Part 2 of The Weichert Report’s Symposium on How to Defeat the Islamic State & Stabilize Greater Syria (Please CLICK HERE for Part 1) and CLICK HERE The Weichert Report’s first ever Podcast, which gives you a brief overview of the situation in Syria!
American Fear & Loathing During Syria’s Bloodbath
The Syrian Civil War has raged since 2011. What began as peaceful protests against the tyrannical rule of the Alawite (and nominal Baathist) President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring rapidly devolved into an anarchic civil war. This civil war was not like anything that we in the United States are used to seeing. It was a conflict along not only religious and ethnic lines, but it was also regional; it was a battle between the haves and the have-nots in Syrian society.
More importantly, it was a war that risked destabilizing the entire region–particularly the fledgling state of Iraq, which the U.S. had spent countless amounts of time, blood, and treasure rebuilding following the Iraq War of 2003. Also, the longer that the nightmarish war prolonged, the greater the humanitarian crisis. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis has destabilized the entire region.
In fact, as I assessed earlier, it is likely that the refugee crisis from Syria and the surrounding region directly influenced the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. Needless to say, if there was one conflict that demanded the kind of full-throated American intervention that we have seen in previous times, such as during Bosnian War in the 1990s, this was it.
The brutality of the Assad Regime, left unchecked by the West during the Syrian phase of the Arab Spring, has led to the complete societal breakdown of the country. In the morass of the internecine bloodletting, like a cancerous outgrowth, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham mutated out of the conflict and cut a swathe of territory for itself out of the shattered husk of eastern Syria and the unprotected northwest of Iraq. Now, the entire region is aflame, as is Europe. As the war has raged, regional actors with significant investment in Syria (such as Iran) have sent their forces in to buttress the Assad Regime in its mad bid to cling to power.
Meanwhile, Turkey, in a rush to expand their influence in the region and reassert their historic control over the Middle East have lent considerable aid to the various Jihadist groups fighting against Assad–even, in some limited cases, the Islamic State. Furthermore, with Syria being so close to Israel, the situation threatens Israel’s already-besieged position in the Middle East. As if that wasn’t enough, the Russians have intervened on behalf of Assad, thereby further destabilizing the conflict.
Even with the support of Iran and Russia, the Assad Regime seems incapable of reasserting its power over the country. Despite having overwhelming military force and having used every weapon at its disposal–including chemical weapons, in violation of international law–the Assad Regime is barely able to extend its control beyond the traditional zones of Alawite power. This has exacerbated the conflict, as the Regime’s inability to quell the uprising has inspired more groups to take up arms against the strongman. This has added to the instability of the country–especially because these rebel groups are as interested in slaughtering each other, as they are in toppling Assad.
Due to these facts, the Syrian Civil War must be ended in as quickly a fashion as possible. Yet, it is clear that no matter how intransigent Bashar al-Assad may be to retain his hold on ultimate power in Syria, such an outcome is dubious at best. Indeed, after the slaughtering and fragmentation of Syria during the course of the civil war, it is likely that President Assad will never have any form of legitimacy in the eyes of most Syrians, meaning that he will never be able to rule in the fashion he did previously, irrespective of whatever military power he has at his disposal.
These are the circumstances that the United States finds itself facing in the region. The U.S. has refused to involve itself beyond lending support to the polyglot mixture of Syrian rebels, some of whom are Jihadists. The belief on the part of the Obama Administration is that America’s primary objective in the Middle East should be to extricate itself from the region and avoid another repeat of the Iraq War. Yet, the longer that the U.S. resists deploying forces to crush the Islamic State and lead an international force for stability in Syria, means that the humanitarian and geopolitical disaster that will befall the region will be tenfold compared to what they are, should the U.S. fail to intervene.
This is the second part of The Weichert Report‘s symposium on defeating the Islamic State and stabilizing Greater Syria. This piece will detail the history of the Syrian state, how its competing ethno-religious antagonisms have driven the country, and to define its complex relationships with other actors in the region. This piece will also outline the threat that the Assad Regime poses to the international community, specifically the United States, and how the U.S. can ill afford to back a plan to keep the Assad Regime in power.
Broken Borders, Promises Unkept
“I am prepared to let the blood run out of my body rather than turn Syria over to France.” – Prince Feisal I, Dr. William Westermann, President Wilson’s Middle East advisor during the 1919 Paris Peace Talks
The region known as Syria possesses a deep and rich history, stretching all of the way back to the time of the Roman Empire. In the famous parable of the Bible, the Good Samaritan lends aid to the stricken traveler on his way to Damascus, the current capital of Syria. Syria has been a hub of Christianity, the center of major Islamic dynasties, and an integral transit point for international trade for over a millennia.
Well before Muhammad’s conquests of the Middle East in the 7th century, Syria was home to some of the largest Christian communities–and oldest–in history. Indeed, according to Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ himself made the Sermon on the Mount in Syria. Even after the initial Muslim conquest of Syria in 635 A.D., and the eventual conversion to Islam by a majority of the Syrian people by 640 A.D., Syria’s Christian community remained a very potent Syrian subgroup until the Mongol conquests of Syria in the 13th century.
Syria is a multiethnic polity. Druze, Sunnis, Shiites, various Christian groups–and several other minorities–all comprise the various subgroups living within the Syrian state. Yet, modern day Syria is most probably best defined by the tribal and ethnic differences. It is also defined by the haves and the have-nots: the Syrian economy has long functioned as a crony capitalist state that favors Sunni business leaders who support and are well-connected with the ruling Alawite minority. This has empowered a small fraction of people at the expense of a majority of the Syrian people. This, in turn, led to a growing degree of resentment toward the ruling Assad Regime in the build-up to the 2011 uprising.
During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs in Syria (and elsewhere) felt dispossessed by their Turkish overlords. This led to resentment on the part of the Arabs–particularly the Bedouin tribes–which created a strategic opening for the British to exploit during the First World War. As I documented in “The Truth About the Terror In Turkey,” the famous T.E. Lawrence led a band of roughly 3,500 Arab insurgents across the Arabian peninsula into the Levant, in a mostly successful attempt to keep the Ottoman armies distracted with a rebellion from within their own territory, as over a million British soldiers attacked the Ottomans elsewhere in Europe.
This British-inspired Arab revolt resulted in the first agitations for Arab statehood. This concept would be further compounded not only by T.E. Lawrence and other European Arabists, but also by then-President Woodrow Wilson’s calls for global decolonization and national self-determination, as embodied by Wilson’s infamous Fourteen Points. These two notions, more than anything, imbued the Arabs with strong opposition to not only Ottoman reign over their lands, but to any foreign rule over their lands. This also led to the Arab nationalists’ conclusion that theirs was an independent and separate national entity worthy of self-determination, devoid of foreign influence.
In their desperation to stem the tide of the First World War, and push the Central Powers back, the Anglo-French alliance conceded to the Arab demands that they were to be granted independent nationhood after the war. Yet, as the end of the war came closer, and the Ottomans–the “sick man of Europe”– were entirely on the ropes, as it were, the Anglo-French thinking began to shift. Though they had promised the Arabs their independence, the British and French had established a secret treaty for the postwar makeup of the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East. This was known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. It called for the creation of new national borders, that completely ignored the ethno-religious realities on the ground, and insisted that these new states would be colonized by the European powers. It divided the Middle East into various spheres of influence, notably divided between the British and French, with the French getting most of the Levant–including Syria and Lebanon. Britain got the Palestinian Mandate, Iraq, Egypt, and Iran.
Feisal’s father, Sharif and Amir of Mecca (and later, briefly, self-proclaimed Caliph), Husayn bin Ali, had led the Arab Revolt in the desert. During the Paris peace talks in 1919, his son, Prince Feisal I, had become leader of the nascent Arab state. Both he and his comrade, T.E. Lawrence were oblivious to the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement. When they arrived at the peace conference, Feisal presented his plan for a confederation of Arab states, not unlike the United States of America. Feisal envisioned a sort of United States of Arabia. However, this was not to be. The region known as Greater Syria (what we call the Levant today) was subdivided, with part of Syria being used to create Lebanon, and then Iraq being cleaved from Greater Syria as well.
Feisal had long believed that his United States of Arabia would be governed through a constitutional monarchy–with his Hashemite clan on the throne–from the capital of Syria, Damascus, not unlike the great Umayyad dynasty which arose during the 7th century to rule to the Islamic Caliphate. Indeed, Syria and Damascus had not only played a pivotal role in early Christianity, but it had also played a decisive role in early Islam. As I detailed in part one of this symposium, the Umayyad dynasty was the dynasty which was directly responsible for the bitter separation between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam that persists today. Yet, when it came down to implementing a postwar settlement for the Middle East, the British and French decided to enact the dreaded Sykes-Picot agreement. This disenfranchised most of the Arab tribes. Also, to compound matters, the French refused Feisal the right to rule the Arabs from Syria. Instead, the British sought to establish his rule from Iraq–a country that Feisal was unfamiliar with and had never even traveled to. Syria, on the other hand, would have given his potential reign the most legitimacy. However, the French would not have it. So, colonization began and the region was subdivided into various new countries, among them, Christian-dominated, French-controlled Lebanon.
While the Europeans did try to respect some of the ethno-religious differences, as was the case with the creation of a majority Christian Lebanon, the fact is that the Europeans were utterly clueless–and indifferent to–the ethno-religious differences that permeated the region. This was why you have Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds living under the same government in present-day (and currently imploding) Iraq. Indeed, in many cases, the colonial ethic demanded that the colonizers rule through a means of divide-and-conquer, as the Europeans had done in Africa, South America, and Asia, and as the British had done on the Indian subcontinent. As such, the Europeans would identify key subgroups that were normally disadvantaged politically under the old political order of the region, and empower those groups, thereby tying the political and economic success of those newly empowered minorities directly to the foreign colonizer.
This, then, in turn, created terrible resentment on the part of the other, dispossessed subgroups of the new colonies. Not only were these disenfranchised groups resentful of the European who colonized them, but they were now especially antagonistic toward their neighbors who had come to benefit directly from being colonized. Plus, very often, these newly empowered minority groups would resort to devastating police state behavior in order to tamp down on rebellion and maintain their supreme grip on power in their respective states.
