How do you solve a problem like Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 24 May 2021

Western leaders face a problem: what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Despite their condemnation of his brutality during the decade-long Syrian civil war, including calling for his departure, imposing economic sanctions and militarily backing his opponents, the Syrian dictator remains in power.

His continued survival has exposed the hollowness of western condemnation, with leaders unwilling throughout the conflict to match rhetoric with sufficient action to topple Assad’s regime.

But the Assad problem isn’t going away. With Russian and Iranian support, he has recaptured two-thirds of Syria, ruling reconquered areas harshly while continuing to attack the regions still in enemy hands. 

Moreover, Syria’s economy and state continue to crumble under the weight of sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon’s financial crisis, the legacy of war and deep corruption. Syria is on a fast track to becoming a failed state on Europe’s doorstep.

So what to do? In Washington, a collection of politicians, think-tankers and exiled Syrian opposition figures are urging the Biden administration to pursue policies ultimately aimed at regime change in Damascus. At a recent House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee meeting, for example, the Institute for the Study of War’s Jennifer Cafarella insisted that Assad’s removal remained “an important long-term goal”.

But much as they might desire it, regime change is not a likely outcome, and the various methods advocated by such hawks to achieve it are unrealistic. 

Economic sanctions

One option is direct military intervention, but this has been off the table since former US President Barack Obama called off a proposed strike on Assad in September 2013, and most DC activists are loath to revive the idea.

Another preferred alternative by some is to keep piling on economic sanctions, such as the harsh Caesar Act. The hope is that destitution will prompt either an internal coup, possibly backed by a frustrated Russia, or a loyalist uprising. Yet, loyalists and regime insiders have had 10 years of war to overthrow Assad and have not done it, whether out of fear, belief or self-preservation.

While there is growing criticism of the regime among loyalists, grumbling is not the same as open revolt or a coup. Assad has shown in the last decade the brutality he’s willing to mete out to rebels, and it is quite a leap to expect those who have stood by him through the last 10 years to be willing to risk everything now.

Moreover, sanctions elsewhere have repeatedly been shown to diminish the chance of internal revolt and increase the grip of a ruling regime, with people even more dependent on it for the meagre resources available.

A final option suggested by some – to negotiate Assad’s departure via his patron, Russia – is also fanciful. The hope is that Moscow could be persuaded to jettison Assad in exchange for guarantees of its position in Syria, but this idea was proposed by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier in the war and dismissed by Moscow. Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to it now? He currently benefits from Assad’s rule and, whatever American hawks may promise, there is no guarantee that a successor would replicate this relationship.

In contrast to Obama during the Arab Spring, Putin promoted himself as a leader who stands by his embattled allies, so abandoning Assad under western pressure would undermine this. Putin may be happy to give western leaders the impression that he’s open to a transition without Assad in order to persuade them to drop sanctions, but he is unwilling to actually do it.

Risks of accommodation

In all likelihood, then, western-prompted regime change remains a fantasy. This leaves two equally unwelcome options. The first is to continue the status quo: keep Assad isolated and sanctioned, while trying to mitigate the fallout of his rule as much as possible. This includes supporting opposition-held enclaves and humanitarian activities where possible, including for Syria’s many refugees.

The problem is that this will most likely not prevent Syria’s gradual decline and even collapse. Syria could end up like Iraq in the 1990s: strangled by sanctions from the outside and brutal rulers from the inside. State institutions are hollowed out by both, leading to chaos if the government does eventually fall. For western leaders hoping to stem flows of refugees and extremists, as well as to alleviate Syrians’ suffering, this is not desirable.

But the other option is even less palatable: some kind of accommodation with Assad. This would seemingly reward his violence backed by Russia and Iran, emboldening them and autocrats elsewhere. It would also make a mockery of the humanitarian and liberal principles western governments say they strive to promote. 

Yet, others have argued that this is the practical, realistic course of action. Having failed to topple Assad, it makes more sense to allow the Syrian economy and state to recover, rather than to squeeze it to the point of collapse. Optimists might say it is more likely that loyalists would overthrow Assad if trade was reopened, as they would be less dependent on the regime.

A more pessimistic take is that Assad and his cronies would benefit the most from any dropping of sanctions, but at least that might make Syria more stable and less inclined to disrupt the region as they protect their gains. Of course, this also carries the risk that Assad profits from the reopening, and continues to disrupt the region and brutalise his people, who don’t rise up – but this time, western leaders would be culpable for accommodating him.

For this reason, it seems highly unlikely that any western leader will risk normalisation. Indeed, the G7 recently reiterated its opposition to Assad, declaring the presidential elections scheduled for 26 May as illegitimate and opposing any normalisation. This leaves the status quo as the most likely approach, with Assad’s state continuing to crumble, but not likely to fall any time soon.

Will the Arab League welcome back Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 15 March 2021

Syria has been excluded from the Arab League for nearly a decade, but that may be about to change. Last week, the United Arab Emiratescalled for the war-torn country to be restored to the organisation it helped found in 1945, echoing similar calls by Iraq in January.

Some of the League’s agencies have already restarted operations in Damascus. This seems a long way from November 2011, when an unprecedented 18 out of 22 Arab League members voted to suspend President Bashar al-Assad amid his brutal crackdown that began the Syrian civil war. Yet Assad has survived, and events elsewhere have prompted a rethink by the Arab states that once opposed him.

It might seem odd that Assad would even want to rejoin the League, given that it is largely powerless and the majority of its members condemned him. Yet, a return to the Arab fold would bring benefits. At home, the Assad regime has long relied on Arab nationalist rhetoric, and returning to the League might bolster its legitimacy among some loyalists. Abroad, a return would help break Assad’s postwar international isolation, opening the way for other reconciliations.

Most importantly, Assad and his Russian allies believe restoration to the Arab League could open the door to much-needed reconstruction funds from the Gulf, which the floundering Syrian economy desperately needs. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the talk of restoring Assad has come as part of a diplomacy drive by Russia in the Gulf.

So what has prompted the shift in position from Arab League members? Assad was never completely isolated, with neighbours Lebanon and Iraq refusing to vote for the 2011 suspension. As fellow friends of Iran, relations remained close throughout the civil war.

Another early outlier was Algeria. It reluctantly approved the suspension, but never cut ties with Damascus. A military-led regime that fought its own long civil war with Islamists, Algiers has long had sympathies with Assad and has frequently argued to end his Arab isolation. This position has not wavered, despite a recent change in leadership after popular protests.

