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.

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.

Idlib offensive: Turkey’s tradeoffs with Russia put it on the losing side

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 19 February 2020

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s advance on Idlib province appears to be a disaster for Turkey. Ankara’s rebel allies have been rapidly overrun, while 13 soldiers have been killed while manning Turkey’s observation posts.

Up to 800,000 people have been displaced, but Turkey has closed its border, reluctant to add to the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it already hosts.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted angrily to the Syrian offensive, threatening retaliation – but his calls for Assad and his Russian ally to withdraw to previously agreed ceasefire lines have been ignored.

Long time coming

Yet, for all of Erdogan’s bluster, this was a long time coming. Assad has long coveted Idlib, vowing to reconquer “every inch” of Syria lost during the nine-year civil war against his rule, and Russia has helped him to break ceasefires elsewhere.

This assault fits an established pattern of Russian-Turkish tradeoffs in Syria, whereby Russia grants Turkey a territorial concession in exchange for turning a blind eye to an Assad advance elsewhere.

The pattern began with Operation Euphrates Shield in the summer of 2016, when Turkish forces, alongside their Syrian rebel allies, moved to push the Islamic State (IS) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Turkey’s border.

With Russia controlling western Syrian airspace, Moscow’s approval was needed, and a deal was struck. Turkey would gain a zone of influence between al-Bab and Jarablus, and in exchange Ankara would quietly end support for rebels in eastern Aleppo, facilitating Russia, Iran and Assad’s conquest of the city.

A similar story played out in 2018. Turkey again needed Russian agreement to expand its zone westwards, to push the YPG out of Afrin. In exchange, Erdogan said little when Assad cleaved off the eastern third of the Idlib de-escalation zone that Turkey had theoretically guaranteed.

Similarly, though Turkey made noises of condemnation, it did little to prevent Assad from recapturing the three other de-escalation zones in Ghouta, Rastan and Daraa later that year.

In line with this pattern, the tradeoff linked to Assad’s latest attack on Idlib was Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, launched in October 2019. It invaded northern Syria once more, pushing out the YPG and carving out another zone of influence from Tal Abyad to Ras-al-Ayn. Turkey didn’t need Russian permission this time, as eastern Syrian airspace was controlled by the US, which surprisingly facilitated the operation against its Kurdish allies. But Russian President Vladimir Putin soon endorsed the move by agreeing to joint Turkish-Russian border patrols – an effective legitimation of the occupation.

Turning a blind eye

Russia reaped further rewards. Washington’s sudden abandonment of the YPG allowed Moscow to broker a partial reconciliation between Assad and the Kurdish militia, allowing Assad to march into YPG-held territory east of the Euphrates.

Yet, this seems too small a prize for Russian acquiescence to Peace Spring, given it has long seen Kurdish-Assad reconciliation as an eventual likelihood anyway. It is likely that parts of Idlib were also on the table when the joint border patrol negotiations were underway. This might also have been discussed when Turkey and Russia called for a ceasefire in Libya in January.

Given the pattern of tradeoffs, Russia might have expected Turkey to turn a blind eye when Assad launched his assault on southern Idlib in late December of last year. Ankara had done little, beyond rhetorical outrage, when Assad took Khan Sheikhoun earlier that year.

From Ankara’s perspective, given that the Syrian government had struggled for months in Khan Sheikhoun, they may have hoped Assad’s forces would exhaust themselves with similar slow progress. It might have taken years for Assad to advance all the way up the coveted M5 and M4 highways, bogged down by rebel and jihadist forces. Every slow campaign gave Ankara more opportunities to wring concessions from Russia.

Instead, Assad’s blitzkrieg came with unprecedented speed and ferocity. Not only did his forces take the M5 highway to Aleppo within weeks, they then fanned out north of Syria’s second city, securing it from enemy rockets for the first time since 2012. While the Turkish president may have been expecting a long, drawn-out campaign around southern Idlib, he instead faced the partial collapse of the entire de-escalation zone.

The junior partner

Evidently, Erdogan miscalculated – yet for all his anger, talk of a breakdown in Russia-Turkey relations over Syria seems premature. Moscow still controls the airspace over Ankara’s zones of influence in Afrin and al-Bab, while Turkey remains the junior partner in a growing economic and security relationship. Indeed, for all their disagreement on Idlib, Turkey has been keen to emphasise that this won’t derail the wider Russia-Turkey relationship.

