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.

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.

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.

The Battle for Syria – available for pre-order!

My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is out in September, but you can pre-order now on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.

Book cover

Most accounts of Syria’s brutal, long-lasting civil war focus on a domestic contest that began in 2011 and only later drew foreign nations into the escalating violence. Christopher Phillips argues instead that the international dimension was never secondary but that Syria’s war was, from the very start, profoundly influenced by regional factors, particularly the vacuum created by a perceived decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. This precipitated a new regional order in which six external protagonists-the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar-have violently competed for influence, with Syria a key battleground.

Drawing on a plethora of original interviews, Phillips constructs a new narrative of Syria’s war. Without absolving the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, the author untangles the key external factors which explain the acceleration and endurance of the conflict, including the West’s strategy against ISIS. He concludes with some insights on Syria and the region’s future.

‘Syria’s horrific civil war has been profoundly shaped by the competitive interventions and proxy wars by external powers. The Battle for Syria offers a brilliant, essential account of the international dimension of Syria’s descent from uprising into insurgency and brutal state violence. This sober and judicious book will become a standard text for those seeking to understand Syria’s tragedy.’ – Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East

Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.

The Golan Heights: ripples of civil war in Israel’s little piece of Syria

By Christopher Phillips

Published in The World Today, June 2014

The Golan Heights is home to thousands of Druze who cling on tenaciously while looking over their shoulder at the chaos in their homeland.

The first thing that strikes visitors to the Golan is its natural beauty. The second is how empty it is. From different vantage points on the Heights you can see the densely packed villages of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. But the fertile Golan – an area the size of Berkshire – has barely 40,000 residents.

Until the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan was home to 145,000 Syrians. It took Israel barely 30 hours of fighting to push the Syrian military out, swiftly punishing the Ba’ath regime for their shelling of Israeli villages from the plateau. The official Israeli line is that the all the Syrian civilians fled with their army.

Fawzi, a Golan resident who was 13 when Syria lost the territory, scoffs. ‘How could 145,000 people flee in 30 hours?’

Recent research by Shay Fogelman, a Haaretz journalist, supports his scepticism. Through declassified documents and witness accounts, Fogelman suggests that while many did flee, more than half remained only to be systematically driven off by the Israeli military. Three months later, most of the Golan’s villages had been bulldozed, and only 6,011 Syrians remained.

Today, Israel’s Tourism Ministry advertises the region as ‘one of the most beautiful and most visited parts of the country’. Israeli tourists enjoying the empty landscape contrast sharply with the 400,000 descendents of the Golan refugees living in cramped Damascene appartments. Many are now ‘twice refugees’ living in Jordanian camps after fleeing the Syrian civil war.

While Damascus used Israel’s occupation of the Golan as justification for decades of oppression at home, little was done to reclaim it, with the Syrian front being Israel’s quietest border. Israel has in the past considered returning the territory in exchange for peace with Syria, but the negotiations in 1999-2000 and 2007-8 broke down in recrimination. The eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011 by rebels challenging the 40-year-old Assad dictatorship has all but ended any prospect of diplomacy.

The Syrians who remained in 1967 and their descendents now number 20,000, living in five villages in the far north of the Golan. Almost all are Druze, a schismatic sect of Shia Islam based mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, whose multicoloured flag is seen affixed to many Golan homes. Their religion partly explains their survival on their land in 1967. Some residents suggests that the Druze’s bitter history of leading a revolt against French rule in Syria in 1925 made them more aware than other Golan residents of the perils of flight, and hence community leaders in 1967 ordered villagers to stay put. But others suggest a more cynical explanation which is supported by Fogelman’s research.

According to Fogelman, the Israeli army – knowing that the Druze in Mandate Palestine had proved willing to accept Jewish rule after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – left the Syrian Druze in place in 1967, hoping that they would do the same. This proved a miscalculation.

