Sectarianism as Plan B: Saudi-Iranian identity politics in the Syria conflict

By Christopher Phillips, The Foreign Policy Centre

Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011, each sponsoring rival sides. Both have utilised sectarian identity politics to further their goals and both have contributed to the growth of violence along sectarian lines. This has led to a characterisation by many that both are sectarian actors that immediately reach for identity politics as a tool of influence. However, a closer examination of the Syrian case would challenge this. Drawing on research by myself and Morten Valbjorn that examines the relationship between Syrian fighting groups and their external sponsors, this article argues that in Syria identity politics was not the immediate policy pursued by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.[1] Instead, sponsoring sectarian actors was a plan B after backing other, more inclusive actors failed. This suggests a degree of pragmatism from both governments, rather than being driven exclusively by sectarian zeal.

The Syrian conflict is often characterised as sectarian, but this is one strand of several driving the civil war.[2] There has been variation across Syria and over the course of the conflict. In some areas, the war has been driven more by political, economic and international factors than sectarianism. That said, an identity component has often been present, with violence, sexual assault and looting taking place along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have contributed to this. Saudi Arabia has sent arms and money to overtly sectarian Sunni Islamist fighters. Its government turned a blind eye for the first few years of the war to private Saudi donors sending money to radical Sunni groups, and it did little to clamp down on its sectarian preachers appearing on satellite television watched in Syria.

Iran’s sectarian activity was even more pronounced. From 2012 it sent Islamist Shi’a militia to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad, with up to 8,000 fighters from its Lebanese ally Hizballah and 12,000 Afghani and Pakistani fighters present by 2017. It sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force officers, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, to direct the war effort and retrain Syria’s military. Several of these retrained units were based around sectarian identities, as were the non-governmental pro-Assad militia they encouraged. The presence of Shi’a militia in the Syria conflict, many with an explicitly anti-Sunni agenda, helped to radicalise anti-Assad fighters, who were overwhelmingly Sunni, and further sectarianized the conflict.

However, it is important to note that turning to sectarian fighters was neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia’s first reaction, and their policies evolved from the failure of earlier options. Riyadh, initially sponsored moderates among those who took up arms against Assad. From early 2012 Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syria Army (FSA), which had a national Syrian rather than a Sunni sectarian focus, even though most were Sunni Muslims. Unlike other sponsors of the opposition like Qatar and Turkey who turned to more Islamist and sectarian fighters earlier, Saudi Arabia feared Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred the mostly secular former army officers of the FSA.

It was only after the FSA proved unable to defeat Assad and its fighters started joining more radical Islamist groups that Riyadh looked for alternatives. It eventually backed the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam in Damascus in late 2013, led by Zahran Alloush whose father was an imam in Saudi Arabia. This connection also led to it briefly backing the mostly Islamist Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Idlib in 2015. Both included Sunni sectarianists. However, it encouraged Alloush and his successors to moderate their slogans.[3] This suggests that Saudi Arabia was pragmatic enough to recognise that ultra-sectarian actors would struggle to win in multi-faith Syria and must compromise. Moreover, Saudi did not abandon the FSA completely and maintained its sponsorship of the Southern Front, a south Syria FSA militia until 2017 at the same time. This shows a degree of expediency from Riyadh. It turned to Alloush in desperation, when plan A of backing the FSA failed. Yet even then it stuck with the southern FSA in the hope it would still triumph.

Iran was also more nuanced, turning to sectarian actors only after others failed. Tehran first sent weapons and advisers to help Assad’s army, the nominally inclusive Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Though its elite units were dominated by members of Assad’s Shi’a-linked Alawi sect, it was no sectarian institution, boasting Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawis and Christians in its ranks and utilising inclusive national symbols and slogans. However, the SAA performed poorly in the first year of the war, prompting Iran to send Suleimani to Damascus to salvage the situation. Within a few weeks, the Quds force commander reportedly stated, “The Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of Basij [the IRGC’s paramilitary force] and I could conquer the whole country!”[4] Soon Suleimani turned to Hizballah and other Shi’a militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to Syria. Having trained many of them himself, especially in Iraq during the post-2003 campaign against the US, Suleimani saw such sectarian actors as more dependable than the SAA.

Yet, as with the Saudis, this suggests a pragmatic rather than an exclusively sectarian motivation. These militias were utilised for their reliability and fighting ability rather than purely ideological reasons. Moreover, Iran used these groups to supplement rather than replace Assad’s national forces and the SAA continued to receive support. Indeed, when the Iranians reorganised Syria’s paramilitary forces in 2013 they gave it a national rather than sectarian name: The National Defence Forces (NDF). While the NDF did include sectarian militia, it retained a deliberately national character. Again, expediency may have driven this. Shi’as make up barely 1-2% of Syria’s population, and Alawis are barely 12%. Were Iran to encourage a purely sectarian chauvinistic discourse, they would have isolated key Christian, Druze and Sunni constituents that continued to back Assad.[5] Unlike in Iraq, where over 60% of the population is Shi’a, demographics in Syria were not in Suleimani’s favour. Even had he wanted to adopt a sectarian approach from the beginning, it would have been counter-productive.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, therefore, were not as sectarian as often characterised in their sponsorship of fighting groups in the Syrian civil war. Though both would eventually turn to sectarian militia, each did this only after their first option, more inclusive national-focused fighters, failed. Yet each continued to sponsor national groups alongside these sectarian actors, possibly recognising the impracticality of backing only exclusionary actors in a multi-faith country. In both cases, governments often portrayed as arch-sectarian actors showed a considerable degree of pragmatism and expediency.

