• Omar Imady

Whither Syria?

In our new blog series on the Syrian Uprising, we explore the impact of recent military defeats (e.g. the fall of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, Palmyra & Ariha) on the Syrian regime. Scholars affiliated with the Center for Syrian Studies (University of St Andrews) were asked to respond to the following question:

Will recent setbacks serve to facilitate a political resolution, that is, will they make the Assad regime more open to a political settlement, or are we witnessing the beginning of a massive implosion that will make everything we have seen so far pale in comparison?

Last Waltz With Bashar

Francesco Belcastro [fb26@st-andrews.ac.uk]

The first months of 2015 have seen a string of military defeats for the Syrian regime. At the same time the regime has shown unprecedented signs of internal fragmentation, with several top-level officials removed from power amid rumours of conspiracies and even an attempted coup d’état. Finally, a worsening of the manpower shortage increased Al-Asad’s reliance on Iran and Hezbollah. These developments have led several observers to talk about the upcoming collapse of the regime and to speculate on the scenarios that will follow. While these talks might be premature, the regime has shown significant signs of weakness in the last weeks. Are these developments a step closer or a step away from a solution to the conflict? In order to provide an answer to this question, it is necessary to look at a few structural changes beyond the recent events. These changes threaten to expose some existing contradictions in the Western approach to the Syrian civil war and in neighbouring Iraq, and in turn force a rethinking of Western policy.‏

Firstly, the success of Islamist forces on the ground threatens to strain the relations between the USA and its regional allies. Most observers explain the opposition’s recent success in the Idlib area with new levels of cooperation among regional powers opposed to the regime, and particularly the formation of a Saudi-Turkish-Qatari axis (possibly including Jordan). The three powers, previously at odds over which groups to support (and which strategy to pursue) in Syria appear now to have found a strategic compromise. Yet the success of Islamist militias highlights the diverging goals of the USA (and the West) and its regional allies. The KSA and Qatar in particular appear (at this stage) to be committed to toppling the regime regardless of how it is done. On the other hand, Washington still states that “fighting against terrorists” is the first goal of its involvement in the region. The potential for tension here is clear if one thinks that Al-Nusra is a key member of Jaish al-Fatah, the coalition that now controls most of the Idlib province, as well as other parts of the country. Rumours of Turkish pressure on Al-Nusra in order to break with Al-Qaeda should be interpreted as an attempt to make the group more acceptable to Western governments and public opinion. The longer-term plan led by Turkey with blessing (and petrodollars) from the Gulf appears to be unifying the “most acceptable” Islamist groups in an attempt to bolster cooperation on the ground, but also promote Syrian-led groups as a way to balance foreign-led ones. But the question remains- can Washington accept the establishment of an Islamist-led state sponsored by its allies? The answer to this question could depend on a second development.

The second factor to take into account is the on-going negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme. The negotiations and the Syrian civil war are closely connected, and significant developments on one front could dramatically affect the other. It has been said that the US, knowing that its partners in the Gulf are particularly unhappy with the developments on the negotiations’ front, are giving the Saudis and Qataris carte blanche on the Syrian scenario as a sort of compensation. This could change completely in the case of a positive outcome in the negotiations: a change in American-Iranian relations might lead to an earthquake in regional alignments. An easing of the sanctions on Iran in the second half of 2015 would allow Tehran to pour more money in support of its battered Syrian ally, but a more general improvement in American-Iranian relations could see Tehran more willing to work toward a solution for the Syrian crisis.

These two trends, different yet closely connected, underline a fundamental contradiction in Western policy on Syria. Given the (limited) resources committed, the idea of getting rid of the Assad regime while containing Islamist militias is overambitious at best. The recent success of Islamist militias might force the US to pick one battle. At the risk of oversimplifying the problem, if your goal is to eliminate or at least contain ISIS and other Islamist forces, there are two ways to look at it. Either the Assad regime, with its brutality and ineptitude, is the cause of the spread of Islamist forces and therefore has to be eliminated first to tackle the problem. Or the Assad regime, even if largely responsible for the start of the civil war, is the only alternative to Islamist forces on the ground and has to be supported regardless of its terrible record on several levels. The current setbacks of the regime might encourage the US to side with its allies in their attempts to topple Assad rather than tacitly backing it. Or could they force Washington to choose a different approach?