For this reason, Erdogan would struggle to follow up on his threats with a decisive retaliation against Assad. Having spent four years rebuilding Assad’s military, Russia would not likely allow Turkey to inflict serious damage on it without responding. It may, however, accept tokenistic losses that Assad could absorb, similar to the now-regular raids on Damascus from ​​Israel.

Turkey’s pouring of troops and equipment into western Idlib suggests it wants to create new demarcation lines, to secure Idlib city and a slither of the former zone, rather than attempt to reconquer the lost lands. For this, it will eventually need to make another deal with Russia.

Though worried about refugees, Ankara can probably cope. It has already encouraged 250,000fleeing Idlib to head to its other Syrian zones of influence, such as Afrin and al-Bab. It is also possible some will be bussed to Tal Abyad.

Moscow comes out on top

One of the reasons given for Operation Peace Spring was to create space for two million Syrian refugees. Though publicly this was meant to be from the 3.6 million already in Turkey, it is not overly cynical to think Erdogan had half an eye on Idlib. One possible future tradeoff with Russia may be to allow Turkey to expand the Peace Spring zone to house more displaced Syrians.

That said, it is clear that Turkey has not always read Russia well on Syria. While tradeoffs have directed the relationship, Moscow has always ended up in a stronger position. Whatever deal can be arranged for Turkey to salvage something from the Idlib zone, the course of the war so far suggests it will be short-lived.

Assad is determined to retake all of Syria, and Russia seems committed to helping him do it. Turkey may be winning some short-term tradeoffs, but losing on long-term strategic goals.

Structure, Agency and External Involvement in the Syria conflict

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary University of London

Barack Obama is frequently blamed for the outcomes of the Syrian civil war. The rebels’ failure to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, the growth of a Jihadist presence that culminated in the declaration of ISIS’ Caliphate and the intervention of Russia are frequently attributed to the then-US president’s actions.[1]Such charges give considerable agency to the US president and western leaders. Yet is this accurate?

The debate over responsibility for the outcome in Syria should be understood within the terms of an ongoing debate among International Relations (IR) scholars over how much influence the choices of individual leaders have over major events such as wars and diplomacy, and how much they’re constrained and directed by overarching structural conditions. The structure-agency debate in IR is long lasting and in some ways unresolvable.[2] The core question within these debates, whether agency or structure is more significant in determining international relations, has been of particular interest to Middle East scholars and policy makers when seeking to explain the successes and failures of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.[3] Ahmed Morsy expands on these debates elsewhere in this collection, explaining how Neo-Classical Realists (NCR) have sought to bridge such divides by showing how foreign policy is produced by an interaction of domestic politics with global structural conditions.[4]

This paper argues that while the Syrian case emphasises the primary importance of global and regional structure in limiting policy, interaction with domestic politics and the agency, character and choices of leaders often determines the shape and nature of actions taken within those constraints. This paper will explore first the major international structural conditions that shaped Syria’s war and then analyse key decisions by outside players over the course of the conflict, assessing how much structure and agency affected the outcome. It concludes that while leaders such as Obama always have agency, in most cases in Syria their decisions were heavily constrained by structural factors beyond their control.

Regional and Global Structural Change

The Syria conflict, which swiftly evolved from domestic peaceful protests into multiple simultaneous civil wars and international proxy wars serves as a useful test case to contribute to this structure-agency debate, given the number of external actors involved and the number of key decisions seemingly impacting the war’s outcome.

In the decade preceding Syria’s uprising a series of structural changes occurred that would greatly impact the conflict and shape external player’s reactions, on both regional and global levels. The regional international system was shifting to an embryonic multipolar order. Since the retreat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s the Middle East could be characterised either as a unipolar order dominated by the US and its allies, with this dominance challenged not by a peer competitor but by a weak set of players including (at different times) Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and non-state actors Hezbollah and Hamas.[5] This order was unsettled in the 2000s, primarily by two factors: the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war and wider global and regional economic developments, that interacted to shift several regional (and also global) structural conditions. Firstly, Iran broke out. The fall of Saddam alongside a domestic economic boom enabled Tehran to be more regionally expansive than at any time since 1979. This led to the second shift, more active Saudi Arabian involvement in Middle Eastern politics to contain its regional enemy.