[1] Chris Phillips and Morten Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 29 (3), 414-433

[2] G. Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia–Sunni Divide. Brookings, SD: Saban Center for Middle East Policy Paper. April 10, 2013.

[3] Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’

[4] Dexter Filkins, ‘The shadow commander’, The New Yorker, September 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

[5] Chris. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International rivalry in the New Middle East, 2016, London: Yale University Press, pp. 50-53.

Advertisements

Hezbollah: The real winner of the Syrian war?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 1 November 2018

In hindsight, it was obvious why Hezbollah entered the Syrian war. President Bashar al-Assad’s potential fall was an existential threat that would cut its supply lines with Iran and, though Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was initially reluctant, fighters were dispatched from 2012 onwards.

Today, it’s clear that Hezbollah’s involvement was one of several key interventions that helped to save Assad, but what has it meant for the Lebanese movement? Is the “Party of God” stronger or struggling after six years of war?

Alongside Assad’s survival, Hezbollah has seen several benefits for its involvement in Syria. Three stand out: improved military experience, enhanced military equipment and personnel, and expanded regional clout.

Urban warfare

In terms of military experience, the conflict was quite unlike the wars fought with Israel since the 1980s, forcing Hezbollah to adapt and learn new skills. It now has experience in urban warfare, fighting inside enemy territory, working with air support, and collaborating with non-Hezbollah groups, including major state militaries, such as Russia, and non-Arabic speakers, such as Afghani and Pakistani Shia militias.

In terms of military equipment, Iran has used the war to massively increase Hezbollah’s stockpiles, which now include guided missiles, unmanned armed drones, short-range ballistic missiles and anti-tank missiles. In terms of numbers, it now has approximately 130,000 rockets and missiles, compared with 15,000 on the eve of the 2006 war.

As for personnel, to fight in Syria, Hezbollah had to massively increase its recruitment. It expanded its recruiting pool by relaxing previously strict ideological and age requirements. This has given it a permanent “army” of 20,000 fighters, alongside tens of thousands more Lebanese reservists and allied Syrian proxy militia.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has also been boosted, now having a presence in Iraq and Yemen, as well as Syria. Up to 500 Hezbollah specialists have been sent to Iraq since 2014 to train the Hashd al-Shaabi against the Islamic State and others, while Nasrallah plays a regular mediating role between Iraqi Shia factions.

An unknown number of Hezbollah operatives have also been sent to Yemen to train Houthi fighters, while Hezbollah now has direct relations with Russia, at both an operational and political level. The result is a transformed Hezbollah: it entered Syria as a local Lebanese movement, but it is now a significant regional armed player.

Domestic consequences

Yet, there have been costs. The death count has been high. Analysts believe Hezbollah has lost between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters in Syria – up to 10 percent of its fighters, including high-quality commanders and veterans of the 1990s and 2006 Israel wars.

There have been grumblings about the high casualty figures among Hezbollah’s Lebanese popular base, and a conscious effort to seek more recruits from Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa-Hermel region rather than the more traditional strongholds of the south and southern Beirut to partly limit this fallout.

There have been other domestic consequences, too. In 2013-14,  jihadists, sympathetic to the anti-Assad opposition, launched attacks on Hezbollah and mainly Shia-populated areas in Lebanon. This was ultimately overcome through military campaigns and domestic politicking. Indeed, today, Hezbollah looks strong in Lebanon.

Its allies are in government, including President Michel Aoun, while its long-term rival, the March 14 Alliance, has fractured and its leader, Saad Hariri, is weak and acquiescent.

Other consequences of the Syrian war for Hezbollah, however, remain unresolved. The war has been expensive. Combined with new sanctions on its ally and main benefactor Iran, the Party of God is struggling to pay the increased salaries and pensions demanded by its rising list of recruits and casualties. It has already had to cut back on some of the essential services it provides to its poor popular base. While this alone won’t turn the population on Hezbollah, it may impact the group’s long-term appeal.

More pressing are concerns that Israel may launch a significant attack to counter Hezbollah’s growing power. Any future war would be far more destructive to both Israel and Lebanon than in 2006, and this has thus far deterred both sides – but an accidental outbreak is always possible, especially given recent tensions over Hezbollah’s presence in the Syrian Golan Heights.

Russia’s presence in Syria as a possible mediator may calm the situation, and thus far, Israel has launched tens of attacks in Syria without provoking a significant escalation on either side. However, fine lines are being walked.

Emerging more powerful

Finally, it is unclear what Hezbollah’s future will be in Syria itself. The movement’s leaders have said they will withdraw once a political settlement is agreed, and there has been a recent reduction in numbers as violence has diminished. Perhaps fearful of losing any more precious fighters, Hezbollah has shifted from a combat role to training Syrian proxies and pro-Iranian Afghani and Pakistani forces.

That said, Hezbollah seems to be establishing a permanent presence in key strategic places such as Qusayr, Qalamoun and Sayyeda Zeinab. Moreover, given how close Lebanon is, it can easily send combat troops over should Assad or Iran need them for future assaults on Idlib or the Eastern Euphrates.

