In this extensive essay, Abdullah al Andalusi explains why the Muslim governments neighbouring Syria were never serious about deposing Bashar al-Assad or rescuing the people of Aleppo.
Recently, there was sad news of the fall of almost half of opposition held Aleppo, and the rising possibility of the return to subjugation of the Syrian people by a sectarian and tyrannical dictator.
Additionally, the Syrian regime has allied with Kurdish nationalists to take back Aleppo, and also attack the Turkish supported Syrian fighters currently besieging ISIS around Al Bab. The Syrian Army had been losing ground prior to the entry of Russian air, navy and ground forces (suspected in the thousands), and being bolstered by naive and misguided religious volunteer militias (the other kind of ‘Jihadists’ in Syria) from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. After the entry of the Russians, the National Socialist (Baath) government and army of Assad has made great strides recently.
In the face of criticism, many people have expressed that the regional Muslim governments are too weak to intervene and bring about a decisive conclusion, and have done the best they can to help the Syrian opposition. Others, among the pro-Assadists (and secular Kurdish nationalists) triumphantly argue that the recent success of Assad has come about despite the full resources of America and the Gulf States, Jordan and Turkey.
However this has never been the case. Quite simply, the Muslim governments in the region have never cared about the Syrians achieving a government purely determined by themselves, nor bringing the dictator Bashar al Assad to account. Here’s why:
The Agenda of the US and its allied Muslim Governments in the Middle East
The US has indeed been supporting some of the “vetted” opposition groups it wants to work with (i.e. anti-Assad, but Secular), but it has also been holding back and limiting the support by Gulf States to the more Islamic opposition groups.
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The US wants to depose Assad, but this is not primarily because it wants to weaken Iranian influence and Hezbollah. The fact that US eventually supported the deposing Mubarak and Qaddafi, who previously were collaborators with Western interests, demonstrate that the US will depose dictators who are no longer useful in fulfilling their primarily role – keeping the Muslim populations quiet and maintaining the stability of the Western imposed order in the Middle East.
When Assad began shooting protestors in Syria (which initially started in Kurdish majority areas), causing the protests to enlarge and soldiers to renounce Assad, the Western governments did what they always do, and sought to ensure a Middle Eastern government is replaced with one that will maintain order.
However, like in Libya and Egypt, the US doesn’t want to see the rise of an Islamic government, and the US knew that if Assad collapses too quickly, the ensuing chaos would see Islamic groups rise and take over a strategic part of the Middle East, which they also see as threatening to Israel’s borders.
The US plan then, and now, was always to maintain a bloody stalemate between Assad and the rebels, to the point that Assad agrees to reforms that would see him deposed later in elections, while preserving the institutions of a continuing Secular government that the US can work with. This plan was carried out with the complicity of the regional Muslim governments.
One clear evidence of this was the joint declaration in Geneva in 2015, whose FIRST article was:
1) “Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and secular character are fundamental.”
The second article was:
2) “State institutions will remain intact.”
The joint signatories to Syria’s “Secular character” included Turkey, Jordan, Russia and…Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Kerry reaffirmed this when he said:
“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition.”
In light of this strategic calculation, the US had for many years stopped the Gulf States supplying resources to the rebels that would give them a decisive upper hand. For example, the US prevented supplying anti-tank weapons to the opposition lest it leads to them winning. But when the opposition began to flounder against Assad’s heavy armoured vehicles, the US allowed anti-tank weapons, but only to go to the Secular opposition groups (however, some Islamic groups were able to take the weapons from the secular groups, much to the US’s chagrin). The US, used its influence within the Gulf States and Turkey, to maintain equilibrium of force, where no one side was capable of winning, hoping it would bring everyone to the negotiations table.
The US used the Gulf States, Jordan and Turkey to alternatively withhold and then give supplies as it saw was needed to control operations of the Islamic groups and limit their successes if they were winning too much against Assad.