Let us return to the initial question and address the two points together.

Would an implosion (or the toppling) of the Assad regime be a step towards the solution of the crisis? Probably not. For regardless how despicable and cruel the regime is, it is a relatively cohesive unit, and as such easier to deal with. What would come after its collapse? Probably a plethora of militia groups active on the ground, each with different loyalties and goals. The collapse of the regime at this stage would hardly mean a decrease in violence, let alone a step closer towards a solution of the problem. On the other hand, a weakening of the regime might make it more likely to accept a negotiated solution, or might (crucially) strengthen those factions within that are more willing to compromise. Could this, together with an improvement of the relation between the US and Iran, create a window of opportunity for a “piloted transition”? Would other regional actors support such a solution? While it is difficult to imagine the Gulf countries and Iran finding any sort of agreement, Turkey might be more willing to compromise. Ankara has clear economic and political interests in keeping positive relations with Tehran, and reports of a (failed) mediation to avoid an all-out confrontation in the Qalamoun indicate that Turkey is willing to play the mediator role. The current talks in preparation of the next Geneva conference represent an opportunity for the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to test the main actors’ appetite for peace. Any “temporary” solution should include:

1) A “piloted” succession in Damascus, with a time frame including a date for Assad’s departure and the instalment of a transitional figure (perhaps somebody close the regime but less compromised). The string of defeats on the ground together with pressure applied by allies Russia and Iran would be fundamental in reaching this goal.

2) A temporary “freeze” of the fighting in key areas. The creation of “de-facto” borders in areas such as the Idlib-Latakia provincial borders, together with a renewed attempt to impose “local ceasefires” in scenarios such as Aleppo that could at least contain the humanitarian crisis.

3) A new strategy of containment and potential roll-back of ISIS. This would have to include cooperation between the Syrian regime and the Western coalition and an effort by Turkey to reduce the influx of foreign fighters. Crucially, the USA would have to increase the pressure on its allies to curtail the flow of money to Syria: countries such as Kuwait and Qatar have been hiding behind “private funds” and been left free to support questionable groups on the ground.

This would be only a first step towards the solution of the conflict. It might also be argued that it is unlikely to happen. Many observers are convinced that the regime’s structure makes any sort of internal change unlikely, if not impossible. Similarly, the idea of “reasoning with Islamists” could appear to be wishful thinking to many. The key problem here is the one of leverage: are the regional actors involved willing and able to constrain their allies on the ground? Iran in particular has invested a lot in the Ba’thist regime and it might take a good deal to get Tehran to accept to sacrifice Bashar. Similarly, Turkey might be content with the current gains on the ground and unwilling to want to compromise now, or simply unable to coerce the militias on the ground to respect a ceasefire. Yet this unlikely window of opportunity seems to be as realistic as any option on the table at the moment. And perhaps has better chances to represent a first step towards a real solution of the crisis.‏

Palmyra is the Latest Bid

Naomi Ramirez [nao.ramirez@gmail.com]

Once again, some analysts are predicting the proximity of Assad’s fall in light of the recent losses that the regime has suffered in the province of Idlib, and the south. Even in Qalamoun Hizbullah is experiencing setbacks it never would have envisioned only a month ago. Moreover, it seems that the regime’s inner circle could be on the verge of imploding, as evidenced by the chain of “disappearances” explained either by death or sickness. Furthermore, there are various indicators that point to an emerging regional alliance formed by Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and possibly Jordan, all of whom have shown in different ways their willingness to dislodge the Assad family from power. Although it is still unclear how this alliance will materialise, rumours on Jabhat al-Nusra’s imminent announcement of leaving Al-Qaeda (and Golani’s interview in Aljazeera) appear to be part of a strategic push to strengthen support for Jaish al-Fath. Also, Zahran Alloush (who remains the main suspect for the abduction of Razan Zaytoneh and her colleagues) visited Istanbul and made surprising declarations regarding the future of the country.