While it has proven itself a loyal and valuable ally over the course of the Syrian conflict, its leadership is probably conscious that it cannot sustain heavy combat losses indefinitely, and will hope it can keep numbers to a minimum as the war moves forward.

On balance, Hezbollah has emerged from the Syrian conflict well. It is now a far more powerful, well-trained regional power than it was before the war. However, it is still limited financially and in terms of recruits, and may quietly be hoping that the Syrian war can end soon and that a new conflict with Israel can be avoided so that it can consolidate its newly improved position.

Idlib’s fate looks more likely to be decided in Moscow than in Ankara

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 30 August 2018

Last year, four de-escalation zones in western Syria were agreed under Russian orchestration, with international guarantors to effectively freeze the conflict between the forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels.

Since then, helped by Russian assistance and Western indifference, Assad has discarded the agreements, using violence and reconciliation to force three zones back under his control. Now, government troops, alongside Iranian-backed Shia militias, have gathered on the borders of the last remaining rebel-held province, Idlib, in the northwest.

Leaflet drops urging fighters and civilians to reconcile with the government portend an imminent assault. But Idlib is larger, more populous and more complex than the other reconquered zones, making its recapture far from straightforward.

Seven-year rebellion

Assad has long stated his intention to recapture “every inch” of Syria lost during the seven-year rebellion against his rule, and he recognises that the longer areas remain beyond his reach, the harder it will be to reintegrate them.

Large swathes of the north and east remain out of his control, but Idlib is the logical priority. It lacks a significant foreign military presence, unlike the US-protected east and Turkish-controlled north. It is the last part of the more densely populated west – sometimes disparagingly referred to as “useful Syria” – that Assad has yet to regain.

Idlib is also home to essential infrastructure, notably the M4 and M5 highways that connect Aleppo to Latakia and Damascus. For the war-ravaged Syrian economy to recover, these roads need to reopen, and with them, eventual through-trade with Turkey and Jordan.

Yet any assault carries risks. Parts of Idlib province are mountainous and could prove difficult to conquer, with claims that up to 70,000 fighters await Assad’s forces. At least 2.5 million civilians now live there, many evacuated after the government took other rebel areas, raising the prospect of another refugee crisis.

However, when Assad reconquered the south in the summer, displacing 330,000 civilians, Western leaders were muted in their condemnation, and the Syrian president may feel he has a free hand. Western governments are already ambivalent about Idlib’s rebels. Their support for moderate fighters has ended, while humanitarian schemes are being wound down.

Meanwhile, they classify Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the al-Qaeda linked militia that dominates Idlib, as a terrorist group and may privately welcome its destruction, provided the humanitarian costs remain low.

Idlib’s de-escalation zone

The main obstacle to Assad’s attack is therefore not Western governments, but Turkey, the guarantor of Idlib’s de-escalation zone. Having effectively given up on regime change in Damascus, Ankara’s focus in Syria is now on three areas: eastern Syria, where it wants to prevent an autonomous Kurdish enclave; northern Syria, which is under effective Turkish occupation; and Idlib.

While the latter is probably the lowest priority, it remains important. Turkey had feared that Idlib’s collapse might allow its Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) enemies to grab further territory, but this threat was removed when Turkey routed the Kurds in Afrin in early 2018. Since then, Turkey’s priority has been stability in Idlib, wanting both HTS fighters and the potential 2.5 million refugees to stay in Syria, not cross into Turkey.

To achieve this, Turkey has sought hegemony over the last rebel province, seeking to unite the various rebel factions, reaching out to HTS and building 12 observation posts manned by a small number of Turkish troops to deter any Assad encroachment.

This has had some success. Several rebel factions have united, while a large number have joined the Turkish-trained “National Army”. Some observers also see a degree of moderation from HTS as a result of Turkish outreach, though the group remains fiercely independent: Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, its leader, recently stated that he did not expect Turkish protection from Assad.

He may be right. For all of Turkey’s dominance, Idlib’s fate looks more likely to be decided in Moscow than Ankara. Turkey has discussed the rebel province with Russia frequently since the south fell, but Moscow, whose Khmeimim airbase has faced occasional HTS attacks from Idlib, seems increasingly in favour of an assault.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds most of the cards. Turkey’s incursions into Syria, in both the north and Idlib, came with Moscow’s permission, and Russia has not allowed Ankara to extend air cover. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is especially vulnerable now due to economic weakness, and Moscow could tighten essential financial screws should he obstruct any attack on Idlib.

Attacks on key towns

Yet, Putin values his relationship with Erdogan, and may be reluctant to humiliate the Turkish president. To square the circle, Moscow may urge Assad to limit this round of fighting. Attacks on the key towns along the M5 and M4 routes – Maarrat al-Numan, Saraqib and Jisr al-Shughur – would give Assad control of the key highways, while bypassing Idlib city. The government could grab key infrastructural links without pushing refugees and HTS fighters from the provincial capital into Turkey.

Were such an agreement reached, Turkey’s observation posts may be quietly bypassed and then abandoned, with Assad stopping short of Idlib city. Putin and Erdogan are due to meet in Iran in early September, a scheduled summit that suggests the assault, if it begins before then, could be smaller than expected.

