Is it too soon to say that the Syrian government has won the war? I don’t believe it is. Barring some extreme event that radically changes the facts on the ground (e.g., a full ground invasion by a combination of powers), the government will soon be in the position to dictate peace terms to the rebels.
Since 2011, Syria has been the battleground of regional and international powers. An initial wave of “Arab Spring” protests was quickly seized on by the intelligence services of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf States, and the United States as a unique opportunity to do what they had wished to do for many decades: install a compliant, obedient regime in Damascus (another Jordan, perhaps) that would do their bidding.
These countries, and a few in Europe (France and to a lesser extent Britain), proceeded to pour millions of dollars into funding “rebel” (i.e., Islamist) groups in Syria. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states recruited Sunni jihadis from all over the world to fight the government in Syria. Turkey provided logistical support, diplomatic cover, and safe havens within its borders for insurgent groups. Israel provided some air support, intelligence collection, and (along the Golan) even medical treatment for the rebels.
What were the motivations of the major players? We must first remember that since the early 1970s, Syria has been ruled by a secular, authoritarian government that is Arab nationalist (Ba’athist) in its inclinations. Although it is not a Western-style democracy, it at least has been able to raise the standard of living steadily for its citizens since the 1970s, and has provided a degree of relative security and stability for its citizens.
Its major “crime” lies in the fact that it acts in Syrian and Arab interests, not in the interests of the West or Israel. For this reason, it has been targeted for destruction since Bashar Al-Assad’s father ruled the country. The Middle East is a rough neighborhood, with competing interests and ferocious rivalries that date back centuries. Foreign and regional powers do not want an independent Syria that acts in its own interests. They want flunkies who will (1) open their economies up to Western and Israeli commercial interests; (2) accept the domination of their economic systems and foreign policy by outsiders; and (3) otherwise do what they are told by the world hegemon.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States
These countries form one main regional power bloc which has expended a great deal of money and diplomatic effort to overthrow the Syrian government. They are Sunni-majority countries, and have economic plans for the exploitation of Syria if only a compliant government can be put into power there. Turkey also sees Syria historically almost as an integral part of the Ottoman domain (especially the city of Aleppo).
This “Sunni bloc” of regional states is deeply concerned (and in Saudi Arabia’s case, terrified) with the rise of Iran and a perceived “Shi’ite” resurgence in the region. Everywhere these countries look, they see Shi’ite power growing. Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon (through Hezbollah) all have strong ties to Iran, and the Sunni bloc of states finds this fact deeply disturbing. Syria for decades has found that its security interests are best served by alignment not with the West, but with Iran. It cultivates close ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now for the first time in many years has close relations with Iraq.
Sunni Muslims have been the majority in the Middle East for hundreds of years. Turkey (which is now ruled by a religiously-leaning government), Saudi Arabia, and their Gulf allies see Shi’ites as upstarts and pretenders, and resent their nascent power. Added to this is the fact that secular Syria has been a protector of religious minorities for decades: Greek Orthodox, Yazidis, Catholics, Assyrians, even Jews have been left unmolested by the secular government in Damascus.
So the decision to support “rebels” in Syria by Saudi Arabia and Turkey was motivated by fear of Shi’ite power, religious bigotry, and acute awareness (in Saudi Arabia’s case) of declining regional significance.
For public consumption, Israel has been content to take a back seat to the carnage going on in its neighbor’s borders. It has always benefited from inciting chaos and instability in Arab countries, and the Syrian war is no exception. Its ideal outcome is to see Syria destroyed, as Iraq was destroyed, so that it can continue its own policies of dominance and annexation in the region. Yet it cannot intervene too overtly in the conflict, for fear of undermining the credibility of the “rebel” groups. It contents itself with providing intelligence and some measure of logistical support to the Western-backed “rebels.”
United States and Europe
These countries mostly take their cues from Israel or the interests of their multi-national corporations. A flunky regime in Damascus would provide investment opportunities for Western countries, and further footholds in the region. The unrelenting fear-mongering by Saudi Arabia about Shi’ite “radicalism” also strikes a responsive chord with Western leaders who are too stupid or lazy to question such propaganda.
How Assad Won The War
Points-And-Lines. When the armed conflict began in earnest, Assad and his advisors seemed to be overwhelmed by the scale of the assault that they had been subjected to. Turkey, Jordan (a staging area for rebel forces), and Saudi Arabia began to pour in men and weapons in one all-out push to overthrow the government.
There were long-simmering scores to settle. Most of the rebels were Islamist groups of one stripe or another who had never forgiven the Assad family for the crushing of the Islamist revolt in Syria in the early 1980s. Those of us old enough to remember the 1980s knew that, in that war, no quarter had been asked for or given by either side. And it only ended when all opposition was utterly destroyed and membership in the Muslim Brotherhood made punishable by death. The lid was kept on radicalism for a while, but not permanently.
