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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

With Assad on the ropes in Syria, what’s the endgame?

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

The summer heat has hit Syria, but this year there is more to complain about than the weather. Syria’s civilians, the vast majority of whom have no dog in the fight between a regime they didn’t vote for and jihadists they never invited to help them, are struggling to survive. People are telling them that the war is ending, but they don’t believe it.

The regime of Bashar Al Assad, its opponents say, is on the ropes. There is evidence to support that contention. The Syrian army and its allied militias have lost control of vital areas in the populous west, Jisr Al Shughour and Idlib, and suffered defeat in their first direct infantry confrontation with ISIL in Palmyra. American-supported rebels in the south seized a disused airbase and took control of the border with Jordan. Estimates of casualties in the Syrian armed forces run as high as 100,000, and there are reports that Mr Al Assad is running out of men to fight for him.

The determining factor on the battlefield in May and June has been the escalation of support by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar for fighters in the north and east of the country, combined with increased American support for the ostensible moderates from bases in Jordan. The effective use of modern anti-tank weapons evened the rebels’ odds against Mr Al Assad’s armoured corps, and a surge in suicide bomb trucks is destroying the outer defences of Syrian Army positions.

An American intelligence source told the Washington Post: “Regime losses across the front lines are edging the conflict closer to [Mr Al Assad’s] doorstep … [and] many people are starting to openly talk about an endgame for Assad and Syria.”

Of course, the same people have been predicting an endgame for Mr Al Assad since the fighting began in 2011. But is it true this time? In response to the increased, and increasingly coordinated, aid from external powers to ISIL, Jabhat Al Nusra and the new Army of Conquest, other outside powers who have supported Mr Al Assad all along are upping their game.

Iran, according to the UN representative in Damascus, Stefan De Mistura, has committed about $35 billion (Dh128.5 billion) to maintaining the military balance in Syria. In April, it lost a senior Revolutionary Guards officer, Maj Gen Hadi Kajbaf, in fighting south of Damascus. The commander of the Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, predicted recently: “The world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are preparing for the coming days.”

Since he spoke, Iran’s Lebanese client, Hizbollah, seized high ground around Qalamoun near the Syrian-Lebanese border. Iran has shipped in thousands of fresh troops of its own and Shiite fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan. If Syria was a jihad for the Sunni militants who have massacred non-Sunnis on principle, it has become a holy war as well for many Shiites.

Exacerbating matters for ISIL, the Kurdish YPG has made inroads into ISIL-held territory near its ostensible capital at Raqqa and captured Tel Abyad beside the Turkish border. The YPG is affiliated to the PKK in Turkey, making it anathema to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

He has damned the US for co-operating with the YPG, despite the fact the only reliable allies the US has in its confrontation with ISIL along the Syrian-Iraqi border are Kurds. Mr Erdogan’s ability to conduct his aggressive and unpopular policies in Syria, particularly with his open support of jihadis who behead western hostages and expel or kidnap religious minorities, may lose support in the Turkish parliament as a result of Kurdish gains in the latest Turkish elections. If a new Turkish government closed its border to jihadis and their arms supplies, ISIL would shrivel on the vine.

The Russians continue to supply arms to Mr Al Assad, as he boasted to a Russian newspaper last month. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Russian government, stated: “In fact, Moscow has always highlighted that there have been and are no embargoes on military cooperation. There are no legal limitations on us.” Given their long-standing investment in Syria, Russia and Iran were never likely to abandon Mr Al Assad because of a few lost battles. As they escalate support for the regime, the jihadis’ backers will match them.

A year ago, the war was going Mr Al Assad’s way. He took control of the “cradle of the revolution”, Homs, on May 9. Rebels left the town under UN protection, and Mr Al Assad’s forces negotiated local ceasefires to quell fighting in other areas. In June, his army returned to the Armenian mountain area around Kessab that jihadis from Turkey had seized in March. Gradually, though, the wheel turned. ISIL grew in strength and made its lightning advances in Iraq. The US, which did not discourage ISIL in Syria, had to defend the Baghdad regime that was its own creation. In the meantime, it is seeking a strategy to defeat ISIL and the only army, apart from the Kurds, that has stood up to the jihadist forces.

It is interesting to speculate on why the US refuses to cooperate openly with Iran and Syria to defeat ISIL. I wrote back in July 2003 in the London Review of Books: “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria,” a Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy advised Benjamin Netanyahu when he assumed office in 1996. This group’s paper, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, suggested that efforts should “focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”

Did the United States invade Iraq with this objective in mind? After George W Bush’s election in 2000, a Presidential Study Group published Navigating through Turbulence: America and the Middle East in a New Century.

“The two main targets,” the group advised the incoming president, “should be Syria and Iraq … Maintaining a strong alliance with Israel” has not prevented “every state on Israel’s border, except Syria, from accepting America as their principal source of military aid and materiel”.

Has the policy changed? Is the goal still to establish a regime in Damascus that accepts America as its “principal source of military aid and materiel”? Was this worth more than 220,000 Syrian lives and the establishment of a reactionary caliphate from which more and more Syrians will flee by sea and through Turkey to live destitute in the western world that interfered in their lives without considering what they wanted?

Charles Glass is the author of several books on the Middle East, including Tribes with Flags and The Northern Front: An Iraq War Diary. He is also a publisher under the London imprint Charles Glass Books

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