Shifting stances

In contrast, two significant players have changed their stance. After Egypt’s 2011 revolution and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government, the state was a vocal Assad critic. However, the military regime that toppled it in a coup in 2013 has been closer to Damascus, seeing Assad as a fellow autocrat struggling against Islamist “terrorism”.

The UAE has also become more accommodating. While it was never that adamantly against Syria, permitting regime members – including Assad’s immediate family – to use the Emirates as a safe haven, it has become a leading advocate for reconciliation, even reopening its Syria embassy in late 2018.

Like Egypt, the UAE is staunchly anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group that was well-represented among Syria’s opposition. Moreover, both Cairo and Abu Dhabi are keen to contain the growing regional role of Turkey, itself a strong supporter of the Brotherhood, and are wary of its advances into northern Syria. Arab League reconciliation with Assad would help to outflank Ankara.

On the other side of the debate are Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are most reluctant to welcome Syria’s Arab League return. Doha is the most forthright, aligned with Turkey in its continued condemnation of Assad. Yet, while in 2011 it was a major player in the Arab League, leading the charge to suspend Syria and even threatening Algeria if it didn’t conform, today it is more marginal.

Though the blockade by its Gulf neighbours was recently lifted, Doha remains weaker than in 2011 and, were the other Arab states to vote to readmit Assad, it would struggle to prevent it.

Saudi caution

Saudi Arabia is a more significant obstacle, but also more ambivalent. Like its allies Egypt and the UAE, it is fearful of both Turkish expansion and the Muslim Brotherhood, and has flirted with the idea of reconciling with Assad. It approved close ally Bahrain’s reopening of its Syria embassy in 2018, which at the time many believed was a trial balloon for Riyadh to do the same.

Likewise, last year, it quietly allowed Syrian trucks loaded with goods to pass into Saudi Arabia, a shift from its wartime restrictions, indicating a possible thaw. This was strengthened at a recent Russian-Saudi press conference, when both countries’ foreign ministers spoke of Syria’s return to “the Arab family”.

And yet, Riyadh remains cautious. More than the UAE and Egypt, it is wary of its rival Iran’s enhanced presence in Syria. While reconciliation with Damascus could allow it to dilute Tehran’s role somewhat, this would still only be marginal and could ultimately reward its enemy.

The other major roadblock is the United States and its Caesar sanctions regime, which punishes any business or individual who deals with sanctioned Syrians. In calling for Assad’s return to the Arab League, the UAE acknowledged that these sanctions “make the matter difficult”. The unknown for Abu Dhabi and the other Arab states is how zealous the new Biden administration will be in maintaining these Trump-era sanctions – even though they originated in Congress, not the White House.

Geopolitical alliances

With attention on the Covid-19 pandemic at home, and with US President Joe Biden’s regional priorities seemingly on Iran, not Syria, it is possible that the UAE and others may find a way to gradually reintegrate Assad without provoking opposition from Washington. This will certainly be the UAE’s, Russia’s and Assad’s hope.

But whether or not Syria is returned to the Arab League, one thing is clear: it will not likely have anything to do with a change in Assad’s behaviour. All members seem driven by events outside of Syria: how embracing Assad or keeping him isolated will impact their wider geopolitical alliances and rivalries.

Realpolitik, rather than principle, will ultimately determine Assad’s Arab League fate.   

Russia is a broker, not a peacemaker between Israel and Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 2 March 2021

series of Russian-mediated deals between Syria and Israel have recently caught the attention of analysts.

In December, Israeli and Syrian security chiefs reportedly met at Russia’s Syrian Khmeimim airbase, while Russian forces this month excavated a Palestinian cemetery in Damascus with the aim of recovering and repatriating the remains of several Israelis.

Also this month, Moscow brokered a deal that saw Damascus return an Israeli civilian in exchange for prisoners held in Israeli jails and, secretly, $1.2m worth of Russia’s coronavirus vaccines

For two states technically at war, such regular contacts have been rare, prompting some to speculate that this might mark a more concerted Russian effort to mediate a peace deal. With Israel recently normalising ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, could Syria, desperate for an end to international sanctions after a decade of civil war, be next on the list?

Fanciful schemes

The Times’ Roger Boyes posits that, however improbably, Putin may cast himself as a Middle Eastern peacemaker by engineering Iran’s ejection from Syria in exchange for Israel’s return of the occupied Golan Heights. But such schemes seem fanciful and misread the more likely Israeli, Syrian and Russian motives.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reasons are probably more domestic than geostrategic. He faces yet another general election in March and likes to play the international statesman to boost his electoral appeal. Securing the return of a citizen and the remains of former soldiers, something particularly valued in Israel, could boost his popularity – and he has been keen to underline his “personal connections” with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This public closeness to Putin might also have other causes. Relations with the new Biden administration in the US are already strained, given Netanyahu’s closeness to former President Donald Trump and strained ties with former President Barack Obama. President Joe Biden conspicuously waited a monthafter his inauguration to call the Israeli leader. Publicly declaring Putin a friend and thanking him for his mediation sends a message to the White House that if it is going to be distant, there are other suitors.

Yet, this is still a long way from Israel accepting a Russian-mediated peace with Syria. Firstly, Israel must question whether Moscow could deliver such a peace. Israel would likely want the removal of all Iranian-allied forces, including Hezbollah, from Syria and Lebanon, which Moscow lacks the resources (and will) to achieve.

Secondly, it is questionable as to whether Israel really wants such a deal. The Golan has considerable strategic and economic value and, if anything, Israel is embedding itself deeper there, with the Trump administration recently recognising the annexation – something Biden has yet to rescind.

While Iran’s presence in Syria (and Lebanon) is threatening, it is something Israel has thus far contained via regular air strikes. While Netanyahu will continue to lobby Putin publicly to limit or even remove Iran’s presence in Syria, he likely prefers the status quo to losing the Golan.

Symbolic importance

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also has little interest in a peace deal. While the Golan retains symbolic importance for his regime – his father, Hafez, was defence minister when it was captured – it is not worth the valuable alliance with Iran, which saved the embattled regime in the early years of the civil war.

While Russia is now the dominant external player in Syria, Assad still gains from Iran and its allied militias; in some areas, they are the dominant military force, while Assad also likes to play Tehran and Moscow off one another to get his way.