Though this Saudi-Iranian rivalry produced clients and rival blocks, this did not solidify the 2000s’ weak bipolar order because of a third shift: Turkey’s entrance as a regional power. This was due to domestic political and economic factors – the Islamist-leaning ideology of its ruling AK party and the hunt for new markets for a booming manufacturing sector. Qatar, benefitting from a fossil fuel boom driven by Chinese demand, also entered regional politics as an independent force. Qatar and Turkey’s ambitions ensured the regional system became multipolar rather than bipolar.

A final regional structural shift was the growth of fragile states. The collapse of Iraq after 2003 and growing instability in Yemen increased the arenas for regional competition within this emerging multi- polar order. It also created space for significant Jihadist and other non-state actors. In the run up to 2003, Lebanon and, to an extent, Palestine had been the primary battleground for regional rivalries. After 2003 Iraq and Yemen were added to this list and, after 2011, Libya, Syria and (briefly) Egypt. These latter two shifts were particularly impacted by internal developments and the ambitious policies of particular leaders, while the first two owed more to external structural changes. This neatly echoes Morsy’s point of how difficult it is for Neo Classical Realists to consistently place more emphasis on either structure or domestic factors to explain foreign policy change.

At the global level, the international system was also shifting, though less obviously, towards a multi-polar order. The US’s imperial over stretch and failure in Iraq in 2003-11, public war weariness and the 2008 financial crisis meant the US was becoming less inclined towards interventionism.[6] This contributed to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 who promised a withdrawal from Iraq and a tilt towards Asia. At the same time China’s economy was booming and challenging the US-dominated order in South East Asia and Africa, while Russia was also becoming more assertive under Vladimir Putin. The multi-polar international order would become more visible during the course of the Syria conflict, but the ingredients were present by 2011, stretching back to the strategic blunder of the 2003 Iraq war and its unintended consequences.

This structure of regional multipolarity embedded within a declining global unipolarity would have notable consequences in Syria.

The Regional Level: Intervention from Local Powers

To illustrate how leaders’ decisions interacted with and were often constrained by these structural conditions, the remainder of this paper case studies key decisions, often seen as the turning points in the conflict. Arguably the most significant decision was that made by Bashar al-Assad to violently supress protests in 2011, which set Syria on the path to war. The internal structure of Syria’s politics generates its own fascinating structure-agency debate which we don’t have time to explore here. The focus instead is on the key external decisions that shaped the war, and three stand out: the decision by regional powers to sponsor Syrian fighters rather than seeking mediated solutions; the decision by the US to limit its intervention in the conflict until the emergence of ISIS in 2014; and the decision by Russia to intervene on Assad’s side in 2015.

The eagerness of regional powers to send money, weapons and support to Assad and his opponents in the first years of the crisis played a major role in its rapid escalation from protests to civil war.[7] The opposition, for example, received direct and indirect encouragement from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pursue a military solution in the face of Assad’s violent suppression in 2011-12. The embryonic Free Syria Army was allowed to base itself in Turkey in July 2011. Qatar funnelled arms to the rebels via its Libyan allies as early as November 2011, and promised $100 million in support in February 2012. Saudi Arabia used tribal allies to procure arms in February 2012, the same month that it and Qatar urged the international community to back the rebels.[8] This contrasted with their swift abandonment of an Arab League peace initiative barely a month after its creation in December 2011. Though they noted Assad’s frequent violation of the agreement, both were arming rebels soon after its collapse, suggesting a lukewarm interest in mediation at best.

On the other side, Iran also encouraged a violent response from its ally. Iran initially urged Assad to avoid mass slaughter, but when Damascus ignored these pleas, Tehran still supported it. In 2011 the first Iranian military advisors arrived in Damascus. The next year Tehran dispatched its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to fight the rebels, and by 2013 there was a sizeable Iranian-sponsored military contingent in Syria eventually including Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani Shia militia, commanded by IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani. As the conflict turned violent Iran increased its military resources rather than means to peacefully resolve the crisis.