In fact, many of the names that we use today for the countries of this region emanate from the pre-Islamic rule of the Greater Syrian region by the Roman Empire. Indeed, names like “Palestine” (a derivative of “Palestina,” which itself is derived from the old tribe of “Philistines,” who vanished centuries before the Romans arrived in the region) and “Syria” (“Roman-Syria” was the name of the province which encompasses modern Syria) are holdovers from the Romans. They do not reflect the cultural, ethnic, and religious realities on the ground today.
Actually, by the time the Muslims had conquered much of the Middle East, the various dynasties that ruled the massive Caliphate rarely used these old Roman names for their territories, opting instead for names that reflected the ethno-religious populations who dominated those territories. It was not until 1919, and the European creation of new states in the Middle East, that these old Roman names came into use once more. Thus, even the names of the countries in the region today have little relation to how the mostly-Muslim people view themselves–that is, existing as part of a larger Islamic framework.
As a local of the region, deeply steeped in the history of the Arab peoples, Prince Feisal I fundamentally understood that no powerful central authority could brook the ethno-religious subdivisions that existed in the Middle East. This is why his confederation of loosely aligned ethno-religious subgroups was such a good concept for the region. Not only did unite the region as never before, but it also respected each subgroup’s individual right to preserve its unique identity.
The Triangular Row: Syria, Europe, and the United States
Syria sits at a crossroads of civilization. It is at once a Muslim nation, with deep roots in Christianity, tribal divisions that predate both Abrahamic religions, and its position along the eastern end Mediterranean Sea makes it a pivotal trading port. Indeed, its natural position on the shore has made it a vibrant state throughout its history. Also, its proximity to the traditional regional hegemon of Turkey makes it an integral stepping stone into the wider Middle East. It is this position that made Syria, and the greater Levant, such an integral component for the post-WWI imperial policy of France.
The term “Levant” is a French word that means, “rising.” It is ultimately derived from the Latin term, “Levare,” which generally means the same thing. When both the British and French insisted upon cleaving spheres of influence from the former Ottoman lands, it was more than simple European chauvinism (though, to be sure, that played into things as well). Under the Sykes-Picot agreement, the French received stewardship over the entirety of the Levant, which made them the most opposed to Prince Feisal’s confederal United States of Arabia concept.
While the French position may seem unreasonable to you and I, living in a modern, post-imperial world, at the time the French claims to the Levant made sense from Paris’ point of view. As was evidenced in the killing fields and trenches of WWI, to overcome the staggering losses in manpower, the French culled colonial subjects into its armed forces, and used them as a force multiplier throughout the fighting. Thus, the French required colonies in order to amplify their armed forces’ manpower. Also, the region provided the French with easy access to vast mineral resources.
As such, the region was not only a significant source of income for the beleaguered empire following the devastation of the First World War, but it was also a critical source of investment, and overall economic expansion. As a corollary to this, upwards of a million French citizens lived in this region. During this period, also, the French possessed a colonial empire in Africa. Therefore, the Levant’s geographical position afforded the French military the ability to control the key land, sea, and air routes into its large possessions in central and western Africa. Furthermore, Iraqi oil was a vital commodity for the maintenance of French power. Indeed, France came to almost exclusively depend upon Iraqi oil during this period.
At a time when France was nearly broken from WWI, her possessions in the Middle East conferred great prestige upon the disillusioned empire. Indeed, its possession of critical naval positions on the Mediterranean, such as those of Bizerta, Casablanca, and Mers el-Kebir, helped to maintain the French image of being a major world power, despite its staggering losses and economic troubles following the close of World War I. What’s more, Lebanon was a key air bridge connecting French military power with its restless colonial holdings in Indo-China (present day Vietnam).
Plus, the large population of Christians in the Levant afforded the French with a moral justification for their imperial overreach under the Sykes-Picot agreement.
Like France, the British Empire had considerable economic and strategic interests in this region, making British control over a portion of the Middle-East a necessity. What’s more, most Britons regarded T.E. Lawrence (when he was alive) as an oddball–constantly prancing about in native Arab garb and insisting that the Empire worry about the wishes of Arabs over the needs of the Empire. The British also viewed Lawrence’s Arab Revolt as little more than a sideshow in the First World War. Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere (and with all due respect to the Arabs who fought alongside T.E. Lawrence), most Britons looked at the ratio of British military commitment to Arab commitment in the campaign against the Ottoman Empire.
In their view, a million Britons had waged war against the Sultan’s army, whereas less than 4,000 Arab tribesman–and T.E. Lawrence–had ridden across the Arabian desert to launch intermittent and spasmodic raids upon unsuspecting Ottoman auxiliary forces. Thus, the disproportionate level of commitment to that theater of the war on the part of the British, or so the Britons rationalized, and their disproportionate sacrifice, meant that the Arabs owed the British Empire on some level. The British believed that the Arabs should repay England’s sacrifice and commitment in the form of their obedience and territory.
In terms of her economic interests, the factories of Lancashire required immense stocks of cotton which the Middle East could provide (when in doubt, its always partially about King Cotton), the oil that Persia and, later, Mesopotamia (Iran and Iraq, respectively) produced was a key source of fuel as well as wealth for the Empire, and the new colonies opened up new markets for Britain’s manufactured goods.
Also, English investment into Egypt expanded exponentially after they assumed colonial administration of the ancient state, meaning that the British had an increased interest in maintaining their grip on power in the region. Furthermore, the British had committed itself to upholding the Balfour Declaration, which allowed the global Zionist Movement to begin making preparations for the creation of a Jewish State (Israel) in the Palestinian Mandate.
Also, like the French in the Levant, Britain’s position in the Middle East meant that it maintained its global primacy as the greatest seafaring empire in history. It controlled access between the Mediterranean world and the Far East through its dominance of the Suez Canal in Egypt. Its presence in the Middle East also allowed it to control strategic air routes through Egypt, Iraq, and India (all British holdings at this point) into Africa. Like the French, a string of geostrategically important military bases were interlinked with this imperial network that served as a foundation for British power in this part of the world. In Egypt, the British Royal Navy possessed Alexandria (as well as a litany of other ports), while the British Army held bases in Egypt and Palestine, and the Royal Air Force had footholds in Iraq and throughout Arabian Gulf.
When the Paris Peace Talks commenced in 1919, the victorious powers–particularly the British and French–were ready to move beyond the War. Of course, they suffered mightily during the Great War, prompting them to not only seek vengeance against the German Empire, but also to demand more territory abroad, in order to assist in their economic recovery. Thus, neither party was in any mood to hear the agitations of a mid-level British soldier who had, in the parlance of the time, “gone native,” and an Arab prince whom they regarded as little more than a savage, whose parochial interests (in their view) ran counter to their global imperial designs.
It was during this point that both T.E. Lawrence and Feisal sought American intervention into the dispute. Feisal and his Arab movement had been, in part, inspired by Wilson’s anticolonial, anti-imperial Fourteen Points. Indeed, when President Wilson arrived for the Paris Peace Talks, he was greeted as a quasi-messianic figure; a political leader from the paradisiacal United States who had transcended petty politics to inaugurate a new era in human affairs: an era in which wars, such as the tragic Great War, were no longer necessary and in which all nationalisms were respected by international law. Thus, in the midst of the cynical Anglo-French imperial machinations for the Middle East, Feisal contended to present his United States of Arabia concept to the American representative for the Middle East, Dr. William Westermann of Columbia University.
Both Feisal and T.E. Lawrence conspired to convince the Americans to intervene on the Arabs’ behalf by having the U.S. declare Syria an American protectorate. Once a protectorate, Feisal would craft his United States of Arabia concept, in which America would be emulated to its very core. Dr. Westermann was thoroughly convinced, writing enthusiastically to President Wilson on the subject and urging the President to endorse Feisal’s concept as a much-needed elixir to the kinds of colonial disputes that plagued the world up until the First World War.
Yet, other elements of President Wilson’s team were more dubious of Feisal and his ability to corral–and maintain control over–the various Arab tribes. These individuals, notably the U.S. military representative to the Paris Peace Talks, General Tasker H. Bliss, doubted the legality of such an American intervention, seeing as the U.S. had never officially declared war upon the defunct Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, Bliss feared entangling the U.S. in the mess that was (and remains) the Middle East. He believed that any action other than disengagement would result in the U.S. getting tied down in a region known for its religious blood feuds and xenophobic agitations.
As the Feisal-Lawrence machinations for a United States of Arabia were underway, the British were well aware of them. As Paul Johnson outlines in Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties, with the removal of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires as threats, the British had reverted to their historical norm of viewing the French as a potential rival to their Empire. Thus, during the Interwar Years, the British would resume their age-old tactic of being openly ambivalent to the French while, behind closed doors, utterly paranoid of French capabilities and intentions.
As such, the British Empire, “perfidious Albion,” as she had come to be known by the French and others throughout history, also conspired to let Feisal’s calls for an independent Arab state with American backing gain traction at the conference. While the British did not openly endorse Feisal’s yearning for an independent Arab state, the British sought to simultaneously limit French claims to the Middle East whilst justify their own colonial claims to the region.
With the Americans desperately looking for a way out of this potential Middle East imbroglio, the Arabs demanding their own state, the French intransigently denying Arab claims, and the British playing all ends against their middle, a proposal was floated to the peace commission to send a multinational fact-finding mission to determine whether the Syrians sought independence or French control.
Feisal, believing that his people would immediately inform the fact-finding mission of their desire for freedom accepted the proposal unquestionably, meanwhile, the United States formally resolved not to engage in the issue, claiming that the proposal meant that it was up to the commission from that point onward. However, before the mission could be launched, the French preempted it by invading Syria, and ejecting Feisal and his followers from the territory.