In addition, it is not clear as to whether peace with Israel would solve any of Damascus’ problems. It desperately needs money and investment, but a Russian-brokered Israeli peace would not unlock international funds the way a US-led one would, while the international community is unlikely to ignore Assad’s civil war brutality just because he reconciles with Netanyahu.

Politically, a peace deal with Israel would also be risky. Even if the Golan were returned, the Assad regime has long portrayed itself as a champion of Palestinian rights, which would be betrayed in any such peace, potentially prompting domestic unrest.

Assad’s acquiescence to the recent deals appears more the result of Russian pressure. While freeing Syrians from prison gives the regime something, digging up graves to recover Israeli soldiers is humiliating, especially if it includes Eli Cohen, the notorious spy publicly hanged in 1965 to nationalist fanfare.

The inclusion of much-needed Covid-19 vaccines might have sweetened the deal, but it still seems Damascus has been strong-armed by Moscow – and yet, Assad is not Putin’s puppet. Russia has been repeatedly frustrated by Assad’s stubbornness and unwillingness to make even minor concessions throughout the civil war.

It is possible that Assad’s acceptance of these deals is intended to placate Putin, while still refusing to budge on weightier issues, notably Syria’s stalled constitutional committee negotiations in Geneva.

Regional profile

So what of Russia’s motives? Rather than being a first step towards Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations, these deals represent continuity with Putin’s strategy towards the Levant since Russia directly entered the Syria conflict in 2015. Moscow positions itself as the region’s indispensable broker: the one external power that has relations with all the major players – Israel, Syria, Iran and even Hezbollah.

This has allowed it to boost its regional profile and influence at the expense of its retreating rival, the US. In any future clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, Iranian or Syrian forces in either Lebanon or Syria, the mediator will now likely be Russia, not the US.

Importantly, this has come at relatively little cost to Putin. Military hardware has been poured into Syria, but with only limited losses – as Iranian and Syrian troops do the brunt of the fighting – and most costs have been recouped or surpassed by consequent arms deals with other Middle Eastern militaries impressed with Russian kit. Indeed, even the recent Israel deal saw Netanyahu pay Russia for Syria’s Covid-19 vaccinations.

So why would Moscow want to change this and push for a permanent Syrian-Israeli peace? Such a peace would end its role as mediator, as Iran and Hezbollah would be ejected, and it would probably destroy Russia’s alliance with Tehran. It would also be costly, as Russia would have to ensure the compliance of both sides, which could mean deploying troops to hunt down any resistant pro-Iranian elements.

Moreover, if the peace was really successful, it might lead to Syria’s eventual international rehabilitation, lessening its dependence on Russia. All of this seems a lot to pay for little gain.

Mediating the current chaos serves Putin’s agenda far better than seeking to engineer and maintain a difficult peace, so Russia will likely remain the Levant’s broker, not its peacemaker, for the foreseeable future. 

The Arab Spring’s foreign spoilers

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 January 2021

Much analysis has been written to mark the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Understandably, many have focused on the domestic reasons why, with the exception of Tunisia, hopes of democratic transformation were dashed in most states that witnessed protests, ushering in instead instability, renewed dictatorship and civil war. Yet, the external reasons for the Arab Spring’s failures should not be dismissed or marginalised.

From the very beginning, foreign powers, whether regional or international, interacted with domestic forces and played a major role in determining the fate of the popular uprisings that swept the region. While the Arab Spring’s first popular uprising, in Tunisia, took regional and international powers by surprise, they were far less passive about the copycat protests that erupted across the Arab world in its wake.

The United States, at the time led by Barack Obama’s administration, which didn’t want to be caught on “the wrong side of history,” was a prominent player. In Egypt, it was only once Obama had turned on his ally, President Hosni Mubarak, that the protests translated into regime change. It was Obama’s message to the Egyptian military, via Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that Mubarak must resign that prompted his removal. 

Similarly, Obama’s decision to back British and French plans for Nato to intervene militarily under the pretext of preventing Muammar Gaddafi from crushing protesters ultimately led to the fall and death of the Libyan dictator. Yet, for all these seemingly positive moves, the US did as much to contribute to the uprisings’ failure.

On 14 March 2011, when the Bahraini government crushed its nascent protest movement with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Washington remained silent. With Bahrain home to the US Fifth Fleet, and the Obama administration keen to retain Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s backing for the Libya campaign, the White House indicated that sometimes geopolitical priorities trumped its support for democratic protesters.

Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was toppled in a 2013 coup,again backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US did nothing to defend the elected government, eventually endorsing the new dictatorship established by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Some have argued that US activity, or inactivity, also worsened the fates of uprisings in Syria and Libya. In Syria, Obama called for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down when he brutally crushed protesters, and eventually sent weapons and money to the armed rebels that tried to overthrow him.

But Obama’s efforts were half-hearted, and he didn’t follow up with direct intervention, even after Assad crossed his “red line” of using chemical weapons. This all helped to fuel a civil war by aiding the rebels enough to fight, but not enough to win. In Libya, the US’ relative retreat after Gaddafi was defeated, offering very limited institutional and state-building support to the new democratic government, contributed to its collapse into civil conflict.

et, the US was far from the only injurious international power. Russia and China repeatedly intervened at the UN Security Council to veto numerous attempts to punish Assad for his repression in Syria. Moscow was determined to prevent the collapse of the Baath regime in Damascus, providing weapons and money to shore up Assad’s depleted forces before intervening directly in 2015 with its air force and special forces to turn the tide of the war.

Since then, President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in the Middle East have widened, but again he has primarily been supporting autocrats, such as the rebel Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to overthrow the weak UN-backed government.

Regional players were also far from benevolent. Long before Putin’s intervention in Syria, it was Iran that led the charge to keep Assad in power. As soon as protests broke out, Tehran sought to undermine them by offering Assad money and weapons, fighters and commanders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, and Shia militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to supplement Assad’s fading military.

While Syria was Iran’s primary focus, it also supported the Houthis in Yemen. And in Iraq, US-Iran tensions have undermined the peaceful protest movement there.

Despite being fierce rivals, Riyadh was even more reactionary than Tehran. While it helped broker the exit of Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 and backed anti-Assad forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia broadly sought to stifle the Arab uprisings.

