Five home truths about the Syrian conflict

Whilst the world’s attention is focussed on Russia’s latest airstrikes against Syrian rebel targets, there are some home truths that both the pro and anti Assad media outlets and analysts are conveniently ignoring, writes Abdul Latif-Halimi.

1. Battlefield situation since March 2015

The Assad regime has lost Idlib (provincial capital); Jisr ash-Shughur (strategic city in Idlib province); large areas of Sahl al-Ghab; Abu Dhuhur military airport; Syria’s last border crossing with Jordan; Palmyra and huge areas of Syria’s south-eastern desert to the east of Bir Qassab (gained by ISIS); as well as small areas around the Homs-Damascus highway, including a small-town known as Qaryatayn (gained by ISIS).

In terms of gains, Assad and his allies have captured: large areas of the Qalamoun Mountains above Damascus, and have made significant inroads into Az-Zabadani that recently resulted in a major ceasefire deal.

It is worth noting that the areas of eastern Syria (gained by ISIS) and Qalamoun mountains (gained by Hezbollah and Assad) are largely uninhabitable but represent the geographic depth towards Iraq and Lebanon respectively.

2. Assad and his allies have been struggling.

I have been saying this for four years and will continue to say it because it is the fundamental reality of this war, which even Assad himself has now recognised publicly: the regime has a chronic, structural and unfixable personnel problem.

Assad’s core support base constitutes 12% of the Syrian population, which simply by the laws of mathematics and nature cannot sustain a long-term war of heavy attrition. While there are obviously some Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze that are a part of the Syrian military, the army is no longer an effective or dominant force.

Syrian president Bashar al Assad
Syrian president Bashar al Assad

At first, it needed the creation of the NDF to support it. Then it needed Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Then it needed Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Afghan Shi’ite mercenaries to support it – and the common theme is one: “we need help”.

Moreover, the Druze have essentially stepped away from the regime in recent months and are no longer willing their young men to leave Suweida (a Druze region) to fight across Syrian territory for Assad’s regime.

On top of that, the Alawite community has been exhausted. There are few men left.

There aren’t enough troops to complement Assad’s air superiority and to take back territory on the ground.

That is why Assad has struggled, is struggling and will ultimately be defeated. The fundamentals are heavily stacked against him.

3. Russia context

Putin is seen as leading a Russian resurgence. He is portrayed as the strongman and a “doer” who gets things done, as opposed to the “cerebral” and “timid” Obama.

Unpack that and see how Russia is doing.

In terms of achievements, Russia has in the past two years annexed Crimea and destabilised eastern Ukraine, which is now governed by a pro-West and pro-EU government. Putin has very high approval ratings amongst Russians.

In terms of failures, sanctions and collapsing oil prices have demoralised the Russian economy. Russia’s GDP will shrink by 3.7% this year, as the ruble (Russia’s currency) has fallen by around half in the past 12 months.

What’s on the agenda? Peace summit in Paris to try and resolve the Ukraine crisis, which has quietened down recently due to a ceasefire that’s held for three months.

4. Russia intervention

Anyone who tells you they know the precise rationale with which Russia deployed its 36 jets and 2,000 troops to Syria isn’t being straight with you. We have no way of knowing the exact objectives and purposes for which this step has been taken.

Is it a move to support the regime generally? A narrow focus on protecting Russia’s interests in Latakia and Tartous? A means of building leverage in anticipation of a serious diplomatic peace process? An attempt to become the inheritor of Assad’s “area” at the expense of Iranian influence? An attempt to exploit US absence and lead a new, long-term alliance in Syria and Iraq under the pretense of fighting ISIS? A means of stacking cards on the table as Ukraine talks build?

Vladmir Putin
Vladmir Putin

Personally and honestly, I don’t know what the right combination for the above rationales is.

What is most relevant is what Putin will and will not be willing to do in Syria in the foreseeable future. What is relevant is what he will do with the metal and flesh he has in Syria.

From what he’s sent to Syria, the following is clear:

First point (i): Russia’s focus is on bringing its air capability to Syria and projecting it right across Syria’s geography.

Second point (ii): Russia does not seek to put “boots on the ground” and undertake offensive ground operations. It will take a defensive posture on the ground (around Bassel al-Assad airport and continue to help Assad with new arms, which it has been providing for years).

I’m particularly interested in the second point (ii) because while Russia’s air assets in Syria are a significant qualitative leap up from what the Assad regime has, Assad’s air-superirioty was never in question – if anything, Russia’s additions constitute a simple “top-up” more than any kind of game-changing shift in the conflict. This conflict isn’t about air-power, nor will “better” air-power make the difference.

I’ll give you some very recent examples. Saudi Arabia, which has an incredible air force, was bombing the Houthis for months but could change nothing on the ground. Why not? Despite its air supremacy, there was no-one on the ground to fight for it. Once it solved that and brought in troops and recruited Yemenis? They have been routing the Houthis everywhere.