Yet, if Assad and his Iranian allies are persuaded by Russia to limit their attack, it will not settle the issue. Assad wants to reconquer all of Syria and will not accept Idlib – nor for that matter, northern and eastern Syria – remaining permanently out of his control.

While he has cut deals and reconciliation agreements elsewhere and may be seeking something similar with the eastern Kurds, few expect a compromise with HTS and the remaining Idlib rebels.

Russian-Turkish deals may limit this showdown for now, but it will come eventually, and with it a costly humanitarian crisis.

The World Abetted Assad’s Victory in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Atlantic, 4 August 2018

After more than seven years of a civil war that has left half of Syria’s population displaced, cities reduced to rubble, and over 500,000 killed, President Bashar al-Assad appears to be on the brink of victory. In July, units loyal to Assad recaptured Deraa, where the peaceful protests that turned into a violent rebellion against him first began in 2011. The recapture came as Assad conquered the south, one of the last rebel holdouts.

The war is far from over, with the Kurdish east and rebel-held Idlib still out of regime hands, and any victory may prove pyrrhic given the devastation wrought. Even so, it now seems Assad is going nowhere. The Syrian dictator has outlasted Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron—Western leaders who once expected his fall “within months.”

How did Assad survive? Some observers grew optimistic about the regime’s impending collapse as the Arab Spring saw neighboring autocrats fall. Yet incumbents have a massive advantage in armed rebellions, and most insurgencies since World War II have been defeated. Assad’s internal and external opponents did put serious pressure on his regime, to the extent that at several points internal collapse seemed possible. But Assad’s survival was no accident: There are clear domestic and external causes. The regime used cynical and brutal tactics to maintain key backing at home, while abroad it had steadfast allies and reluctant and incompetent enemies.

Syria’s own institutions helped Assad withstand the pressures of protest and war. Notably, the security services remained loyal. There was no anti-Assad coup. Though individual soldiers defected once fighting started, these came from non-elite conscript units and without heavy equipment. Casualties and defections saw Assad’s army shrink from 325,000 to 125,000 in four years, but many fled instead of fighting back, and the rebels rarely numbered more than 50,000.

Beyond the military, the most high-profile defections came in 2012 when Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard general, Riad Hijab, the prime minister, and Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, all fled. These figures were prominent, but had no real power. Those holding actual influence—the security chiefs, top military figures, and industry leaders—doubled down behind Assad.

This was primarily because Assad had inherited a coup-proofed regime from his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez packed security positions and elite units with loyalists, many of them fellow Alawis, a traditionally marginalized sect that made up 10-12 percent of the population. They were persuaded that the Assads were their best route to security and privilege. In the civil war, vital military units were dominated by Alawis, and Assad’s close relatives in particular. In 2011, among the most powerful security chiefs were the president’s brother, brother-in-law, and cousin. Syria’s leading security and military institutions were tightly bound to the fate of the president.

Second, Assad was able to retain the active or implicit support of key segments of the Syrian population. One ploy was a deliberate manipulation of sectarian identity. Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad won support from Alawis, Christians (8 percent of the population), and Druze (3 percent), as well as many secularists within the 65 percent who were Sunni Arabs. They did this by presenting themselves as secular defenders of religious pluralism. As soon as unrest broke out in 2011, Assad falsely characterized protesters as violent, intolerant Islamists, and government posters appeared warning of sectarian divisions. Eventually, this worked. Early protests were diverse, but over time Alawis, Christians, and other minorities stayed away. They and many secular Sunnis remained neutral or fell behind Assad.

Material levers were also pulled. Assad’s economic policies helped cause the rebellion, which was strongest in neglected rural areas and among young people facing 25 percent unemployment. Yet the state still provided 20-30 percent of jobs, and some feared losing a paycheck. Indeed, Assad cleverly continued to pay and even raise state salaries throughout the war (despite bad inflation), including in areas out of his control. The middle classes who had benefitted from Assad’s policies were also slow to abandon him. While some in rebellious Homs funded the opposition, in wealthier Aleppo and Damascus they largely remained quiet.

There was also genuine ideological support for Assad. From the beginning, Assad insisted the rebellion was an externally orchestrated plot and, after a lifetime of absorbing propaganda, some believed him. Others feared political instability. The regime cynically cultivated supporters by introducing a sliver of reform, such as a new constitution. While his opponents rightly dismissed such “concessions” as meaningless, to supporters they were important.

Another key ploy was a campaign of intimidation. Oppositionists claimed that the “wall of fear” had been broken by their protests, but that was wishful thinking. Many were scarred by memories of the last rebellion against an Assad, when Hafez massacred at least 10,000 in Hama in 1982. The post-2011 repression was an amplified imitation of that. While many bravely risked their lives, others were evidently deterred.

Then there was the regime’s successful effort to divide, delegitimize, and radicalize the opposition. The protesters that emerged in 2011 threatened Assad’s dictatorship because they formed a peaceful, grassroots, democratic movement. The government preferred to crush them rather than reform, yet it recognized that the population would not stomach unjustified violence. So, it concocted a legitimizing narrative: It portrayed the oppositionists as violent, foreign, sectarian Islamists.