Fearing the 2011 protests might come home, King Abdullah spent lavishly in the early months: not only $37bn on welfare measures domestically, but a further $21bn in neighbouring Bahrain, Oman and Jordan to help their embattled rulers buy off dissidents.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia bankrolled the Egyptian military’s 2013 coup, alongside the UAE, contributing to the collapse of the democratic experiment there. Moreover, in sending in its own troops to Bahrain in 2011 and Yemen in 2015, it showed a willingness to go beyond its traditional chequebook diplomacy to ensure the Arab uprisings turned in its favour. Riyadh thus greatly contributed to the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the return of autocracy to Bahrain and Egypt. 

Qatar and Turkey were two other regional powers that have impacted the Arab uprisings’ outcomes in an ambiguous way.

On the one hand, Qatar was one of the early supporters of the Arab uprisings. Al-Jazeera channel played a key role in reporting on protests and providing a platform to inspire activists across the Arab world. Doha urged Nato to intervene in Libya to save protesters from Gaddafi, backed the anti-Assad rebels in Syria and gave generous grants to the newly elected regimes in Tripoli and Cairo. 

In Egypt, Doha’s unconditional backing for the Muslim Brotherhood government may have contributed to its uncompromising stance, increasing the military’s appetite for a coup.

Turkey’s involvement was also mixed. When the Arab Spring began, Turkey was often heralded as a potential model for the new democracies expected to emerge, particularly the mildly Islamist ruling AK Party. Though slower to endorse the protesters than its ally Qatar, Ankara eventually became a prominent supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, several rebel groups in Syria, and the new government in Tripoli. 

Yet, as with Qatar, this did little ultimately to prevent the return of dictatorship in Cairo and contributed to the weakness and disunity of the Syrian opposition. Moreover, as Turkey itself became more authoritarian following the 2013 Gezi Park protests and a failed coup by the military in 2016, Ankara’s commitment to democratic forces abroad also waned.

Moreover, while it continues to defend some regions of Syria, notably Idlib, from Assad attacks, it arguably contributed to Syrian regime’s overall victory in the conflict by making deals with Russia and Iran that allowed Damascus to retake several key rebel areas.

These foreign governments, therefore, all contributed to the failure of the 2011 uprisings in most cases.

While their motives differed and they prioritised different arenas, all arguably had a net negative impact. Moreover, they are not yet done. The governments that intervened to try to shape the Arab uprisings to their advantage continue to interfere in the politics of the many states scarred by that experience, whether Syria, Yemen, Libya or elsewhere. 

With new uprisings emerging and activists successfully toppling governments in Sudan and Algeria, and attempting to in Lebanon and Iraq, foreign spoilers have circled once more to try to influence the outcome.

While these activists can learn much from the domestic mistakes that derailed the revolutionaries of 2011, they would do well to also consider how they might mitigate against the damaging foreign interference that greatly contributed to the Arab Spring’s failures. 

Why Syria will be low on Biden’s list of foreign policy priorities

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 12 November 2020

What does Joe Biden’s election mean for US policy on Syria? The civil war has moved on in the four years since Biden has been out of power, but it remains an unresolved domestic and regional conflict that could give this new administration a headache.

US President Donald Trump has a mixed and inconsistent record in Syria. On the one hand, he abandoned former president Barack Obama’s policy of actively seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ending support for the armed opposition in 2017. On the other hand, he launched missile strikes on Assad’s forces after they used chemical weapons in 2017 and 2018, and approved the imposition of harsh Caesar sanctions

In eastern Syria, Trump continued Obama’s anti-Islamic State (IS) policy, backing Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters to destroy the so-called caliphate and killing its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But he then abandoned his former allies, allowing a 2019 Turkish attack on the Kurds after withdrawing most US ground troops, leaving only a skeleton force behind around eastern Syria’s oilfields. 

Trump similarly took up contradictory positions on the key external players in Syria. He was confrontational with one key Assad ally, Iran, yet accommodating with the other, Russia. He likewise seemed very willing to listen to requests by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sometimes even against the advice of US military leaders. Washington’s influence in Syria, already limited, was therefore diminished further by four years of Trump. 

Will Biden attempt to step up US involvement? It is worth recalling his role on Syria policy as Obama’s vice president. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he was sceptical of deep involvement in Syria’s civil war. He was unenthusiastic about arming the opposition, fearing the radicals among them.

Biden, like most of Obama’s cabinet, had supported striking Assad in 2013 when chemical weapons were used – but after the president opted instead for negotiated disarmament, Biden backed him. Later, in 2016, the vice president lamented critics who said Obama had done too little against Assad, dismissing their recommendations as unrealistic and unfeasible. 

Domestic priorities

Biden’s recent statements also suggest that Syria will be low on his to-do list. With the defeat of IS, the war is no longer making regular headlines in the US, and Biden has already indicated that other areas will take precedence. 

Domestic affairs, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and related recession, occupy most of Biden’s attention, and foreign policy priorities will likely focus on multilateralism, the pivot to Asia, China and climate change. 

In the Middle East, Biden has pledged to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, provided that Tehran adheres to its stipulations, while his team has indicated a more critical stance towards Saudi Arabia. Managing difficult allies, such as Israel and Turkey, will also be in focus. 

While Biden has said more broadly that he wants to support fellow democracies globally, in the Middle East, his stated focus appears to be more on counterterrorism than regime change. Combined with his recent statements about ending “forever wars” and opposing increased US boots on the ground, this suggests Biden will not be rushing to increase Washington’s stake in the Syria conflict.

He is unlikely to step back, though. The veteran Democrat’s advisers have insisted he will maintain tough sanctions on Damascus, and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, has spoken out against Assad in the past. Though the sanctions are aimed at pressuring Assad into reaching a settlement, or at least pressing Moscow to push the Syrian president aside for someone who will, such efforts rarely achieve their goals

Maintaining pressure

Regarding Assad, Biden’s policies may look much like Trump’s: maintaining pressure financially, but without any serious military escalation or diplomatic investment that could actually force the Damascus regime to collapse or compromise.

In the east, Biden has said he would maintain the small contingent of US forces present to guard against any IS revival, while Harris was appalled at Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in 2019. This could mean a revitalisation of the SDF-US alliance, but as Trump found, this would complicate efforts to improve ties with Turkey and may prove short-lived. 

Indeed, as under Obama, US policy towards Syria may find itself swayed by priorities elsewhere. Biden could use policies against Assad to pressure Iran on the nuclear deal, but may similarly ease off if Tehran is compliant. By the same token, Biden is far more hostile towards Russia than Trump, and he may use Syria policy to stand up to Moscow – although under Obama, anti-Putin actions tended to focus more on Europe.