Against this background, one could argue that the regime is finally ready to negotiate a political solution, whereby Assad is granted a safe exit. However, this might be far more difficult to achieve especially considering the mounting evidence pointing at Assad’s direct responsibility for repression against protesters, illegal arrests, and even massacres which could have him accused of crimes against humanity in the future. In addition, it has been alleged that Bashar’s mother Anise has left the country to Belarus after the killing of some members of the Assad clan. This could be an indicator of Bashar’s possible destination should he be able to arrange his exit from power.

Contrary to such predictions, I believe that the regime remains, as it has been since 2011, adamant more than ever at maintaining its grip on power. In this regard, it has profited from a variety of elements:

1. The takfiri self-fulfilled prophecy:

At the beginning of the revolution in Syria in 2011, Bashar al-Assad insisted that it was the Islamists and Al-Qaeda who had instigated the events in the country as part of an international conspiracy to destabilize Syria. Moreover, according to the regime and Syrian TV ‘footage’ large stockpiles of arms had been found in different mosques. The regime advocated that all these factors required the security forces to stop the advance of the ‘infiltrators’ or else Syria could fall into fitna or a major internal trial/crisis. Consequently, its past sectarian policies turned into real sectarian targeting, fuelling people’s rancor, and eventually giving rise to a more religiously-based discourse. After months (and now years of repression,) this approach could only have paved the way for the dominance of Salafi brigades over the armed struggle that the revolution mutated into. The discovery of Al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria and the later appearance of IS (notwithstanding the regime’s role in that) finally fulfilled the regime’s prophecy that only Assad could preserve stability.

2. IS massacres and atrocities:

Who cannot remember the Al-Houla massacre and its third anniversary just a few days ago? Exactly, Assad has found in IS’ beheadings the perfect ally to help his own acts go un-averted. In Al-Houla almost 150 people’s throats were cut by militias sent by the regime. In Yarmouk, the population had been starving to death for more than two years before IS made its appearance in the camp, only then did the world cry out in protest. In the summer of 2013, hundreds of people died in Al-Ghouta as a result of a chemical attack whose perpetrator can easily be identified when looking at the evidence. Yet, the regime has kept making use of fewer amounts of chemical substances, such as chlorine, and sparking little to no attention, because, when compared to IS and their paraphernalia, it appears as the lesser of two evils, if considered evil at all.

3. The recently renewed interest of Western media:

Since his ‘re-election’ in 2014, Assad has held interviews with different newspapers and TV channels to defend his assertion that he is the only solution for Syria and that he will not leave until the people ask him to do so. Besides that, he has also profited from his media appearances to deny the use of widely documented barrel bombs, and to insist that Syria is a sovereign country, regardless of the decision-making power that has been delegated to Iran in military matters which is reportedly causing discomfort to some sectors of the regime.

It is in this context of the regime’s will to survive that the loss of Palmyra must be addressed. Similar to what Assad did after using chemical weapons in Al-Ghoutta, he has made his latest bid to remain in power by surrendering Palmyra. As opposed to the other losses mentioned above, the winning side in this precise enclave is IS, and not the armed brigades fighting the central government in Damascus.

The expansion of IS, as shown in a map, is visually terrifying: a black mantra over half of Syria. Reality is less shocking: half of that territory is plain desert, begging the question of why they extended their presence up to Tadmor and who allowed it. Nevertheless, Palmyra is not Idlib in the Western and international mind. Regardless of its strategic (un)importance, it is host to one of the world’s most cherished heritage sites and Bashar al-Assad knows that. Therefore, he has made his attempt to regain international support in order to reduce the losses he has suffered in other areas and present himself as the barrier against IS expansion. As a matter of fact, the situation in Palmyra has raised international awareness about the threat this terrorist group poses, not to Syrians or Iraqis –who are the real victims-, but to the whole world and its progeny. Yet, up until the moment of writing, no single stone has been touched in Queen Zenobia’s capital, while tens of people have already been killed and the rest await their destiny or try to escape.