These actions were shaped by the structural changes discussed. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed themselves to be ‘pro-war’: believing violence was the quickest and most effective route to topple Assad. Qatar and Turkey’s activism was enabled by the structural shifts of 2003-11, giving each the confidence to intervene. Had a similar uprising broken out in Syria in 2001, the Kemalist government in Ankara and a then-insignificant Qatar would not likely have acted the same way. Saudi Arabia likewise may have been more cautious. The growth of Iran and the perceived ‘loss’ of Iraq in 2003 meant many Saudi Arabian policy makers looked at Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to correct the perceived regional imbalance. Iran’s position was less impacted by structural shifts. The Assad regime was an ally since 1979 and Tehran would likely have sent help if asked irrespective of the post-2003 changes. That said, the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian ally did make it easier for Iran to act: giving Iranian planes access to Iraqi air space after December 2011 allowing easier resupply to Damascus.

Such structural changes did not make the regional powers’ behaviour in 2011-12 inevitable, but they transformed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s regional position, making their entry into the conflict seem easier and thus more likely.

The Global Level: Washington and Moscow

Despite the emerging multi-polar order, the US was still the world’s most powerful actor. Had it decided to, the Obama administration would have been able to topple the Assad regime by force. The fact that it did not do so has led many to attribute Assad’s survival to Obama’s inaction: emphasising agency. Yet Obama was constrained by structural forces, limiting his realistic options. Obama could have ordered a direct US-led military attack on Assad, like George W. Bush in Iraq. However, the failures of 2003 showed Obama that military-led regime change did not always produce favourable outcomes. Neo-Classical Realists would further note domestic constraints: the public were not on side as they had been after 9/11, and the economy was weak following the financial crisis. Even had he wanted to, and it certainly wasn’t his preferred course, Obama would have struggled to shake off these limits.

More feasible was greater US support to rebel forces, possibly including air support, as occurred in Libya in 2011. Yet Obama did not trust the rebels sufficiently, correctly fearing Islamists and Jihadist among them, and recognised this still would be insufficient to tip the balance against Assad. He twice vetoed an arming plan by Hilary Clinton and David Petraeus for these reasons in 2012, even though he eventually relented and sent limited weapons from Spring 2013. Two structural factors came into play here. Firstly, the presence of jihadists was greatly exacerbated by the 2003 Iraq war. Secondly, the growth in power and influence of regional actors such as Qatar meant that the US struggled to monopolise the flow of arms. Indeed, in Libya when the US did back the rebels more extensively, they couldn’t prevent Qatar and UAE from backing rival groups and destabilising the post-Gadhafi environment. Indeed, the debacle of post-intervention Libya further deterred Obama in Syria. Obama was also conscious that the US had a bad record of arming proxies going back decades. In that sense perhaps Obama’s agency did come into play as he was much more willing to reject the foreign policy establishment’s usual tools in an attempt to avoid past mistakes.[9]

Obama’s twin decisions on direct strikes – not to go through with a prepared attack on Assad in September 2013 after he allegedly used chemical weapons, and putting together an international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 – also suggest considerable agency. The US military and White House staff were fully prepared for a missile strike on Damascus in 2013, only for Obama himself to defer at the last moment. Echoing Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s point elsewhere in this collection about the significance of ‘middle powers’, the UK parliament’s vote not to join the strikes seems to have contributed to the president’s wavering. Obama eventually reasoned that he would more effectively remove chemical weapons from Syria via a proposed deal with Russia. Yet this was not all down to his agency and structural factors came into play. Russia’s increased global importance made it a viable partner to facilitate a deal. Obama’s caution also stemmed from a fear that the strike would set a precedent and suck the US into another Middle Eastern quagmire – something he was reluctant to do after unpopular failures in Iraq and Libya.