Another example? The US, the most sophisticated military power in history, has conducted over 7,000 airstrikes on ISIS. Seen any change? Not much, and the only places there has been change was where the airstrikes have been complemented by forces on the ground.

So, back to that second point. From the tiny number of troops, their geographic location, and Putin saying there will be no offensive ground operations, this Russian deployment does not currently appear to be what Assad needs most: fighters on the ground ready to die for his regime and complement his air-power.

Why isn’t Putin giving Assad what he wants? It’s not an easy decision to deploy the fifty or sixty thousand troops that Assad needs. Hezbollah did its most and Iran gave a fair share, but there’s a soft limit somewhere.

For Russia, the memories of the First Chechen War and, before that, Afghanistan, are still fresh in the Russian collective psyche. Furthermore, unlike the popular annexation of Crimea and east Ukraine adventures, the Russian public does not appear as enthusiastic about this Syria campaign.

In a poll undertaken by the Levada-Center, which is based in Russia, more than two-thirds of Russians oppose the deployment of troops to Syria.

Why wouldn’t they? This has nothing to do with Russia’s territorial integrity (like Chechnya or Daghestan) or the protection of an ethnic Russian minority (like in Ukraine).

Thus, Russians coming back in body-bags from Syria would be painful in the short-term and potentially catastrophic for Putin and his clique over the long-term, especially considering the economic and demographic pressures facing him.

5. The US and West

The United States has a central interest in Syria, which is stability and the formation of a secular state.

While the Assad regime served that interest and cut significant deals with the US over the decades (eg. participating in First Gulf War in exchange for dominating Lebanon), the man atop this regime is now an obstacle. Assad is, to use an expression of John Kerry, a “magnet” for instability and foreign fighters from all across the globe.

That recognition in the Obama administration stops there and doesn’t translate into action due to three factors: first, there’s little appetite in the Administration or US public for a new military campaign in the Middle East; second, the Syrian opposition is dominated by Islamists; thirdly, there’s a chance of replicating the mistake of Iraq, where the state was dissolved without a ‘soft landing’.

barack-obama-un_3048940bSo, what the US seeks now is simple: a clean diplomatic solution where the state remains in place but Assad is ultimately eased out of power. They want to retain the structure but knock off the symbol, much like what happened in Egypt with Hosni Mubarak.

All talk of working with Assad or references to Geneva Protocol, be it out of Washington or a European capital, is basically in pursuit of that model.

The “flow” of refugees towards Europe made the Europeans a bit more lenient with their language towards Assad out of seeking a solution, but the substance remains essentially the same: diplomacy to solve this. France has always been hawkish on the Assad regime, UK also to a lesser degree. Germany is irrelevant in the Middle East.

What can break that cycle? A new President in the United States…Obama has 465 days left.

From the Republican side, the two likeliest candidates to win once this Trump-dominated silly season is done, namely Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have pledged to enforce a No-Fly Zone over Syria, and stressed the need to “get rid of both Assad and ISIS”. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has regulalrly expressed her disagreement with Obama on Syria and pushed for “more involvement”; a fortnight ago on “Meet the Press” she said that training rebels to fight ISIS but not Assad is why the strategy is failing.

With Russia now in the mix, expect rhetoric in the presidential primaries to become more hawkish. Also expect the Obama administration to come under increased pressure from the media, Congress and former respected security officials, such as David Petraeus, who testified in Congress around a fortnight ago.

Concluding comments

Muslims need to stop seeing this conflict in ill-informed, dramatic and short-term bursts of interest. This will be a long conflict with many peaks and troughs, so our anger and passions should generally be complemented by patience, consistent action and awareness.

Muslims need to smarten up on the Middle East. It’s incredible, at a time when the region is being baked and re-made from new, just how ill-informed and inconsequential Muslim communities are on these issues. Reading newspaper clippings and remembering sound-bites isn’t the way to make a difference and build a coherent and effective view on the region, let alone sharing false reports, nonsensical and biased “news” from unknown sources.

We need a qualitative shift. We need our own Middle East courses, think tanks and media outlets. We need to reach out to policymakers, editors, academics and the general public, as opposed to talking about these conflicts like it was the latest gossip or likely passively watching a video game from thousands of miles away.

Do what you can. Donations, awareness, lobbying, whatever you can, do it and do it consistently.

Most importantly, Allah, exalted be His Name, will not abandon the oppressed and sincere believers.

Change is never easy, it needs sacrifice and patience. It needs hard-work, commitment and consistency. It needs knowledge and respect.

May Allah aid our brothers and sisters and equip us to assist them. Ameen.

Abdul is a Studying Doctor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and is also doing a Masters in Islamic Studies. His background is in political economy.

You can follow Abdul Latif-Halimi on Twitter @MrHalimi

 

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