Having constructed its false narrative, the regime set about making it real. Peaceful organizers were specifically targeted, and by July 2011, 8,000 peoplehad been detained, facing torture, sexual assault, and humiliation. Of those who were lucky enough to be released (over 75,000 were “disappeared”), many either fled abroad or became radicalized. When the opposition ultimately shifted to a violent struggle, many of the nonviolent activists who might have resisted were in prison, exiled, or dead.

Meanwhile, the regime deliberately released jihadists from prison in the hope they would radicalize the opposition and confirm Assad’s claims it was violently Islamist. The leaders of two significant Islamist militias—Hassan Aboud of Ahrar as-Sham and Zahran Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam—were both in Assad’s prisons in early 2011. Future ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra fighters were their cellmates. The regime later prioritized the fight against moderate opponents while leaving embryonic ISIS largely unharmed. This was partly pragmatic, as ISIS was in the peripheral east while other rebels threatened the western heartlands, but it was also strategic. Just as Assad targeted the non-violent opponents to ensure the rebellion turned violent, he focused on moderate armed rebels in the hope that only jihadists and his regime would be left for Syrians and the world to choose from.


Had there been no external involvement, these domestic ploys might have been enough for Assad to survive. But the uprising quickly became internationalized. Western governments called on Assad to stand aside in August 2011, and imposed sanctions. Regional governments led by Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia cut ties. Soon Assad’s foreign enemies were sponsoring his political opponents and aiding the armed rebels. Yet this was dwarfed by aid from the regime’s allies, Iran and Russia.

Assad’s friends consistently gave more than his enemies, providing vital political, economic, and military support. Russia used its UN Security Council veto 12 times to protect Assad from Western resolutions. Moscow and Tehran gave vital economic lifelines to offset the impact of sanctions and war. Russia, for example, printed Syrian bank notes to circumvent EU sanctions while Iran agreed to $4.6 billion in loans to Syria, which paid for weapons and salaries and kept the struggling state functioning.

Both governments also provided key military assistance. Iran initially sent weapons and advisers but increased its role after several Assad defeats in 2012-2013. It deployed foreign Shia militias, including Hezbollah, and reorganized Syria’s forces. Russia also offered arms early on, and intervened directly with its air force in 2015, when Assad looked vulnerable. This is what ultimately turned the tide, allowing Assad to retake key regions from the rebels and ISIS. Vladimir Putin consequently became the key powerbroker, striking deals with Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. to freeze the conflict with the rebels. However, these proved worthless when Assad broke the ceasefires in 2018—with Putin’s support.

Meanwhile, the political opposition’s foreign allies only exacerbated its ideological and tactical divisions. Foreign governments favored emigres over internal activists when they sponsored governments in exile such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). Turkey and Qatar empowered Islamists within these bodies, notably the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This drew ire from Saudi Arabia, which loathed the Brotherhood, and prompted Qatari- and Saudi-backed factionalism within the opposition. That ultimately caused the first president of the SOC to resign after only a few months. Such internal divisions were a gift to the regime.

Similarly, external powers weakened the armed opposition. Militias mostly formed locally, and attempts to unite them under a national command structure had mixed results. Ideological differences, particularly over the role of Islamism, further split the fighters. Secular and moderate Islamists were marginalized by hardliners such as Ahrar as-Sham, Jaysh al-IslamJabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. This also alienated the Kurds (10 percent of the population), long oppressed by the Assads but largely secular, prompting them to become a neutral third force opposed to Assad, the rebels, and, later, ISIS. The rebels’ external allies fed these trends. Qatar claimed to support only the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s militias, but actually backed a range of fighters, many Islamist. Turkey preferred groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and later sponsored Ahrar as-Sham. Saudi Arabia, which also initially preferred the FSA, ended up backing the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam. For several years the Gulf states also did little to prevent private Islamist donations heading to Syria. Foreign sponsors were therefore encouraging opposition militia to compete for external funds rather than unify. And few discouraged the shift toward radicalization.

 

It’s possible more decisive Western intervention might have toppled the regime, but Barack Obama prioritized other concerns over Assad’s defeat. The U.S. backed the rebels from the start, and the CIA oversaw arming efforts. Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus argued that the U.S. should step up its role by vetting, training, and equipping moderate rebels, yet Obama rejected this, believing it wouldn’t tip the balance and fearing the weapons would end up with jihadists. He had cause for concern. The trend toward radicalization (with Assad’s help) was well underway, while U.S. sponsorship of rebels in Libya had not prevented Qatar and others backing radical groups. Later in the war, when the U.S. did initiate a train-and-equip program, some of the fighters it armed were robbed by jihadists, while others sold their weapons. Whether he was right or wrong, Obama prioritized the fight against jihadism over that against Assad.

A similar prioritization was seen when it came to direct U.S. intervention. Obama had threatened Assad that using or moving his substantial chemical-weapons stockpile would mean crossing a red line. Yet when Assad allegedly gassed rebels in Ghouta in 2013, Obama pulled back from a proposed strike, preferring a Russian-brokered deal to remove the arsenal. Although a U.S. strike might have deterred Assad from further attacks or debilitated his forces sufficiently to allow a rebel victory, Obama was conscious of the risks. He had toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, leading to chaos, not stability, and feared the same in Syria. However, a year later Obama did initiate strikes in Syriaagainst ISIS, after they captured Mosul. The fight against jihadism once again trumped the fight over Assad.