Syria policy may also be shaped by the state of US relations with Israel and Turkey. If ties are warm with Israel, Syria may see continued Israeli raids on Iranian positions, while if they sour, Biden may urge such strikes to stop. Turkey’s ambitions to push the SDF from its border will likewise be partly conditioned by its ties to Washington, as has been the case in recent years.

Huge challenges

In sum, then, don’t expect major changes from Biden on Syria. He will likely approach the conflict with the same caution he did as vice president, and he is unlikely to step up US military involvement. That said, he has little incentive to step back from existing US policies: keeping some forces in the east and maintaining sanctions on Assad. 

With Biden’s priorities elsewhere, Syria policy is likely to dramatically alter only if there is a major headline-grabbing change on the ground, or if Washington’s other foreign priorities are impacted by it. Policy towards Iran, Turkey, Russia and Israel could all have reverberations in Syria – but at present, it seems unlikely Biden will expend political capital on the Syria conflict in isolation.

One final unknown is whether his predecessor will leave Syria alone during his remaining 10 weeks in office. While Trump is likely to focus on challenging the legitimacy of his election defeat, some have speculated that he may also use his last weeks in office to sabotage Biden. Syria could be one arena for this, perhaps with Trump fulfilling his promise to withdraw the last remaining troops from the east. This may seem unlikely, but Trump has shocked throughout his presidency. 

Even without any such final curveball, Biden faces huge challenges in rebuilding Washington’s global reputation. While Syria will almost certainly receive some attention in this, it is unlikely to be centre stage.

How the wars in Libya and Syria are strangely intertwined

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 July 2020

When Egypt recently threatened to intervene in Libya’s war, Cairo received the wholehearted support of Damascus.

That the embattled Syrian regime, itself still fighting a gruelling civil conflict that has drawn in a myriad of foreign intervention, would so enthusiastically back similar interference elsewhere might seem odd. But it serves a wider purpose for Assad, ingratiating him to Egypt and its allies.

It also fits a pattern that has been present since the beginning of both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars in 2011. Though the two conflicts have taken different paths, the Libya war has frequently impacted events in Syria, with reverberations felt in unexpected ways on the other side of the Mediterranean.

One key way in which the Libya war has impacted Syria has been to inspire some opposition actors to take up arms in the first place. When Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, the early opposition movement against President Bashar al-Assad was consciously peaceful, taking its cues from the successful bloodless revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt months earlier.

Yet, when this failed to achieve the rapid success seen elsewhere and Assad responded with brutal violence, some looked instead to the Libyan model of revolution, where armed rebels had toppled Muammar Gaddafi. While this prompted heated debate among Syrian opposition members, by March 2012, the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, had formally endorsed the armed strategy that rebel fighters on the ground were already taking.

Libya had already become a source of Syrian rebel arms and finance. As early as November 2011, Syrian rebels were reportedly negotiating with the new post-Gaddafi government in Tripoli about providing weapons. After a leading Libyan rebel, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, travelled to Turkey, the Libyan government made a $100m donation to the Syrian rebels.

A regular supply of weapons was sent from Libya to Syria’s rebels via Turkey. Also, Qatar was inspired in Syria by its apparent success in backing rebels against Gaddafi. It is an interesting question as to whether Doha would have been so enthusiastic were it not for events in Libya.

‘The intervention is coming’

A similar question could be asked on the importance of Libya in impacting western views of the Syria crisis, and the Syrian opposition’s expectations of western intervention. After Nato directly intervened against Gaddafi, Syrian opposition groups increasingly expected something similar against Assad.

The rebels’ strategy in 2011-12, encouraged by their allies in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was geared towards taking territory and holding out long enough until the inevitable western intervention. One opposition figure, Bassma Kodmani, later recalled regional powers frequently telling the opposition: “It is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.”

Yet, the Libya campaign paradoxically deterred similar western intervention in Syria. Former US President Barack Obama had reluctantlyagreed to attack Gaddafi, under pressure from interventionists in his administration and his international allies. When Libya then descended into civil war, leading to the murder of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012, Obama’s initial caution returned to the fore, and he became even more unwilling to intervene in Syria.

This was seen in 2013, when he found a way to avoid striking Assad, despite Damascus defying Obama’s “red line” of using chemical weapons, to the outrage of the Syrian opposition and its allies. Obama and the anti-Assadists took different lessons from the Libya intervention, impacting their approach to the Syria war.

Turkey-Russia rivalry

More recently, as Libya’s civil war has heated up, it has begun playing a new role in Syria’s conflict. Whereas once knock-on effects from Libya reverberated in Syria, now, Syria’s war is having consequences in Libya.

The clearest example of this is the rivalry between Turkey and Russia. They back opposing sides in both conflicts, though Ankara and Moscow have both invested more in Syria. In recent years, however, each has increased their presence in Libya, seemingly as a means to boost their regional leverage in general and, at times, in Syria specifically.

It has become common at bilateral meetings between Russia and Turkey for both Syria and Libya to be under discussion. Setbacks in Syria have led to an increased presence in Libya. This was seen recently after Turkey’s comparative defeat to Russia and Assad in Idlib in March, precipitating a massive and decisive increase in Ankara’s support for the government in Tripoli.

A further Syria connector is their use of Syrians to fight in Libya. Turkey transported soldiers from its Syrian rebel proxies, the Syrian National Army, to fight in Libya, while Russia has used former Syrian rebels as mercenaries to fight for its Libyan ally, General Khalifa Haftar.

Sad pattern

Though less consequential than either Turkey’s or Russia’s actions, Assad’s own involvement in Libya is similarly expedient. His endorsement of Haftar, including by recently giving him Libya’s embassy in Damascus, carries ideological components. Both are autocrats who loathe the Muslim Brotherhood, are allied to Russia and are opposed by Turkey.

Despite these commonalities, Assad did not weigh in on Haftar’s side for several years. His move now comes more from a desire to woo Haftar’s key external allies, the UAE and Egypt. A desperate need for Abu Dhabi’s economic support, especially, to prop up his floundering, sanctioned economy – rather than ideological solidarity – seems his primary motivation.

With both states likely to remain unstable for some time, subject to intervention and influence from the international powers that have helped drive and prolong the conflicts, it is unlikely that this will be the last time that events in Libya and Syria impact one another.

