Heading for 'Syria Minor'

The ‘Greater Syria’ vision that guided Assad the elder is making way for a ‘Smaller Syria’ ploy in the service of an imperial Iran.

Bashar Assad (photo credit: REUTERS)
Bashar Assad
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE BOMB that killed Jordanian Prime Minister Haza Majali and 10 others in the autumn of 1960 awaited him in his desk drawer, where it was planted by Syrian agents.
It was the beginning of a long tradition.
In 1977, Syrian operatives gunned down Lebanese Druse leader Kamal Jumblatt while he was visiting a village in the Chouf Mountains. In 1982, Lebanese president-elect Bachir Gemayel was blown to death along with 26 of his followers by a bomb planted in his Christian Phalanges’ headquarters. In 1989, a 250-kilo car bomb exploded next to Lebanese president Rene Moawed’s motorcade in west Beirut, killing him and 23 others, not far from where prime minister Rafiq Hariri would be massacred along with 20 others in a similar method in 2005, when nearly two tons of dynamite were deployed.
The common denominator among all these targets was that they were seen in Damascus as standing in Syria’s Middle Eastern path. Though the Jordanian case of 1960 was a bit different, having taken place while Syria was nominally united with Egypt, these murders animated an era in which Syrian foreign policy was expansive, as its leaders craved a “Greater Syria” that would include Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and a part of Turkey, too.
Now, as the civil war enters its seventh year while the US joins the fray, that vision is making way for a “Smaller Syria” alternative, in the service of an expansive Iran.
Inspired by longings for the medieval Umayyad Caliphate, which was ruled from Damascus and sprawled from Pakistan to Spain, the Greater Syria outlook underpinned the thinking of Hafez Assad.
The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the Lebanese Civil War effectively recognized Syria’s domination of Lebanon and marked this vision’s first diplomatic success. It was also the last.
The fall of the Berlin Wall three weeks later and subsequent end of the Cold War reshuffled the international system in a way that brought an ever-sober Assad down to earth. With his Soviet patrons suddenly gone from the atlas, the Syrian strongman shrewdly joined the Cold War’s victors and the military coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait.
It was a much better position than the one at which Assad’s archrival Saddam Hussein had arrived, but it also meant that Greater Syria would remain a dream because the superpower that now dominated the Middle East flatly rejected its every aspect.
THE GREATER Syrians thus made do with Lebanon, which Damascus clutched to its bosom unopposed – until Assad’s death in spring 2000. Now, the challenge to Greater Syria would come from a previously improbable direction – Lebanon.
The return of the premiership in fall 2000 to Hariri – the self-made businessman who had led Lebanon’s reconstruction in the 1990s and personified its spirit of cosmopolitanism, enterprise and freedom – was increasingly inspirational for his country and anathema to its Syrian lords.
This was the backdrop against which Bashar Assad followed the advice of his intelligence officers to kill Hariri ‒ a major mistake from the viewpoint of the Greater Syria idea because it sparked the so-called Cedar Revolution’s mass demonstrations, which forced the Syrian army’s retreat from Lebanon in April 2005.
Now, as the US demonstrates a new impatience with the Syrian military’s atrocities, the younger Assad’s strategy seems like an inversion of his father’s legacy as an embattled Damascus effectively crafts a shrunken Syria.
Paradoxically, Israel finds this vision even more dangerous than what it replaces.
gas attack in early April on the town of Khan Sheikhoun was part of a broader ethnic-cleansing effort aimed at chasing Sunnis away from western Syria into the hinterland, and replacing them with Iraqi Shi’ites.
Having regained Aleppo, prewar Syria’s commercial center, Assad’s aim is to consolidate his grip on three assets: the Mediterranean coastline, the Nusayriyah Mountains that loom to its east, and the Damascus- Homs-Aleppo axis that sprawls to their east along Syria’s main highway, the M5, which originates further south by the Jordanian border.
The town targeted by the gas attack is smack on this highway, between Homs and Aleppo, just east of the Nusayriyah Mountains, which are the historic stronghold of Assad’s Alawite minority. The gas attack and the Syrian air force’s subsequent raids on local hospitals were intended to trigger a regional Sunni flight and thus create a residential vacuum that would be filled by an entirely different population. Some of the newcomers might, in fact, be Afghans who were brought by Iran to fight for Assad.
For the Alawites, such a demographic redesign would be a reprieve from their endemic predicament as an isolated minority of fewer than 3 million people who ruled prewar Syria’s roughly 20 million people.
While more than 5 million Syrians have fled their country, and though the displaced are seldom Alawites, Assad and his advisers know that no matter how many they massacre, the bulk of the 20 million Sunnis who lived on both sides of the prewar Syrian-Iraqi border will still be there the morning after the war. That is why they are seeking a demographic barrier between them and the Sunnis, as well as the reprogramming of Aleppo as a Shi’ite-Alawite stronghold.
Officially, Assad’s quest is to gradually reoccupy his entire country, meaning that the Smaller Syria he is currently crafting should eventually serve as a springboard for attacks on what will unfurl to its east. In reality, there is little chance he will restore his political grip on the Sunni population he has shelled, gunned, gassed and dispossessed.
In fact, what Assad is out to build in Syria’s west effectively concedes he has lost its east. Then again, he may compensate diplomatically for what he stands to lose territorially.