By the time Donald Trump came to office, Assad’s position was arguably already secure. Moreover, Trump’s focus in Syria was fighting ISIS, continuing Obama’s policies of backing Kurdish forces on the ground and largely ignoring Assad’s reconquest in the rebel-held west. While he did strike Assad twice after further use of chemical weapons, his priority seemed to be showing he was stronger than Obama rather than damaging the regime. His closeness to Russia also contributed to relative complicity, to the point of doing nothing to prevent Assad from retaking Deraa, even though it was located in a ceasefire zone that Trump himself had guaranteed in 2017. Despite seemingly wanting to be the anti-Obama, Trump continued his predecessors’ policy of prioritizing other issues over Assad’s defeat, enabling his survival.

From the outside, Assad’s victory looks like no victory at all. He is king of the ashes, overlooking a distraught country from his presidential palace. He has yet to conquer vast swathes of territory and faces ongoing terrorist attacks from jihadist sleeper cells. He must rebuild a heavily indebted, struggling economy, with a shrunken population shorn of much of its technical and intellectual skill. He is reliant on two powerful foreign allies, Russia and Iran, who have infiltrated state institutions and the economy and wield huge influence. He must placate the millions of loyal Syrians who have sacrificed their blood and treasure to keep him on his throne.

Yet to Assad and his inner circle, who have been playing a long game, it must seem these problems can still be surmounted, even if it takes decades. For them, the war was about survival, and in this sense they have won. Their own cynicism and ruthlessness at home combined with decisive assistance from abroad (whether intentional or not) has allowed them to remain in power. It was brutal and inhumane but, from their perspective, it worked. That is a chilling lesson for other dictators.

Will the south be Syria’s next battlefield?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 19 June 2018

Syria’s army has recently built up its presence in the south, calling on the remaining rebels there to surrender or face a new assault. While some may accept reconciliation, the majority have already declined, and Syria’s previously quiet southern front will likely be awoken imminently.

Few give the rebels much chance. The grim tactic of heavy government and Russian bombardment – followed by a ground assault to force opposition enclaves into accepting evacuation, seen recently in Damascus – is expected again.

President Bashar al-Assad’s desire to reconquer the south requires little explanation. Having cleared Damascus of the last rebel forces, Assad is keen to claim victory and project normality at home and abroad. While swaths of eastern and northern Syria remain in enemy hands, the south is the last significant holdout close to the capital.

The role of Israel

Syria’s rebellion began in the southern city of Deraa, and its full recapture would prove symbolically valuable. There is also an important economic component: The rebels hold Syria’s border crossings into Jordan. Their conquest would greatly boost Jordanian-Syrian trade and, consequently, the ailing economy.

The impetus for the assault, however, comes from outside. Russia is rumoured to have agreed with neighbouring Israel to permit Assad to re-enter the south on the condition that no Iranian-backed militia, including Hezbollah, are present.

Israel has happily seen Assad and his allies distracted by civil war for years, intervening only occasionally. However, with Assad now looking secure, Israel fears the prospect of a permanent Iranian/Hezbollah presence in Syria, especially along the occupied Golan Heights. Assad’s recent successes have therefore come alongside a sharp increase in Israeli-Iranian hostility, including a May rocket attack on the Golan followed by a massive Israeli retaliation on Iranian targets deep inside Syria.

Any Russian-mediated plan may reduce tensions. It won’t keep Hezbollah and Iran out of Syria, as Israel ultimately desires, but in theory, it means that the Israeli army would only face Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, not in the Golan Heights.

Ironically, the Syrian army will act as a buffer between Israel and Iran, with Israel less fearful of Assad and believing Russia can reign him in. Some rebel commanders have claimed that Iran will still get around this by dressing its militia in Syrian army uniforms. However, should this be proven to happen, Israel will likely have Russia’s blessing to retaliate.

Russia and Iran

The agreement would mark the latest shift between Assad’s two patrons. Both Russia and Iran are committed to keeping Assad in power, likely to remain in Syria for some time and unlikely to turn on one another, despite what some fantasists in Washington hope.

But their interests are aligned, not identical, and Israel is arguably the greatest area of divergence. While Iran hopes to maintain pressure on its enemy, Russia sees mediation with Israel as one indicator that its involvement in Syria has transformed it into a regional heavyweight to rival the US.

The recent US decision to ditch the nuclear deal and sanction Iran has had the byproduct of strengthening Moscow’s hand vis-a-vis Tehran in Syria. Iran is now on the defensive, giving Russia increasing primacy. An agreement that sees Moscow persuade Assad to push Iranian and Hezbollah forces away from the Golan would confirm this shift.

The US itself has remained quiet on the prospect of any forthcoming southern assault. The US is a guarantor to the 2017 “de-escalation zone” truce, one of the few agreements on Syria made by President Donald Trump, alongside Russia and Jordan, and not a hangover from the Obama administration.

In the past, US diplomats might have been alarmed at the reputational damage of allowing their security guarantees to be violated so blatantly. Yet Trump has shown only fleeting interest in Syria – limited to headline-grabbing missile strikes – and is not expected to fuss over the assault, especially given its endorsement by his Israeli allies. Indeed, it is rumoured that the US will soon dismantle its only military presence in the south at al-Tanf, provided Iranian forces remain out. This would further boost Assad, as it would open another border crossing, this time with Iraq.

