Foreign Affairs: The remapping of Syria

While basking in his gains on the battlefield, Bashar Assad has lost for good the nation his father bequeathed him.

Rubble of damaged buildings in Syria (photo credit: Reuters)
Rubble of damaged buildings in Syria
(photo credit: Reuters)
US campaign advisers Arthur Finkelstein and James Carville have not been hired, but Bashar Assad will still win next month’s election, and proceed to a third seven-year term as president of Syria.
Coupled with Egypt’s election – to be held one week earlier, with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s victory also predestined – and the world may be resigned to the conclusion that three-and-a-half years of upheaval have landed the Arab world back at square one. This impression may be right in Egypt, but it is unfounded in Syria, whose future will be markedly different from its past.
The feeling of déjà vu is justified in Egypt, where Sisi is indeed a product of the previous establishment, and where the country has survived its upheaval intact, if bruised. Syria’s situation is entirely different. Though Assad has indeed defied early assessments that his political days are numbered, and despite gains on the battlefield, the process of Syria’s breakup is under way – and irreversible.
Impressions that Syria is also returning to square one were enhanced this week, with the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special envoy who has spent nearly two years trying to get Assad and his enemies to agree to a cease-fire.
Brahimi, a seasoned Algerian diplomat who had been an effective negotiator in Afghanistan and Iraq, gave up after two unfruitful rounds of talks in Geneva were followed by Assad’s announcement that he would hold the election as planned. That move has rendered Brahimi’s efforts obsolete, because the splintered Syrian opposition’s most common denominator, and most consistent demand, has been that Assad depart.
Assad’s diplomatic success has been more than defensive. Not only has he managed to stem the momentum that might have unseated him, he also cultivated alliances with two superpowers, Russia and China, and with one regional power, Iran, all of which keeps arms supplies and cash flowing in, if insufficiently. This configuration has so far proved far more solid and efficient than the much more reluctant and loosely connected counter-alliance behind Assad’s enemies.
With the US failing to deliver on its vow to attack Syria’s chemical weapons installations, Assad saw the rest of the coalition he faced, including Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, all fail to unseat him, or even seriously equip and train the rebels.
At the same time, Assad’s cause has been consistently backed by Moscow and Beijing, so much so that UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon this week decried the Security Council’s failure to bring an end to the bloodshed – which has cost over the past three years some 150,000 fatalities, and displaced an estimated 6.5 million Syrians.
Assad’s diplomatic success has been compounded by gains in the battlefield.
After having consolidated his grip on Damascus, Assad has just registered a significant breakthrough in Homs, just outside Lebanon’s northeastern tip. The town that now looks as devastated as Stalingrad the morning of its liberation, last week saw its last 1,000 rebels leave through a negotiated corridor.
The triumphant return of Assad’s troops to the city where three years ago thousands filled the streets demanding his regime’s end, understandably enhanced the impression that he is in the process of fully offsetting the effort to topple his regime and reinvent his land.
North of there, in Aleppo, Assad’s air force has been dropping so-called barrel bombs on neighborhoods where the rebels have also been pushed to the defensive, this while, according to France, the Syrian president launched multiple gas attacks – even after signing the deal to dismantle his chemical weapons.
Chances are Assad’s troops will in upcoming months be marching into Aleppo, prewar Syria’s commercial heart, thus consolidating the impression that his victory is nearly complete.
Assad the son, many will rush to conclude, has done in 2014 what his father did in 1982 when he leveled the town of Hama. It may not have been as swift, conventional wisdom will go, but like his father, the son will lord over Syria for many more years, having bled its dissenters white.
Well, he won’t.
BACK WHEN he inherited his father’s estate, many wondered whether Bashar Assad, a soft-spoken ophthalmologist, was built to deploy the kind of brutality that animated his father’s 30-year reign. That question has since been answered, as the son has already killed more than his father, and is apparently not done.
However, while the individuals at play may not be significantly different, times have changed. Assad the father could surround a city with artillery batteries and pound it with its inhabitants inside, knowing the world would take months to learn what he did.
Assad the son has to contend with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, all of which empower the masses in ways the father would doubtfully manage to address any more efficiently than the son.