In 1981 Israeli law was formally extended over the Heights, an illegal annexation in all but name that has never been internationally recognized, and the Golan Druze were invited to take citizenship. Less than 10 per cent accepted the offer, and they were ostracized as the region erupted in a two-year campaign of strikes and protests. Many, Fawzi included, spent time in Israeli prisons, ‘for being nationalists’.

In Majdal Shams, the largest of the villages, the anniversary of the 1981 annexation is commemorated annually by thousands of marchers waving the flags of Syria’s Ba’athist government.

‘We know that we are a de facto part of Israel, and that we won’t go back to Syria any time soon,’ says Dr Taisseer Maray, director of the Golan for Development centre which provides health, education and agricultural support. ‘But we have to defend our culture which Israel is attacking. They want to make us “Druze Israelis”, but we’re not. We’re Syrian.’

According to its director, the centre provides a ‘parallel structure’ to enable Syrians to cope with ‘long-term occupation’ so that they don’t depend on Israeli services.

Outside the centre, views are not so black and white. Nearly 50 years of occupation has brought a degree of pragmatic co-existence between Syrian and Israeli. Residents of the Golan enjoy full citizenship rights, though their nationality is officially ‘undefined’, and many work and study ‘down there’, as the locals call it.

Wael, a 30-year-old postgraduate, lived in Haifa for ten years. ‘I have many Israeli friends,’ he says, ‘but, of course, we don’t talk politics.’ For some younger villagers like Wael and the many others smoking shisha and drinking in Majdal Shams’s many cafes, the rhetoric of Syrian nationalism is a bit stale.

‘I don’t even know what Syria is,’ says Wael, ‘The occupation began long before I was born.’ For Najat, manager of the village’s largest hotel that caters for Israeli skiers, ‘Our primary worry is not politics, it’s that there was no snow this year.’

Yet even among the village’s pragmatists, variations of Arab, Syrian and Druze identities run strong. There is strong solidarity with the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. Similarly, both Najat and Wael complain of ‘anti-Arab racism’ in Israel. Moreover, there are now 20,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan. While the settler movement here is far smaller than their more ardent West Bank equivalent, the new arrivals, proudly living under the blue Star of David flag, now represent half of the Golan’s population. ‘They’re trying to box us in,’ remarks Fawzi, complaining that the tiny Jewish settlement of Nimrod was placed amid Druze villages to prevent the latter’s expansion.

It is the situation in Syria, not Israel, which attracts most concern. Machinegun fire and shelling from the civil war can be heard daily in Majdal Shams. While in Syria itself most Druze have sided with Assad, fearful of the sectarianism espoused by Sunni radicals among the rebels, in the Golan opinions seem evenly split.

During the civil war’s early years, there were fights between supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition in the village’s main square. As throughout Syria, families and communities are torn by competing loyalties. ‘I like Bashar,’ smiles Najat, ‘but my husband’s with the opposition. So we try not to talk about it.’

Some insist that informants for Assad operate within the village, prompting displays of loyalty out of fear of what might happen to their families in Syria. Others are genuinely supportive of Assad, believing the alternative would mean sectarian fanaticism in Damascus. ‘I worry what would happen to us if Bashar fell and then the Golan returned to Syria,’ ponders Wael, ‘Sunni radicals don’t like the Druze. That said, Bashar is trying to be a king in a republic, and that’s just wrong.’

Fawzi, Dr Maray and those working at the centre tend to support the opposition. ‘The Assad regime is the worst in history,’ declares Fawzi, who displays the threestarred flag of the Syrian opposition on his desk. ‘Sadly, the majority in Majdal Shams supports Bashar. They are scared of anti- Druze fanatics.’

The war is getting closer, with Israel reporting that both the rebels and Assad’s Lebanese allies Hezbollah have crossed into the Golan during 2014. In March, three Israeli soldiers were injured in a blast, prompting a retaliatory air strike.

Yet, as ever, the last Syrians on the Golan have no choice but to wait and see what fate the powers around them will deliver. That said, after 50 years there remains a determination to keep their culture, independence and spirit alive – whichever flag they live under. 

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.