The Baghdad-Damascus Axis
“With my heart filled with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief that there’s no Iraqi people inside Iraq. There are only diverse groups with no national sentiments. They are filled with superstitious and false religious traditions with no common grounds between them. They easily accept rumors and are prone to choose, prepared always to revolt against any government.” – King Feisal I of Iraq, 1932
Following Feisal’s ouster in Syria by the French, he would go on to the United Kingdom, in search of a new land to rule. He did not have to wait long. Within a year of his ouster in Syria and exile to Britain, his old chum, T.E. Lawrence, had convinced the British government to nominate Feisal to be Their Man in the British Mandate of Mesopotamia. The Arabs of the oil-rich Mesopotamia had become restless and the British had wanted to rule there by proxy. Thus, they coordinated Feisal’s arrival in a land he barely knew, to campaign before a people who barely remembered him, in a plebiscite to become the new ruler of Mesopotamia.
Feisal ultimately won the plebiscite and became the new King of Mesopotamia. Once in power, Feisal began cultivating ties with his old stronghold of Syria. He brought on many of his former government ministers from his abortive government in Syria to be leaders in the new Iraqi government under his control. This, in turn, agitated the native Arabs and Lebanese living within Iraq, who felt that they were being ruled by foreigners once more. However, Feisal’s rule built Iraq into a successful state. He opened up Mosul’s oilfields to British exploration, thereby drastically enriching the country, and he expanded the country’s influence into the eastern sphere of the Arab world.
Feisal never surrendered his dreams of ruling a Greater Syria (that included Lebanon, Syria, and Mesopotamia or, Iraq). When the Druze Uprising occurred in 1925 in French-controlled Syria, the French desperately called upon Feisal for assistance. He recommended that they reappoint his Hashemite clan to power in Syria once more. Indeed, at this point, Feisal became the leading figure in the Pan-Arab movement–a political movement to unite the divided French and British spheres of influence in the Middle East under Arab rule. Specifically, Feisal’s version of Pan-Arabism envisioned he and his Hashemite clan (his brother, Abdullah, was made the King of Jordan) sitting atop a nominal constitutional monarchy as the lynchpin in his United States of Arabia concept.
Thus, with the British seeking to deemphasize their position in the Middle East, and the French trying to desperately to maintain a semblance of order in Syria by consulting with Feisal in Iraq, Feisal was deftly playing both powers, in his bid to create a United States of Arabia. In 1928, however, the French would dash Feisal’s dream of creating such a state, when they created an independent Syrian republic which lasted until World War II, and the British granted nominal independence of Iraq, with Feisal as its king. However, Feisal never stopped hoping for his pan-Arab state.
However, the Baghdad-Damascus axis would not end here. Nor would it end when Feisal’s grandson, Feisal II, and the royal family were murdered in a bloody coup in 1958. Several coups and countercoups would follow that eventuated in the rise of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party in 1968, followed on by the bloody rise of Saddam Hussein as dictator of Iraq in 1979. From here, the fates of Iraq and Syria would be fused together by nominal ideological ties: both Saddam Hussein and the family that would ultimately come to rule Syria, the Assads, were members of the Ba’athist movement. As such, they were nominal allies for decades, as well as bulwarks of anti-Americanism.
The Ba’ath Party began as a movement among Syrian intellectuals in Syria. It incorporated the most pernicious forms of nationalism with Socialism. Thus, it came to embody a militarized notion of pan-Arab Socialism. Indeed, Christopher Hitchens would dub it a form of Fascism. Under this system, the big governments of Arab states were effectively fused with big businesses of the Ba’aathist countries in a form of crony capitalism. Ultimately, the beneficiaries of these agreements were those of not only the same ideological preference, but also those who descended from the Ba’aathists’ preferred tribes and religious subgroups.
Today, as you will see, the fate of Iraq, which as I described in part of this symposium, is intrinsically tied to the stability of Syria. Therefore, American policymakers should not view the Syrian Civil War and the War against the Islamic State in Iraq as two separate conflicts. Indeed, they are mutually inclusive. The Iraq War of 2003 created al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which, in turn, dispersed that group over the border into Syria.
For years, elements of AQI laid low, until fate intervened, and the Syrian Civil War gripped Syria in 2011. Once that occurred, AQI re-formed as the Islamic State, and used the chaos of the Syrian Civil War to acquire territory, and, from there, used the weakness and unpopularity of the predominantly Shiite-dominated Iraqi government to annex more than one-third of Iraq. If the United States plans on defeating the Islamic State, it must kinetically fight IS in Iraq and deploy forces in an international coalition to stabilize Syria.
The Alawite Ascendancy
Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, a French-endorsed constitutional republic ruled from 1928-1958. During the 1940-41 year, the republic fell under the control of the pro-Nazi Vichy French Fourth Republic during the Second World War. In 1941, it would be liberated and become an independent state. By 1958, as decolonization swept across the greater Middle East, Syria would join with General Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab Socialist Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic (UAR). However, rather than being a partnership between the member states, the UAR quickly became dominated by Nasser’s Egypt. This would prove wildly unpopular, particularly in Syria. By 1961, a group of Syrian Army officers conspired to oust the pro-Egyptian leadership of Syria, secede from the UAR, and reestablish the Syrian Republic that existed from 1928-58.
Like many Arab states of the Cold War period, Syria was moving toward a strong presidency that would come to dominate its affairs. However, as noted above, Syria did begin its independence as a bona fide republic. One reason for this slower-than-usual (for a decolonized Arab state during the Cold War) move toward a strong central executive was its aforementioned union with Egypt, but also, the fact that Syria was far less integrated compared to other Arab states during this time. As we have seen, Syria possesses a diverse, multiethnic polity. This diversity was exacerbated by the lack of advanced infrastructure that united much of Turkey, Egypt, and even Iraq. So, the push toward greater centralization was far slower–albeit inexorable. Plus, Syria had far greater ethno-religious tensions than many of the other Arab states.
Syria also had a small, but powerful, land-owning elite whose commercial success was predicated on a largely cosmopolitan worldview. Furthermore, Syria was caught between the Capitalist West and the Communist East internationally and, regionally, it was divided in its loyalty to neighboring Iraq (harkening back to the Baghdad-Damascus axis) and its on-again/off-again relationship with Egypt. Furthermore, the development of a strong Syrian presidency would be stunted by a series of successive–and staggering–military defeats at the hands of Syria’s tiny Jewish neighbor of Israel. Indeed, Syria would be so humiliated that it would lose the strategic Golan Heights in southern Syria to the Israelis.
Still another key factor toward the creation of the authoritarian executive power that we see dominating the Syrian government today was the slow land reform that removed much power away from the traditional, cosmopolitan old guard and the nationalization of the Syrian banks during Syria’s union with Egypt. This, in turn, allowed for the creation of a strong central state that controlled the money and swept the old political class out of power by removing their sources of income. Ultimately, the Arab Ba’ath Socialists in Syria would form a critical alliance with the dispossessed, permanent minority of Alawite Ba’athist military officers, who would together overthrow the government in 1966.
The Ottoman Empire was the dominant force of the Muslim world for many centuries. In the 15th century, its reach expanded from modern-day Turkey through the Middle East, all of the way up to Spain (which they called Andalusia). However, by this point, the Christian reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula (that would be the home to Spain and Portugal), was in full swing, and the Muslims who had conquered the Iberian Peninsula a little more than a century prior were fleeing back across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco. In Morocco, a family known as the Sa’did Sharifs ruled there.
However, they could never maintain control of the country. Also, due to the distance away from the core of the Ottoman Empire, the Empire never had direct administrative rule over Morocco. It was therefore up the Sa’did rulers to craft a a system of governance that ensured dynastic stability. They could not. Thus, a rift in the family occurred, and the country’s political structure fragmented along religious and ethnic lines. Ultimately, the Alawites from the Tafilalt oasis units the country with the help of Arab tribes, becoming a bulwark against Ottoman rule of the Caliphate.
The Alawites were a subversive group of nominal Shiites. While they were descended from the same tribe as Muhammad (the Quarysh), and their ancestors were those who viewed Muhammad’s grandson, Ali, as the true heir of Muhammad (as I detailed in part one of this symposium), the Alawites also incorporated the heretical (to the Muslims) practices of local Christian and Jewish groups into their worship of Allah.
This made them as much of a headache for the Shiites as they were for the ruling Sunnis. As such, their very particular form of Shia Islam made their attempt to rule Morocco even more tenuous. However, over time, the Alawite dynasty there was able to solidify its hold over the country and remains in power to this day. Yet, if it wasn’t for the presence of the French colonialists propping the Moroccan government up, history might have gone different. The French intervention into Morocco helped to ensure that the Alawite dynasty in Morocco solidified their grip on power.
In fact, the Alawite experience in Morocco is quite telling for its current experience in trying to hold onto power in Syria. In Morocco, the Alawites had risen to power in the middle of the 17th century. Yet, without the basic support of either the military or the bureaucracy of the Ottoman Empire, their grip on power was tenuous at best. Morocco’s capital, Fez, like Syria, was dominated by powerful economic interests and intransigent Sunni Muslims. Furthermore, outside of the cities, the Alawites could do little to enforce their rules and had to rely on nominal political manipulation and the prestige of their descent. However, by the 18th century, the Alawites were insecure and their power weakened. It was not really until the French intervention that Morocco came to accept the Alawite dynasty there.
This is exactly what is occurring in Syria today. And, like in Morocco, without a serious foreign intervention and copious investment into propping up that regime, such a regime will ultimately be consumed by the more populous Sunni branch of the Syrian population. Indeed, the Alawites had their own separate country beside the Syrian country, due to the fact that the French feared for the Alawites’ safety.
The Alawites were later incorporated into Syria as part of the creation of the Syrian Republic. This fundamentally altered the state of affairs for most Alawites. It caused them to be a permanent minority in the land. In fact, most Alawites agitated against their incorporation into Syria. The movement was led by Sulayman Ali al-Assad, the grandfather of current Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
It was not until the rise of the Ba’athist movement in Syria that the Alawites saw a path to power. As I detailed above, several cunning Alawite-Ba’athist generals saw opportunity to increase their power and prosperity relative to the larger subgroups in Syria in the coup of 1966. Therefore, they aligned their forces with the Arab Ba’aathists, repeating the Alawite experience of rising to power in Morocco three centuries prior.