For almost a decade, Syria’s tragic war has been strangely interwoven with the equally grim conflict unfolding in Libya – and this sad pattern seems unlikely to end soon.

Syria war: Could Washington’s ‘Caesar’ sanctions topple Assad?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 June 2020

President Bashar al-Assad has largely defeated the rebellion against his rule, but Syria’s economy is in meltdown.

The recent economic and political crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, alongside the impact of nine years of civil war, Western sanctions and systematic government corruption, have already caused shortages, widespread unemployment and the near-collapse of the Syrian pound.

Now, Assad’s battered regime and the long-suffering Syrian people, 80 percent of whom live in poverty, face a new challenge: Washington’s “Caesar” sanctions.

While the Assad regime has faced Western sanctions since even before the start of its civil war in 2011, this new approach from Washington is more wide-ranging. Rather than just targeting regime individuals, the Caesar Actpunishes any business or individual from any country who deals with sanctioned actors.

This is expected to deter foreign companies from investing, starving the government of much-needed capital and accelerating economic decline. The US hope is that this will force the regime to offer political concessions, moderate its behaviour or, ideally, prompt an internal coup against Assad. Several commentators have already speculated that this may finally be the moment that Assad’s bloody rule ends.

Yet, such an outcome appears unlikely, based on the experience of sanctions on Syria and elsewhere in the past. Despite their popularity among Western policymakers as a means of leverage over foreign governments short of military action, economic sanctions rarely achieve their stated goals.

Most scholarly research suggests that sanctions are far more likely to entrench an autocratic regime than to either bring about its end or moderate its behaviour. The classic example is the sanctioning of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1991 to 2003.

The UN-mandated sanctions were intended to prompt the Iraqi elite to overthrow Saddam, but instead impoverished the Iraqi people. Saddam’s regime, meanwhile, was empowered, increasing the population’s dependence on the government for food, while it blamed the outside world for their poverty.

Mitigating losses

Though Assad’s Syria has thus far not faced sanctions as comprehensive as Saddam’s Iraq, a similar pattern has emerged. Since 2011, Assad, his cronies, and key regime institutions and sources of income have faced US and EU sanctions, yet there has been no coup against Assad’s rule. Nor has there been any sign of Damascus moderating its behaviour, either ceasing its repression of opponents or offering political concessions.

With help from its allies in Iran and Russia, both experienced sanctions-busters themselves, Damascus has found ways to mitigate the losses. As in Saddam’s Iraq, individuals linked to the regime have become comparatively wealthier and more powerful over the course of the conflict, with the burden of sanctions transferred onto the population rather than the elite.

So why do US policymakers and their supporters think that the Caesar Act will work where previous sanctions on Syria, Iraq and elsewhere so clearly failed? Possibly, it is the scale and scope of the Caesar sanctions, far greater than anything experienced by Assad before (though not Saddam). This will almost certainly cripple the beleaguered Syrian economy further, and may prompt unrest from previously loyal quarters.

In recent weeks, the usually quiet Druze-dominated city of Sweida has seen protests related to economic hardship, while journalists report grumblings along the pro-Assad coast. Yet, while such protests may continue and even expand, the past nine years have shown that popular unrest is insufficient to overthrow this regime.

Assad and his foreign allies are willing to crush dissent if it threatens their rule. One such ally, Hezbollah, recently underlined this by pledging to “not abandon Syria in the face of economic warfare”.

A coup is similarly unlikely. Most of Syria’s economic elite are tied to the regime and are either included in the sanctions themselves, or would lose their access to economic privilege if the regime fell. Moreover, like Saddam, Assad has a “coup-proofed” regime, making it very difficult for a coup to be carried out, even if regime elites wanted to.

Poor record of return

Perhaps the authors of the Caesar Act instead hope that the increase in sanctions will force Assad to moderate his behaviour and accept some political concessions. In the past, the threat of force has seen Damascus compromise, most notably giving up most of its chemical weapons in a Russian-moderated deal in 2013, after former US President Barack Obama threatened missile strikes.

The Caesar sanctions do offer a similar route out for Assad, with seven criteria that need to be met. However, these include measures that are anathema to the regime, such as establishing “meaningful accountability”. Such requests are far bigger concessions than chemical disarmament, and even then, Assad did not fully comply. Nothing in his past behaviour suggests that Assad is willing to give up any significant power to ease external pressure, with even his ally Russia struggling to nudge him towards far smaller political concessions.

Of course, policymakers know that sanctions have a poor record of return, yet they remain a favourite tool of Western governments. They are a way of signalling to repressive regimes that there are consequences for their brutality, but they are also used by politicians to show key domestic and foreign audiences that they are “doing something”, without having to launch more risky and costly military adventures.

The Caesar sanctions are no different, and came about after Syrian-Americans lobbied Congress, rather than as part of a thought-through US government anti-Assad strategy.

Like past sanctions, they will probably hurt the Syrian people the most, while Assad and his allies find workarounds where they can, entrench their rule further and transfer any suffering onto the wider population. Perhaps this time will be different, and the Caesar Act will be a rare example of successful sanctions bringing about positive change – but past experience would suggest otherwise.

Why some Middle East autocrats are harder to oust than others

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 22 May 2020

The political futures of both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have recently been the subject of speculation.

For Assad, a dispute with his wealthy cousin amid grumblings from his ally, Russia, has prompted some to wonder whether his bloody reign may soon end. For Erdogan, the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis and associated economic uncertainty has led to murmurs about his potential departure.

Yet, such speculation rarely outlines how these neighbouring strongmen would actually be toppled. Both rule over regimes, whether inherited (in Assad’s case) or created (in Erdogan’s), that make it difficult for rivals – from either within the ruling establishment or without – to overthrow them.

‘Coup-proofing’ the state

As is the case in many autocratic states, Assad and Erdogan have tried to “coup-proof” their regimes to ensure they can withstand far more dramatic setbacks than either currently faces.

Coup-proofing is, according to author James Quinlivan, “the set of actions a regime takes to prevent a military coup”. This is more common in states such as Turkey and Syria, where there is a history of military intervention in politics.

The methods vary from state to state, but Quinlivan notes similarities in the coup-proofing of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Standout methods include packing key security positions with those tied to the ruler by family, ethnicity or religion; building up armed forces parallel to the regular military; and developing multiple overlapping internal security agencies monitoring the military and one another to prevent coups.