So why did Obama then launch a direct intervention in Syria barely a year later, against ISIS rather than Assad? Though the arena was the same, the mission was quite different. In 2013 the attack would have been to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and possibly to help topple a dictator. In 2014 Obama’s intervention, while also having a humanitarian framing in preventing a Yezidi genocide in Iraq, was presented domestically as counter-terrorism. Unlike in 2013 Obama made no attempt to seek congressional approval, launching it via executive order. This might suggest Obama’s agency is the best explanation. However, there were strong structural drivers. The growth of Jihadists actors like ISIS had emerged out of the structural changes of the 2000s: the chaos of post-2003 Iraq. While Obama did not seek congressional approval, there was broad support for his actions, unlike in 2013 when Obama’s aides feared he might lose any vote.[10] After 9/11 US law makers and public opinion were broadly united on the need to confront jihadists, whereas the perceived threat from dictators like Assad was far less.[11] In fact, in the post 9/11 era it is hard to imagine many US presidents being less confrontational that Obama on groups such as ISIS.

A third and final key decision was Moscow sending its air force to Syria in 2015, later supported by Special Forces and military police, which shifted the conflict decisively in Assad’s favour. While victory was still not guaranteed, Assad’s defeat was off the cards from this point. This intervention was the product of several actions. Firstly, Iran’s appeal to Moscow for help – sending Suleimani to Moscow in summer 2015. Secondly, President Putin’s decision to act. There were several motives behind his involvement that show the NCR’s interplay between domestic and foreign factors: a desire to contain radical Islamists that might infiltrate southern Russia; appealing to Russian Orthodox supporters by protecting Syria’s Christians; asserting Russia’s resurgent foreign policy against the West; and providing combat experience for the Russian military. However, the timing of the intervention was due to an imminent threat that Assad might collapse.

The agency factor here is quite strong. Structurally, the emerging multi-polar global order which permitted Russia to be more active came about due to factors beyond Russia’s control: the economic boom of China in the 2000s and the imperial and financial over-stretch of the US. Yet how Moscow inserted itself into this order owed much to the policies of its leader, which are either ingenious or reckless depending on your perspective.[12] Putin responded aggressively to the changing regional environment. The 2008 Georgia war was a prelude to further military and covert operations including the Ukraine campaign and annexation of Crimea in 2013-14, the intervention in Syria in 2015, interference in the US election of 2016 and various acts of espionage in the UK. In the Syrian case, while the structural forces perhaps necessitated Russian involvement to save its ally, the form it took seemed very ‘Putinist.’ Russia could, for example, have sent planes to be commanded by Syrian pilots or to be under Assad’s command. Yet Putin intervened directly – making a significant geopolitical statement beyond just saving Assad. The shifting structure of the international system provided space for Russia to act, in this case deterring the US from becoming directly involved and potentially blocking Moscow’s 2015 intervention, but it was Putin’s agency that determined the shape of the involvement.

Conclusion: Structure Over Agency?

The actions of international leaders impacted how the Syria conflict played out and personality mattered. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emir Hamad of Qatar were both ambitious and interventionist while alternative leaders may have been less reckless. Likewise, Obama was instinctively cautious, while Putin was a gambler. However, the options available to them were enabled or constrained by the structural environment in which they operated. Erdogan and Hamad were only able to act because space had opened up in the emerging multi-polar regional order. Obama was cautious because of US imperial overstretch and Putin felt he could be reckless because of structural US retreat. In some cases structure seems particularly dominant. This is especially so with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose regional enmity appears relatively fixed, whoever is in charge.

Individual decisions did shape specific outcomes, such as Obama’s decision to call off his strike in 2013 or Putin’s to intervene in 2015. However, the overall trends seemed more directed by structure. Putin was likely to prop up Assad, even if the shape of the intervention was particular to him. Obama could have gone ahead in 2013, but he would not likely have allowed himself to be sucked further into the Syria conflict. His strike may have ended up like Donald Trump’s hits on Assad in 2017 and 2018: a rap on the knuckles, but not the decisive intervention oppositionists hoped for. The fact that Trump has not substantially stepped up US Syria policy, despite posing as the anti-Obama, reinforces the notion that structure rather than agency drove responses to this conflict. Obama may frequently be blamed for the outcome of the war, but in reality regional and global structural conditions appear more important in driving the Syria conflict than the agency of whoever was sitting in the White House.

