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Friday, March 05, 2021

Assad weathers the storm in Syria to Iran’s advantage

Not many would have imagined Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad’s grip over power would be stronger six years after deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's execution.

Written by Sameer Arshad Khatlani |
Updated: October 12, 2017 5:32:09 pm
syria, bashar al assad, iran, libya, middle east, gaddafi, syrian president, syria iran relations, world news, indian express Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (AP photo/Files)

Deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi had been on the run for two months after the fall of Tripoli when rebels found him in a storm water pipe near Sirte on October 20, 2011. He cowered as they held him by his arms, curly hair and frog-marched him out of the stinky pipe soaked in blood. Gaddafi, 69, was tortured before he was summarily executed. The ignominious end of the dictator, who had ruled Libya since 1969 and given himself lofty titles like “King of Kings of Africa’’, came months after Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s fall encouraged pro-democracy protests [Arab Spring] in the region. The protests threatened to uproot autocrats across the region as Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to quit while Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled.

Not many would have imagined Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad’s grip over power would be stronger six years after Gaddafi’s execution. The challenge to Assad’s rule coincided with that of Gaddafi’s when protests erupted in Syria after 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb was tortured to death in March 2011. Khateeb was among 15 boys detained and tortured for writing graffiti supporting the Arab Spring. Assad responded with a heavy hand to the protests that followed and killed hundreds of pro-democracy protesters. The protests degenerated into a civil war in July 2011 when military defectors formed the Free Syrian Army to overthrow Assad. The Islamic State (IS) terror group and groups like Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces soon joined the campaign to dislodge Assad.

The war has since left around half-a-million dead and displaced half the population – 12 million. But Assad is looking increasingly confident of surviving. Assad’s opponents had captured large swathes of territory before the tide began to turn in his favour when Russia threw the weight of its military might behind him in 2015. A year later, Assad’s forces achieved their biggest victory in December 2016 with the recapture of Aleppo, where chemical weapons were used. They have since made steady progress that prompted Assad’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, to declare victory on September 12. Syria-based Russian commander Alexander Lapin said they were almost getting there. He insisted Assad had won back 85 per cent territory. Assad’s forces have besieged the IS terrorists in Deir al-Zor, where Reuters quoted a commander saying that the “only escape route [for them] out of the city is through rafts on the [Euphrates] river.”

Assad’s survival has dashed hopes of many Syrians, who believed the uprising would end their decades of political exclusion. For exiled Syrian author Yassin al-Haj Saleh, it means “denying any meaning to our suffering, our losses, and our struggle for freedom.’’ He told Carnegie Middle East Center’s Diwan blog that it means that half a million victims “are nothing and their killing will not lead to political change.” He added the survivors “are not protected’’ and might also be killed “without expecting any protest from those who assigned themselves a role as protectors of international laws.’’ For him, he added, the opportunity for a more democratic Syria “is lost for good.” Saleh warned the world’s future unsafe in the “hands of those renewing the mandate of an unspeakable criminal” like Assad.

Saleh blamed “uncontrollable dynamics of radicalisation, Islamisation, and sectarianisation, for the failure. “In the course of this Herculean effort for freedom, Syrians were confronted with brute force… Bashar al-Assad resorted to war, using the army, his extensive security apparatus, and the shabbiha [militias] against his own people to crush their will to resist,” he said. “This led to the militarisation of the uprising. Those protesting found themselves having to break the thuggish sectarian junta’s monopoly over the means of violence in order to own politics themselves.” Saleh said this justified reaction triggered the uncontrollable dynamics and led to a breakdown in “the national framework of the struggle and the influx of wandering global jihadis, as well as inviting regional and international interventions.”

Assad’s minority Alawite sect accounts for just 11 per cent while the majority Sunnis comprise 68 per cent of the Syrian population. He could get around the demographic disadvantage thanks to the disarray in a fragmented rebel camp working at cross purposes. Even the countries backing the rebels were driven by varied ends. The transnational terrorist agenda of groups like the IS worked to Assad’s advantage as it changed the focus of the US from removing Assad to countering them militarily as they began mounting attacks on the European soil.

Now “most of the international community seems to have accepted at least a partial victory by Assad as a fait accompli’’, former Israeli diplomat Itamar Rabinovich noted in a Brookings Institution commentary. That Assad looks far from turning the clock back to pre-2011 era and seems unlikely to unify Syria under his control may hold out some hope for his opponents. Under this scenario, Rabinovich noted that opposition groups “will continue to control parts of the country and Iran and Russia “will consolidate their presence and position in the country…,’’ Rabinovich wrote “much of the world would simply like to see a measure of order and stability restored in Syria; if Assad and his patrons seem, to them, to be the key, so be it”. This, he added, “is obviously not a happy ending” and mean Assad is unlikely to be held accountable. “For those who believe that principle as well as power should play a role in international politics, it is difficult to accept the fact that a ruler who had killed – sometimes with chemical weapons – so many of his citizens will remain in power.’’

But Delhi-based Syrian journalist Waiel Awwad insists Assad’s survival is a victory of his war on terror and “a clear indication that American [regime change] projects in Syria and Iraq have failed”. “Before the end of the year, these terror groups will be eliminated from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” he said. Awwad insisted that the international community now recognises this and should support the legitimate [Assad] government and encourage dialogue for peace. He added that recruits from 83 countries fought in Syria and credited “determination of the Syrian people, army and allies” for defeating the “regime change project”. Awwad noted that a 10-day International Trade Fare held in Damascus last month after five years highlighted the positive change in Syria. It attracted participants from 45 countries including India from August 16 to 26, he said.

The West’s approach and “an overdose of wishful thinking” has been responsible for the change, according to former Dutch special envoy to Syria Nikolaos van Dam. In an excerpt from his book published in Foreign Policy, he wrote the West did not have a “long-term vision and result-oriented pragmatism’’ that were needed to defeat Assad. “Various ambassadors in Damascus expected Assad to have been gone by the summer of 2012.’’ Dam noted that the regime’s strength was completely underestimated, “partly out of ignorance and lack of knowledge of the Syrian regime, as well as because of misplaced optimism’’. Dam noted that the West’s military support for the Syrian opposition never matched its rhetoric and was thus “dangerously inflating” the opposition’s expectations. “The opposition was never given sufficient military support… even when such military pressure would have been necessary to achieve the political solution the West claimed it wanted,’’ he wrote. “With this combination, the Syrian revolution was doomed to failure – certainly as long as the regime received military support from its allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.’’ Dam highlighted the West’s declared aim of arming the opposition turned out to be rather restricted. “When the EU arms embargo against Syria was lifted at the insistence of the United Kingdom and France in 2013, there was – contrary to expectations – no great change as far as arms deliveries to the opposition were concerned.’’

The turnaround in the situation has come as a major boost to Iran’s growing regional influence. This, for Rabinovich, is a “gloomy prospect” as Iran “appears to be sustaining its quest for a land corridor to the Mediterranean.” Rabinovich’s concerns echo those of regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Israel. President Donald Trump’s anti-Iranian rhetoric in Saudi Arabia earlier this year had given much hope to Tehran’s rivals. “…he ordered an aerial raid against Syria’s Air Force after yet another chemical attack on civilians, and the United States shot down a Syrian jet and a drone used by a pro-Iranian militia in Eastern Syria,’’ wrote Rabinovich. He added the policy has been reversed and Trump is now focused on the war on IS. “He [Trump] seems to have come to an understanding with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin on Syria and his decision to stop CIA aid to Syrian opposition groups seems to follow the same line of thinking.’’ Rabinovich noted Trump “does not seem willing to check Iran’s clear effort to take over the vast territory that will become available” when the IS is defeated.

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