This coup would see the rise of Hafez al-Assad as Minister of Defense. Fellow Alawite, Salah Jadid became the strongman of Syria, using the Syrian military as his base of formal control for the state. He would last in the presidency until 1970, when Hafez would make his ultimate move, ousting Salah in a coup, and placing Salah in Damascus’ infamous Mezze Prison. Salah would lead a torturous existence in Mezze Prison until his death in 1993.
Hafez would not officially assume the presidency until 1971, at which point he would reverse the economic policies of Salah and temporarily open up Syria’s closed economy to joint-business ventures with Syrians and foreigners. While not an overwhelming economic success, the political success that this move conferred upon Hafez ensured that he would retain power. These modest market reforms allowed for the establishing of permanent and powerful ties between the ruling Alawites and the Sunni Muslim business leaders in Syria.
This would form the basis of the Assad family’s control and ensure that the majority Sunni population did not rise up to oust the tiny minority Alawite clan. Indeed, this would set up yet another subtext of the conflict currently tearing Syria apart: the crony capitalist arrangement between the Alawite rulers of Syria and the Sunni business community of Syria that enriched only the elites, and left everyone else in the country wildly disadvantaged.
By 1973, Hafez al-Assad would formally create his authoritarian presidency, as enshrined in the new Syrian constitution that was drafted that year. The press, universities, and the judiciary–and any other independent institution–would fall under the strict purview of the Syrian government. The Ba’ath Party would form the nominal presidential cabinet, and the Army and the various intelligence service would form the nucleus of Hafez al-Assad’s grip on power. These elements, taken together, created modern Syria.
“Strike at the enemy’s settlements, turn them into dust, pave the Arab roads with the skulls of Jews.”
– Hafez al-Assad’s personal motto as ruler of Syria
Hafez would embark on a decades-long journey of turning Syria into perfidious terror state, seeking protection from the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, and in the 1980s, Mahdīst-Shia Islam Iran. All the meanwhile, the Syrians maintained cordial relations with their fellow Ba’athists next door in Iraq. Hafez, more than most anti-American dictators, would prove to be a perpetual violator of human rights, as well as an exceedingly dangerous long-term threat to American interests in the region.
This would set the Syrian state on a path to become Iran’s primary ally in the region, and a key source of Mahdīst terrorist directed against the state of Israel (Iranian agents and arms flowed from Iran through Syria, and into the hands of Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, to be used against Israel). This alliance would also set the stage for Syria’s continued isolation on the international stage, as the U.S. and many other states were viscerally opposed to the Mahdīst regime that arose to power in Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
As the Assad Regime intensified its dependency on foreign regimes, specifically that of Iran, and despite the Alawites being an obscure sect of Shiites, the majority of the Sunni Arabs in Syria remained behind the Assad Regime. This was due to the fact that so many in the Sunni community benefited economically and politically from their alliance with the Alawites. Also, the Assad Regime has long predicated its legitimacy on the notion of being the only force to keep the country’s disparate ethno-religious sects together–however nominally. According to the Alawites, should the Assad Regime either reform its practices or be removed, then the country would be dissolved by the resulting intercommunal violence of civil war.
Despite such a large portion of the Sunni elite benefiting from the Assad Regime’s rule, still many more Sunnis in the country were staunchly opposed to the Alawite rule both on religious and moral grounds. In 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria–which had been outlawed by Hafez al-Assad (along with other Islamist groups), launched a rebellion from the Sunni stronghold of Hama. Hafez al-Assad responded with devastating fury: his forces moved into the city, slaughtered anywhere 17,000-40,000 suspected Islamist insurgents, and then flattened the city. Indeed, the bitter memory of this heinous act still resonated among many of the Syrian people when they initiated their revolution against his son in 2011. In that case, as well, the city of Hama served a major focal point for the Sunni Islamist (or, Wahhābbīst) rebellion.
Despite the Assad Regime’s attempts to reaffirm its grip on power through such blood-soaked activities as its massacre on Hama, the Regime’s hold on power remained dubious. This became doubly so when, in 1984, Hafez was diagnosed with a severe illness that resulted in a bitter feud for control over Syria between Hafez and a group of Ba’athist military leaders–led by his brother, Rifaat. The succession crisis was defused by March of 1985 when, in a truly bizarre incident, Hafez and Rifaat agreed to meet at their mother’s house in Damascus and come to a settlement.
Rifaat was promptly exiled to Europe. However, given Hafez’s undisclosed illness, and how close the Alawite grip on power was nearly toppled by the fraternal dispute, Syria’s leaders assessed that the only real threat to the Alawite dominion over Syria was a split between the leaders at the top of the regime. Therefore, in the future, any such disagreements would have to be averted. After all, try as they might, the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States, even Israel, for all of their agitations against the Assad Regime, could do little to end their rule. Regime stability was essential in their eyes.
The Wait-and-See Approach to Autocracy
Hafez al-Assad was known as an inordinately patient dictator. He waited four years to launch a coup against his friend, fellow Ba’athist Salah Jadid, and an additional year-and-a-half before he officially assumed the presidency thereafter. When Hafez faced a challenge, he generally tended to delay handling it outright in favor of accruing as much information and power in order to more adequately deal with it. Hafez’s decision to nominate his son, Bashar al-Assad, as his eventual successor, was no different.
Following Hafez’s row with his brother, Rifaat, both he and the other ruling Alawites realized the importance of dynastic stability. As a minority of a minority population within Syria, the Alawite hold on power was predicated on how much force they could deploy against their enemies, and how much wealth they could generate for their cronies. With the United States blacklisting Syria, their Soviet allies about to collapse, Israel resting on their border, and under siege from within by the majority Sunni population, the Alawites felt the squeeze, as it were.
Bashar had spent his early adult years in the United Kingdom, studying to be an ophthalmologist. Upon the completion of his studies, he spent two years working in the posh London neighborhood of Marylebone at the Western Eye Hospital, before being recalled to Syria to succeed his father. When Hafez ultimately died in 2000 and young Bashar assumed power, he brought with him a series of modest reforms for economic liberalization and Westernized neoliberalism.
Yet, displaying his father’s ubiquitous sense of caution, Bashar’s reforms were nowhere what many in Western intellectuals and media figures extrapolated them to be: the beginning of a Damascus Spring, or rabia dimashq. These reforms were followed on by the creation of the forums–the mutedayaat–that encouraged vibrant, open discussions among the Syrian people regarding democratic political reforms. Assad would also begin purging many of the old guard Ba’athist elites in Syria, who were intractably loyal to Arab Socialism and therefore opposed to his suggested reforms.
Incidentally, many old guard targets of the young Assad’s ire were also close political connections of his wayward uncle, Rifaat, who, since his failed coup in 1985, was cooling his jets in penthouses and on yachts in either France or Spain, depending on the time of year. Yet, by August of 2001, the leaders of the Damascus Spring had pushed their luck when pro-democracy dissidents had declared that the “dictatorship has ended!” They were promptly arrested and made public examples of.
Still, Bashar pushed for economic liberalization. However, I wonder how committed he was to real liberalization. Remember, Bashar, like his father, is both pragmatic and cautious by nature (and, as we’ve seen recently, just as ruthless). When Hafez had assumed the presidency, he too had reversed most of his predecessors economic policies, in order to open up key sectors–particularly agriculture–to economic liberalization. However, like many economic reforms undertaken by dictatorships, this did not have a primarily economic goal in mind.
Indeed, it would seem that Hafez’s goal was to shore up major Sunni business leaders by tethering their economic prosperity to the economic policies endemic of the Assad-led Alawite regime. In much the same way, during a precarious succession in 2000, I believe, that Bashar al-Assad made similar maneuvers. During the limited liberalization of the economy, he was able to expand the economic reliance on the part of the otherwise hostile Sunni leadership (for the most part) in Syria, plus he was able to identify key elements within his Alawite government who opposed him. In so doing, Bashar al-Assad increased his power, secured his hold over the presidency, and expanded the dependency of the otherwise hostile majority population groups, like the Sunnis, in Syria.
As president, Bashar al-Assad also significantly increased Syria’s alliance with Iran. During his time in office, Syria became a key transit point for weapons and resources going from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas, who were both engaged in terrorism against neighboring Israel. In exchange, the Iranians protected the Alawite regime and empowered them through sweetheart economic deals and the like. Paradoxically, however, the Syrian regime prides itself on being the most secular in the Arab world. Indeed, according to pre-Syrian Civil War reports, homosexuality was both rampant and widely accepted by the denizens of Damascus, the country’s cosmopolitan capital. The secular Ba’athist regime, for instance, allowed for Syrians to imbibe alcohol, to gamble, and to engage in prostitution.
In fact, Damascus is widely considered to be one of the most socially liberal cities in the region. Furthermore, Islamist parties continue to be utterly banned from political activities. And, the Assad Regime’s identification with the secular, Left-wing Ba’ath Party ideology–however nominal–should make them adversaries against the Iranians. Indeed, as alluded to earlier, the Syrian Baathists were aligned with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Baathists for decades before he was toppled by the U.S.
Although, despite sharing ideological similarities, both Bashar and, before him, his father had a tense and strained relationship with the nominally Sunni leadership of Iraq. Plus, Syria’s proximity to Israel and the fact that the Alawites are a sect of Shia Islam, makes them desirable allies to the Iranians and their bid to expand their sphere of influence over the entire Shia Crescent.
Also, the Syrians had occupied neighboring Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. The initial impetus for the occupation was under the auspices of peacekeeping mission. However, that so-called peacekeeping mission rapidly transformed into an outright occupation that lasted for 29 years. Lebanon became an extension of Syria and, therefore also, Iran. Lebanon, of course, has its own sordid history as a bastion of sectarian, ethnic, and religious warfare–most notably during the 1980s, when the country erupted in a multisided civil war that ultimately drew the Soviet Union, the United States, Israel, Iran, and Syria into the fray.