The early momentum was with the rebels. Years of corruption and ossification of Syria’s military and security forces meant that it was ill-equipped to handle the onslaught. Islamist groups managed to seize control of large urban centers in different parts of the country, and seemed poised to move on Damascus when the time was right. Syria’s army slowly became weakened by defections, desertions, and poor leadership.
But Damascus’s years of cultivating ties with Iran and Hezbollah paid off when it counted most. Assad was able to convince his allies that it was in their interest to have him remain in power; and by the end of the first year of the conflict, Iranian and Lebanese forces were fighting alongside the Syrian Army. Many international observers considered Assad’s days numbered; and his fall was predicted as only a matter of time.
But Assad dug in for the long haul, and made a canny assessment of the military situation on the ground. He knew that if he held the main corridors of movement in the country (Damascus–Aleppo–Homs–Hama), he could eventually marginalize the rebels, isolating them for the kill later on. His strategy resembled what we might call a “points-and-lines” doctrine: hold the main urban areas and lines of communication, consolidate the critical region around Latakia and the Mediterranean coast, and project power outwards from there. And this is precisely what happened.
In a January 2015 interview with Foreign Affairs magazine Assad stated:
If you look at a military map now, the Syrian army exists in every corner. Not every place; by every corner, I mean north, south, east, west, and between. If you didn’t believe in a unified Syria, that Syria can go back to its previous position, you wouldn’t send the army there as a government.
This strategy worked.
Sealing the Border. Huge numbers of rebels are now effectively sealed off in a Stalingrad-like cauldron in Aleppo. They will soon be at the mercy of the Syrian government. The sealing of the border with Turkey and Jordan is also a goal that is now being pursued. As Russian minister Sergei Lavrov has stated,
The key point for the ceasefire to work is a task of blocking illegal trafficking across the Turkish-Syrian border, which supports the militants. Without closing the border it is difficult to expect the ceasefire to take place.
This also serves as a subtle message to Turkey to stop funding and supporting the insurgents.
Save the Worst for Last. The Syrian government has been content to save the worst of the rebels, ISIS, for last. It was a perfect example of the strategy of dealing with enemies one by one. The rebels themselves never were able to coordinate fully with each other: there were too many competing interests and patrons in play.
No foreign government will shed a tear at their destruction, and the Syrian government knows this. By focusing on cracking the hard nuts now, Assad can leave the easy ones to mop up at his leisure. ISIS in any case holds mostly isolated regions that can easily be retaken when that time comes.
Assad has also created an entire corps of non-regular militias that are loyal to him personally. These militias have shown themselves to be very effective in rooting out and liquidating insurgents and their abettors. Once the war ends, he is likely to be in a stronger position than when it began.
Hearts and Minds. The government also won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. Despite the Western propaganda about Assad’s alleged “atrocities,” the reality was that the rebels were far more bloodthirsty and brutal than the government forces. Rebel militias practiced sectarian cleansing and a brand of religious extremism that was foreign to Syria’s secular traditions. The rebels were also tainted by being beholden to foreign assistance.
Assad was more than happy to drive out the “refugees” from Syria who might be Islamist sympathizers. Zones that have shown sympathy to the rebels have been deliberately depopulated, and regions supportive of the government have been reinforced and strengthened.
So while his army might have suffered manpower losses, so too did the rebels suffer. News stories of ISIS beheadings, the appearance of terrorism in Europe (France), and a general distrust of anything tainted with Islamism all helped Assad shore up his image as a bastion of reasonableness in a sea of religiously-inspired lunacy. Whether this was true or not is irrelevant (it was, in fact, true). What mattered was the perception.
Assad has also told Foreign Affairs:
Before talking about winning territory, talk about winning the hearts and minds and the support of the Syrian people. That’s what we have won. What’s left is logistical; it’s technical. That is a matter of time.
This has proven to be a shrewd and well-considered prediction.
The Propaganda War. Assad has made efforts to align himself with the democratic process by holding elections in the middle of the war. He also joined the global anti-ISIS coalition by bombing ISIS positions at times of his own choosing. These efforts underscore the legitimacy of his government and hammer home the point that, without him, there is only chaos and Islamism.
Julius Caesar once had a saying that made this point most effectively: aut Caesar aut nullus. And this means, “Either Caesar or nobody.” Terrorist attacks by ISIS lunatics in Paris have called attention to the fact that, while Assad will never be a Jeffersonian democrat, he is at least a reasonable statesman with whom one can deal.