Endnotes:

[1] See for example Cohen, Roger, ‘America’s Syria Shame,’ New York Times 8/2/16 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/opinion/americas-syrian-shame.html [accessed 10/10/18]; Tisdall, Simon, ‘The Epic failure of our age: how the West let down Syria’ The Guardian 10/2/18 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/epic-failure-of-our-age-how-west-failed-syria [accessed 10/10/18]; Gerson, Michael, ‘The horrific results of Obama’s failure in Syria’ Washington Post 3/9/15.

[2] Bieler, Andreas, and Adam David Morton. ‘The Gordian Knot of agency—structure in international relations: A neo-Gramscian perspective.’ European Journal of International Relations 7.1 (2001): 5-35

[3] Hinnebusch, Raymond. ‘Conclusion: agency, context and emergent post-uprising regimes.’ Democratization 22.2 (2015): 358-374; Valbjørn, Morten (2017). Strategies for Reviving the International Relations/Middle East Nexus after the Arab Uprisings. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 647-651.

[4] See also Ripsman, Norrin M., Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell. Neoclassical realist theory of international politics. (London: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Different interpretations discussed in F. Gregory Gause, ‘Beyond sectarianism: the New Middle East Cold War’, Brookings Doha Center (2014); Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation (London: Scribe, 2013); Curtis Ryan, ‘The new Arab cold war and the struggle for Syria’, Middle East Report 262 (2012): 28–31.

[6] Lynch, Marc, ‘Right-Sizing America’s Mideast Role’ Foreign Policy 11/1/13 https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/11/right-sizing-americas-mideast-role/ [accessed 10/10/18]

[7] Phillips, Christopher, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 82

[8] Ibid p.137

[9] Goldberg, Jeffrey, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ The Atlantic April 2016

[10] Brian Beutler, ‘Obama’s Bombing Syria Without Authorization—and Congress Couldn’t Be Happier’ The new Republic 23/9/14 https://newrepublic.com/article/119544/obama-authorized-isis-strikes-syria-and-congress-ok [accessed 10/10/18]

[11] The importance of perception is expanded on and explored elsewhere in this collection. For example, May Darwich discusses the role of perceived roles in regional politics and how those roles can change, while Curtis Ryan and Ahmed Morsy both reconsider’s Steven Walt’s classic text on the importance of perceived threat in explaining alliances and behavior.

[12] Rachman, Gideon, ‘Putin is reckless, but not irrational. He can be deterred’ The Irish Times 20/3/18

Bashar al-Assad’s international rehabilitation has begun

By Christopher Phillips, Washington Post, 5 January 2019

For Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, 2018 ended well. Alongside President Trump’s announced withdrawal of  U.S. troops from eastern Syria, several Arab states indicated they were willing to reconcile.

In December, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first Arab leader to visit Syria since the civil conflict broke out in 2011. Soon afterward the United Arab Emirates, previously opposed to Assad, announced it was restoring ties with Damascus, with Bahrain and Kuwait indicating they could soon do likewise. With Tunisia resuming direct flights to Syria and Jordan reopening trade ties, many observers suspect Assad’s days as a regional pariah are numbered.

Saudi Arabia, a lead rebel sponsor during the war, seems increasingly willing to accept Assad remaining in Damascus, hoping to lessen his dependence on Riyadh’s regional rival, Iran. It is even expected that the Arab League, which expelled Assad following his brutal crackdown on protesters in 2011 that initiated the civil war, will welcome him back in 2019.

How isolated was Assad really?

Of course, Assad was never that internationally isolated — one of the main reasons he has survived. Vital assistance from allies Russia and Iran is well documented. Russia ensured that Damascus faced no United Nations-led sanctions, such as those suffered by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, while alongside Iran, Moscow provided aid, loans and support to keep Assad’s state and military just about functioning.

The remaining BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa), like many non-western states, did not demand Assad stand down. China was most supportive, vetoing anti-Assad U.N. Security Council resolutions six times since 2011, but India, too, retained ties to Damascus, fearing the rise of Islamists and possibly rewarding Syria for its past pro-Delhi stance on Kashmir. Brazil withdrew its ambassador to Syria, but for safety reasons rather than an explicitly anti-Assad action. Even before the recent election of right wing “pro-torture” President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil stated its wish to restore full ties and take part in reconstruction.