For example, Jordan, with US and Russian diplomatic coordination, had prevented opposition fighters from continuing their advances against Assad in the south, which relieved pressure of Assad, and prevented the fall of Damascus, allowing Assad to focus his forces against the Islamic opposition groups in the north. The opposition fighters in the Southern front were in fact told only to focus on fighting Jabhat al Nusra, which is a key target of the US, meanwhile ignoring the biggest killers of Syrians, Assad (and even ISIS!).
Despite all the five years of chaos, deaths and destruction, the US and its allies stood by without decisively ending the conflict. Even if Assad fell “too quickly” the resulting chaos still wouldn’t amount to the level of industrialised destruction that Syria has been through, and the millions of refugees who have had to flee the country.
Pro-Assadists like to believe that the US ‘has tried its best’ to get rid of Assad, but this is simply not true. The US could have struck Assad in 2013, long before the Russians had become involved, and destroy Assad’s entire air force on the ground after Assad was believed to have deployed chemical weapons against his own people (a fact he still is doing). There was massive international pressure on the US and Obama to intervene after this ‘red line’ was crossed. Instead, Assad gave the US a ‘way out’ and publicly offered to “destroy” his chemical warhead arsenal – which the US accepted, relieving it of having to do anything else about Assad’s chemical attacks. Now, Assad’s continuing chemical attacks are ignored because 2013 demonstrated that the US doesn’t consider use of Chemical weapons a ‘red line’ anymore (which it never really did when Saddam used it against Kurds and Iranians in the 1980s).
Turkey could have intervened in 2012 after Syria had shot down one of its planes. There was much anger and outrage in Turkish media, and many thought that the Turkish people would’ve supported any action against the Syrian regime.
Syria’s foreign affairs spokesman, Jihad Maqdisi, showed Assad’s fear, when he publicly said that “We do not want any tension with Ankara…Hopefully, we can transcend this issue swiftly. All I can say is that the announcement I have made is Syria’s official stance; there is in no way any animosity felt towards Turkey and the Turkish public.”
However, nothing happened. The UK helped give Turkey a face-saving “way out” Turkish public pressure for military action, when the UK foreign minister William Hague publicly declared:
“The Assad regime should not make the mistake of believing that it can act with impunity. It will be held to account for its behaviour. The UK stands ready to pursue robust action at the United Nations Security Council…This deplorable incident underlines the urgent need to find a solution to the current crisis in Syria in order to bring an end to the violence and to achieve a genuine political transition.”
Soli Ozel, a columnist at the Haberturk newspaper and Professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said that despite “plenty of people who have written in media that we should retaliate and attack” the Turkish government wouldn’t declare the shooting down of the Turkish pilot as an act of war, because “If you deem it as an act of war you will go to war. That is why I do not think they will deem it an act of war”. The Turkish EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis said in October 2012 that the “Turkey’s military power today is at the point where it could destroy Syria [‘s government] within a few hours.”
I had mentioned this in an article I wrote in November 2012 that the Turkish army could’ve stopped the suffering of the Syrian people, but chose to remain silent due to the US’s agenda.
Turkey and Assad’s Sub-Plots
Now because of the “human element”, the US plans are not going smoothly. Assad wants to return Syria back to how it was prior to the rebellion and doesn’t intend to step down in future at all, even by fair and open elections (which Syria hasn’t had since the Baathist, and then Alawite coup decades ago). Assad has long covertly allowed, and even helped its former Iraqi Baathist allies during the Iraq war, to grow in Iraq under the guise of an Al Qaeda offshoot, ISIS, and enter Syria in 2013 causing the rebels to lose all of eastern and most of central Syria to them. ISIS strangely seems to devote most of its resources in fighting the Syrian rebels, and severely defeating the chances of the Syrian rebels to attain success. Meanwhile, Assad funds infrastructure in ISIS-occupied areas in Syria, and even reportedly provides air support to ISIS when they are attacked by Syrian rebels.
The fact that Assad was able to maintain a siege around Aleppo despite ISIS only a few kilometres away (and behind the Syrian army) should be evidence enough. ISIS hasn’t attempted a single operation to attack regime positions around Aleppo, despite launching continuing attacks against rebels throughout that period. Only in Deir al Zor, where the oilfields are located, and Palmyra (which ISIS gave back to the Syrian army), has there been any reported clashes between ISIS soldiers on the ground, and the Syrian regime.
Strangely to popular expectation, Assad protested against the sending of Iraqi Kurds from Turkey in an operation to liberate Kobani city from ISIS, and accused Turkey of sending foreign “terrorists” into Turkey. This is because Assad’s strategy is to let ISIS take the non-strategic areas of Syria, rather than anyone else, because it would be easier politically on the international scene, to roll them back up again after Assad wins the strategic areas, rather than facing popular and strong Secular forces backed by USA.
The US airstrikes against ISIS, has been more about curbing a useful asset to Assad, than about defeating a regional militia with faux-religious slogans – which prior to the Western airstrikes against it, never initiated any attacks against the West. Again, the Assad regime protested at the US airstrikes on ISIS.
Of course, while Turkey is obliging of most US demands, it is mistrustful about the establishment and expansion of Rojava on the other side of its border that it fears would cause instability and Kurdish nationalist insurgency on its side.
Despite being on Turkey’s border, ISIS was relatively untouched by Turkey until they started to lose territory to nationalist (and Communist) Kurdish forces. Only then did this force Turkey’s hand to get involved. The Nationalist Kurdish forces have decided to strategically align with Assad, in the hope of advancing regional autonomy for a Syrian Kurds, and connecting the isolated Kurdish enclaves into a united region (despite the fact that there are large Arab and Turkmen areas in between).
The argument that we should ignore this history and focus on what’s happening now is equally fallacious. Since history demonstrates intentions and agendas.
Five Possible Things that Probably Would’ve Happened if the Opposition Supporting Muslim Governments Actually Wanted to Remove Assad
People argue that Turkey cannot intervene now because of Russian intervention, and that the Turkish force in Syria is facing problems and obstacles. However, this belies what a serious commitment from Turkey and the other Muslim governments would look like if it were really intended on rescuing the Syrians. Turkey and the Gulf countries actually could undertake a number of actions that would defeat Assad and rescue the Syrians and bring the war to a close, if they were actually serious. If the Muslim governments of the region were actually serious about deposing Assad and saving the Syrian people, they probably would’ve done some or all of the following things:
1) Full Mobilisation and Deployment of the Turkish and Jordanian Armed Forces in Syria
If Turkey was serious about saving Syrians, it could deploy its army masse into Syria, by the tens of thousands, and not just some support vehicles and Special Forces alongside the Syrian FSA groups as it’s currently doing. Turkey (and Jordan) could easily cite humanitarian reasons for a basis to move their militaries into Aleppo and Damascus, and there is little Syria could do to stop them (Russia will not go to war with Turkey, and potential risk NATO confrontation for an endeavour that as limited value to it).
The Turkish land forces number, 315,000 professional soldiers. This would outnumber the pre-war numbers of the Syrian land army at least 2-1, let alone now. Furthermore, Turkey could use its media to easily raze fervour for intervention in Syria, and mobilise Turkey’s considerable reservist force.
Turkey has almost four times the population of Syria. Due to mandatory conscription, the number of pre-trained and ‘fit for service’ Turkish army reservists are 35,000,000(!). The number of military trained Turkish reservists outnumbers the entire Syrian population, men, women and children, 2-1!
In aircraft, helicopters, armoured fighting vehicles, the Turkish army would outnumber the Syrian army 2-1 in 2011, let alone against the depleted numbers of the army now.
While Syria and Turkey have comparable numbers of battle tanks, Turkish battle tanks are either purchased new model Western built tanks, or built upon old Western templates, with many of them recently upgraded.
Syrian tanks are mostly old Soviet era designs, and would be outmatched and outclassed in any tank vs. tank engagement, even if the older Western style tanks were used.