Early in the conflict, Western intelligence services scored some propaganda victories against the Syrian government. Some high-ranking Syrian government officials and military officers were induced to leave Syria or otherwise defect. There were one or two publicized assassination attempts against the Syrian president, which clearly bore the mark of Western intelligence assistance.
These moves were dangerous, to be sure, but they failed; and they had the net effect of improving Assad’s position in the long run. The military and intelligence services have become streamlined, more than ever before. Unreliable, suspect, or disloyal figures have been fired, arrested, exiled, or jailed. The remaining corps of officers and men are now dedicated, experienced, and motivated. They have been reinforced and trained by Iranian advisors and Hezbollah auxiliaries, and are prepared to dig in for the long haul.
Other propaganda moves by the West fell flat. The attempt to smear the Syrian government with “chemical weapons” use was one last desperate attempt by the United States to intervene militarily in the conflict, so as to help their proxies on the ground. This move failed as well.
Shoring Up Alliances. Without doubt, the most decisive factor in the turning of the tide was the intervention of Russia. For the first time in modern memory, the Russians have come in with both feet into a Middle Eastern conflict. They remained passive during the 1967 and 1973 conflicts; while nominally on the Arab side, they did very little to change facts on the ground.
Assad and his father’s cultivation of strong ties with the Soviets (and now Russia) has finally paid off. From the Russian perspective, it was unacceptable to see the balance of power in the region change so decisively; they were not willing to see Syria become a Western client state (or, worse yet, a failed state).
Russian air power has put up an impressive showing. They have degraded rebel forces with missile strikes, air strikes, and close air support of Syrian army ground operations. It is clear that smug Western assessments of Russia’s limitations will have to be radically redrawn. The Russians have not been happy with the slow pace of Syrian ground advances, but there is little more that they can do about this. The Iranians have also proven to be very good at ground operations. They are leading small units, but these have proven to be tough fighters. Iranian drones are also apparently hitting rebel positions.
The Syrian government is now poised to win the war. It has followed a coherent military strategy. It has deployed its forces wisely. It has used its alliances to maximum advantage. It has survived the many Western attempts to frame it with false reports of “chemical weapons” use, with atrocities, and with collaboration with ISIS. It has isolated and destroyed its enemies one by one, leaving Assad the last man standing. By any measure, Assad’s achievement has been incredible.
There is always the chance that some dramatic event can change the realities on the ground, of course. Recently, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been rattling their sabers, threatening to invade Syria in a desperate attempt to prop up their proxies. This is a real possibility from Turkey, and much less so from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis do not have the military capability for such an operation; their invention in Yemen is making this point resoundingly. A ground invasion by Turkey would be a big risk for Ankara, and would likely see them bogged down in Syria in the same way that Israel was bogged down in South Lebanon for twenty years.
If present conditions hold, it is difficult to see 2016 as anything but a year of victory for Syrian government. The cost has been terrible. Many of the country’s urban centers are ruined, the economy is destroyed, and Syria now owes a huge debt of gratitude to Russia and Iran. But the army is now equipped to fight a non-conventional war, is more streamlined than ever before, and is prepared to dig in for the long process of mopping up.
But independence comes at a cost. If you do not obey orders from arrogant powers who seek to dominate you, you will be maligned and attacked. Syria has been subjected to a vicious, coordinated armed assault by foreign mercenaries and regional powers for five long years. Its army has been stretched to the limits of its endurance. But it has held. It has been able–with great difficulty–to recruit and arm supporting militias to handle the irregular aspects of the conflict. And this is not the first time this game has been played. In the 1980s, the West tried the same game when it supported the Muslim Brotherhood in its brutal insurgency against the Syrian government.
When someone attacks you and tries to destroy you, you have no choice but to resist. This war was instigated by foreign powers who sought to impose their will Syria. They will now have to face the reality that their war, which they cold-bloodedly provoked, is ending in the defeat of their proxy forces. Those who cold-bloodedly launched the war against Syria had forgotten–if they ever knew it–the judgment of the Greek historian Procopius, who wrote in his classic History of the Wars (II.4.51):
The crime has been committed by him who attempts it, even though success eludes him. As for the course the war will follow, this is surely clear to everyone. For it is not those who furnish causes for war, but those who defend themselves against those who furnish them, who tend to conquer their enemies.
Before the war began, there were many who scoffed contemptuously at Assad, believing him to be a mild-mannered doctor unfit to rule. He was believed to be a weakling, a man of no consequence. These assumptions have been shown to be mistaken. The world now knows that Bashar Al-Assad is, beyond doubt, a worthy successor of his father.
Read more about character on the battlefield in my new, original translation of Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline and The War of Jugurtha: