Russian airstrikes ensured victory for the Assad regime, a setback for the United States and its allies.
By Dilip Hiro*
Bolstered by Russian air support, the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad has retaken virtually all of eastern Aleppo controlled by the rebels since 2012. It’s a turning point in the civil war and strengthens Assad’s hand in international negotiations on Syria’s future. The victory for Assad and his international backers – chiefly Iran and Russia – represents a serious setback for the United States and its allied Gulf monarchies.
Civil wars are always brutal, but Syria’s stands out for the sheer scale of casualties, refugees and infrastructure destruction. About 400,000 citizens have been killed in the country of 22 million, reports the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. As many as 6.1 million Syrians have been internally displaced. Another 4.8 million have become refugees in the neighboring countries and beyond. Economic losses during the first four years of conflict are put at $206 billion with four out of five Syrians living below the poverty line. There have been countless airstrikes on civilian targets, deliberate or accidental.
Civil wars, irrespective of how started, draw in foreign countries as patrons of warring domestic factions. War grinds on as long as outside powers maintain sufficient interest. When they conclude that their proxy is unlikely to win, or continuing investment of men and materials is not worth the costs, the conflict ends. This happened with the Lebanese civil war, 1975 to 1990. It started with an attack by a Lebanese Christian militia on a Lebanon-based Palestinian group and induced intervention of Syria, Israel, Egypt, Libya and the United States. It went through nine phases and ended only when the foreign states, except Syria, lost interest.
By contrast, Syria’s internal armed conflict, in its sixth year, is much more complex and far reaching. It started as a non-violent uprising, part of the pro-democratic Arab Spring movement in 2011, and mushroomed into a bloody war, involving Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as the US and Russia.
In the region the conflict acquired a sectarian profile. The government of Assad, a member of the Alawi sub-sect within Shia Islam, was backed by Shia-majority Iraq and Iran, and Hezbollah, a party of Lebanese Shias, It was opposed by Sunni governments of Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In August 2011, US President Barack Obama called on Assad to step down. The CIA, working with Turkey’s intelligence agency, helped coordinate procurement and delivery of weapons and ammunition, paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to Syrian rebels, and later sponsored its own anti-Assad faction. With Jordan, Qatar provided the CIA bases for training and arming anti-Assad insurgents.
Initially, Russia helped Syria diplomatically by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions – a move backed by China. Russia military intervention began in September 2015.
The Kremlin’s stance rests on the Putin Doctrine, which is that any group that raises arms against an established government is terrorist. Assad subscribes to the same doctrine. Both Putin and secular Assad are fierce opponents of political Islam as are Chinese leaders.
Historically, given its friendly relations with the Soviet Union since the early 1950s, Syria stayed out of the American orbit. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, maintaining cordial relations with the Kremlin became “business as usual” for Syria.
Internally, levers of power are held largely by Alawis who, at 12 percent of the population, are one-sixth the size of the Sunnis. Other non-Sunni Muslims – Ismailis and Druze – and Christians, fearful of their status in an Islamic state, have backed the status quo. Thus, about a third of the Syrian population supported the Assad regime. Another third opposed it vehemently and filled the insurgent ranks. The abiding weakness of the anti-Assad camp has been its heterogeneity – ranging from those advocating multiparty democracy to others denouncing democracy as a Western construct irrelevant to an Islamic society. To the chagrin of democrat Sunni leaders, jihadi Islamists, such as al Nusra Front, have been the best organized and armed.
Externally, the Sunni regimes lacked unity of purpose.Whereas Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been aligned with Washington on creating a democratic Syria, the autocratic rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lukewarm to the idea.
Syria has the advantage of an alliance with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, which held during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. In 2004, the two countries signed a formal strategic cooperation agreement, allowing Iranian missile sales to Syria and ongoing intelligence sharing. A defense pact followed in 2006.
Iran helped Assad to overcome attrition in his army due to defections and casualties in two ways: It dispatched units of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to Syria and trained the 100,000-stong National Defense Forces as part-time volunteer army reserves. It also backed Hezbollah militia, experienced in urban warfare, to assist the Syrian Army retake territory lost to rebels. The cost to Tehran for these activities, estimated by Staffan de Mistura, UN envoy to Syria, was $6 billion a year.
The Iraqi government of Premier Nouri al Maliki, a staunch Shia, permitted Iran’s overflights delivering military supplies to Syria. He shipped oil to the cash-strapped Assad regime at half the market price. He and Haider al Abadi, his Shia successor after 2014, allowed a free flow of Shia volunteers to Syria to protect the holy shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, in Damascus.
On the opposing side, Turkey sponsored the formation of the Free Syrian Army led by defecting officers from Syria, and provided it a safe zone and base of operations. Working with Riyadh and Doha, Turkey acted as a conduit for supply of arms and other supplies to the Syrian rebels. It encouraged reconciliation among quarreling rebel factions. Initially the US supplied the Free Syrian Army with such non-lethal aid as pickup trucks and food rations, but quickly began providing training, cash and intelligence to selected commanders.
By all accounts in August 2015, Assad was on the ropes, the morale of his dwindling army at rock bottom. Strong backing by Iran and Hezbollah had proved insufficient to reverse his faltering hold on power.
To save Assad’s regime from collapse, Kremlin military planners decided to shore up air defenses and boost the depleted arsenal of tanks and armored vehicles. They turned Russia’s airbase near the Syrian port of Latakia into a forward-operating base, shipping in warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and armored-personnel carriers. They also deployed advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
Within a year of this intervention, most major Syrian cities were back in government hands, and rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack. Morale of the Assad regime had improved, even if the size of its army had diminished.
The region’ balance of power shifted. Between October 2015 and August 2016, top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin: Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was followed by the deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s military; the ruler of Qatar; and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Lastly, Erdoğan traveled to St. Petersburg to meet his “dear friend” Putin. In a striking reversal, Turkey’s president stopped calling on Assad to step down.
the future of the Middle East. Russian airstrikes played a vital role in enabling Syrian ground forces, aided by Iraqi militias and Hezbollah fighters, to regain eastern Aleppo.
It seems that the formal end to the civil war will be on pro-Assad terms. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s In short, by virtue of limited military intervention in Syria, Putin acquired enhanced leverage in decisions affecting regional rival, has consolidated its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. And the emerging Iran-Syria-Russia axis is set to challenge the hegemony that the United States, allied with Gulf monarchies, has enjoyed in this oil-rich, strategic region for many decades.
*Dilip Hiro is the author of Lebanon, Fire and Embers: A History of the Lebanese Civil War (St Martin’s Press, New York). His latest book on the region is A Comprehensive Dictionary of the Middle East (Interlink Publishing Group, Northampton, MA). Read an excerpt.