How Syria Became a Playground for Naked Power Politics

The fall of Aleppo will only deepen the bloodthirsty sectarianism fuelled by regional powers, who continue to use Syria as a chessboard to further their geopolitical interests.

Smoke rises after airstrikes on the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria April 29, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

Smoke rises after airstrikes on the rebel-held al-Sakhour neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria April 29, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Abdalrhman Ismail

The protracted war in Syria has turned apocalyptic. As the formerly liberated stronghold of East Aleppo fell to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, a catastrophic blow was dealt to rebel forces, and with it, a revolutionary experiment in self-governance.

Iranian-sponsored sectarian militias in the service of the Assad regime, backed by relentless Russian aerial bombardment, reduced much of the besieged city to rubble. Reports of extrajudicial executions and other atrocities committed by regime forces as they swept through the last remaining rebel holdouts amount to war crimes.

The barbarism unleashed upon the people of Syria by Assad and his allies over the course of this war, which has gone on for almost six years, has been devastating: the Syrian Center for Policy Research estimates 470,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. The Syrian Network for Human Rights and The Violations Documentation Center estimate that the Assad regime and its allies are responsible for 93-95% of the civilian death toll.

A UN Commission of Inquiry has indicted the regime for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”. And according to an examination by Amnesty International, Russian forces are guilty of “egregious” war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians, aid workers, hospitals and other medical facilities as part of a wider military strategy.

The regime’s strategy for other parts of liberated Syria will follow a similar blueprint to the one used in Aleppo: a civilian population forced into capitulation through brutal starvation sieges imposed by sectarian militias on the ground, while death rains down in the form of Syrian government and Russian planes. The resulting mass exodus amounts to a silent sectarian cleansing, carried out by the regime and its Iranian proxies.

No doubt a strategic victory on its own terms, Aleppo as a free city was also laden with expectations and symbolism. Under immense odds, its independent civil society was the beating heart of Syria’s democratic revolution, and a beacon of what liberation might look like in a post-war Syria. Its democratically elected councils and free media outlets were the anti-thesis of Assad’s brutal dictatorship. Naturally, the crushing of this nascent ideological experiment was imperative for the regime.

In their book Burning Country, authors Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami offer a narrative infused with Syrian voices. They document over 400 democratically elected local councils that sprung up across the liberated areas for the purpose of administering the provision of public services. Inspired by Syrian anarchist Omar Aziz – who envisioned local councils as a collaborative forum for simultaneously managing affairs independent of the state and initiating a social revolution – these bodies were the reason why life still functioned in liberated communities.

Regrettably, most Syrian voices have been systematically drowned out in aid of producing a reductionist geopolitical analysis that instead privileges the political manoeuvrings between states and their imperialist calculations. The claptrap of a retrograde ‘anti-imperialism’, a prism which examines international politics through an obsolete ‘Eastern bloc is good, Western bloc is evil’ framework, still retains a residual Stalinism. This has seen many on the Left transform into crude Assadist apologists, whereby Western hegemony must be opposed, even if it means overlooking a destructive Russo-Iranian imperialism or a non-Western tyrannical regime.

While ‘liberating’ Aleppo might serve as propagandistic reprieve for Assad, the reality on the ground is much more fractious. The regime still only controls under one third of Syrian territory and is almost entirely reliant – financially and militarily – on Russia and Iran. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) does not exist in any meaningful sense, which has led to the rise of a hodgepodge of sectarian militias that take their marching orders from Tehran.

Russia’s stake

Assad’s triumph in Aleppo would never have been feasible without Russia. In September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened at the request of the Assad regime in order to prevent its collapse and help it regain lost territory. While intervening on the pretext of thwarting international terrorism, 80% of Russian bombs have targeted rebel units and civilian infrastructure. Incidentally, a recent investigation showed that Russian special services have in fact coopted the flow of jihadists into Syria, in order to tacitly flush them out of the Northern Caucuses.

To avoid risking heavy casualties, the Kremlin has relied on shadowy private military firms; much like the US had done with Blackwater in Iraq. It provides a buffer for its client state at the UN Security Council; similar to how the US has protected Israel. Moscow understands the regional significance that Damascus holds for its interests, with bases established in Latakia and Tartous – which constitute Russia’s only access to the Mediterranean. It is no surprise that Russian firms stand to profit from lucrative oil and gas exploration contracts, having greatly benefited from an armament sales windfall, not to mention testing over 160 new weapons during the course of its intervention in Syria.

Russia’s strategic objectives have been achieved. In successfully challenging US hegemony in the Middle East, it has attained, at the very least, geopolitical parity and, as it seeks to wind down hostilities, Russia can confidently play up its role as the premier regional power broker. The latest Moscow-Ankara brokered ceasefire is evidence of this, stemming from Russia’s desire to impose a ‘peace of the victor’ on the opposition and end the costly war on its own terms.

Obama and Syria

The US government, while supporting the uprising against Assad, did little to ensure its success. This was evident during the summer of 2013, when it could have supplied the Free Syrian Army (FSA) opposition with game changing technology when the balance of forces on the ground reached a tipping point as the Syrian regime mounted a full-fledged counter-offensive.

The justification for the failure to support the FSA during the early stages of the revolution was that Islamists would benefit from it. Instead, the opposite occurred: starved for funds and ammunition, the moderate rebels were unable to establish a strong footing against the regime, with many of its combatants gravitating towards more superior Turkish and Gulf Cooperation Council-financed Islamist brigades. Much of the discussion that animates the foreign character of the conflict tends to overstate the financial and military support the rebels have received from the US, Turkey and the Gulf states, considering the rebels never quite received anything near the level of support that the regime has received from its allies.

