By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
If 2018 is to be recorded in history as the year the Syrian uprising against the rule of the Assad dynasty was defeated, 2019 is likely to be the year that will see steps to rehabilitate the regime of Bashar Assad, who is likely to continue as the head of the Syrian state for a long time to come thanks to Iranian and Russian help.
Arab countries have convinced themselves that containment is better than confrontation if they are to continue to oppose Iranian meddling in Arab affairs, as well as to contain Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s resurging ambitions to lead the Islamic world.
In 2019, European countries will also likely join the overtures that were started by Arab countries to re-engage with the Damascus regime. But, make no mistake, Syria after the rebellion and subsequent war will be a fractured country for a long time; mentored and manipulated by an array of forces with divergent interests. Assad and his cronies are likely to rule indefinitely, aided by Russia, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey and an absent America under President Donald Trump. The US is racing to create new realities on the ground that will weaken Syria further, but will stop short of eclipsing the Assad family’s rule.
Russia under Vladimir Putin has made no secret of its resurgent voice in the Middle East and on the international stage. Russian military power and diplomacy worked to prop up and consolidate the Assad regime’s grip on power and to rehabilitate its state institutions following its decisive air power deployment in September 2015, which helped pulverize the opposition groups.
The Iranians are also working parallel to the Russians, seeking to modify the composition of the Syrian demographic by resettling, in depopulated areas, the families of imported sectarian militia fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan as a thank you for helping to prevent the fall of Assad.
The Syrian opposition groups have, for a long time, warned that paramilitary units working alongside regime forces will become the norm in the Syria of the future. Opposition sources allege that a model similar to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces and Yemen’s Houthis will see such militia units trained and armed by Tehran. The militias have the organization and the lethal force capabilities to check the authority of the national armed forces, the police and other internal security organs.
Turkey, on the other hand, would be content to see that Syria’s Kurdish minority is tamed and not granted any autonomous areas that could, in future, fuel similar demands north of the border, where Turkey’s 10 million Kurds reside. Turkey is also likely to push to keep its 10-20 km buffer zone inside Syria as a safety valve against any Syrian government plans for a Kurdish autonomous area, even if backed by Moscow.
The Arab countries that initially supported the rebellion against Assad have shown pragmatism. Sudanese President Omar Bashir’s recent visit to Damascus and meeting with Assad is a clear indication that the anti-Assad Arab countries are ready to do business with him again. The UAE was the first to announce it would resume work at its embassy in Damascus, with Bahrain swiftly following suit.
Syria under Assad is in no hurry to turn the page and commit to political reform and power-sharing, which would pave the way for reconstruction efforts and the return of the millions of Syrians who fled the violence. That is why it is no surprise to hear Syrian opposition figures and activists speak of the need to repatriate the largest possible number of Syrian refugees to their country, even with limited or no international, regional or local safety guarantees. Those opposition figures warn of controversial efforts to encourage Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to emigrate West rather than return to their homeland without proper security guarantees.
So there is a gloomy outlook for Syria and half of the Syrian people for 2019. As UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said recently: “The British long-standing position is that we won’t have lasting peace in Syria with that (Assad-led) regime, but regretfully we do think he’s going to be around for a while.”
Statements such as this give credence to the dark Syrian humor that has been circulating lately that Assad might as well start prepping his 17-year-old son Hafez (named after the late president and Bashar’s father, who ruled Syria from 1971 to 2000) to succeed him as president one day.
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.