By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
- This is part of an ongoing series of articles on Syria:
- September, 2009 The American hikers held in Iran
- October 25, 2011, Ambassador Ford’s heroic diplomacy
- August 2, 2012 George Galloway and Syria
- October, 2012, Kofi Annan and Syria
- December 17, 2013 Syria’s Islamist rattlesnakes commit suicide
- August 17, 2014, Nasrallah and Syria
- Nov, 2014, The Golan Druze
- April, 2015 the Iran deal
- July, 2015, Interview with Syrian rebels
- July 8, 2015, Interview with Matthew Schrier who escaped Al-Qaeda
- July 11, 2015 The foreigners fighting ISIS
- October 3, 2015, they arn’t really fighting ISIS
“Our testimony is that it is very clear to us that [Syrian President Bashar Assad] wants to talk,” retired Israeli diplomat Alon Liel told a conference at Netanya Academic College in 2007, according to reports at the time.
Liel, who had been involved in secretive peace talks with Syrian representatives, was reported to have explained he “believes Israel is reluctant to resume peace talks with Syria because the idea of giving up the Golan is unpopular and because it would counter Washington’s policy of trying to isolate Syria.”
It’s a reminder of the good old days in Syria.
If not for the pesky bad people in Washington, DC or stubborn Israelis, Syria would have been a moderate model of utopianism in the Middle East under the benevolent eyes of the Assad family. In 2010, the BBC television program Top Gear even traversed Syria, dressing as Muslims at one point, and making their way over the desert to Palmyra.
After enjoying the country’s historic beauty, being welcomed by locals and traveling to a hotel in the capital, they made their way to Jordan. In those days the US news channel Fox News featured “specials” on the Syrian film industry. Books boasted of the liberalism of the capital and dozens of US and Western universities maintained study abroad programs. Just don’t speak badly of the regime, you’ll be fine.
Ibrahim Soliman, a Syrian-American businessman who had been the point of contact with Israelis for the secretive 2004-2006 discussions about a peace treaty told news web site The Arab Digest in 2012 that his plans for peace were scuppered. “In two or three months we would have had a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, the Golan would have returned.” He claimed that the Golan Heights would have become a “peace park” with Syrian park rangers and open to Israelis and other tourists. “When stability returns to Syria, and the foreigners leave, the Golan Heights will return to the Syrians.” And stability was in crisis because of the meddling outsiders. “Israel supports the Syrian National Council [Syrian rebels] and has an interest in dividing Syria.”
All of the fantasies of wonderful Syria with its peace parks and stability have been dashed since the Arab Spring stoked protests against Assad in 2011. It’s difficult to remember now, but back in August 2011, the Syrian civil war that was brewing seemed to be a neatly defined struggle between the Free Syrian Army, and its political allies in the National Council, and the Assad regime. Although the war was always sectarian, pitting mostly Sunni rebels against the regime that relied on a network of Alawite, Christian, Druse and Shi’ite minorities, by 2013, the opposition had taken on a far more Islamist character with groups like the Islamic Front, Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham and Islamic State, emerging in greater strength. In addition, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have carved out their own region in northeastern Syria.
As the war has dragged on there has been a continual search for a light at the end of the tunnel.
After it was revealed that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons between 2012 and August 2013, the UK and US seemed on the brink of air strikes that might have provided an impetus for his overthrow.
But both countries climbed down from an attack at the last minute when it became clear the elected representatives had no stomach for “another Iraq.”
THE RISE of Islamic State in the summer of 2014 and its massive brutality, slaughtering Beduin tribes, massacring and enslaving the Yazidi and Christian minorities and killing journalists, shifted focus from Assad. Assad’s forces had been responsible for some 200,000 deaths and driving around six million from the country as refugees.
He had invited Hezbollah and Iran to set their militias and fighters up to slaughter Syrians, and yet suddenly he was no longer the bogeyman.
On September 22 the US, along with five Arab states began air strikes in Syria. That coalition against Islamic State has now grown to some 62 countries all fighting Islamic State in one way or another. While the US was flying air strikes against Islamic State, its support for Syrian rebel groups floundered. US Gen. Lloyd Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that only four or five fighters trained by the program were “in the fight.” Not four or five thousand, as the program had envisioned, but four or five people.
As the four or five fighters trained by the US were catching a nap somewhere in northern Syria, a “steady flow” of Russian military equipment was landing in the country’s Latakia province. Mi-24 attack helicopters, the infamous Hind style that were used in Afghanistan and showcased in the US cult classic Red Dawn, were spotted on an airfield over the weekend. Tanks, mobile artillery, armored vehicles and basically a laundry list of what any dictator engaged in a brutal civil war would want, is pouring into Syria from President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These actions have led US Secretary of State John Kerry, fresh from the “victory” of the Iran nuclear deal, to lead discussions with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the future of Syria. The US is still saying Assad should step down, but that the timing of this “stepping down” is negotiable. Perhaps he can “step down” as his father did, dying in office.
In a story that Orwell could have concocted, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu talked with US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday and agreed to “further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria,” according to a Pentagon statement. Deconfliction? In the Orwellian world of NewSpeak, this must mean Russia sends fighter aircraft and massive armaments to Syria to help Assad slaughter more Syrians, and through killing all the Syrians the conflict will end? Let’s not forget the role played by Iran, another country whose nefarious involvement in Syria the US is involved in coddling. The Iran deal itself, which will see the Revolutionary Guard enriched and its involvement in Syria increased, has shown the millions of Syrian refugees that the final nails are in the coffin of their country. Islamic State has become the great excuse for countries to abandon a solution for Syria. Turkey, Iran, Russia, the US coalition – everyone is involved in Syria to “fight Islamic State.” With the major cities devastated and turned into open hulks, with Syria’s antiquities such as Palmyra, destroyed, there isn’t much to go home to, and the empowered Assad regime means they can’t go back. Some fear that the radicalization of the rebel movement means that if Assad falls then a combination of al-Qaida and Islamic State will run the country, but they neglect to note that the longer Assad has stayed in power, the more brutal the war has become and the more Islamist groups have been empowered. It’s a catch-22 and a vicious cycle.
That is why of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians making their way to Europe, many of them are from Aleppo. A city that once contained two and a half million people is now being relocated to Germany. Those refugees are causing a crises in Europe, which reveals once again the impotence of the Western powers. The US can’t train more than five rebels, and EU countries are in crisis mode over thousands of migrants.
There are those who look at the Syrian refugees and say “why don’t you go fight”? For four and a half years they have been fighting. That’s longer than the US fought in the Second World War.
And all they’ve seen is Assad go from strength to strength. Assad and his family are survivors. They slaughtered people before in Homa in 1982, they assassinated the prime minister of Lebanon, they kill Druse sheikhs who step out of line.
They have been willing to sacrifice most of Syria for their own need to cling to power. They have looked on with pleasure as places like Palmyra were destroyed, knowing that the evils of Islamic State would make them seem like the “moderates” who are “fighting terrorism” and preventing a “foreign conspiracy of imperialism and Zionism” from creating “regime change.” The destruction wrought on Syria is unprecedented and in its scope it is fair to conclude, we have seen the end of Syria.