Cross-border trade with Jordan

A final external player quietly supporting the assault is Jordan, another guarantor of the de-escalation zone agreement. Jordan publicly opposes Assad but has recently softened, with a trade delegation visiting Damascus in May.

Some suspect Amman is courting Iran, in light of recent coldness from its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and the US. The reality is likely more motivated by Jordan’s precarious domestic situation, with public anger growing over its failing economy. King Abdullah has sympathy for the southern rebels – who are among the most moderate in Syria’s opposition, and some of whom have family ties to northern Jordanians – but also recognises the need for the conflict to end.

Like Syria, Jordan would benefit from a resumption of cross-border trade. In addition, the pacification of the south might allow some of the 700,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, seen to be straining the economy, to return home. A quick but successful campaign by Assad that didn’t push more refugees into Jordan would be quietly welcomed.

The international forces opposing Assad’s advance south are thus dissipating. All gain something from a Syrian army advance. Even Iran, if forced to retreat as a condition for the attack, would not oppose its ally reconquering rebel territory, perhaps believing it could seek redress in the future.

Inevitable outcome?

As has so often been the case in the Syria conflict, Assad’s domestic opponents have been sacrificed by their international allies for wider regional priorities.

Questions remain over how quickly Assad will be able to advance, and whether he will prioritise an advance eastwards for the Jordanian border posts, or westwards to secure the Golan while Israel is seemingly acquiescent. Urban fighting for the rebel-held parts of Deraa may also take longer than anticipated.

However, the eventual outcome seems inevitable: Abandoned by their allies, the rebels’ days in southern Syria appear numbered.

Syria’s war: Trump’s chemical dilemma

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 13 April 2018

At first, it appeared straightforward for Donald Trump. After President Bashar al-Assad reportedly used chemical weapons against civilians in the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma, Trump belligerently stated the next day that he would respond within 48 hours.

Having launched a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airbase the last time he believed Assad had used chemical weapons in April 2017, many expected further military strikes, especially after the US president tweeted on Wednesday to “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming.”

The question of evidence

Yet the 48-hour deadline came and passed. Despite consultations with the leaders of Britain and France, Trump appeared to roll back on Thursday, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Defense Secretary James Mattis, meanwhile, appealed for more time and warned of the situation, “escalating out of control”.

The Trump administration, it would seem, has discovered the reality that the Syria situation is far from straightforward and faces a dilemma on how to proceed.

Firstly, there is the question of evidence. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he has proof Assad was behind the attack, but the US says it is still gathering evidence. While there is some nervousness in Western capitals over launching military action without sufficient grounds following the 2003 Iraq debacle, in this instance the search for evidence is more likely a stalling tactic.

In April 2017, Trump launched the Tomahawk strike within 72 hours of the alleged attack, long before there was definitive proof that Assad was responsible.

Given his response a year ago, and his recent tweet in which he described Assad as an “animal,” Trump clearly believes the Syrian president is willing and able to launch chemical attacks, and hasn’t felt the need to wait for conclusive evidence in the past.

If conclusive evidence isn’t really the obstacle, what is? One dilemma is what any missile strike would achieve. Despite pleading from Syrian oppositionists and their supporters, Trump and Western leaders in general have shown little real interest in protecting civilians in Syria – who have been killed far more by conventional weapons than chemical ones – nor in trying to shift the balance of power to help end the war.

Trump’s dilemmas

Any assault is therefore being proposed primarily to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and deterring Assad from doing so again. But how to do this?

Presuming Assad’s guilt, the April 2017 Tomahawk strikes did not sufficiently deter him, so whatever follows now must be greater. Some have proposed destroying Assad’s air force and suspected chemical weapon dumps.

But what if this doesn’t work? Both can be replaced and what if more chemical attacks occur? By acting now, the Trump administration knows it will be committing to acting in ever greater ways in the future if Assad calls the US bluff.

The second, greater dilemma, is how Assad’s ally, Russia would react. A Western strike on Syria will bring some cost to Moscow, compelling it to replace destroyed Syrian hardware, damaging its prestige if its air defences are easily breached, or, in the worst outcome for Trump, if Russian troops and equipment themselves are hit.

The scale of the strike will likely determine Russia’s reaction, but the White House will be aware that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself far more committed than Western actors over the course of Syria’s seven-year conflict. He might react by targeting the numerous US-led bases in Kurdish-controlled Eastern Syria, in which case Washington would struggle not to respond.

This is just the kind of escalation that Mattis is concerned about. Faced with such an undesirable outcome, Trump’s wobble on whether to strike Assad in the first place becomes clearer.

A ‘sweet spot’

Thrown into this conundrum are Trump’s own personal views. He seems obsessed with avoiding the path taken by Barack Obama, appearing weak on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, hence his strike in April 2017. Assad has now openly defied him and exposed the ineffectiveness of that earlier deterrent, so his instincts could be to attack.

On the other hand, he has also expressed a desire to avoid further involvement in Syria, stating recently he wanted US troops to withdraw, and he is loath to confront Putin, both of which could occur as the result of further strikes.