Assad inherited a regime that his father had coup-proofed par excellence. The extent of successful coup-proofing was seen when he avoided any serious attempt by establishment insiders to topple him, despite losing more than half of the country at one point during the recent civil war.

Though thousands of soldiers defected and joined the opposition, those in key security positions, mostly from his own Alawi sect and family, stayed loyal. Similarly, the key security divisions fighting rebels in the early stages of the conflict were the “parallel structures”: the Republican Guard and the 4th Armoured Division, armed with the best equipment to defend the regime.

Though it is unknown whether there were attempts at coups – there were several rumours – their absence suggests the myriad security agencies Syria had on the eve of the war proved effective.

Parallel security structures

The absence of a coup against Assad during the conflict casts doubt on claims that disputes with his cousin, Rami Makhlouf, or Russia will prompt one now. In the unlikely event of a military challenge, Makhlouf could theoretically win over some Alawis and members of the extended Assad-Makhlouf family, but not the key parallel military structures or intelligence agencies loyal to the regime.

The same happened when Assad’s uncle tried to outmanoeuvre his father, Hafez, in 1984; key security agencies and institutions remained loyal to the president.

Others have speculated that Russia, frustrated with Assad’s foot-dragging on a new constitution that could open the way for international investment, may turn against their ally. Yet, for all Russia’s influence, it is only one player among several in Syria’s complex coup-proofed regime.

As well as having to negotiate the various overlapping intelligence and security services, only some of which are close to Moscow, it must also deal with Assad’s other key allies, Iran and Hezbollah. Even if Russia wanted to topple Assad – and such rumours are more likely aimed at nudging Assad to make concessions, rather than serious thoughts of a coup – the regime is engineered in such a way to make it very difficult for Moscow.

Mubarak and Morsi

By way of contrast, not all autocratic regimes are so coup-proofed. A good example is former President Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. While Mubarak led a fearsome regime, with extensive intelligence agencies not unlike Syria’s, he did not build up parallel military structures or pack key security positions with loyalists based on family, ethnic or religious ties.

Instead, he allowed the military, from which he and his predecessors had emerged, to remain by far the most powerful security (and economic) actor in Egypt.

When protests erupted in 2011, unlike in Syria, the military was a single united body, sufficiently separate from the president that it could overthrow him in a coup to protect its privileged position. The same happened in 2013, as the military overthrew the democratically elected government of former President Mohamed Morsi.

Erdogan’s regime in Turkey, by contrast, is somewhere in between. Unlike Assad and his father, Erdogan won power through the ballot box and only belatedly took an authoritarian turn.

With Turkey’s military having launched four successful coups against elected governments since the Second World War, and attempting another against Erdogan in 2016, the Turkish leader’s desire to coup-proof is understandable. Since 2016, he has purged not only the military, but large swathes of the judiciary, police, journalism and academia of potential opponents.

Work in progress

Erdogan’s coup-proofing, however, is only partial. He has packed the military with loyalists, but not built up parallel structures, as Hafez al-Assad did. Similarly, though he is idealistic and has put some family members in powerful political positions, he has not leaned on religious and/or ethnic ties to populate key security positions.

And while he is increasingly intolerant of public criticism and opposition, he is for now permitting challenges via elections, albeit ones in which pro-government media dominate. Even so, local elections did recently see his party lose control of Turkey’s two largest cities.

For Erdogan, then, coup-proofing is a work in progress, and it is unclear how far he intends to go. On the one hand, he may opt to fully mimic Hafez al-Assad, turning elections into controlled showpieces and preventing internal threats by developing multiple overlapping security agencies loyal to him.

Alternatively, he may end up like Mubarak, presuming his purges of the military have been successful until a domestic crisis sees them turn on him. His neighbour to the south is a potential model, but also a warning. Bashar al-Assad’s regime may be robust, but its security forces have been willing to burn Syria to the ground rather than turn on their leader. Coup-proofing comes at a cost.

Coronavirus could further weaken US power in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye21 April 2020.

It is too early to tell how the Covid-19 crisis will impact geopolitics. That, of course, has not stopped a range of commentators debatingthe likely extent of change and continuity once the pandemic passes.

This article adds to that debate, by focusing on how the international relations of the Middle East could be affected, albeit with the considerable caveat that the pandemic could yet take an unexpected turn.

In the past, major crises have tended to catalyse pre-existing trends rather than usher in total transformations. As such, one plausible result of Covid-19 could be the acceleration of a shift that began more than a decade ago: the weakening of US power and influence in the Middle East.

Bid for regional hegemony

The post-Cold War era of the 1990s and 2000s was characterised by an expansion of Washington’s Middle Eastern footprint. It strengthened ties with allies through military contracts and base building, mobilised the international community to isolate its enemies, and, eventually, directly invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this bid for regional hegemony has been rolled back in recent years due to a combination of factors. The US failure and overstretch in Iraq; public exhaustion; the 2008 financial crisis; and the election of two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who in different ways opposed heavy involvement in the Middle East, prompted more reluctance from the White House.

Meanwhile, the rise of China, renewed military activism from Russia and greater interventionism from Middle Eastern states saw the US’s previous dominance further challenged.

The Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate this. The US, like other Western democratic governments, looks set for a post-coronavirus period of internal focus. The US public was already hostile towards adventures abroad, a contributing factor to both Obama’s and Trump’s victories, and the pandemic crisis will add further pressure for leaders to focus domestically on healthcare, the economy and democratic accountability.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to lead a global response to the crisis, with Trump instead pulling support for the World Health Organization, has further eroded whatever soft power appeal the US had left in the region.

Russia and China

This is not to suggest the US will suddenly remove itself from the Middle East. It seems unlikely it will vacate its Gulf bases, while the arms industry will continue to seek regional clients. Specific regional projects, such as Trump’s confrontation with Iran, will not disappear.

But the broader view of the Middle East as an arena in which the US should dominate or, at least, be the primary external actor will have less and less appeal. Whoever is elected in November, priorities and resources will continue to be focused elsewhere. As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former speechwriter, recently wrote: “The 9/11 era is over.”

So, what comes next? Again, one plausible scenario is a continuation of the past decade’s trends. The US’s global rivals, Russia and China, have been emboldened by Washington’s gradual retreat. Moscow has militarily intervened in Syria, backed anti-government forces in Libya, and built closer ties with Iran, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf.