This was also the country where the infamous Iranian-sponsored, Hezbollah terrorist attack upon the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut occurred in 1982. The Syrian occupation came to a humiliating end when the Lebanese erupted in mass protests at their unwanted overlords, over the Lebanese belief that the Assad Regime had played a significant role in the assassination of Lebanese Christian Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hariri’s death was a significant blow for Syrian foreign policy at the time, as well as a humiliating defeat for Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, the folks over Strategic Forecasting (STRATFOR) postulated at the time that none other than Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar’s uncle, and would-be Syrian strongman, was behind the assassination. Sitting from his gilded perch in France (or Spain, he tends to switch often), many believed that Rifaat was systematically trying to undermine his nephew’s rule, so as to better position himself as Bashar’s inevitable replacement.
Also, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Rifaat positioned himself into alliances with the House of Saud–who are viscerally opposed to the Alawite rule of Syria, due to their alliance with the Mahdīst-Shiite Iranian government–he also made significant inroads with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Europe, and is even believed to have been a serious candidate in America’s abortive quest to oust Bashar al-Assad from power during the Syrian Civil War. He continues to claim that he plans on returning to Syria, acquiring power, and governing at the moment of his choosing. Whether this is mere bravado or not remains to be seen, however, Bashar al-Assad is constantly looking over his shoulder to see if his uncle is coming into town.
The Assad Regime’s rule is best defined by a “wait-and-see” approach to autocracy: they play all sides in order to maximize their gains, using a combination of ruthlessness and patience to see how far they can get. It is a process that has worked well since the 1970s. However, this approach has stoked the flames of resentment and encouraged greater opposition to the heavy-handed rule of the Assad Regime.
A Concert of Chaos: Syria, the United States, and Iran During the Iraq War
Ever since Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power, the U.S. has had an unpleasant relationship with Syria. When the Cold War ended and Hafez ultimately died, there was some hope that his son would prove to be the enlightened liberal that many assumed that he would be. They were wrong. As noted above, his modest economic reforms mirrored that of his father’s in that they were simply designed to reaffirm the regime’s hold on power. As the United States was readying to invade Iraq in 2003, many senior Iraqi leaders fled from Iraq across the border into Syria.
Their status as Sunnis conferred upon them the ability to move within and among the Sunni populations of eastern Syria. Also, as the Iraq War dragged on and the Insurgency Years (2003-2006) intensified, it was a known fact that senior elements of the Assad Regime were facilitating the movement of foreign insurgents from abroad, through Syria, and into Iraq. This most definitely played a role in strengthening the Sunni insurgency that came to be known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). As I noted in part one of this four-part symposium, AQI is the precursor to the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham.
It was widely believed that Syria acted as this conduit on behest of the Iranians, who were desperate to exacerbate the Iraqi maelstrom to the point that it would send the occupying Americans fleeing back across the sea. This would then leave the Middle East an open field for the Iranians to expand their control over the Shia Crescent, as well as to end the centuries-old conflict with their Sunni rivals (as best represented in Saudi Arabia), for dominance of the Islamic world.
The Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that were mangling American troops throughout Iraq–specifically, in this case, in the northwestern portion of Iraq that bordered Syria, known as the Sunni Triangle–were in many cases being built and fielded by Jihadist fighters who had flooded into Iraq via Syria. Thus, as was their relationship initially with Nasser’s Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic, it would seem that Syria’s role in the Middle East is as Iran’s vassal state. Whether it be support of Iranian proxies, such as the terror groups of Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, or giving aid and safe passage to Jihadists heading into Iraq to kill American troops, Syria is an Iranian vessel of terror.
The Syrians were not totally oblivious to the Iranian strategy. It is likely that Assad reasoned that the Bush Administration had drawn up a veritable hit list of Middle East strongmen that it’d like to topple, and that his regime was at the top of the list. Therefore, it benefited the Assad Regime to keep America bogged down in Iraq, so that it wouldn’t be inspired to greater levels of regional adventurism against neighboring Syria. In fact, reports suggest that Bush Administration officials like Ambassador John Bolton were recommending that President Bush authorize airstrikes against Syria, for their involvement in the ongoing troubles in Iraq during the 2003-2006 period.
Also, it is likely that the Assad Regime saw an opportunity to do to its restless Sunni majority population that Saudi Arabia did with its restless Wahhābīs during the Soviet-Afghan War in 1980: encourage them to take up Jihad outside of the country, thereby removing a potentially grave threat to dynastic stability. Assad’s encouragement of Jihad being waged through, and from, Syria into Iraq was likely closely linked to his desire to get potential political opponents distracted and, in some cases, out of the country.
Meanwhile, the George W. Bush Administration failed to respond to rapidly changing circumstances on the ground in Iraq. As I detailed in the first part of this symposium, the Bush Administration invaded Iraq with too few troops and did not adequately plan for either a viable postwar political settlement, or a serious postwar stabilization program involving sizable American forces for a protracted occupation of the country. Everyone kept talking about how the Americans were going into Iraq to repeat what it did in Germany or Japan in the Second World War: crush a brutal foe and then rebuild that former enemy into a pro-Western, pro-American bastion of democracy.
Yet, what no one acknowledged, as former Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters realized several years ago, was that the United States resourced a significant amount of manpower to the postwar occupation and rebuilding of Germany and Japan. That effort took decades to achieve and its success was not always guaranteed. From the outset of the Iraq War of 2003, there was cognitive and strategic dissonance emanating from the highest levels of the Bush Administration.
Much of the uniformed military leaders (such as U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki) believed that a stable Iraq might be possible, but that the U.S. needed to commit many more forces than the Bush Administration was prepared to deploy, on the order of hundreds-of-thousands of troops (approximately 400,000 or a little bit more). In the run-up to Iraq, General Tommy Franks who led both the U.S. military invasion into Afghanistan in 2001, as well as commanded the U.S. jaunt into Baghdad in 2003, argued with then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld about the need for a Desert Storm-type force to not only invade Iraq, but to also secure it from the sectarian chaos that would soon follow the toppling of Saddam’s Baathist regime. After many weeks of back-and-forth, Rumsfeld and Franks came to a strange consensus: Rumsfeld’s desire for a quick, small, and light invasion force of no more than 50-75,000 U.S. troops would be upped to 100-150,000 troops, whereas Franks’ force suggestions would be significantly lowered, as would his preferred time tables.
For Mr. Rumsfeld, who had cut his teeth as Chief of Staff, and later, Secretary of Defense, for President Gerald R. Ford (R) during the darkest, closing days of the Vietnam War, the notion of U.S. troops occupying a sectarian powder keg like Iraq was anathema to him. Rumsfeld wanted to use high technology–information warfare–coupled with rapidly advancing, small U.S. forces to quickly topple the Baathists, and then return to the United States, leaving the Iraqis to sort it out.
The military argued about the strategy from a practicality standpoint and Secretary of State Colin Powell and his team at the State Department challenged Rumsfeld’s vision for the war on moral and legal grounds. Secretary Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule” very much applied, according to the State Department. If we broke Iraq, we were obligated under international law to commit the time, resources, and blood to fixing it. This would mean that the U.S. would need a sizable force commitment and a dedication in terms of time and money that the State Department folks were skeptical that the American people would be willing to provide over the long haul. Therefore, the State Department favored a more traditional war (if we had to go to war at all) that went in with a large, lumbering force, took its time, slowly occupied the country, brought it to heel under martial law, and then worked to rebuild its infrastructure and develop an acceptable political framework.
Due to President Bush’s CEO-type management style of delegating authorities to his deputies and then simply being “The Decider” on all of the key issues that the deputies had worked out, many inconsistencies arose during the policy process. National Security Council (NSC) meetings were supposedly especially contentious during this period. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, with his special relationship with Vice-President Dick Cheney, fully understood that his vision of how to prosecute the war would likely win out, given Cheney’s close working relationship with President Bush.
Meanwhile, Secretary Powell went on the attack, insisting that the Administration not try to reinvent the proverbial wheel when it came to prosecuting its self-described Global War on Terror. Soon, other elements of the State and Defense Departments, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as led by George Tenet, and a retinue of other agencies would begin taking sides. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was stuck in the middle, and ultimately developed a compromise to many of these problems to present to the President for his decision. These compromises, or “bridging options,” usually combined the main elements of competing policy options for Iraq into one decision for the President. It is no wonder that the war dragged on the way it did during the Insurgency Years of 2003-2006.
Secretary Rumsfeld got approval from the President to be the Administration’s point man on the Iraq War. Therefore, he focused on the pre-war and war-time aspects of the strategy but left the postwar to other, disempowered bureaucratic actors, like the State Department. He virtually ignored the postwar phase of combat during the planning stage of the war. Once the insurgency began, and Rumsfeld realized that his initial concept of getting U.S. troops out of Iraq entirely by September of 2003 (remember, the U.S. invaded in March of 2003), he became intransigent about embracing the kind of counterinsurgency strategy that people like Condoleezza Rice and General David Petraeus (who was commanding U.S. forces in Ramadi, Iraq as a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army) advocated.
It was not until the 2006 Midterm Election in the United States that the strategy would change, when Rumsfeld was removed from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. After the 2006 Democratic victory in the Midterms, President Bush would embrace the much-needed Surge strategy that ultimately ended the insurgency from 2006-2008.
Yet, even as Syrian-backed Jihadists terrorized the people of Iraq and killed scores of American troops during the Insurgency Years of the Iraq War, key American political figures were engaged in a surreal rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad’s Regime. The political situation back in the United States during this period was particularly tense. Republicans who had pressed for the initial invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 Attacks were on the defensive as Democrats (most of whom voted for the Iraq War in 2003) were launching a full-throated blitzkrieg against their Republican opponents, in the lead-up to the contentious 2004 Presidential Election as well as the seismic 2006 Midterm Elections.
In this atmosphere, Republicans attempted to divert attention away from their policy failures in Iraq, by focusing on foreign assistance (such as the kind that Syria and Iran were giving) to the insurgency in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Democrats sought to simultaneously play a “see, I told ya so” game with their political opponents whilst proffering their own believable (in their view) alternatives to the militaristic Bush Administration policies for the terribly named Global War on Terror (a better name would have been something like the U.S.-Jihadist War or something similar).
Although, again, I’m not very certain about how serious this opposition was, since a majority of the Democrats supported the Iraq War of 2003, and also agitated against Saddam Hussein throughout the Clinton Administration. Indeed, the only Democrat who wasn’t for the Iraq War was then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. However, his opposition to that war seems a bit irrelevant on two fronts: the first because he was a State Senator in Illinois and therefore had no way of impacting the decision to go to war beyond being a vocal critic in Illinois (specifically, Chicago).
Secondly, given his later actions as President, I really question as to how much of his opposition to the Iraq War was based on prescient foresight, or how much of it was simple partisan acrimony. For instance, I don’t recall many Democrats–either in or out of office–attacking the Clinton Administration’s nearly decade-long bellicosity toward Iraq.
Thus, the above picture of then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in 2007. Mrs. Pelosi’s decision to meet with Assad was in direct defiance of the Bush Administration’s policy for diplomatically isolating the Syrian strongman, for his government’s continued role in murdering scores of American troops in neighboring Iraq. This maneuver on the part of Mrs. Pelosi was an attempt to represent her more Left-leaning constituents back in San Francisco, it also fed her desire to show Congressional independence from the Bush Administration (the Democrats had won overwhelmingly in 2006, giving them control over Congress), and it signaled her intention as a senior leader in the Democrat Party to begin crafting an alternative approach to the Middle East that did not involve the military.
Whatever one’s opinion of this picture, there can be little doubt that she and the Democrats failed to adequately gauge Bashar al-Assad and Syria. Indeed, the Pelosi picture is as confounding as the Donald Rumsfeld picture from the 1980s of him shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand in Baghdad. At the time, Mr. Rumsfeld was representing the Reagan Administration as its Middle East Special Envoy and he was in Baghdad to discuss ongoing U.S. support for Iraq in its brutal war against Iran. At the time, Rumsfeld recommended that President Reagan’s standoffish approach to the Middle East continue, as he wrote in a memo to the President entitled “The Swamp,” from 1983:
“I suspect we ought to lighten our hand in the Middle East. We should move the framework away from the current situation, where everyone is telling us everything is our fault, and angry with us, to a basis where they are seeking our help. In the future we should never use U.S. troops as a peacekeeping force. We’re too big a target. Let the Fijians or New Zealanders do that. And keep reminding ourselves that it is easier to get into something, than it is to get out of it. I promise you [that] you will never hear out of my mouth the phrase, ‘the U.S. seeks a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.’ There is little that is just and the only things I’ve seen that are lasting are conflict, blackmail and killing.”
Just as Rumsfeld was opposed to direct American intervention in the Middle East during the 1980s, only to change his opinion on the matter at a critical juncture in the run-up to the Iraq War, so too was Pelosi wrong. Pelosi was but the first wave of modern Democratic leaders in America who believed that Assad was unlike his father. They had extrapolated this notion from the aforementioned Damascus Spring in 2000, as well as Assad’s economic liberalization programs. Plus, they were heartened that, ever since his rise to power in 2000, Assad never renounced his initial request for Syria to join the World Trade Organization. The notion that Assad was a social-democrat-in-waiting and that Syria could become a proving ground for the Democratic Party’s alternative Middle East foreign policy would be proven false by the Syrian Civil War of 2011.
As such, this strange Democratic gambit (that was born out of the temporary political realities of the contentious 2004-08 period in the United States and had little bearing on the geopolitical realities thereafter), resulted in the Obama Administration’s grave miscalculation to ease sanctions and to initiate the normalizing of relations with Assad’s regime in 2010. What’s more, I suspect, this was but one of many reasons why Obama was reticent to intervene early on in the Syrian Civil War (as well as the fact that he was viscerally opposed to any Mideast intervention that would have necessitated a greater U.S. military commitment, such as any Syrian intervention would demand).
Of course, like the foreign policy that Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration would embrace during the Iraq War, so too would the Obama foreign policy vís-a-vís Syria cause the deaths of millions. Indeed, because of the Obama Administration’s severe miscalculation in Assad’s ability to democratize and Westernize Syria, coupled with its inability to promptly respond to the Syrian Civil War in 2011, has helped to create one of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War. It has also led to not only the destabilization of the Middle East–including Iraq–but the subsequent refugee crisis that has impacted Europe likely directly influenced Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, showing that the Syrian Civil War is a truly transcendent conflict that could have been mitigated or, even, outright avoided.
The Crisis of Syria
“We call on all Syrians to preserve their country as well as the ruling regime, a regime of resistance, and to give their leaders a chance to cooperate with all Syria’s communities in order to implement the necessary reforms. The difference between the Arab uprisings and Syria…is that President Assad is convinced that reforms are necessary, unlike Bahrain and other Arab countries.” – Iranian stooge and leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite terror organization, Hasan Nasrallah in 2011.
When the Obama Administration came to power, it promised to meet unconditionally with any rival regime. This was a continuation of the trend started in 2006, when Nancy Pelosi broke with the Bush Administration to meet with Syria’s President Assad. It was the Democratic Party’s so-called alternative to the hegemonic, unilateralist, and militaristic foreign policy of the Republican Party. In this context, President Obama refused to offer support for democratic protesters during the 2009 Iran Election Protests, opting instead to meet with the Ayatollah and his representatives, as they wished. President Obama sent an open letter of friendship to the then-Kim Jong-il Regime of North Korea.
The Obama Administration supported a bizarre quasi-Communist revolution in Ecuador. President Obama also endorsed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s misapplied “reset” with Russia. Within this context, a sort of Democratic “New Look” on foreign policy, if you will, President Obama began easing sanctions on, and normalizing relations with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. By 2010, the U.S. had removed its opposition to Assad’s longstanding desire for Syria to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and American businesses were allowed to have greater interaction with their Syrian counterparts. Furthermore, diplomatic relations began to normalize as America reopened its embassy in Damascus for the first time in decades.
Yet, as the Obama Administration embraced this new outlook toward U.S. foreign policy, specifically toward Assad’s Syria, the Middle East exploded in raucous pro-democratic protests. Across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt–and everywhere between–young Arabs demanded greater political liberty from their repressive autarkic governments. When those government generally refused, protests and riots ensued. In some cases, the regimes were toppled. In others, the strongmen viciously fought back. Such was the case with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, as well as the Assad Regime in Syria.
Still reeling from Hafez al-Assad’s slaughter of the Islamist stronghold of Hama, many radical groups within the Sunni majority population of Syria were agitating for greater democracy in their country. Of course, the Assad Regime had long ago outlawed most Islamist political parties, for fear of their revolutionary aims, and Syria had been under a state of emergency since the Assad Regime ascended to power nearly forty years beforehand. Any attempt for liberalizing the political structure of Syria would, in the eyes of the ruling Alawites, seriously threaten the prized position that the minority Alawites possessed in Syria, as well as risk balkanizing Syria into its component ethno-religious parts.
For many Syrians, not only the ruling the Assad Regime, this was an unthinkable scenario. The fear of balkanization in Syria had initially driven Syria into the aforementioned (and short-lived) United Arab Republic, with Nasser’s Egypt. Unity and the stability that it conferred upon the country was how the Assad Regime maintained what little legitimacy it had. Indeed, this was why the majority of Sunni Baathists and business leaders remained committed to the Assad Regime, even as their fellow Sunnis rebelled against his lead: not only did these individuals benefit from Assad’s rule, but they also feared what a weaker central government would do to Syria.
Inspired by the protests that had erupted throughout the Arab world in 2011, many Syrians began small acts of protests. This eventuated in a horrific event in which a group of schoolboys in the southern city of Deraa, had written some mildly anti-regime graffiti near their school. Within a day of them having defaced the walls, the malignant security services of the Assad Regime moved against the school, arrested the boys, and tortured them to death. This horrific act on the part of the Regime begat the protests which led to the ongoing Civil War.
“Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!”
– Syrian protestor chant in Qamishli, April 2011
Soon, the protests consumed the whole country. The old wait-and-see mentality of Bashar al-Assad came into play, as he began a quixotic dual-track policy: on the one hand, he ordered the release of several political prisoners, as a sign of good faith, on the other hand, he intensified his security services’ crackdown on his opposition. As the protests raged, various political opposition groups–notably Islamist parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, who happily embraced their recently released comrades from Assad’s jails–began to take he lead in the protests. Shortly thereafter, as the Assad Regime realized it was arrayed against a vast portion of the country’s population, and having witnessed the downfall of other such dictators in the region, began to intensely resist the protesters. Their aim was to bust up the protests, destroy the organized opposition groups, and remove the threat by arresting or killing the leadership of these groups.
Mimicking his father’s 1982 massacre of Islamist opposition in the city of Hama, Bashar al-Assad launched devastating attacks against Hama and, later, Aleppo, as it was believed that Syrian opposition forces had taken those cities over. He quickly began expanding upon his father’s Hama Model for dealing with political protest. It soon became clear that the protests and opposition was not going to be cowed by the typical Alawite response to opposition from within Syria. Indeed, it is likely that the ham-fisted methods of the Assad Regime were antagonizing the people toward greater opposition. In a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy, the Assad Regime had created with their brutal tactics the very same conditions that they claimed their methods were aimed at preventing: the balkanization of Syria along ethno-religious lines.
As the country balkanized, the Assad Regime lost control over much of the country, and soon local ideologues rose to fill the gap. These leaders were viscerally opposed to the status quo in Syria and were usually tied to some form of radical group. Many of them were Wahhābīsts and found support from countries like Turkey. Indeed, it was in the regions where the Assad Regime no longer had a monopoly of power that Jihadist terror groups, such as Al Nusrah, al Qaeda, and eventually, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham exploded into existence. To be sure, there were other, less religiously-minded rebel factions operating as well. But, as is often the case, these other groups were nowhere near as well organized or disciplined–or vicious–as the Jihadists were.
As I detailed in the first part of this symposium, the shattered remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) that escaped the successful U.S. Surge during the Iraq War from 2006-2008, ended up in the Sunni regions of Syria. There, these elements remained in broken form, licking their wounds. Once the U.S. precipitously withdrew from Iraq in 2010, leaving no troops to help stabilize the fledgling Iraqi state, the predominantly Shiite-led, Iranian-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad began cracking down on its Sunni rivals.
This, then, led to a degree of disenchantment from the Sunnis over the entire Iraqi enterprise, right when the Sunnis in Iraq had started embracing the concept of a post-Saddam Iraqi government. With the absence of America as a stabilizing force, the increased influence of Iran on the Iraqi government, and implosion of neighboring Syria, the cancerous AQI respawned.
Once they reappeared in an organized form in Syria, however, al Qaeda wanted nothing to do with them. Thus, after a string of successful operations in Syria, the group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq pivoted and brutally annexed one-third of Iraq (the Sunni region). They then began a vicious campaign against the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Iranian-backed Shiites of southern Iraq.
At this point, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham was birthed. Had the United States intervened in the Syrian Civil War early on in 2011, this all could have been avoided. However, by 2013, when IS first started appearing, the lack of American response (indeed, the potentiality of nominal Western support for IS, especially from Turkey) lent itself to IS becoming increasingly galvanized and audacious in its war effort. Now, an entirely new state has been born in the Middle East, one that bridges the Sunni regions of both Iraq and Syria, and practices Wahhābīsm, and threatens its neighbors. On top of engaging in an ethno-religious bloodbath across the region–as well as heinous reign of terror globally–the Islamic State has effectively destroyed the much-ballyhooed borders imposed upon the region by the ignorant Sykes-Picot Agreement at the end of the First World War.
The presence of Jihadists and persistence of the overall rebellion in Syria intensified Assad’s resolve to remain in control over the country. Meanwhile, the introduction of foreign support for various factions of Syria’s Civil War–including the Assad Regime–only deluded all sides that theirs had a reasonable chance of winning the multi-sided civil conflict. As time dragged on, and more blood filled more rubble-strewn streets, Iran intensified its military and economic support of the Alawite regime. Things became so desperate for the Assad Regime that they inevitably launched chemical weapons against civilians.
During this period, the Obama Administration had slowly come to the realization that the Assad Regime was not having the same kind of luck that the Iranians had during their democratic protests in 2009. The more that Assad fought back against the rebels, the greater the level of instability in Syria–and the surrounding region–threatening more American interests. Thus, while Obama was initially standoffish about intervening in Syria to avert the genocide that was now befalling it, the Obama Administration began making statements that “Assad must go.” This was followed on by several other Western powers making similar demands of Assad. Such an action, rather than inducing Assad into relinquishing his power, encouraged him to become more violent.
In the West’s push to isolate and strangle the Assad Regime, in Washington’s desperate (and, ultimately, pathetic) attempt to appear to be on the side of popular change in the Middle East, Assad was isolated and made to feel as though he had no way out. Under these conditions, Assad’s position became hardened and his disposition intractable. This, coupled with the support of Russia and Iran, made Assad feel as though he had a sort of international safety net undergirding his Alawite regime. Thus, any hope of Bashar al-Assad abdicating his rule and precipitating a Syrian movement toward democracy is unlikely.
“To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape.”
– Sun Tzu
Indeed, the reason that I have spent so much time detailing the tribal and religious differences within the Syrian polity during this symposium is to illustrate how intractable the Assad position will continue to be. At some point, there is an ethno-religious line that neither Assad nor his fellow Alawites will allow Syria to cross. The Alawites are an offshoot of the Shiites. They are a proportionally tiny part of the Syrian population.
Their small numbers, coupled with their monopoly of power–as well as how they’ve employed their monopoly of power over the decades in Syria–means that the Alawites fear a democratic Syria. First, any democratic government in Syria will favor the population with a majority of people. In this case, such a population happens to be Sunni-Muslim. The Alawites have earned the undying enmity of this group on both religious (the Sunnis view Alawites as heretics) and political grounds (a large number of Sunni Muslims in Syria support Islamist political movements).
The Sunnis in Syria, therefore, are believed to be intent on not only toppling the Alawite domination of Syria’s government, but also on excluding the Alawites from any post-Assad democratic government in Syria, as well as engaging in horrific retributions against the tiny Alawite population for their role in Assad’s brutal regime. For the Alawites, then, losing the Syrian Civil War not only means losing political clout and economic advantages, but it also could mean losing its safety. This is likely another reason why Assad refuses to step down and why he continues to fight on as hard as he does, despite his inability to control the country.
There was an awkward and, frankly, humiliating moment during the Obama Presidency, when it seemed that the U.S. would intervene against Assad for his usage of chemical weapons. In September 2013, it appeared as though the U.S., Britain, and France had finally resolved to act against the Syrian dictator for his illegitimate chemical weapons attack. Yet, just when it seemed likely that the U.S. would strike, President Obama backed away from his earlier decision.
He decided at the last minute to punt on the issue, deferring to an obstructionist Congress that would ultimately say “no” to his request. What’s more, Obama allowed the Russians to step in and offer to act as middlemen in negotiating a disarmament treaty with Assad, rather than having American, British, and French forces further destabilize (according to the hilarious Russian statements) the conflict by intervening.
“What is happening in Syria is not acceptable for Saudi Arabia. Syria should think wisely before it’s too late and issue and enact reforms that are not merely promises but actual reforms. Either it chooses wisdom on its own or it will be pulled down into the depths of turmoil and loss.”
– The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2011, clearly missing the irony of his statements about his rival Assad mirroring his own Sunni country of Saudi Arabia
After this move by the Obama Administration, the American position in the Syrian Civil War was severely damaged. Neither the French nor British believed that the United States had the wherewithal to intervene and, as such, they would find it more difficult to intervene in the conflict should a need arise in the future. What’s more, critical American allies in the region began doubting the capability of the United States to assert its primacy in the region by ending the Syrian Civil War and ousting Bashar al-Assad (as I detail here.)
Lastly, the refusal of the Americans to live up to their commitments has inspired the Russians to double down on supporting Assad. This, at a time when the U.S. was also destabilizing the region by negotiating an ill-fated nuclear arms deal with its usual foe, Iran. In so doing, the U.S. effectively broke Iran out of the international encirclement that it had endured since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This, in turn, has precipitated a major crisis in the region, as the Sunni states surrounding the predominantly Shiite Iran figure out how to cope with a resurgent–and potentially nuclear armed–Iran.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil War has generated one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world. In the face of the ongoing conflict, millions of refugees have sought refuge in areas removed from the fighting. These areas are located not in other parts of the Middle East or North Africa, rather, they are located in Europe. Indeed, the refugees have fled the fighting in Syria and its surrounding region, escaped illegally into Europe by crossing the Mediterranean, and, once they make it to Europe, enjoy open access to all countries within the European Union, thanks to the EU’s lax immigration policies.
This illegal immigration has persisted for so long that old European fears of the invasion of the foreign hordes became prevalent in many European countries, particularly the Nordic states and the United Kingdom. Indeed, as I have asserted elsewhere, I believe that the recent Brexit vote was directly influenced by the understandable fears that the current wave of refugee illegal immigration into the EU generated in Great Britain.
As you can see, this Syrian Civil War is not merely a local issue. If it is allowed to continue, I believe, that the country will be permanently balkanized, with Islamist parties taking over large portions of the country, and Iranian agents taking over the rest. This, then, will lead to an escalation in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite War that has been slowly consuming the region for centuries, as I argue in part one of this symposium. The United States is the only power that can stop the conflict in its tracks and bring a modicum of order to the region.
The crisis o Syria, then, is not so much about a brutal secular dictator lording over the people. Rather, the crisis is how to maintain order in a country filled to the brim with competing ethno-religious nationalisms, at a time when millenarian eschatology–particularly of the Islamic variant–is at an all-time high in the region? The answer is not easy. It most definitely is not to do what the U.S. and its allies have been doing thus far: lending nominal aid and support to Jihadist groups fighting in Syria while allowing the Russians and Iranians to take the lead in shoring up Assad. It is also not as easy as Russia’s solution.
I agree with President Obama: Assad must go. Although, I’d like to change the rhetoric to “Assad should go.” After all, there is a chance that a settlement might be brokered, so long as he remains a nominal figurehead in whatever government comes after the civil war ends. However, Assad’s actions during the Syrian Civil War likely mean that any chance of a peaceful settlement between the Alawites and the other–mostly Sunni–clans of Syria will only be achieved with his removal. Assad likely has too much blood on his hands. As I will detail in the conclusion below, the U.S. must lead a coalition into Syria.
It must seek the replacement of Assad with someone less caustic from the Alawite community, whilst bringing on a postwar settlement that realizes the demands of a majority of the Syrian people (without embracing Islamism) and allays the fears of the Alawites. In so doing, the fertile ground of discord that the Islamic State and other Jihadist groups have capitalized on in Syria will have been salted by American state-building efforts. This, then, will precipitate the necessary American assault on the Islamic State in Syria, as America and its Sunni Arab allies simultaneously attacks IS in Iraq.
No Easy Way Out, But a Definite Way Forward
With all that has been documented above, I hope that you, the reader, understand that the future of Syria is tenuous and the stability and peace of not only the Middle East, but possibly, the world is at stake, the longer that the twin conflicts in Iraq and Syria persist. While I detailed the importance of Iraq in part one of this symposium, this second part has been detailing the significance of Syria for American foreign policy.
Also, my explanation of the historical Baghdad-Damascus axis was essential for understanding that a solution for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq will only be as successful as the mission plan for stabilizing nearby Syria. The two countries may be separated by an arbitrary border imposed by European colonialists a century ago, however, organically, no such boundary exists. The populations, histories, and culture of these two states are intrinsically linked.
This connection explains why King Feisal I ultimately found a home in present-day Iraq, after having been ousted from Syria by the French. It is also shows how the ideologies of the two country are linked–as the Ba’ath Party emanated from the intellectual circles of Syria, the ideology ultimately found a home in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It also explains why, for a short time, many serious people believed that Saddam Hussein had smuggled his ever elusive WMD cache over to Syria shortly before the U.S. invasion in 2003. What’s more, the cultural, ethnic, and religious linkages for the region are best exemplified by the Alawite connection with both Mahdīst Iran and their terrorist proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories, Hezbollah and Hamas, respectively. The massive Sunni population of Syria shares deeps familial and tribal ties with the small Sunni region of northwestern Iraq.
During the Iraq War, the Syria-Iraq border became a hotbed of Jihadist activity, notably among the precursor to the Islamic State, al Qaeda in Iraq. It is these connections that drive and define the region. Therefore, the U.S. must be cognizant of these ephemeral and existential connections. Rather than strict political nationalism binding–and dividing–these states, as in Europe, these states are driven and connected by blood, history, and culture. Therefore, any attempt to either defeat the Islamic State in Iraq or stabilize the Syrian situation must include both Iraq and Syria. If it does not, neither a plan to defeat IS in Iraq nor a policy of postwar stabilization in Syria will work. They must be linked and implemented simultaneously.
While the situation in Syria may seem hopeless, it is most definitely not. Indeed, a similar situation was faced by the U.S. and its allies during the various Balkan crises that plagued the 1990s. Yet, the U.S. and its allies managed to intervene, stop the ethnic cleansing (for the most part), and cobble together support for a postwar peace that persists (again, for the most part) to this day. The United States must look to the Clinton Administration’s surprisingly cognizant handling of the Bosnian War, in which the Clinton Administration successfully got all interested parties–including their various foreign backers–to sit down at a peace table, and agree to what’s known as a cantonization, or partition, of their country along ethno-religious lines. This agreement was known as the Dayton Peace Accords and its very much a model that should be (loosely) followed today.
Such a possibility is not only very real in Syria today, it is happening already. Just look at the maps that I’ve provided in this post of the ethnographic and religious population overlays with the map of Syria. The Assad regime controls the traditional Alawite sectors of the country and is vying to maintain control over Syria in the predominantly Sunni region. There are also subdivisions occurring with the Kurds in the north. As I noted in The Truth About the Terror In Turkey, the Kurds have long yearned for their own state, which would be cleaved from territory from northern Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as southern Turkey. This is why the Turks are focusing more on fighting the already-besieged Kurds and, at times, giving aid and support to the Islamic State, despite the fact that Turkey’s allies in NATO are officially at war with IS.
An agreement that mirrored the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 would have to take into account certain realities: firstly, the Alawites will not allow themselves to lose control over the central government. Therefore, as I outlined earlier, we would have to make a deal whereby we either keep Assad as a figurehead and diffuse power elsewhere (although, I cannot imagine most of the country accepting Assad remaining in power after the bloodshed he has caused) or, we identify another popular Alawite to take the reins of the weakened central state.
The Alawites would undoubtedly want control of parts of the coast, as well as Syria’s borders with Lebanon and Israel. The deal should confer this upon the Alawites. Meanwhile, critical cities, such as Hama would have to be granted to the Sunnis of Syria. Whenever there were disagreements over territories, the sides would either have to commit to land swaps, or making those contested regions a part of an internationally-enforced neutral zone, until their sovereignty can be resolved amicably by all sides.
The cantonization of Syria is the only hope that the world has to stopping the chaos there. It is the only hope that neighboring Iraq has to prevent it from being consumed by Wahhābī insurgency and Mahdī manipulation. Furthermore, the would-be peacemakers in Syria must understand the fundamental connection between Syria and Iraq. They also must understand that the Islamic State feeds off of the instability in Syria, but also the resentment of Sunnis in Iraq toward the Shiite-dominated central government.
Therefore, as a cantonal approach is being pursued to resolve the Syrian Civil War, a similar solution must be broached in Iraq. As I stated in the first part of this symposium, the destruction of the Islamic State must be the very first thing that the U.S. and its allies decide upon before greater involvement in the Syrian situation. Once it has removed the pernicious threat of the Islamic State (which the U.S. can readily do with an increased number of Special Forces soldiers along with the armies of America’s Sunni allies, as well as the Iraqi government forces), then the U.S. can hit whatever IS remnants have fled over into Syria, whilst preparing to lay the groundwork for the Dayton-style peace accords in the Syrian Civil War.
As it does this, however, the U.S. would have to encourage a similar process in Iraq, following the end of the War Against the Islamic State there. The reason for this is twofold: neither the Sunni nor Kurdish populations of Iraq want to be rolled up in a centralized government that has Shiites running it, and secondly, the influence of Iran needs to be stunted. With a unified Iraq, Iran will always have a greater ability to meddle in the affairs of not only Iraq, but the other states of the Levant, thereby threatening Israel and America’s Sunni allies, and generally destabilizing the region.
As Syria is diffusing its power into the various cantons of Alawites, Christians, Druze, Shiites, and Kurds the exact same pattern would evolve in neighboring Iraq. This dissemination of power and self-determination to the various ethno-religious subgroups of Syria and Iraq would create a genuine stability in the region that has otherwise been lacking since the creation of the Sykes-Picot national boundaries a century ago. With each subgroup of these two interrelated states being given the ability to control their own destinies, new political realities will emerge, and the region will be able to evolve along a political path that is far more conducive to the predilections, histories, and cultural proclivities of the indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, the Russians, Sunni Arab states, Iran, Turkey, and the United States will all have their preferred proxies still around, having influence in the larger Middle East. This is a win-win for everyone.
With the first stumbling block to my proposed cantonal approach to Syria and Iraq being removed through military force, the Islamic State, the next two obstacles are the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation. Both have proven to be intractable U.S. adversaries. However, there have been iterations of cooperation between the U.S. and the other two powers.
While I have been a critic of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, the one thing that I think this has done is to give the Iranians a false sense of inevitably regarding their designs for the Shia Crescent. The Iranians believe that the U.S. is looking for the exits entirely in the Middle East. They believe that all that they have to do is get out the Obama Administration’s way, and he will giddily flee from the burning building that is the Middle East. This is the message that they’ve taken from Mr. Obama’s failure to declare that, “the Ayatollah must go,” during the 2009 protests in Tehran. This is in stark contrast to how Obama moved against both Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, two U.S. allies in the region, during the Arab Spring of 2011. The Iranians have also read that the Obama Administration’s lackluster response to Assad in the Syrian Civil War has been partly predicated on Obama not wanting to upset the Iranians by removing their key client in the region.
Shockingly public rows between the Obama Administration and Israel have dominated the headlines in recent years–particularly over the Obama Administration policy regarding Iran and its nuclear weapons program. Also, very public spats between President Obama and America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies have lent credence to Iran’s notion that America’s position in the region is on the decline, meaning that soon, the Iranians will not only possess an Islamic bomb, but they will also be virtually unchallenged in the region.
This all stems from the fact that the Obama Administration has bent-over-backwards to accommodate Iranian foreign policy objectives. However, I think that Iran’s view of the American position is wrong. I think that, at the end of the day, the next American president–whether it be Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump–can use America’s recent willingness to grant Iranian wishes to its benefit. If Iran believes America is weak and declining and that the best way to ensure Iranian foreign policy goals is to concede to some American wishes, the next president should play that up. The next president should try to get the Iranians to support its peace deal in Syria and the subsequent cantonization of both Iraq and Syria exactly because such an agreement would hasten America’s “exit” from the region. Plus, the Iranians would look terrible in the eyes of the international community (not that they really care about that) for appearing to be so implacable in the face of American gestures of goodwill.
As for Russia, despite whatever designs Vladimir Putin may have for the Middle East (which I suspect only goes so far as ensuring that Turkey does not reassert its influence there), the Russian government has already recently proposed that the international community cantonize Syria. President Putin, despite his bluster, overreached with his Syrian expedition. While he may have had a propaganda victory against the West–and while he may have temporarily buffered Turkish attempts to rebuild its sphere of influence in the region by supporting the ouster of Assad–the intervention was a financial drag on Putin’s already beleaguered economy.
Russian moves in the Middle East will be extremely limited henceforth and, as such, Mr. Putin will be looking for a way to a) extricate himself from the conflict, b) preserve his image by ensuring that Assad or his regime remain in nominal power in Syria, and c) create the image that he has at once rebuffed American militarism in Syria whilst also preventing the resurgence of the Ottoman Empire (however unlikely such a resurgence may be).
The next U.S. president should play into that and call Putin’s bluff. He advocated for the peace deal, we should be willing to meet him halfway. This is exactly what happened in the Dayton Accords vís-a-vís Bosnia. Although Russia was weaker in 1995 than it is today, the logic still holds. Syria is simply too far away from the Russian sphere of influence to warrant an expanded Russian role in order to ensure that Assad remains in total control of the country, as he did before the civil war began.
Together, the Russians and Iranians can force Assad and the Alawites to the table. Meanwhile, the U.S. will have to use its clout with its Arab and Turkish partners to put the squeeze on the remaining rebel groups to come to the table as well. But one thing is clear, the U.S. must stop referring to either Iraq or Syria as independent actors existing beside and yet apart from each other, as if they were France and Germany. For a lasting peace to be crafted, America must address both states as one, nominally cohesive entity–Greater Syria or, simply, the Levant.
The U.S. should push for the removal of Bashar al-Assad, simply because I cannot imagine anyone in Syria who has suffered under his reign (and I would wager you’d have better luck counting those who haven’t suffered under Assad’s leadership rather than those who have) being sanguine about settling a peace with Assad as their leader–even if he were merely a figurehead. There are plenty of other Alawites who are lesser known from Assad’s inner circle who would be excellent choices. But, the U.S. should not be so resistant to Assad’s presence at the negotiating table. After all, a key to the Clinton Administration’s success at Dayton was the fact that the U.S. was willing to make deals with war criminals, such as Slobodan Milosević, in order to settle the issue.
If the Syrians can handle Assad as a nominal figurehead of a severely weakened central government, then so be it. That’s for the Syrians to decide. The unfortunate reality is that in the case of two prominent Alawite minorities ruling two predominantly Muslim states, Morocco and Syria, both have managed to cling onto power far longer than any observer would have thought possible. They have usually done this through a combination of excessive force, foreign assistance, and unshakable commitment to their cause. Thus, ousting Assad will be difficult without a constructive alternative. But, the point is, the U.S. must stabilize the situation in Syria sooner rather than later. It must do so by destroying the Islamic State in Iraq, eliminating whatever other Jihadist groups are operating in Syria, and cantonizing both Syria and Iraq.
From there, the U.S. can institute its cantonal approach to Syria and Iraq and it can begin mending the Middle East, by undoing the false borders of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.