Trump’s White House will probably seek out a “sweet spot”: a level of military strikes that sufficiently deters Assad without provoking a reaction from Putin. Yet finding such a delicate position may prove difficult for an administration that has shown itself thus far to be anything but.

In the meantime, the longer any strikes are delayed, the more Assad and Russia will be prepared. For them and the long-suffering Syrian people, the war continues, with or without chemical weapons. A Western strike might temporarily impact the conflict, but few believe it will be a blow that Assad and his allies can’t absorb and overcome.

Syria’s war is far from over

By Christopher Phillips in Middle East Eye, 10 January 2018

The year 2017 was a good one for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic State’s (IS) “caliphate” was largely destroyed, squeezed by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on one side and by the American-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

Assad’s mainstream rebel opponents were largely abandoned by their external backers and pummelled by his allies, leaving them in isolated pockets, divided and politically marginalised.

His position will likely be further boosted by the upcoming Russian-led “peace congress” in Sochi in late January, in which Moscow hopes to broker a deal that will bring in some Kurdish and opposition elements while ultimately leaving Assad in control.

However, even if Russia can reach some kind of viable agreement, many opposition groups are likely to remain excluded. Moreover, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have been far from conciliatory over the past six years of war and few would be surprised if any agreement was ultimately undermined or ignored.

Far from over

Indeed, it seems likely that whatever happens in Sochi, Syria’s war is far from over. The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018, even if Assad’s position is secure.

Firstly, Assad and his allies appear committed to militarily defeating the remnants of the rebels. The rebels, including a sizeable Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) presence, currently hold four main territories: Idlib province, Rastan near Homs, some suburbs around Damascus (notably Eastern Ghouta) and an area along the Jordanian and Israeli border in the south.

While these were declared “de-escalation zones” last year in Moscow-led agreements, in reality Assad, Iran and Russia have frequently broken these ceasefires. The truces allowed forces loyal to Assad a respite to direct their forces eastward as IS collapsed, reclaiming former “caliphate” territory and denying it to the US-aligned SDF.

Now that IS is largely gone, Assad and his allies are directing their elite troops back on the rebels.

Already January has begun with the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib, with the apparent goal to cleave from the rebels the less populated eastern part of the province around Abu ad Duhur. This may be the preamble to a government push on Idlib city, though much will depend on whether Russia can obtain tacit agreement from Turkey, who would likely receive many refugees from the province, currently estimated to have a population of two million.

With the dominant force in Idlib being HTS, viewed as terrorists by Russia, the US and Turkey, and most of the other rebel groups there reluctant to engage at Sochi, correctly seeing it as submission to Assad, conflict at some point seems inevitable.

Capturing ‘every inch’

A similar fate probably awaits the other rebel pockets. Some, perhaps Rastan and parts of the south, may be persuaded to compromise with Assad, either via Sochi or later deals. But Assad, confident in his position, will likely target Eastern Ghouta in Damascus militarily, being the source of the last remaining rocket attacks on the capital.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 417,000 Syrians remain living in besieged areas, the majority of them in the Ghouta region. Any military campaigns in Idlib and Ghouta then would likely be violent, take a heavy toll on lives and create yet more refugees.

Secondly, beyond the continued conflict with the rebels, the future relationship between Assad and the Kurds remains uncertain and could descend into violence. At present the SDF and Syrian government forces face each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates, while retaining isolated pockets in each other’s territory.

As long as the US patrols its skies, alongside 3,000 American special forces and 10 bases on the ground, the SDF will feel relatively secure from Assad, whose stated goal is to eventually recapture “every inch” of Syria.

However, despite assurances from the Pentagon of a prolonged US presence, the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, Washington’s recent unwillingness to prevent the fall of Kirkuk and the US’s historical tendency to sell out Kurdish interests has led many Syrian Kurds to be wary.

Assad and the Kurds

Consequently some expect the PYD, the Kurdish force that dominates the SDF and is attending Sochi in an unofficial capacity, to cut a deal with Assad via Russia. Surrendering the Arab-majority lands along the Euphrates in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas along the Turkish-Syrian border is one mooted option.

US forces would presumably have to leave all of Syria in such a scenario. However, even were Assad to accept such an agreement – and he has shown himself far from compliant to Russian requests in the past – his long-term commitment to it would remain questionable.

The PYD, being Kurdish nationalists, pose an ideological threat that Assad will not allow to thrive in northern Syria.

The Syrian government will most likely seek to undermine Kurdish autonomy, either through political machinations or violent re-conquest (possibly with Turkish acquiescence), once the PYD’s external backers have all left.

Finally, alongside the violence coming from within Syria is that from the outside. IS’s caliphate may have been defeated but its followers, both old and new, remain in Iraq and Syria and could yet set off low-level attacks and possibly even a renewed campaign.

Turkey remains sceptical of the PYD’s presence, being affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK, along its border, and could yet move against outlying redoubts such as Afrin in Syria’s north.

Similarly Israel fears the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the war and has already stepped up its attacks against military convoys in 2017. The long-awaited next round of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict may this time be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Assad therefore may have reasons to be cheerful, having survived the civil war launched to topple him. Whatever happens in Sochi this month, the Syrian dictator looks likely to remain as president. Yet the suffering for Syrians is far from over, and the conflict will evolve and continue in 2018 and possibly beyond.

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.