A conversation with two of the country’s best Syria experts on what the rebel gains actually mean.
- By Aaron David MillerAaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.
The rumors and assessments are flying. Analysts and experts are starting to wonder whether recent rebel gains in the north of Syria don’t constitute some potential tipping point that could signal a fundamental weakening of the regime. Is Bashar al-Assad on his way out?
Of course, this is the same question we’ve been asking ourselves repeatedly for the past five years now. Indeed, in 2011, the conventional wisdom on this matter had all but declared that Assad couldn’t possibly survive his Arab Spring and that he would eventually go the way of the dodo (see: Ben Ali, Mubarak, Saleh, and Qaddafi.)
So here we are almost five years on. Is it going to be different this time? Could it be that President Barack Obama’s August 2011 declaration that Assad must step aside is actually going to be realized — largely as a result of a better organized Islamist opposition, fractures within the security establishment, and the difficulty of recruiting Alawites to fight? Could this really be the end?
The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. And it’s really hard to divine tipping points or moments when there really is a significant change in any situation, particularly in a case like Syria when you’re reduced to reading tea leaves and goat entrails for insights into the Assad regime. So, in search of answers and some clarity on what could be one of the most potentially consequential developments in regional politics in the past five years, I decided to ask the experts, the University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis and the Atlantic Council’s Fred Hof (formerly Obama’s special advisor for the Syrian transition), two of the finest analysts of Syrian politics I know. Here’s what they told me:
Aaron David Miller: Rebel gains in Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour suggest the insurgency is now stronger than ever. Have we reached some sort of tipping point that signals the beginning of the end for Bashar?
Fred Hof: The beginning of the end for Bashar commenced in March 2011, when he elected to respond to peaceful protest against police brutality with lethal violence. There is no doubt his army is now tired, depleted, and demoralized. The army’s backbone — Assad’s own Alawite community — is weary of sacrificing its children for the sake of a clan that (even before 2011) did precious little for the community or for Syria, more generally. Yet Alawites and others grudgingly stick with the regime because of the perceived absence of a recognizable, desirable alternative and because of existential fears stoked by the regime. As for the current tactical developments on the ground, they do not necessarily presage the fall of Damascus or the disappearance of the regime. There is ebb and flow in this conflict, and Iran may again (as it did in 2013) find ways to reverse regime losses with foreign fighters.
Joshua Landis: It is far from over. But the losses at Idlib and Jisr al-Shagour demonstrate much greater rebel organization and strength. It is definitely worrying Assad’s people. What accounts for this new rebel strength and coordination? Jabhat al-Nusra’s two main rebel competitors have been neutralized. The United States has significantly weakened the Islamic State. Nusra destroyed the “moderate” militias that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia supported. This forced the Islamic Front and other militias to accept Nusra as the dominant force and to coordinate with it.
[In Saudi Arabia], the new king has prioritized weakening Iran over weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, reversing the strategic goals of his predecessor. This means that Saudi Arabia is not on the same page as Turkey and Qatar, which promoted the Islamist militias to the chagrin of Riyadh and the United States. But Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham seem to have consolidated their leadership over the rebel forces [under the banner of the Army of Conquest] and have found a way to work effectively together. That is big. There could be a King Salman effect — increased Saudi aid and cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. That may be an important part of recent rebel strength.
Assad will have to improve his military and defenses. He still owns some 65 percent of the Syrian people. There are many reports of his men wanting to avoid military service, however, which will make it hard for him to reverse this blow to morale.
All the same, Assad’s strategy has been to maintain regime outposts in all corners of Syria, in the belief that he could reconquer all [of] Syria. The outpost in Idlib and the salient reaching up to it, which contained Jisr al-Shagour, was weak. It is not certain if the opposition conquest of this vulnerable region dog-legging up into enemy territory is the beginning of the end, or whether it will force Assad to change strategies — retreating from distant outposts to the part of Syria that he believes he can hold. This may force Assad to work for a de facto partition of the country, rather than maintaining his “all corners” strategy.
ADM: Do you buy the idea that there are acceptable Alawites in the military who are either part of the current regime or outside who could speak for their community and emerge as credible interlocutors in a political solution?
JL: I do not believe that a political solution will be found. The Islamist rebels are intent on retaking all of Syria. Assad, so far, is equally intent on taking all of Syria. Assad has demonstrated over four years that he is capable of contracting the land he rules, but not reforming politically. His regime and rule is dependent of the political structure of family rule and traditional loyalties that his father established 45 years ago.
FH: I believe that Alawites must be full partners in a Syria featuring self-rule by empowered citizens. Surely there are plenty of Alawites in the regime-directed military who have served with honor and who have refused to engage in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Syrian opposition should make it clear that the term “Assad regime” refers to a clan and a relatively small circle of criminal enablers, and that all others will be welcome to participate in the politics and defense of a united, post-regime Syria.
ADM: If the Islamist insurgency actually took Damascus, what would unfold for the Alawites and Christian minorities?
FH: Damascus is a large city and the rebellion against Assad’s rule involves many different groups whose leaders represent a range of political opinions and sectarian attitudes. The Islamic State (IS) is not part of the anti-Assad insurgency: it is an Iraq-derived phenomenon working often in tandem with the Assad regime to defeat Syrian nationalist alternatives to it and to the regime. Should IS change its target and go after the regime there would be a spirited and effective defense of Damascus — with or without Assad — because IS’ reputation for sectarian slaughter is well-established.
Should Damascus fall to an alignment of forces similar to that which recently took Idlib — an unlikely development in my view — surely there will be fear within the Damascene populace, and yes there will be incidents of violence. The war unleashed by the regime will not be easily contained or forgotten. But a general, systematic pogrom? Maybe not, but the threat itself ought to inspire Washington to get serious about supporting non-jihadist, nationalist regime opponents. The regime has, after all, gone out of its way over the past four years to implicate minorities and supportive Sunni Arabs in its own crime spree. Washington needs to exercise total control over who gets what from regional powers to the Syrian opposition.
JL: The “great sorting out” that I have argued is taking place in the region would continue. Christians have largely left Syria. They probably account for less than 3 percent of the population today. Alawites would be subject to revenge and their towns looted. There is no reason that the rebels would show mercy to them. Many Alawites would flee to Lebanon rather than find out what awaited them should Islamist militias take their towns. The Islamist leaders consider Alawites unbelievers and apostates. Even the more moderate Islamic Front leaders state that Shiites should be ethnically cleansed from Syria.
ADM: How important is Assad and Syria to Iran, and what are they prepared to do to save him?
JL: Alawite rule and Assad’s regime is very important to Iran. Tehran may spend more money [to support the regime], but I find it hard to believe that it would send brigades of Iranian soldiers to fight in Syria.
FH: During two years’ worth of track two discussions with influential, non-official Iranians, I’ve been consistently told that preserving Assad personally is a top Iranian national security priority. Iran sees him as utterly compliant in supporting Iranian efforts to keep Hezbollah’s anti-Israel missile and rocket force at a high state of combat readiness. Although the domination of Syria is, on its own merits, a hegemonic feather in Tehran’s cap, the Assad-Hezbollah connection is deemed by Iran to be vital in a practical sense. The Iranians fear — perhaps with good reason — that with Bashar Al-Assad gone the regime will collapse, and that no successor would subordinate Syria to Iran in the way Assad has.
ADM: If Assad fell, what would the impact be on Hezbollah?
FH: Unless Iran were able to replace Assad with a similarly compliant and effective funnel to Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese militia leader would become the equivalent of a well-armed military commander who knows he has no prospect of effective resupply. This could have an operationally inhibiting effect on Iran and its Lebanon-based strategic force. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and [Hezbollah chief] Hassan Nasrallah would both know that the employment of the rocket and missile force would be a one-time event. And the force itself would deteriorate over time without steady resupply and upgrading.
JL: Hezbollah would be cut off from its source of heavy weapon supply. Israel and the United States can police sea and air deliveries, but not the overland routes that Assad uses to deliver Iranian arms to Hezbollah.
ADM: Is there an Islamist insurgency capable of ruling the country?
JL: I presume the Islamist forces would find a way to rule Syria.
FH: “Islamist” is a very broad term. Can Syria be ruled legitimately by people who think that sectarian minorities have a lower grade of citizenship than the majority? No. Is it admissible for there to be a political trend in a constitutional republic advocating the position that law should be derived from the moral teachings of the Quran and the Hadith? Yes. But Syria is an ethnic and sectarian mosaic, one that can enjoy the consent of the governed — required for true legitimacy and stability — only if citizenship trumps everything else politically. Is there in the opposition a ready-for-prime-time government? No. Yet neither is the Assad regime fit to govern, unless one is comfortable with mass murder, industrial strength corruption, and tacit cooperation with the Islamic State.
ADM: What would Assad’s fall mean for IS?
FH: IS wants to be one of two parties left standing in Syria. It wants the other to be the Assad regime. IS fears Assad being replaced by an alternative attractive to the Syrians it currently tries to rule. With Assad still in the saddle, IS has the face of sectarian-driven war crimes and crimes against humanity for a powerful recruiting poster as it seeks to draw to Syria the damaged, disaffected, and deranged of the Sunni Muslim world. There is a solid, practical reason why IS points its weapons at alternatives to it and the Assad regime, not at the regime itself.
JL: If Nusra and the Islamic Front were to weaken Assad’s control of Syria’s major cities, IS would have to make a concerted effort to take them. It could lead to significant defections from IS to Nusra, just as initial IS victories led to Nusra and Islamist military defections to IS.
ADM: If you had to guess, where will Syria be a year from now?
JL: Assad will still remain in control of Damascus and the coastal regions, but the city of Hama will either have fallen or be engulfed in war. This, of course, is wild speculation. Much depends on whether Iran and Iraq up the ante to meet greater Turkish and Saudi aid to Syria’s Sunni rebels, as it depends on how much the region’s Sunni powers want to defeat Iran and Assad in Syria.
FH: If Washington maintains an arm’s-length approach to protection of civilians and political-military support of Syrian nationalists, one year from now the humanitarian abomination will have deepened significantly and the country will be uneasily and unofficially partitioned between IS and the regime as it hemorrhages people. There would, I think, continue to be an unstable live-and-let live relationship between the two parties left standing: Iran will not waste its Lebanese assets on recapturing an eastern Syria it deems largely worthless; and IS will want to concentrate on consolidating its presence in eastern Syria to facilitate operations in Iraq.
The key variable, however, will be American policy. If the United States elects to protect civilians, to replace an anemic train-and-equip initiative with the building of an all-Syrian National Stabilization Force, and recruits regional powers to provide ground forces to sweep IS from Syria so that a governmental alternative to the Assad clan can be established, then the pessimist scenario can be avoided. And then Syrians can have a shot at a negotiated settlement leading ultimately to legitimate governance.
ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images