Building on the above, it is difficult to imagine any other end to the Assad regime than implosion or an armed victory by its opponents. The first scenario would be the result of either an increase in internal dissatisfaction, or a total surrender to Iran, especially since it seems to be gaining international leverage as a result of Obama’s push towards reaching a deal on the nuclear issue. The second would be the result of an open battle at different fronts including the capital, Damascus, against the different opposition coalitions, a situation from which IS would profit too, since all fronts left void would be filled by its mantra.

Therefore, despite its efforts, the Assad regime will inevitably collapse, but not before “burning the country”, half of which has already been accomplished. The real challenge for Syrians afterwards is to stop IS’ ‘religious’ fascism, after having dealt for decades with Assad’s allegedly ‘secular’ fascism. That, without falling into fratricidal clashes among the different warlords that are little by little strengthening their power base in order to have a say in Syria’s future (take the example of Zahran Alloush), even if they have symbolically or actually been responsible for the kidnapping of the revolution and have failed to stop IS.

In conclusion, neither can a political solution be foreseen in the near future, nor a precise and unequivocal end to the Assad regime, although it will eventually fall. However, the question remains whether Syria will –if it has not yet- fall as well, especially since theories of territorial division along the lines of religious and ethnic criteria have resurfaced.

Existential Fight or Nihilism?

Stéphane Valter [stephane.valter@gmail.com]

There have been recent reports (from Israeli military sources) that the US is now coordinating their surveillance missions in the Anti-Lebanon mountain with Hizbollah, since both are using drones to gather data about rebel bases, terrorist movements, and the stationing of troops. It thus appears clearly that both have a vested interest, yet for different reasons, in containing jihadist groups. The American concern for Lebanon’s stability, and thus for Israel’s security, radically differs from Hizbollah’s efforts to keep alive the Syrian regime, for regional strategic considerations as well as because the Shiite party-cum-militia seems to be thrown in an existential fight. If the call for general mobilization may further prove that the decisive battle is near, it also points out that many Lebanese Shiites are tired of the Syrian quagmire and contest their leadership’s decisions.

The discreet military coordination with Hizbollah probably suggests that Washington considers the threat that the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-affiliated Victory Front as more menacing than the damage Damascus may cause to Western interests. And it certainly indicates that the Syrian regime’s survival is perceived as being in peril. The recent taking over of Palmyra does indeed imply that Assad’s regime is exhausted.

As far as what may be called the ‘inner circle’ is concerned, it appears that what occurred recently – brawls between high-ranking officers, removal of security advisers, and killing of some of Assad’s relatives – were more likely due to clashes about personal interests than to the definition of a new strategy. It turns out to prove above all that the regime is more corrupted and deliquescent than ever.

The regional scene and its new developments seem to suggest that Middle Eastern countries are now facing two similarly dangerous enemies: the Assad regime which has committed massive crimes against Sunnis (and more generally against humanity) and which is viewed as Iran’s stooge; and IS whose ambitions will lead sooner or later to the redrawing of many other boundaries. Turkey may be the only country that can endeavor to topple President Assad without fearing IS’ expansion (for dubious choices and links).

Finally IS, and necessarily the Victory Front, definitely serve as scarecrows harming what remains of the Syrian ideals, since the Assad regime has regained if not credibility at least some usefulness in the actual tragic game. Other regional parameters certainly play a role in setting stakes and forging alliances, but the sheer reality is that the Syrian security apparatus is running out of manpower. Shiite mercenaries (before from Iraq and Iran, now from Afghanistan and Pakistan) are fighting what they see as a holy war, while indulging in lucrative looting and merciless killing.

The latest news I got from Damascus indicate that the morale is low, even the relatively quiet mixed district of Masakin Berzeh (north of the capital) gives the impression of preparing itself for some turbulences. The most terrible thing is that no political solution is looming. Moderate opponents are marginalised whereas many temperate Alawites only analyse the situation as a Saudi-led attempt to colonise Syria through jihadist proxies.


The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as in way representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies