After Assad

assadOn June 3, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran would stand by the Syrian regime to the end. The following day there was news of some 10,000 Iranian and Iraqi Shiite soldiers who had come to Syria to defend the capital Damascus. If we consider this news together with a senior Israeli officer’s assertion that Syria is “falling apart”, we can conclude that we are approaching the last act of Syria’s blood-soaked tragedy.

The Syrian army is no longer functional, and its soldiers have been filmed running away from the fighting in the Idlib region. Today, in practice, Syria is controlled by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qasem Soleimani, assisted by Iranian Shiite militia and Hezbollah, who fought to protect Bashar Assad’s regime.

The imminent collapse of the Syrian Baath regime is hardly a surprise. On the contrary – it is surprising it has clung on so long. From the moment the revolution began, it was clear the regime in Damascus didn’t stand a chance. In December 2011, Ehud Barak, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time, claimed that the Assad family had finished its historical role and would disappear within a few weeks. Barak got the timeframe wrong, and the weeks turned into years, but he was right in essence. Assad’s historical role has certainly come to an end together with the rest of the dictators in the Arab world, from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

But why did the Syrian people need to suffer such a terrible tragedy when the end result was known from the start? How is it that a regime, which has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens and in the eyes of the international community, is permitted to continue to destroy the country’s towns and cities, slaughter its people, and turn seven million people into refugees?

Those primarily responsible are undoubtedly Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the Iranian regime. They supplied the arms, funds and – in Iran’s case – soldiers which enabled Assad to survive. But this is not the full picture. President Barack Obama and the US administration are also responsible for what has been happening in Syria and the Middle East. It was Obama who, taking global strategic interests into account and ignoring the fate of more than 20 million Syrians, decided to prioritize the nuclear deal with Iran along with good relations with Russia.

It was Obama who decided to hand over the keys to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Malaki, representative of the Shiite factions. It was Obama who reached an understanding with Russia about the chemical weapons in Syria, thus giving Assad a green light to continue to massacre his people. In return, Obama was granted the Ukraine crisis which threatens to tear the country apart; the collapse of Iraq when ISIS conquered its second largest city, Mosul, in June 2014 and announced the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate; the breakup of Syria; and finally the breakup of Yemen too.

In a somewhat hysterical response to a situation running out of control, Obama gathered together an international coalition against ISIS while failing to arm the Syrian opposition and intentionally avoiding a war against Assad’s regime. Obama coordinates his actions with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (who took over from al-Malaki) even though al-Abadi continues to depend on Shiite militias who answer to Tehran. US policy has caused Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to lose all faith in the US, and they watch impatiently as it sacrifices Iraq and Syria to Iran for the sake of the nuclear agreement.

What led to the crisis in the US relations with the Gulf States was the Shiite Houthi uprising in Yemen, with Iranian backing, against the legitimate government. In response, the new Saudi ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, changed his strategy. Under Salman, the Saudis got together an Arab coalition without coordinating with the US, and began an extensive campaign in Yemen – “Operation Decisive Storm.” At the same time, Saudi Arabia joined forces with Qatar and Turkey (until recently its sworn enemies) to fight Assad and Iran. Marking Iran as the main strategic enemy succeeded in pushing aside the question which had divided these three countries in the past – how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. While Saudi Arabia considers it a strategic threat, Qatar and Turkey support it.

The changes to the regional strategic alliances enabled the Syrian opposition, including Jabhat a-Nusra and other factions, to unite its forces under what is called Jaish al-Fatah (“the liberation army”). To US dismay, Jaish al-Fatah received arms and funds from the new allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) which shifted the balance of forces against those loyal to the regime in a number of fronts. From April 2015, the regular Syrian army was defeated again and again, particularly in the north-west regions of Syria (Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour).

Meanwhile the US-initiated coalition against ISIS has failed to stop the organization’s advances. In Iraq, the city of Ramadi fell to ISIS in May 2015, after regular troops fled. At the same time, the historic city of Tadmor (Palmyra) in Syria also fell to ISIS after Syrian troops withdrew. These setbacks suggest that US policy is ineffective.