That is why the formula on which Syria ran in recent decades, which imposed the Alawite minority over the Sunni majority, will not be fully restored. Assad has lost most Syrians’ respect, even to the minimal extent necessary for dictatorial rule, and the people have learned how to stand up to authority, even the Syrian leadership’s.
There are accumulating indications – geographic, ethnic and social – that this assumption is shared by many on all sides of the civil war.
Geographically, Assad’s offensive is limited to the west. That is why Homs, which sits between Damascus and Aleppo, not far from the coast and also on Lebanon’s edge, is so vital to him. That is also why Assad’s army has been fighting hard to defend Quneitra, which borders Israel on the Golan Heights, and is on the southern end of the western realm that he seems out to carve. Indeed, even here Assad’s grip is shaky, as local rebel groups this week seemed to be closing in on Quneitra while Assad was unable to send them sufficient reinforcements.
Ethnically, and in line with his operations’ geographic pattern, Assad seems for now to have given up on the Kurds. Numbering about 2 million, this minority is split by rival parties, one of which intends to elect at the end of this month a regional assembly.
Just how Syria’s Kurds end up managing their effectively seceded region remains to be seen, but no one expects Assad’s return there anytime soon.
Lastly, the war is depleting Syria socially. With the currency decimated, food prices trebled and assorted armed bands roaming many parts of the country unpoliced, a generation of children is growing up in a moral moonscape of shortage and crime, never even entering, let alone graduating, elementary school.
While this is happening on the lower end of the social ladder, on the upper end there is a growing readiness to flee. For instance, over the past two years more than 70 doctors belonging to the Armenian minority fled Syria to Armenia, part of a larger exodus of at least a 10th of this ancient and relatively affluent minority, which before the war numbered 100,000, more than half of whom lived in Aleppo.
This is a voting by the feet. Armenians leaving Syria are effectively saying they do not believe Assad will restore the Syria they recall, where that minority had an unwritten loyalty- for-protection deal with the regime.
And the damage of such a flight is immeasurable, as the Armenians were part of the country’s commercial class and professional elite.
Assad, in short, has gained the tactical initiative, but strategically the Syria he is salvaging will be very different from the one he inherited. What then, if anything, can be said at this stage about what it will be like?
SYRIA’S FUTURE will be the result of a new Sunni-Shi’ite arrangement.
Back in the days of Hafez Assad and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, few in the West understood the meaning of the two’s ethnicities and denominations.
In fact, they represented minorities that oppressed majorities – in Syria the Sunnis, in Iraq the Shi’ites.
This schism is what drives most of the violence that has raged in both countries since the two’s departures.
Eventually, the roughly 25 million Sunnis on both sides of today’s Syrian- Iraqi border will be pushed into each other’s arms by the Shi’ites who pressure them from the east, and the Alawites and Lebanese Shi’ites who pressure them from the west.
Indeed, this realignment would have already been under way, had this cause not been seized by Islamist extremists who are anathema to most of the relevant external powers. Even so, this is where the local Sunni powers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, along with equally Sunni Jordan – will eventually head. The West’s backing of this will depend on the extent to which the fanatics remain a factor.
This is the context in which the US this week formally blacklisted two al-Qaida leaders currently active in Syria, Abd al-Rahman Muhammad Safir al-Daysi al-Juhni and Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Kaduli, who had come to fight Assad from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, respectively. While labeling the two “specially designated global terrorists,” and prohibiting any American’s financial association with them, the US conducted joint maneuvers with the Jordanian army and air force, not far from the Syrian border.
It will likely take years, maybe decades, for the remapped Iraq and Syria to emerge, and many of the questions it raises – most notably, where Damascus and Baghdad will be – will have to wait for local thinkers to emerge with a vision for the country they want.
However, religious and ethnic dynamics from below coupled with the Sunni powers’ interests from outside will eventually breed this child, with or without Western blessing.
As for Russia, its attitude toward a trimmed Syria remains to be seen, though it should be noted that Moscow’s main interest in Syria, the naval base Assad has given it in Tartus, should emerge from such a reconfiguration on Assad’s turf.
This is besides the fact that a sectarian remapping in Syria will be but a variation on Russia’s own theme in Ukraine.