The recent Turkish coup attempt has not depleted the Turkish military numbers, and only affected the officer corps, after the Turkish government removed a small number of easy-to-replace high-echelon commanders.
The conclusion still remains, if the Turkish army fully mobilised its land forces, attacks on a narrow front against Assad’s force around Aleppo, there is little the heavily depleted – and spread out – army of Assad could do to stop it, even with its religious volunteers and the nationalist Syrian Kurds. This is especially easy since the Syrian army is dispersed throughout Syria fighting against an estimated 150,000 Syrian armed rebels.
Unlike Russia and Iran, Turkey shares a mutual border with Syria, and could quickly mobilise, deploy and re-supply its forces. Turkey and Jordan could also use their artillery assets to hit Assad ammunition dumps, bases and command and control, which up till now have no faced any serious collective threat from the rebels.
The army of Jordan too could also intervene in Syria’s south, with its 110,000-strong land force, together with over 3,000 armoured vehicles; it could take Damascus quite easily. While Turkey’s intervention alone would be enough to end the war, a joint operation by Turkey and Jordan would reduce the fighting to a matter of weeks.
Of course, this won’t happen because Turkey and Jordan are not serious about protecting the Syrian people.
2) Turkey Could Establish a No-Fly Zone, but over most of skies of Syria
While it is true that Russia has deployed SA-400 air defence system that could prevent Turkish aircraft from supporting any Turkish military offensive, Turkey also has the means to prevent any Russian or Syrian aircraft from flying too. In 2015, Turkish medium altitude air defence units successfully shot down a Russian aircraft. Syrian aircraft have even less trained pilots and defences against anti-air weapons. Turkey merely extending its anti-air umbrella across Syria would deny Assad’s air superiority and would reverse the course of the war just by itself.
While this might happen in a limited part of Syria, namely the part that Turkish forces occupy to deny a Socialist Rojava, however, even this would only be if the US gives Turkey permission and only if Assad gets too much out of control. Of course, a full extension of the no-fly zone, like that which was imposed upon Saddam Hussein, won’t happen because Turkey and Jordan are not serious about protecting the Syrian people.
Additionally, Turkey (and Jordan) could use their artillery to hit military airfields and Syrian planes on the ground, thereby preventing them from flying, and effectively creating a no-fly zone without having to shoot planes out of the sky.
3) Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf governments have not matched Assad’s strategy in bringing volunteers (and professional soldiers) from their countries into Syria
Currently Assad uses religious fighters who volunteer (or are conscripted) from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan to bolster his forces and fight against his own people. If the Muslim countries supporting the Syrian opposition were using all means to topple Assad, as the Assad propaganda would have everyone believe, it would have been expected that they would’ve adopted a strategy similar to Assad’s strategy of importing volunteers from Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, by using volunteers (and professional soldiers) from their own countries to bolster the defence of the Syrian people.
However, the opposite is true. A cleric of the highest Saudi Islamic council issued a fatwa as far back as 2012, declaring that no Saudi should go to Jihad in Syria; neither can a Jihad be declared, without the decision of the Saudi government.
To date, the Saudi government has not made any such moves, and travel to Syria is banned for Saudi citizens. The propaganda by pro-Assadists, that these countries are using all means to undermine Assad, is simply not true.
The international mobilisation of volunteers to fight the Soviets in occupied Afghanistan would be what a serious attempt to use all means by Muslim countries would look like.
It has been argued that the Muslim countries supporting the Syrian opposition are not allowing or encouraging volunteers to travel because they are worried about these recruits becoming radicalised into terrorism. However, Professor John Davenport of Fordham University suggested that a way around this problem would be for governments to, “create a new volunteer force specifically for this mission to destroy ISIS, end Assad’s reign, and restore decent order to both Syria and western Iraq. We already have westerners joining the Kurds to fight ISIS. Many of the young men (and a few women) who might go to ISIS would instead join this new humanitarian army, along with many of their peers who are not Islamic but who share the just passion to rid of us of ISIS and Assad”.
