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President Bashar al-Assad is winning in Syria. Russia has shifted the balance of power there dramatically. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN might insist that Assad negotiate with his opponents and ultimately cede power to them, but the Syrian president has no intention of accepting such demands. His advisers state that he will go to talks in Geneva this month “to listen, but not to negotiate.” In other words, he is still out for victory on the battlefield. As the United States enters the now delayed UN negotiating process, it will have to stay flexible in its expectations and objectives in light of the shifting military balance on the ground.
The main reason for Assad’s renewed confidence is a clear reversal of military fortune. Three months ago, Assad’s army was beleaguered. A large confederation of jihadist and Islamist militias calling themselves the Victory Army had achieved something resembling unity. Built around Syria’s two strongest militias—al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syria franchise; and Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful Salafi militia in the country—the Victory Army conquered two strategic northern cities, Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour, in quick succession this spring. These victories attracted many other militias into their orbit and promised success. The expulsion of regime forces from Jisr al-Shughour not only meant the independence of Idlib more generally but put Latakia, a regime stronghold, in serious jeopardy. The new resistance army seemed to overcome the opposition’s chronic fragmentation; it was also well armed and supported by the region’s Sunni states.
But Assad’s greatest advantage—a fragmented opposition divided into more than 1,000 constantly feuding militias—seems to be back. Recently, over 20 rebel militia leaders have been assassinated, most by a breakaway faction of the Victory Army. The militias that the United States trained and armed at great expense have been crushed, not by Assad but by other rebels.
Meanwhile, Russia’s advanced aircraft, helicopters, and tanks have been pounding the Victory Army for months. Russian aircrews fly close to 200 sorties a day, allowing Assad and his allies to go on the offensive in both the north and south of Syria. Ahrar al-Sham has agreed to go to talks in Geneva, an about-face, after snubbing the UN envoy Staffan de Mistura as an Assad lackey only months ago. Al Qaeda’s Syria leader pronounced those who head to Geneva guilty of “high treason,” a clear death threat but also an indicator of clear anxiety. Another sign of desperation was the call put out by the Victory Army to foreign fighters to come join their ranks. Non-jihadist members of the coalition were infuriated by this tactic, which would inevitably associate them with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and withdrew from the coalition. Assad, in short, is dividing his enemies and counting on his ability to pick off one at a time.
To be sure, Assad’s advances have been hard fought and slower in coming than his advisers insisted they would be. The reason is the state of the Syrian army, which is in shambles, worn down by years of fighting, poverty, and corruption. All the same, it is hard to imagine Assad losing or being thrown back to some Alawite ethnic canton.
The real question is how much of Syria Assad can retake. Assad believes that the Russians will carry him to the finish line, but that is not at all certain. The Syrian regime already rules over some 75 percent of Syria’s Arab population. Assad seems convinced that he can bully the remaining 25 percent into “accepting” the bitterness of defeat in exchange for the end to deprivation and war. But that will likely take years. Much depends on Turkey and the Gulf states, the primary sponsors of the rebels.
Syria’s Kurds may also accommodate themselves to Assad. They constitute ten percent of the population and live in a long ribbon of territory dividing Syria from Turkey that they have named Rojava. Despite wresting the land from Assad, ISIS, and the rebel militias at great cost, the Kurds may accept autonomy within a Syrian state rather than independence as the price of protection against Turkey. Assad, too, may find a Kurdish enclave a useful buffer against Turkey.
Most important to Assad has been the attitude of the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama’s first reaction to Russia’s entry into the war on September 30 was to state, "We're not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.” This was consistent with the administration’s long-standing reluctance to go beyond its current support for a small number of armed groups opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow has had a long and important relationship with Damascus; Washington has not.
But Obama has not ceded Syria to Russia entirely; rather, he established a tacit division of labor, by which the United States combats ISIS in the east of the country while Russia combats Assad’s foes in the west. Moreover, Obama believes Russia will fail in its endeavor to restore Assad’s control over the country as surely as it failed in Afghanistan in 1979. The fight will become a “quagmire,” he predicted, which will force the Russians to come back to the United States for a negotiated solution. He might be right.
Although Moscow would doubtless favor a negotiated solution that preserved the Assad regime, Russian officials dismiss the notion that Syria can be likened to Afghanistan or even to Iraq; rather, they insist that the better analogy is Chechnya, where Russia’s superior airpower devastated the rebels at Grozny. After all, they argue, no one is arming the Syrian opposition with antiaircraft weapons, as U.S. President Ronald Reagan did the Afghan mujahideen and Arab jihadists.
The war of analogies rages on a second front as well. The U.S. administration’s unwillingness to get involved as a combatant in Syria’s civil war—and not to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia—is explained as a desire to avoid Iraq redux. But in thinking analogically, the president’s critics say, Obama has mistakenly assumed that the cost of intervention will replicate the steep price paid by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. Accordingly, the president’s alleged fixation on Iraq has blinded him to the costs of inaction, which are on display now in Syria and more broadly within the region: a humanitarian disaster, the empowerment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, ISIS’ emergence, Assad’s smug survival, and the anguished disappointment and resentment of traditional allies.