Unlike the Greater Syria vision, which enjoyed no external support, the Smaller Syria design is now part of and, in fact, driven by Iranian policy.
The mullahs hope that the Smaller Syria scheme will serve their strategic quest to create a Shi’ite corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. And the Iranians are in a political position to deliver the Iraqi migrants this ploy demands.
This is, in many ways, the Iranian version of the elder Assad’s imperial romanticism.
HISTORIC PERSIA’S imperial reach, which the Jews recall fondly due to the biblical Cyrus’s restoration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, was part of a western- bound thrust that, for more than a thousand years, continuously sought, and occasionally reached, Mediterranean shores.
However, it has been nearly 14 centuries since Persian troops last camped on a Mediterranean coast. The Smaller Syria that Tehran is out to create would provide it with the Mediterranean gateway Persia lost in the 627 CE Battle of Nineveh, when the Byzantines pushed the Sassanid Empire back into Persia.
Esoteric to most others, this history is very relevant to the Russians, who inherited Byzantium’s religion, and to the Turks, who wrested its land.
Moscow will find it difficult to accommodate an Iranian enclave on Syria’s short Mediterranean coast, whose one end is home to Russia’s warships and the other to its jets, as part of President Vladimir Putin’s resolve to restore Russia’s imperial grandeur.
Such a quest cannot be reconciled with an imperial Iran’s competing design.
Iran’s strategic intrusion is even more alarming for Ankara because the Smaller Syria that Tehran is concocting happens to be situated on Turkey’s threshold.
Moreover, the Shi’ite corridor that Smaller Syria is meant to punctuate damages Turkey’s pretension to protect and lead the Sunni world.
It was in this already crowded intersection of foreign powers that 59 Tomahawk missiles landed on April 6, announcing Washington’s arrival in the thick of the Syrian fray.
There was a time when the US actually tried to waltz with Bashar Assad. It happened during the Obama administration’s first two years when Syria’s secular and relatively cosmopolitan president seemed to the American administration like a valuable addition to the rapprochement it was cooking with Iran.
A lot has happened since, including Obama’s unfulfilled threat to attack Assad if he gasses his people; a massive and effective Russian military intervention; and a new US administration’s stated quest to keep away from the Syrian conflict.
But the US has now joined the war. Militarily, the Tomahawk attack constitutes a crossing of the Rubicon and, politically, the Smaller Syria scheme’s Iranian price tag is, for the US, even more intolerable than it is for Russia.
An Iranian continuum from Tehran to Beirut is a strategic nightmare from any Western viewpoint, but even more so from that of the people surrounding US President Donald Trump. As Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser Herbert Mc- Master see things, Iran poses a major threat to the international system’s stability in general, and to the Middle East’s, in particular.
TEHRAN’S MEDDLING in each of the region’s multiple civil wars is bad enough, from their viewpoint, but its creation of a corridor to the Mediterranean would be altogether catastrophic as they see things.
This impatience was also echoed in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement during an April 19 press conference that “Iran’s provocative actions threaten the US, the region and the world.”
That is certainly how things are seen from Jerusalem.
The prospect of an Iranian foothold in the Syrian Mediterranean was brought up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting with Putin in the Kremlin on March 9. Netanyahu, who brought with him Military Intelligence Head Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, presented Putin with evidence that Iran is planning to build a seaport near the Syrian-Turkish border.
Such a presence would “undermine the stability and actually hurt the possibility of a diplomatic arrangement” for Syria, Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting, adding that he “made it clear” that an Iranian buildup in Syria “will be unacceptable to the State of Israel.”
For Israel, a Smaller Syria will be even more threatening than the Greater Syria vision it once faced because, while forfeiting eastern Syria, it will likely dominate Lebanon and potentially consolidate an intensely hostile coastline that will extend from Turkey’s doorstep to the Upper Galilee.
The Iranian project is already running into difficulties.
In its southwestern corner, the Iranian thrust has been stalled as Tehran’s proxies in the Yemeni civil war were blocked ahead of the Bab-el-Mandab Straits where the Arabian Desert overlooks Africa a mere 25 km away. In its northwestern corner, the Iranian scheme is confronted by the Turkish army’s penetration into northern Syria and its resolve to play a central role in the impending conquest of Islamic State’s “capital,” the town of Raqqa.
Once the seat of legendary caliph Harun al- Rashid, Raqqa is some 160 km east of Aleppo and, apparently, beyond the prospective Smaller Syria’s planned borders. If the Turks, indeed, spearhead its conquest, they might well program this predominantly Sunni city of 220,000 as a bridgehead to a Turkish proxy.
Such a scenario has also been helped by the American attack on Assad’s air force.
Whether or not this was intended, the attack makes it impossible for the US to back a full restoration of the Alawite minority’s domination of Syria as if the civil war’s morbidities never happened. The Sunni majority’s hostility is now too obvious, and, morally speaking, Trump has taken its side.
Some kind of east-west slicing of Syria is, therefore, likely, as is the emergence of some kind of Kurdish autonomy in the northeast.
The Iranian hope to turn western Syria into an imperial outpost and a Shi’ite syphon is less realistic. The scheme has been exposed prematurely and is provocative to multiple nations and empires – not to mention the already brutalized Syrian multitudes that a Smaller Syria would eagerly displace.