doing nothing against it, but paying lip-service to the “resistance” of Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which had offices and friends in Damascus, but were kept on a short leash. Over the years the Assad also played a double game, warning the US against Iranian “influence” while being a conduit for that influence. He didn’t want to be swallowed by the Ayatollahs, which his regime now has been. The irony of seeing the bearded theocrats of Nasrallah and Khamanei alongside Assad and Putin on billboards almost requires the willing suspension of disbelief.
But the relationship of convenient makes sense. The arrival of ISIS and chaos in Iraq have brought Iran to the heights of its power, perhaps since the Sasanian empire, 1,800 years ago. Russia wanted a way back into the Middle East. It had seemingly picked losing horses over the years and its influence had dwindled. How sad Russia said in 2011-2013 as it had to evacuate its citizens by the thousands from Syria. But the shift of the Obama administration to harmonize with Iran presented an opening. With Turkey focused on the PKK, Saudi tied up in Yemen, here was the opportunity. ISIS became the sort of genie, rub the ISIS bottle and out comes the answer to all your problems. What does Iran want? More involvement in Iraq. ISIS shall provide. Turkey needs new elections? ISIS shall provide. Assad must claim to be fighting terror, not slaughtering Syria’s people? ISIS will deliver. France wants to do something in Syria? ISIS shall provide. Of course ISIS is a real threat, but one that could have been dispatched a year ago with a real muscular policy to do so while strengthening the Syrian rebels. Instead it became the envelop that each regime could put a stamp on “we fought ISIS,” and never actually send the letter.
But the letter has arrived. It reads: Iran and Russia get Syria, we get Assad.