Now, at the beginning of June, the US embassy in Damascus has accused Assad of cooperating with ISIS and evacuating regions near the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition to enable ISIS to take them over. And indeed, there is logic to these accusations. Assad perceives this opposition as a strategic threat – after all, it is fighting his regime and aims to bring him down. But he perceives ISIS in a different light, and is prepared to accept an Islamic Caliphate in the desert regions of Syria and Iraq, along with a Shiite regime in Baghdad and the Alawite regime in Damascus.

Syria is now occupied by three main forces: Assad’s regime, supported by Iran and Hezbollah, controls the large cities and the coastal region; ISIS controls the desert region in the east; and the Salafi army (led by Jabhat a-Nusra), supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, controls the southern and north-western regions. None of these presents a viable governing alternative. Shiite fundamentalism is not an option for the Sunni majority in Syria. But Sunni fundamentalism in its Saudi version too, whether in the form of ISIS or Jabhat a-Nusra, is unacceptable to most Syrians.

The Syrian people did not rise up against a secular dictator in order to replace him with a religious dictatorship no less corrupt and murderous. The democratic Syrian opposition, which calls itself “the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces,” is not strong enough to impose itself, but is nonetheless an important force than could, with determined international support, constitute a viable governing alternative. Its leadership is currently located in Istanbul, biding its time, without real support from anyone.

The US administration’s unwillingness to support the Syrian democratic opposition created a vacuum into which marched Sunni and Shiite extremists. The secular, civil opposition which brought about the Syrian popular uprising has been weakened and has lost its prominence to the militias of ISIS and Jabhat a-Nusra. Meanwhile the governmental vacuum enabled Iran to effectively take Assad’s place.

One of the signs of this collapse is the hostility that broke out in the highest echelons of the security establishment. This hostility led to the murder of Rustum Ghazaleh, commander of the security forces, who was considered the most senior figure in Assad’s regime. According to reports, which are hard to verify, Ghazaleh expressed opposition to Iran’s central role in managing the regime’s affairs. At the beginning of March he was summoned to a meeting with military intelligence chief, Rafiq Shehadeh, where he was severely beaten by bodyguards. A few weeks later he died of the injuries.

Now, as the world becomes increasingly aware of the Syrian regime’s deterioration, ideas abound regarding what should be established after Assad’s final fall. US Secretary of State John Kerry has recently met with Putin to try to persuade Russia to give up on Assad and reach an agreement, on the understanding that the regime has no chance of emerging victorious through military means. Kerry’s weakness stems from the fact that Washington’s credibility is low. The magic formula which the US is trying to impose – based on the Yemenite model of pushing the leader aside while leaving the regime’s governing mechanisms intact – cannot be applied in Syria. This is because for two years, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have controlled Syria together with Hezbollah – not Assad’s regime.

In Yemen, the US dictated an arrangement which was to put an end to the wide popular protest against the loathed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, by replacing him with the vice-president. But even in Yemen this arrangement fell apart like a house of cards. Again and again, the Americans err in their efforts to impose undemocratic solutions which ignore the people’s will. This happened in Iraq, when a policy of “de-Baath-ization” was imposed (getting rid of anyone who had been connected to the Baath party), and it is happening now as they try to come to an arrangement which would perpetuate Syria’s rotten, repressive regime.

UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is talking in Geneva to the various parties involved, has also proposed a solution to end the war. Another proposal has come from the Egyptian regime, which summoned to Cairo Syrian opposition forces willing to consider an arrangement which would leave Assad in place. Meanwhile in Riyadh, an alternative conference of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces is forming, in the hope that a position can be agreed on in preparation for the third round of talks in Geneva.

Assad has finished his historical role, but there is nobody to take over. As long as Syria’s fate is in Iranian and Saudi hands, it will continue to bleed along with the rest of the Middle East. The National Coalition, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberals and the Left, is the only viable alternative in Syria today. Like in Tunisia, here too the path to a solution begins with the willingness of all sides to cooperate on the understanding that the future Syrian regime must be democratic and pluralist. The international community has turned its back on the national opposition and enabled the murderous chaos to spread to monstrous dimensions. Only determined support for the democratic option can unite the Syrian people and put an end to the bloodbath which has spread for four years before the apathetic eyes of the rest of the world.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger


About Yacov Ben Efrat