China, meanwhile, has significantly increased its economic and diplomatic engagement, designating the Middle East a “neighbour” in its Belt and Road Initiative, and built a physical presence in Pakistan and Djibouti.

Though neither seems interested or has the capacity to replace the US as hegemon, both look likely to raise their stakes in the Middle East.

Regional activism

The other side of this trend has been the increased independent activism of regional powers. Middle Eastern heavyweights Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and – to a lesser extent – Israel, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, have spent the last decade intervening in contested arenas such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq.

Unlike in the 1990s and 2000s, these interventions have frequently come without prior consultation with the US, even among Washington’s allies, echoing the regional competition of the 1950s and 60s.

These states, like China and Russia, are largely authoritarian, potentially sparing them the public demand to focus internally after the crisis that democratic Western governments may face. These regimes may even opt for more regional intervention to distract their publics from internal failures during the crisis.

That said, much will depend on how badly affected Russia, China and the regional powers are by the time the pandemic ends.

The coronavirus crisis has already highlighted poor governance in many Middle Eastern autocracies, and related future economic woes may spark public unrest and even revolution. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia continue to be rocked by low oil prices, while a collapse in regional tourism will hit others, possibly deterring any foreign adventurism.

Two alternatives

This could plausibly go one of two ways. On the one hand, those players least impacted by the pandemic, whether governments or non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthis or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, could take advantage, prompting yet more regional conflict.

Alternatively, if all the potential interventionists are sufficiently stricken, there could be some respite in some of the conflict zones. A retreating US and an unwillingness from China or Russia to take its place may even lead weakened regional adversaries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to seek greater accommodation.

Critics have long called for Washington to step back from the Middle East, and it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate this process and grant them their wish. An optimistic forecast may suggest this would help usher in an era of less intervention in the Middle East by external, regional powers or non-state actors.

Yet, it seems equally plausible that in the vacuum, states and other players, including the US, will continue to view the region as an arena for competition, subjecting it to more conflict and suffering. The post-US Middle East that Covid-19 could usher in may prove no more stable than it was under Washington’s failed bid for dominance.

Syria war: The myth of Western inaction in Idlib

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 20 March 2020

Amid the global crisis over the coronavirus pandemic, the Syria conflict has quietly entered its tenth year. Over the span of a decade, the same sad images have become familiar: bombed-out towns, bereaved families and flows of refugees.

The latest round of fighting in Idlib was recently paused after a Russian-Turkish deal. Yet, while fighting might have been disrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak, most expect the ceasefire to eventually break down. If and when that happens, we will likely see another familiar trope of this war: laments over Western inaction.

But this “inaction” is a myth. Commentators and politicians might disapprove of Western policies, but the current situation in Idlib and Syria has not occurred without Western input.

Differing priorities

On the contrary: Western governments, especially the US, have played a leading role in creating the current mess. This is no conspiracy, and few leaders wanted the current outcomes. But the Syria debacle is still partly the product of Western actions, through a combination of errors, limited interest and differing priorities.

Going back to 2011, when protesters rose up against President Bashar al-Assad, Western governments indirectly encouraged civil war. Assad himself bears most of the responsibility for this, after slaughtering peaceful protesters who eventually took up arms – but Western policies helped. When leaders called for Assad to “step aside”, they helped to create a zero-sum conflict.

Moreover, by helping arms flow into Syria, Western governments have poured fuel on the fire. In her memoirs, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that by March 2012, the US effectively green-lit Washington’s allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send weapons and money to rebel forces. Around the same time, the CIA arranged its own weapons and training for the rebels, a programme that expanded over time.

The domination of radical Islamists within the rebel movement – such as the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now rules much of Idlib – was also influenced by Western policies. Again, Assad and others bear much responsibility: Damascus deliberately released imprisoned jihadists to radicalise the opposition; Qatar and Turkey turned a blind eye to extremists they backed; and Iran sent sectarian fighters to help Assad, radicalising some Sunni rebels.

On the US side, the administration of former President Barack Obama let the moderate rebels and their regional allies believe that Washington would eventually intervene directly against Assad. When this did not occur, it empowered the radicals who had always opposed seeking Western support, and undermined the moderates who had rested their strategy on eventual US intervention.

Migrant influx

This was made worse when Obama ultimately did intervene directly against the Islamic State, showing that it was willing to act to save lives (the Yazidis), that it was willing to heavily arm and fight alongside Syrians (the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF), and that it was willing to deploy its own air force.

Yet, it also showed the rebels that it did not prioritise their battle against Assad sufficiently to do this for them. Even though more weapons and training were heading to the moderate rebels, it was a fraction of what was sent to the SDF, again undermining those battling for relevance against radicals.

European leaders also showed that their true priorities lay elsewhere. The 2015 migrant crisis, partly fuelled by the Syria conflict to which they had contributed, led the EU to strike a deal with Turkey on restricting the flow of refugees. Desperate to keep this in place, EU leaders have been relatively muted on the increasing authoritarian practices of Ankara and its growing closeness to Moscow, fearing major criticism could risk the vital deal.

In this context, they have not raised serious objections to Turkey’s increased presence in northern Syria or its inability to prevent the HTS takeover in Idlib, all contributing to the latest round of fighting.

Blow from the Trump administration

US President Donald Trump’s Syria policies have similarly played a role. The triumph of HTS was virtually guaranteed when he cut the last US programme funding moderate rebels in July 2017. A year later, he declined to protect a de-escalation zone in southern Syria that he had guaranteed with Russia, ensuring its fall.

Not only was this another blow to the few remaining moderate rebels, it also allowed Assad to continue his programme of deporting surrendering rebels who refused to reconcile and their families to Idlib, ensuring it became a densely populated, vulnerable refuge housing several million people.

More recently, Trump’s decision to partially withdraw from eastern Syria emboldened Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of which impacted the Idlib crisis.

Western policy, therefore, has played a major role in shaping the outcome of Syria’s war and the current conflict zone of Idlib. Today, Idlib is a densely packed region of vulnerable civilians, ruled over by HTS radicals, with next to no Western influence. Their fate will be determined by Russia, Turkey and Assad.

But this has not accidentally happened while Western governments looked the other way. In most cases, the events that have led to this outcome in Syria since 2011 were heavily influenced and often led by Western leaders. They might not have foreseen these outcomes, but much of the blame for this crisis lies with them – although they share it with Assad, Putin, Erdogan and others. It is a myth to say Western governments have been “inactive” in any way.