According to Davenport’s argument, the volunteers can be easily controlled and prevented from joining terrorists by inducting them into a kind of Turkish controlled version of the French foreign legion. This formation could easily be under the command structure of the Turkish army and used as an auxiliary commanded by their army officers. Such a formation has already been imagined by Saudi Arabia, albeit to combat only “terror groups”. This avenue would provide a way to prevent terror groups from attracting naive and deluded volunteers, effectively cutting off their supply of recruits. Surely this would be a “win-win” scenario for those whose concern is ending terrorism and the plight of the Syrian peoples?
However, from the start, the US had directed its “allies” to prevent the travel of volunteers to join any rebel groups (not just the terror groups).
While at the same time, Assad (and the Socialist Kurds of Rojava) is continuing to gather numerous volunteers (and conscripts) from a number of countries, to use against his own people.
Therefore, despite the Gulf countries support of the FSA and other rebel groups with funding and weapons, the pro-Assadist propaganda is false, the US, its allies and the Muslim governments are not aiming to depose Assad by all available means, for there are no attempts to recruit volunteers or soldiers from Muslim countries to come to Syria and depose Assad – in fact the opposite is true – any volunteers that have come to Syria, have done so despite the travel restrictions and legal threats of their countries.
The fact that none of the Gulf States, Turkey or Jordan is even considering using non-Syrian volunteers is a clear indication that they not using all means at their disposal to depose Assad, and never had any intention to.
4) Jordan, Turkey and the Gulf States would stop limiting supplies or operations of Syrian Opposition forces
Needless to say, if the Gulf countries, Jordan and Turkey stopped limiting the supply of resources to the opposition’s forces, and stopped halting operations of the opposition forces that they support, areas like the South front would restart operations against Assad and aid an eventual victory against him.
Of course, the fact that Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf countries are continuing to limit supplies and wait on the US’s permission, shows that decisively deposing Assad and protecting the Syrian people were never their primary concern.
5) The US could destroy all of Assad’s Air and Ground Assets without using a single plane
While American interference in the Muslim world should stop, a point should be made purely for the pro-Assadists who believe Assad’s propaganda that he is part of the “Axis of Resistance” against the US. If the US truly were serious about deposing Assad, they could’ve struck in 2013 after Assad deployed chemical weapons against the Syrian people. However even now, the US could still strike, and all they would have to do is launch unmanned cruise missiles and drones to destroy Assad’s aircraft on the ground, as well as his military units. There is little the SA-400 anti-air units could do against large waves of directed strikes by unmanned weapons that the US has at its disposable.
The fact that the US doesn’t show it has another agenda in mind than deposing Assad and “defeating the Axis of Resistance”.
Therefore, after seeing what is easily within the realms of possibility, it becomes clear that the plight of the Syrian people, and the continued oppression by the Baathist Assad regime, is not only permitted to go on by America and the Muslim governments, but in some way consented to by these same governments, for the sake of preventing the Syrian people attaining an independent and Islamic government that rules with justice.
It is therefore incumbent upon Muslims in all these countries to politically hold their governments to account, and make this known through raising our voices. We should be clear that their token gestures, appeasements of the US and deceptive actions intended to look like a serious attempt to save the Syrian people, are only just that. Turkey already intervened in Syria in 2015, by sending Iraqi Peshmerga to save Kobani from ISIS, once Kurds in Turkey protested and demanded he take action. What of the rest of the Syrians? Who will save them? How many Muslims have demonstrated, lobbied, politically campaigned and petitioned their political leaders in the Muslim world to intervene in Syria?
Currently, the Syrian people have truly only Allah (swt) to depend on, but we who look on should be fearful of the accusations of those who’ve been beaten, slain and oppressed by Assad, against us on the Day of Judgement. And there will be accusations on the day of judgement.
Abdullah al Andalusi is the founder of the Muslim Debate Initiative. He is an international lecturer, thinker, speaker and debater on Islamic and Muslim issues.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the 5Pillars’ editorial board.