The Syrian crucible
Assad’s brutal victory
Last year ended on a note of triumph for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Donald Trump announced a rapid troop withdrawal from Syria, shocking everyone including his own generals and diplomats. Then, last week, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in Damascus, which it had closed as part of a campaign of multinational pressure against the regime in 2011. Bahrain followed suit and other countries, including Kuwait, are expected to re-establish ties in the coming year. The Arab League is reportedly poised to re-admit Syria, seven years after expelling it.
These developments come five months after the regime made its most consequential gain against the opposition since Syria’s insurgency erupted, when it took control of Deraa. Deraa had been the last stronghold of non-jihadist opposition; its surrender removed any viable threat against the regime, either politically or militarily, near the capital.
Taken together, the military and diplomatic developments over the past six months leave no room for doubt: Assad has decisively won the conflict. The rebels’ former backers have not only given up on challenging his regime, they now actively want to embrace it – whether in public or in private. Internally, the regime has crushed any potent or legitimate opposition. Jihadists operating in north-western pockets of land under Turkish influence will be unlikely to find a foreign backer. Unlike the geopolitical winds that buffeted Saddam Hussein in the 1990s after the first Gulf war, everything is blowing strongly in Assad’s favour.
Trump’s decision to pull out is a game-changer. After the rebel surrender in the south, two regions had remained outside the regime’s control and both were under the protection of foreign powers, namely Turkey in the north and the US in the east. The two Nato countries had arrangements with Russia about operating in those zones
to avoid confrontation, which meant any further military advances had to be approved by Moscow, not by Assad.
For example, Russia and Turkey, whose foreign and defence ministers met last Saturday in Moscow to discuss Syria, negotiated a deal to avoid a regime assault on Idlib in September, and then maintained the agreement despite Ankara’s failure to meet its commitment of driving extremists out of the only provincial capital under rebel control.
Since September, the US has also redoubled its efforts to prevent the regime from expanding into eastern Syria. Damascus and its backers in Iran saw these areas as sanctuaries for hostile forces that could become entrenched, and whose mandate could change to fighting the regime or Iranian-backed groups. But given the existing arrangements between Russia, the US and Turkey, Damascus and Tehran had little choice but to follow Moscow’s lead.
Trump’s sudden decision has ended that problem: Assad and Iran no longer face the threat of an indefinite American presence in eastern Syria. What happens next in the areas the US has left behind will depend largely on negotiations between Russia and forces that perceive Moscow as a potential ally, not an adversary – namely Turkey and the Kurdish YPG militia.
Russia’s arrangements with Turkey and the US were part of Moscow’s long game, which is different from that of Assad’s other main ally, Iran.
The Russian policy was predicated on securing diplomatic recognition for the Assad regime as the war abated. In this, Moscow has succeeded to a large degree with Turkey since the summer of 2016, as Ankara has focused its energies on preventing the YPG from building a statelet inside Syria.
The two countries worked closely through the so-called Astana process in Kazakhstan to de-escalate the conflict and address Turkey’s concerns. Russia has also sought to convince Washington of the merits of a diluted political process mostly centred on forming a committee to change Syria’s constitution and hold elections.
Russia has long presented itself as a counterweight to Iran in Syria as a way to appeal to the US, Israel and Arab regimes. The idea often circulated in western and Arab capitals is that Russia and Iran may be strong allies, but their approach to the conflict is different. While Russia wants to strengthen the Assad regime’s bureaucratic, military and security institutions, Iran seeks to build loyalist militias, as it did in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the Russian, Iranian and Syrian stars have aligned on the diplomatic and military fronts. With Trump essentially handing Syria over to Russia, the diluted United Nations-sponsored peace process in Geneva has become even less meaningful, shorn of western leverage. What once looked like an American buildup to roll back Iranian influence in Syria and beyond has collapsed overnight. More and more countries now see Assad as a potential bulwark against increased Iranian hegemony in the region.
Moscow has succeeded in persuading countries such as the UAE of the logic that a strong regime in Damascus will become less reliant on Iran and thus less beholden to it. The regime will naturally choose to restore its pre-2011 autonomy if empowered, the thinking goes.
In 2016, the UAE proposed normalising ties with Damascus as part of a plan to peel Assad away from Iran. That plan was snubbed by the Trump administration. But earlier this year, senior Emirati officials began to refloat the idea of restoring ties with Assad, encouraging its Saudi and Bahraini allies to do the same.
The nature of this conflict, then, has changed drastically, with influential Arab countries now using their diplomatic capital to enable the regime to restore control over Syria. Countries that once funded the opposition fighting against Assad are working hard to strengthen him in the hope that he becomes less reliant on their rivals.
Turkish officials have also frequently stated that they would welcome a regime takeover of YPGcontrolled areas if that involved removing the militia from those areas. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said that Turkey would have “no business in Manbij if the YPG terrorists leave”.
Aside from fears related to Iran and Turkey, the recent tumultuous geopolitical changes in the region also favour a lasting consolidation for Assad. A counter-revolutionary axis, led by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, sees his victory as part of their effort to reverse the legacy of the popular uprisings of 2011 and restore autocratic rule throughout the greater Middle East. Even though the UAE frames its diplomatic move as a way to counter Iran, the real driver in Syria – as it was in Egypt and Libya– is about restoring the status quo ante.
This suggests that Assad is unlikely to face the isolation that Saddam faced in the 1990s. Jordan has already reopened its borders with Syria, meaning that Damascus now has trade ties with all its neighbours except Turkey.
Regardless of what happens next, recent developments tick several key boxes for Assad and the security of his regime. Trump’s withdrawal has ended any potential threat originating from an indefinite American presence inside Syria’s borders. It has also effectively killed off any political challenge to Assad through the political process in Geneva – once an objective of the US presence in the country. Restoration of ties with Arab neighbours will consolidate the military gains made over the past six months.
Since the regime took over Aleppo in late 2016, few have questioned Assad’s recovery, but until recently many still doubted his ability to re-emerge as a regional player with normalised relations with other countries. The past year now suggests that he has a real chance of doing just that. There will be many people in the region – and beyond – willing to help. Observer
HASSAN HASSAN IS THE CO-AUTHOR OF ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR AND IS A SENIOR FELLOW AT THE TAHRIR INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY IN WASHINGTON DC
The rebels’ former backers have not only given up on challenging his regime, they now want to embrace it
Turkish-backed Syrian fighters leave the barracks in the rebel-held town of Jarabulus on Christmas Day
Despite challenges to his regime, things are blowing Assad’s way