Once the regime called US President Barack Obama’s bluff on the use of chemical weapons – they were employed in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013 – US foreign policy was robbed of any deterrent effect and Obama’s “red line” didn’t mean much. All of this resulted in encouraging Putin to intervene without hesitation. With the emergence of radical jihadi groups, Washington’s involvement in the crisis has been limited to supporting Kurds and coalition-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their counter-terrorism operations which are strictly focused on combating ISIS.

The Obama administration’s approach to Syria can be best described as a containment strategy, far from any objective of full-blown regime change. In fact, according to a RAND Institute survey in 2013, Washington insiders seemed to have reached a consensus that “regime collapse” in Syria represented “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests”. In a perfect world, the US would have Assad disposed of but Assadism remain in the country. In response to the disastrous neoconservative policies of the past administration, Obama was comfortable reverting to the tried and tested doctrine of “realism”, where the assumption was that Arabs were not ready for self-governance, and autocrats were necessary to shield the West from the threats of terrorism and migration.

Another key factor to Obama’s Syria policy is the Iranian nuclear deal. Obama, having gambled his administration’s reputation on the deal, and fearing the provocation of Iranian retaliatory action in Iraq, found himself with no option but to turn a blind eye to an emboldened Tehran and its militias; allowing Iran to pursue its interests in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen without restraint. Assad, as Iran’s client, has in turn enjoyed the fruits of such impunity. So much so that Obama’s concessions and compromises to the Iranians were described in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as “whatever the Ayatollah wants.”

While Obama’s strategy against Iran, at least in Syria, has revolved around cooperating with the regime in the war against ISIS, the US also adopted a parallel policy of slowly bleeding out (economically and militarily) Sepah Pasdaran (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) and its militias in Syria such as Hezbollah – in the event that rapprochement failed. This in a nutshell accounts for the Obama doctrine in Syria; a strategy that avoids concrete measures that might put an end to further bloodshed.

Iran’s involvement

For Iran, Assad is the front line of resistance against the US and Israel. The unprecedented level of military and economic support provided by Tehran has not only prevented the downfall of the Assad regime, but has allowed Iran to operate as a de-facto occupying force in the regime-held areas, with Assad little more than a puppet in the hands of Sepah Pasdaran and its foreign operations arm, Sepah Qods.

A Der Spiegel article refers to what is currently transpiring in Syria as “the first international Shiite jihad”. Much like the thousands of foreign Sunni fighters who waged jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan over 30 years ago, today it is foreign Shia fighters who have been mobilised in Syria, deployed in service of a religious war. Recruits from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan comprise an active network of Shia militias that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has developed in pursuit of a single goal: the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution across the Middle East. Iran’s triumph in Aleppo cements an assertive geopolitical projection in the strategic heart of the region, not to mention it also happens to be a milestone in its project to construct a land corridor to the Mediterranean coast.

Meanwhile, the durability of Russia’s cooperation with Iran could prove tenuous. Already in Aleppo’s evacuation deal negotiated between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Iran’s militias displayed a blatant refusal to comply. Militarily, the Russians prefer to deal with state institutions – as does Damascus, but it remains utterly dependent on the militias for its survival. For Putin, the possibility of a sectarian struggle in Syria has echoes of the insurgency that Western forces faced in post-invasion Iraq, an outcome that seems unavoidable the longer Russian intervention continues. The recent murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey already suggests some blowback. Erdoğan, meanwhile, in backing Sunni jihadis while exploiting the conflict to suppress Turkey’s Kurdish population and tighten dissent at home, has constructed policies that have produced a series of retaliatory ISIS and Kurdish domestic attacks.

Syria’s darkest chapter yet

The administration of the incoming US president, Donald Trump, does not appear likely to deviate from Obama’s policy of isolationism and will likewise continue to focus on combating ISIS. Led by Rex Tillerson – Trump’s pro-Russia secretary of state – it is likely to be conciliatory towards Moscow, but much of its hawkish security team is fiercely opposed to Iran and the nuclear deal.

It is not hard to envision a scenario where in return for normalising relations, Trump, in acquiescing to Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine, petitions Moscow to dissolve its collaboration with Tehran to curb its regional ambitions, as Trump forcefully pivots towards China. A bargain of this sort would greatly benefit Israel, who is concerned with Iranian-sponsored militias like Hezbollah deploying along its border with Syria.

However, Russia fully recognises that Assad cannot hold onto any captured territory without Iran’s presence on the ground. The Sunni rebellion against Assad will not stop anytime soon; increasingly taking the form of a guerilla war, with moderate rebels likely to be pushed further into the arms of extremists. This will result in an expansion of external support from the Gulf monarchies, which are motivated primarily by their regional struggle for dominance with Iran and will only fan the flames of sectarianism if they join the fray.

The collapse of Aleppo will be a huge boost for ISIS, which managed to retake Palmyra as the Assad regime diverted resources towards capturing Aleppo, while al-Qaeda linked organisations such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and other Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham will also be strengthened. The benefits of this ultra-sectarian context also extend to ISIS’s Sunni-fundamentalist propaganda. Recall that ISIS founding father Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s gambit was to demoralise Sunnis into a mandatory alliance with the ISIS caliphate’s holy war. Assad, Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Obama have effectively worked in tandem to legitimise his prophecy.

As the war in Syria moves into its darkest chapter yet, the destabilisation of the region will endure without respite, amplifying a pugnacious sectarianism that shall continue to bear transnational consequences.

Amar Diwakar is a freelance writer and research consultant. He has an MSc in International Politics from SOAS. Twitter: @indignant_sepoy

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