The Syr­ian cru­cible

As­sad’s bru­tal vic­tory

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - By Has­san Has­san

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


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

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