Radicalization was not the result of the United States’ inaction. Obama could do nothing to keep the opposition from radicalizing or from forming myriad militias based on clan, village, and tribal loyalty.Yet despite their bitter sniping, it seems unlikely that Putin’s activism will lead Israel or allies in the Gulf to distance themselves from the United States. Having favorably compared Russia’s indiscriminate use of force in Syria with U.S. reticence, Israeli officials are now fuming over Russia’s transfer of weapons and know-how to Hezbollah, Israel’s sworn adversary. And as far as the Gulf states are concerned, Putin’s on the wrong side in the Syrian civil war. Within Syria, the United States long found Russia’s military presence to be a manageable problem in the context of U.S. security requirements in the eastern Mediterranean. Why the presence of a much weaker Russia within a shattered country whose rump government can’t threaten Israel or Jordan, let alone Turkey, should induce panic is unclear. The limited threat to U.S. interests would not seem to be a compelling reason to plunge into someone else’s civil war.
It’s also unclear what the appropriate analogy might be, if not Iraq. The Balkans intervention took place under very different circumstances, when Russia was too weak, distracted, and dependent on Western aid to get in the way. Libya as an analogy is scarcely more encouraging than Iraq. The Saudi intervention in Yemen is unlikely to result in a more stable and habitable country.
The cost of inaction, where inaction is defined as the failure to turn the rebels toward the West and empower Syria’s moderates by providing them with arms and money early on, is difficult to assess. The assertion that the United States has already taken on such costs assumes that had the United States done something, the Russians would not have intervened, the armed opposition would be unified, jihadists marginalized, and Assad on the ropes.
But radicalization was not the result of the United States’ inaction. Obama could do nothing to keep the opposition from radicalizing or from forming myriad militias based on clan, village, and tribal loyalty. The same process of radicalization and fragmentation has taken place in every Middle Eastern country where the state has been overthrown by force, whether in Iraq, Yemen, or Libya. Although Syrian liberals do exist, they are not numerous enough or strong enough to take power and hold the country together. In every instance, foreign-driven regime change has led to state collapse, social fragmentation, and radicalization.
Unfortunately, Middle Eastern potentates have built states that are a reflection of themselves; they collapse when the dictator and his family are changed. They do not have professional civil services and are not built on solid institutional foundations. Regime change brings state collapse. This is what happened when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was overthrown, it happened with the destruction of the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and it would happen in Syria. Getting rid of Assad and his ruling clique would likely lead to state collapse, which is precisely why both the Iranians and the Russians will not risk it. Think of what Saudi Arabia would become without the Al Saud. Even Jordan would likely come unglued without the Hashemite monarchy to bind together its disparate parts. The radicalization and chaos in the Middle East is the United States’ fault to the extent that it has pursued too much regime change, not because it has pursued too little.
To judge how incompetent the rebels have been in providing a viable or attractive alternative to Assad, one need merely consider the situation in the province of Idlib, where the rebels rule. Schools have been segregated, women forced to wear veils, and posters of Osama bin Laden hung on the walls. Government offices were looted, and a more effective government has yet to take shape. With the Talibanization of Idlib, the 100-plus Christian families of the city fled. The few Druze villages that remained have been forced to denounce their religion and embrace Islam; some of their shrines have been blown up. No religious minorities remain in rebel-held Syria, in Idlib, or elsewhere. Rebels argue that Assad’s bombing has ensured their failure and made radicalization unavoidable. But such excuses can go only so far to explain the terrible state of rebel Syria or its excesses. We have witnessed the identical evolution in too many other Arab countries to pin it solely on Assad, despite his culpability for the disaster that has engulfed his country.
Tragically, an Assad victory cannot solve the underlying problems that sparked the civil war, even if the regime defeats ISIS, ejects all terrorists, and facilitates large-scale repatriation of refugees. And no one can stand by watching Syria’s descent into ever greater misery without feeling responsible. But neither can anyone seriously accuse the United States of being ungenerous with its citizens’ lives and treasure or of having no ideals. Americans have learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan that despite their best efforts, nation building in the Middle East is beyond their ability to carry out alone within fragmented, traumatized societies.
The United States can and will help Syria, but it won’t do so by declaring war on the regime or the regime’s Russian ally. Nor will it help by splitting the country into a resource-poor and sparsely populated eastern half, where the United States remains locked in a perpetual war with jihadists, while the Russians and the Assad regime sit astride a populous, relatively urbanized western Syria with access to the sea.
Regardless of the dark future implied by the present, the United States and its allies must continue to press for a diplomatically managed transition that eventually leads to Assad’s departure, encourage cease-fires that drive down the level of violence pulsing through Syria, ramp up the West’s humanitarian work, and, of course, continue to batter ISIS. Above all, it must keep its sights set on a unified Syria, while embracing a resilient approach that accounts for Assad’s emerging edge. This is a tall order and will demand a strategic patience that will be tested daily by the mounting human cost of the crisis. But there is no alternative.