Rebuilding Syria will be costly

The BRICS and Assad’s allies are unlikely to provide much of the estimated $400 billion needed to rebuild postwar Syria. The wealthiest, China, seems lukewarm, while Russia and Iran lack the funds. Assad and his allies have long recognized that only Persian Gulf or Western aid could provide the reconstruction billions needed, and this is the true value of any warming of Arab ties.

While rejoining the Arab League brings economic reward and marks a symbolic end to attempts by Assad’s Arab enemies to topple him — and will be used by the Syrian dictator domestically to underline his victory — even in the Arab world Damascus’s isolation was never complete. Lebanon and Iraq refused to join any gulf states-led sanctions and maintained close ties, while Jordan retained a diplomatic presence in Syria even while forced by the war and external political pressure to halt trade and grant rebel fighters safe haven. Further afield, Algeria, a fellow dictatorship that also fought an insurgency in the 1990s, opposed the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria and acted as backchannel thereafter, while the Sisi regime in Egypt also developed covert ties.

Roadblocks to Assad’s rehabilitation: the U.S., E.U. and Turkey

Despite these positives, Assad’s road to full rehabilitation remains blocked by three significant obstacles: the United States, the European Union and NATO-ally Turkey. The United States seems the most immovable of these. While Trump’s shock decision to withdraw troops from Syria boosts Assad’s stated desire to reconquer, “every inch,” of territory, there is no indication this will come alongside any softening toward Damascus. Pro-Israel and anti-Iran voices in Washington make it unlikely U.S. sanctions will be lifted anytime soon. These restrictions on U.S. companies and citizens dealing with or financing any work in Syria remain problematic and deter international investors.

E.U. sanctions are similarly problematic, although not as harsh, but the Europeans are more ambivalent about Assad. There has long been a split among E.U. members on Syria: France, Britain and Germany backed Washington’s tough stance, but doubts were expressed by Syria’s neighboring southern European states.

With Assad’s survival now all but guaranteed, these voices — many hosting Syrian refugees that they want to return — will grow louder. As Britain departs the E.U. and Germany hosts 600,000 Syrians, France may find itself unable to prevent a shift in European policy. E.U. policy is slow-moving and will still seek to attach conditions to the gradual lifting of any sanctions or provision of aid. While it may eventually split with Washington on Syria, Assad will have to wait some time yet.

The more pressing obstacle, however, is Turkey. Syria’s economy and especially its war-ravaged second city, Aleppo, would be greatly boosted by reopening routes into Turkey — currently blocked by both Ankara and the Turkish-backed rebels controlling Idlib. Though Turkey has dropped demands for Assad to go, three contested areas prevent reconciliation.

First, after Trump’s withdrawal Ankara and Damascus could come to blows over eastern Syria. Turkey wants to push out Washington’s former Kurdish allies it sees as terrorists, while Syria may reach accommodation with them to regain the region. Much will depend on whether Russia can mediate any deal.

Second is Idlib, the last rebel-held pocket of Syria that Assad is determined to retake but is protected by Turkey, which fears being flooded with refugees and militants should Idlib fall. Finally, there is the chunk of northern Syria between Afrin and Jarabulus currently held by Turkey through rebel proxies Ankara seems reluctant to give up. These issues are unlikely to be resolved swiftly. Even if some kind of agreement can be reached over border trade and highways, Turkey and Syria seem years way from any kind of normalization.

Assad will welcome any return to the Arab League, but its significance should not be overstated. On the one hand Syria was far from isolated throughout its civil war, and on the other it remains a long way from reconciling with western governments and Turkey. Not that this will overly concern Damascus. The Assad regime has decades of experience withstanding western and regional sanctions and isolation, most recently in the mid 2000s.

Its strategy has long been to wait for international conditions to change in its favor than alter its policies. The recent opening from Arab states will further vindicate this approach, and Assad will be confident that eventually the west and Ankara will also come round, no matter how long it takes.

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

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 30 August 2018

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

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

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

Seven-year rebellion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Idlib’s de-escalation zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attacks on key towns

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

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

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

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

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

The World Abetted Assad’s Victory in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Atlantic, 4 August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Syria’s war is far from over

By Christopher Phillips in Middle East Eye, 10 January 2018

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

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

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

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

Far from over

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capturing ‘every inch’

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

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

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

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

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

Assad and the Kurds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.