As the endgame of the Syrian War plays itself out, thoughtful observers now have time to ask themselves the big questions. Who came out on top, and why? Who got trounced, and why? And what is the shape of things to come? We will offer up a few ideas.
Readers will recall that the Syrian War began in the wake of the genuinely popular protests of 2011. What began as a legitimate series of demonstrations against the government in Damascus did not stay that way, however. Foreign enemies (The US, France, Britain) and regional enemies (Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf principalities) of Syria quickly saw an opportunity to “weaponize” the protest and turn a peaceful movement into an armed conflict staffed by foreign mercenaries. It was an old tactic, one attempted by Western intelligence agencies in the so-called “Green movement” in Iran in the wake of the 2009 presidential elections. Variations on this theme were tried out in Georgia in 2008 and in the Ukraine in 2014. The formula is simple:
- Use a native movement (or series of demonstrations) as cover to disguise the blatant foreign intervention, and to convince the international media to reduce the conflict to simple formulas digestible to an ignorant public.
- Pour in huge amounts of money and aid to select, hand-picked local flunkies whom you control.
- Use the Western media as a willing tool to run interference, lies, and distraction operations while attacking the target government with armed force.
- Use the UN as a bully pulpit to pontificate about the nobility of your aspirations.
- Provide massive media coverage to imaginary (or exaggerated) atrocities or outrages in order to demonize your opponent.
This Syrian “regime change” project had very old roots. In the early 1980s, Israel, Jordan, and a few Western powers financed a massive underground Muslim Brotherhood insurgency. That regime change project also failed when Hafez Assad proved to be tougher than anyone thought; in 1982, he ruthlessly crushed one of the centers of the insurgency in the city of Hama. After this, armed opposition across the country collapsed. The goals of regime change in Syria were the same in 2011 as they were in 1980: to install a pro-West, pro-Israel puppet government that would do the bidding of the more powerful states in the region.
— Walid (@walid970721) August 20, 2017
Failing this, the secondary goal of fomenting war in Syria would be to destroy the country. Great powers have always been willing to settle on destruction if direct control cannot be achieved. These, then, were the cynical and Machiavellian considerations that were circulating in the minds of the major players in 2011-2012. We have already discussed the motivations of the regional and international powers in pushing for Syrian regime change. Each of them had their own reasons for pursuing the project.
The regime change project failed, and it failed miserably. For all the money, men, and treasure that Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the West, and Israel pumped into the war, they failed in their primary goal of deposing the government. At every turn, they were thwarted by their adversaries, who proved to be better fighters then they. We should make no mistake about this: this war was won on the ground, through brutal combat. On a man-for-man basis, the forces loyal to Bashar Assad simply outfought the insurgents. By pursuing what I have previously called a “points and lines” strategy, Assad was able to take control of key cities and highways across the country, while marginalizing and isolating the worst of the rebels.
Assad was able to deploy allies who were willing to fight: Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah units became engaged on the tactical and strategic level. These units were better led and better trained than the rebels, who never succeeded in being anything more than a diverse umbrella grouping of irregulars of varying depravity. Many, if not most, of these rebels groups were dyed-in-the-wool Islamists or radicals of one stripe or another. They had nothing meaningful to offer the Syrian people and were widely detested, contrary to Western propaganda. Even worse, as the conflict dragged on, it became impossible for the West to conceal the ties these groups had to ISIS or Al Qaeda. We have previously discussed the military aspects of the war and need not do that again here; what does matter is that when Aleppo finally fell to government forces in 2016, the final nail in the coffin of the insurgency had been hammered.
Western powers (US, France, Britain) miscalculated terribly in pursuing yet another neocon regime change adventure. Believing that they could fight yet another neocon war on the cheap by using mercenaries of the worst sort, they alternated between strong and lukewarm support for their proxies. When push came to shove, they were unwilling to risk a direct confrontation with other powers in the region. And they lost any sense of moral “high ground” when it became clear that they were arming and backing the very groups that were sworn enemies of the West.
The big winners in the conflict were Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Russia successfully opposed a blatant attempt by the West to change the balance of power in the Middle East, and it did so with firmness and patience. It proved adept at the “talking while fighting” strategy originally mastered by the North Vietnamese during the late stages of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. Russia’s air force was well-integrated with the ground operations of Iran and Syrian militias. Iran’s efforts also paid big dividends. It saw from the beginning that the regime change project in Syria was a covert attempt by Israel to do what it had long wished to do: isolate Hezbollah in Lebanon for an eventual attack, continue its land confiscation schemes under the cover of Arab chaos, and lay the groundwork for an attack on Iran itself.
The Iranians saw through all these schemes and responded accordingly. It stepped up to the plate and paid the salaries of Syrian units, pumped in its own people, and became engaged directly in the fighting. Hezbollah achieved valuable combat experience with Western proxies, and has extended its influence deeper into Syria itself. One could argue that the Western regime change project accomplished exactly the opposite of what it wished to do.
The Road Ahead
In some ways you have to give Saudi Arabia some grudging respect. Undeterred by its total and humiliating defeat in Syia, it has swallowed its pride and made bold new diplomatic moves to the Iraqi Shia. The goal here is to try to do something–anything–to push back against what it sees as expanding Iranian influence in the region. Influential Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr actually flew to Abu Dhabi recently to meet with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
There has even been some talk about Saudi money being used for investment purposes in Iraq–even in Shiite holy cities like Najaf. This incredible development would not have happened unless Riyadh had felt totally boxed in by its failures in Syria. We could call this Riyadh’s “pivot to Baghdad.” The Saudis are looking forward to the Iraqi elections of 2018: they want to have some influence on the outcome, if they can, and are willing to spread some money around to do it. One cannot blame them for trying.
The big winners for Syrian reconstruction are going to be Russia, China, and Iran. The big Western powers are not present, and not welcome, at the Syrian International Fair that is being held this month. Reconstruction contracts are going to go to those nations that stood by Damascus in its hours of need, and who paid their dues in blood. Even though China did not involve itself directly in the fighting, it did help Syria at the UN level by blocking the usual resolutions condemning a government that has been targeted for regime change. China’s long-cherished “Belt and Road Initiative” now is one step closer to fulfillment. The BRI is the name given to a long-term infrastructure project that seeks to connect China directly with natural resources markets in Asia and the Middle East. Now, as at other times in history, the victors will claim their spoils.
Read more about the disastrous consequences of miscalculation in war in my groundbreaking new translation of Sallust’s great works: