In the last few days I’ve been asked a lot about my longstanding view that the beginning of a Western strategy in Syria is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. The question has come from various angles and been phrased in various ways but it always boils down to: “What comes next?”
The best response I have seen to this comes from Thomas Nichols: “When someone says ‘tell me how it ends,’ it’s another way of saying: ‘I just don’t happen to like this particular case for intervention,’ for whatever reason.” It would be like Allied planners in 1943 telling Western leaders that they better be really careful because they’re weakening Hitler, and nobody seems to have thought about what Germany will look like in 1947. This doesn’t obviate the need for forward planning, but it does demand getting a sense of perspective: when a tyrant is destroying a region and drowning it in blood, stopping that is much more important than figuring out the intricacies of the justice system for the regime that follows. The question of, “What would you do now?,” also proceeds from dubious assumptions because the answer is, “Start three years ago with a different policy.”
Moreover, the demand for prescience in this way puts an asymmetric pressure on interventionists that anti-interventionists free themselves from. To put it in concrete terms: Are the “anti-war” and “Hands Off Syria” types really going to say that Syria now is as they wished it? The anti-interventionists got everything they wanted in Syria and Iraq—despite the pathetic efforts of some to present a PR rebel arming program as the cause of Syria’s woes—and this is the result, proof-positive that doing nothing is itself a choice and is just as capable as military intervention of destabilising a region and getting innocent people killed. Yet somehow the “anti-war” forces do not feel the burden of responsibility as keenly as, say, those who advocated the invasion of Iraq, a moral inequality in dire need of correction.
The glass houses nature of the questioners—and the blatant bad faith of some others—does not, however, invalidate the question, and those of us who favour a more forceful intervention in Syria should say what it is we favour, why, and what we expect to achieve. So here goes.
First, one has to sort out strategic priorities, and this is the first of many points where analysts of the Fertile Crescent flatly disagree. Put simply, some see Iran as the greatest threat to Western interests, and others award that label to the Salafi-jihadists—the Islamic State (I.S.) most saliently, but al-Qaeda (Jabhat an-Nusra), too, and some would even include Ahrar a-Sham, a hardline Salafist groups with Qaeda links.
If the Salafi-jihadists are regarded as the greatest menace then Iran, now essentially an occupation force in regime-held areas of Syria and in control of the Iraqi government’s forces, starts to look like an ally. This is the reading of the present American administration, which has made itself Iran’s air force in both Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, there are those who would say that since Iran’s military forces are comprised of Shi’ite jihadists, who behave as barbarically as the I.S. and fight on behalf of sectarian autocracies that caused the crises to begin with, then Iran should not have American support in this imperial gambit. Add to that Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons, global terrorism, and unending hostility to the West, and the case for supporting Iran as the lesser evil begins to look pretty weak.
The case for Iran is weaker still when it is considered that Iran has had operational relations with al-Qaeda since at least 1996 and financial and other contact since well-before that, was involved in the formation of the Islamic State and supported them long after, and Iran also has its fingerprints all over the Assad regime’s use of provocation—that is to say the regime’s effort to destroy all insurgents except the Salafi-jihadists and takfiris, in order to frighten the minority populations and sections of the Sunnis into clinging to the regime, and face the world with a binary choice of the dictator or the jihadists in the hope the world will choose the former and lend support in putting down the insurgency. (While provocation involves building up the Salafi-jihadists in the short-term, the long-term intention is to defeat them, mostly by having them discredit themselves.)
The Islamic State has engaged in luridly sadistic behaviour, most notably the crucifixions and beheadings—though the regime has some questions to answer about that, too. And that was the point of the regime allowing them to grow: it made the regime look good by comparison. But any actuarial, however crude, simply does not support this: Assad has murdered, maimed, and tortured many more people than the I.S., and destroyed an entire country. The regime has hit densely-populated areas with airstrikes, deliberately bombed civilian crowds at bakeries, used Scud missiles, intended for use against other States, on its own territory, run a program of lethal torture on a scale and in a fashion the only historical analogue for which is the Holocaust, and used chemical weapons of mass destruction. The Islamic State’s cruelty hasn’t come close to this scale of destruction.
Where I.S. has relied on a strategy of intimidation and co-optation in expanding its conquered areas, Iran’s proxy regime in Syria has relied on a strategy of displacement that has maximised civilian casualties. In a perverse spin on counterinsurgency doctrine, rather than separate the population from the insurgents, the regime has just emptied out everybody, which means that “[e]ven when the rebels are able to win terrain, they frequently lose the population, either through literal displacement or because people blame their plight on the rebels as well as the regime.” The rebellion has dared not, after Aleppo, move into major cities because the regime batters rebel-held urban areas with airstrikes and barrel bombs. The attempt is not to drive the rebels out, just to stop them setting up a form of attractive alternative governance, and to turn the population against the insurgents. (The regime has notably not done this to the Islamic State’s headquarters in Raqqa.) Without resources to provide social services or security, for rebels to move in to major urban areas is politically suicidal.
Is Assad/Iran The Guardian Of the Minorities?
One of the main arguments I have been faced with for accepting Iran’s dispensation in the Syria rather than a “Saudi-backed” order is that Iran at least would protect the minorities—the Christians, who get most of the attention in the West, plus the Druze and Alawis, the esoteric sect from which Assad and most of the inner core of the regime hail. But Iran’s strategy takes an axe to the root of that claim: Iran deliberately endangered the minorities, using them as human shields, in order to save their regional position. Regime defectors have explained that after the regime allowed the build-up of the Salafi-jihadists, “the regime accepting the killing by [jihadists] of Alawis and Druze in order to use that to convince these minorities to rally around the regime”. Iran stoked fears of Sunni militancy in “an effort to attract more Shiites across the region to fight alongside Assad regime forces” during the rescue effort it mounted in late 2012, which involved flooding Shi’ite jihadists into Syria and reforming the regime militias into the National Defence Forces (NDF), which is heavily dominated by the Alawis, whose commanders said the NDF’s mission was to “kill the Sunnis and rape their women“. These are not the actions of a secular regime looking to tamp down sectarian passions; they are the actions of a thieving tyrant looking to call up the most atavistic furies he can to preserve the privileges of power for himself and his retainers, to make a struggle for spoils into a grand religious war to ensure he has enough volunteers to protect his regime.
In the first days of the uprising, protesters in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus held up a sign bearing the Christian cross and Islamic crescent that read: “Yes to freedom, no to oppression.” Hama, long regarded as a “stronghold of Muslim fanaticism” and the place where the Muslim Brotherhood made their last stand among a sympathetic populace in 1982, saw Christians invited to take prayers in the Great Mosque, and even in the aftermath of the regime’s deliberately sectarian attacks—it had left the Alawi sections of Hama City alone—there was “absolutely no signs of fundamentalism inside the city.” It is also notable—though it gets nothing like the attention it warrants—that one minority community, the Ismailis, a Shi’a schism, gathered around Salamiya in the Hama Province, were and remain enthusiastically anti-Assad. The protest movement, which began an uprising that stayed exclusively peaceful for six whole months, thus made a great effort to reach out to minority communities who feared majoritarianism and who worried that retribution would fall on them since the minorities were over-represented among the regime’s retainers.
In response to this, Assad sacked mosques, filming soldiers drinking alcohol in them, tortured people into declaring Bashar a god on video, and released the Salafi-jihadists he had in custody to push the “secular revolt against autocracy” into a sectarian war, raising sectarian tensions, an atmosphere that “shores up regime support“. To ensure this, the regime unleashed a series of massacres at Houla, Qubair, Tremseh, Daraya, Thiabiya, Barzeh, Haswiya, Bayda, and Baniyas, mostly on the faultline between the Alawi-dominated Jibal Ansariya and the Sunni plains in the north-west, but also against Sunni enclaves in Damascus and against the small Sunni towns on the Alawi coast itself. The wicked genius of the regime was to use local Alawis from neighbouring villages to do the killing with knives and clubs at close-quarters, a sectarian poison from which there was no turning back: the Assad regime trapped the Alawis; now they would stand or fall with the regime.
Fear never does bring out the best in people, and the regime’s playing on Syria’s faultlines was extremely effective. As the late Fouad Ajami noted, “The doors were never shut in the face of the Alawis,” and the “opposition … had done its best to claim that this rebellion presented no threat to the … minorities,” but “in a moment of peril, the call of the sect” triumphed. “The minorities were being summoned for a stand against the Sunni wave,” and they had answered. An Alawi intellectual, “Khudr,” explained that when the uprising began, “almost all Alawis, even those who had shown fierce opposition toward the Assad regime, … turn[ed] into ‘Basharists’.” The Alawis has been “too busy pretending [they] are no different from Muslims to build [a] common identity,” Khudr concluded. When a movement of genuine non-sectarianism appeared and asked the Alawis to join a project for a Syria without Assad, the Alawis found that they had not just no independent institutions but no independent identity: “Alawis have defined themselves over the past 40 years as the rulers of Syria, and not much else.” In Assad’s Syria, “giving voice to sectarian differences is punishable by law,” Nibraz Kazimi writes, but neither this heavy-handed repression, nor the regime bringing on board the Sunni merchant class, could obscure the “blatant sectarianism of the regime”. As a small example, during celebrations, “Alawites use their firearms, while the Sunnis wouldn’t dare use anything but fireworks.” The Alawis had long feared that the House of Assad, by being dominated by Alawis in a country where they were at most ten percent of the population, would bring a generalised retribution on the Alawi community. But the Alawis could find no way of separating themselves, and Assad ensured worked hard to bind them further to his regime.
The Druze tend to make their peace with the powers that be, and they were a good deal more sympathetic to the rebellion before the tide turned in mid-2013. The Druze have a history of rebellion in Syria, but they saw the devastation in Homs and Aleppo and they will not risk that for as-Suwayda.
The Christians have been particularly important to Assad in this minority-protecting-dictator spiel because of their links with the West. The Islamic State has viciously treated Christians under its rule, making them either convert to Islam or become dhimmis—protected by “the State” in exchange for jizya (poll tax) and complete subjugation. This has been a god-send for Assad and Iran. The regime has thrown in wholly invented stories of anti-Christian atrocities, for example at Kessab, and when Christians and Muslims continued to co-operate late into this fight, Assad responded with unrestrained fury to snuff out anything so dangerous to his narrative. To this day the Assad regime takes great care to lock up prominent Christian oppositionists.
The fact that the Christians are being used in this way, and have been deliberately endangered by Assad’s decision to make Salafi-jihadists the face of the insurgency, has not stopped Western Christians from John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International, to Terry Waite, a former envoy of the Archbishop of Cantebury who was kidnapped by the Hizballah, to journalists like Peter Hitchens, constantly saying that Assad is the best the Christians can do. It has to be noted that while these men are properly exercised about people being targeted for their faith alone, they have not been so exercised when the people were Sunni, as they have been in their overwhelming majority in Syria. Minority rights are a crucial element of any decent polity, but majorities have rights too, and not being subjected to exterminationist tactics by a regime propped up by foreign despotisms is among them. These Christian spokesmen never seemed to find a voice to say that, and the solidarity they professed for their fellow believers could look to the cold eye an awful lot like sectarianism.
The Vatican has taken more or less the Eibner-Waite-Hitchens line, too. In August, Pope Francis urged that protection be provided for Iraq’s Christian minority. A good cause. But did Syria’s Sunni majority not qualify? Apparently not: Francis opposed the proposed strikes to punish Assad for the Ghouta chemical attack. Iraq’s Yazidis, then being starved and enslaved on a mountainside, were no concern of the Pope’s either.
In March 2012, the Vatican’s official outlet reported that ninety percent of the Christians of Homs City had been ethnically cleansed by the Islamist rebels of the Farouq Brigade. As it turned out, this claim came from as Assadist front-group in Europe, and the nearest there had been to anything like this was Farouq saving Christians in Homs, giving them cover to flee the regime’s unmerciful shellfire at Baba Amro that February. Nevertheless this claim was recycled, with a later variation from Mother Agnes Mariam that 80,000 Christians had been expelled.
Mother Agnes lied about the regime’s atrocity at Houla, invented stories that were spread in the international media about rebels feeding Christians to dogs, had an unclear role in the murder of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, and was the regime’s point-person for the terror-famines it used to starve districts of Damascus into submission. To say Mother Agnes was a regime agent seems otiose when her own admissions include a daily meeting with Ali Mamlouk. But she is not alone. Russia has been intimately involved in helping the Assad tyranny, and Assad has borrowed the old Chekist playbook of infiltrating the Churches and bringing them “under control”. Figures like Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, Syriac Orthodox Church Patriarch Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, and Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X (Yazigi) are open supporters of Assad, sad props of a cruel regime.
There is now sectarianism on the loose, and whatever happens there will be a great deal of suffering for a long time for everybody in Syria and Iraq. Still, let us be clear where sectarianism came from: it was introduced as a deliberate State policy of Iran from the first days of the uprising. Whatever the interconfessional tensions—and after four decades of sectarian rule in Syria there are bound to be some—these indigenous feelings are not driving this terrible conflict; they are being manipulated, and the Sunni States have joined in, as part of the strategic calculations of outsiders in Syria.
It should also be noted that Iran has, in recent months, engaged in a messaging campaign not just to portray its client in Damascus as a secular shield for the minorities but to portray Iran internally as better than its Arab neighbours for religious tolerance. One way Iran has done this is to draw attention to the 20,000 Jews who live in Iran, remnants of a Jewish community that has been in Persia for 3,000 years. Roger Cohen of the New York Times was very impressed after a regime-directed tour revealed to him the existence of Iran’s Jews. The argument goes: if there are Jews in Iran, the regime can’t be as antisemitic as it often sounds. This is wrong in several ways. One is that the very longevity of the Jewish presence is the main explanation for why Jews are still in Iran: it is very difficult to move a community that long-rooted. Another is that in fact three-quarters of Iran’s Jews have left since 1979. Finally, Iran’s Jews are completely humbled, regularly persecuted, framed up on charges of espionage and pederasty, for example. Ruhollah Khomeini was quite clear that, provided they were powerless, the Jews inside Iran could have the State’s protection—the same dhimmi status the Islamic State extends minorities under its rule—but Jews outside Iran were fair game. Nor do Iran’s Christians have an easy time of it. And this is before one considers the status of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Baluchis, all of whom suffer severe discrimination, or the Bahais, nearly all of whom have been driven from their country and the remainder of whom live with intolerable persecution, or atheists, several thousand of whom were murdered for their beliefs under the cover of the Iran-Iraq War. The Islamic Republic of Iran is many things; a bastion of religious liberty is not one of them.
What To Do Now
Beyond human rights, the cynical realpolitik reasons for supporting Iran as master of the Fertile Crescent fall apart on examination. For a start, on the terrorism front, Iran has imported into Syria thousands of Iraqi Shi’a jihadists who have “become an increasingly important part of Iran’s global proxy network.” There is no doubting Lebanese Hizballah’s global reach, and it too now has a beachhead in Syria. If the “Khorasan Group” warranted airstrikes, global jihadists on this scale with State backing surely do. But more than that: as Lee Smith has put it, “The Iranians are not capable of shouldering the weight that Obama wants them to carry.” The Iranians couldn’t restore order in the region or defeat the Islamic State because of the limits of their force-projection capabilities and the fact that their very presence—making the moderate Sunnis choose between the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic—produces more Sunni jihadists. And this, of course, assumes that the Iranians want to defeat the I.S. and restore order—which they don’t. As mentioned above, Iran has deliberately made the Sunni jihadism problem worse to try to shore-up its allied regimes and to secure American backing for its regional aspirations. The presence of the Sunni holy warriors, and the disorder they bring, also keeps Iran’s client governments off-balance and pliable, shutting down any dissenters there might be in Baghdad and Damascus—and when that doesn’t work, Iran takes more active measures to remove troublesome members of its allied governments who want to try to resolve internal crises without full-scale war.
In short, Iran’s interests couldn’t be more opposed to the West’s. This is why Hassan Hassan is so on the mark when he writes: “The first thing to do is to pressure Assad out, because that’s the most toxic element of the conflict.” I’m not the military guy, and others are paid to come up with the details in these plans. There are, however, obvious things that can be done. I see no reason why force cannot be employed to break the terror-sieges and prevent starvation being used as a weapon of war. Iran’s ability to keep the regime alive is “inextricably linked” to the maintenance of an air corridor to supply men and weapons. This makes it a “key vulnerability for Iranian strategy in Syria,” and since the regime had only six functioning airfields in 2013, cratering those runways and taking out the surrounding infrastructure should not be beyond the United States—after all, Israel strikes at will, and she somehow manages to get past those mighty air defences.
Above all, the United States must finally abandon the Iraq-first approach, which imagines that the U.S. can work with Iran’s satellite government in Baghdad to pacify Iraq, and only then turn to Syria. Stabilising Syria and Iraq relies on partnering with moderate Sunnis to defeat the Islamic State, but partnering with Iran cannot work because it radicalises the Sunnis and an Iraq-then-Syria approach will allow the fall of Aleppo and the destruction of the moderate (Sunni) rebels. A serious policy begins by saving Aleppo, and allowing the nationalists in Idlib and Aleppo to recover the ground they lost in recent weeks as Western jets watched on. For those who cling to the canard that we do not know who the rebels are in Syria, I explained in May and again in November who the nationalist rebels are; the definitive list of moderate rebel groups has been compiled by Hasan Mustafa; and former senior Obama officials, now free to speak, say the U.S. has known who the “good guys” were “for years.”
Frederic Hof, the former lead on the Syria desk at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, laid out in August how this strategy would be brought to a close. The Syrian political opposition, which has been partially recognised by the U.S., would be moved onto Syrian soil, protected from the regime and the Islamic State by a U.S. no-fly zone. The Assad tyranny and Iran’s militias would thereafter be considered an illegal occupation force. Concurrent with this would be with a serious training program that created a non-sectarian Syrian national army that could, when it is completed, be moved over the border to establish order in Syria by neutralising both the regime’s killer squads and the Islamic State. The present policy of focussing only on the I.S. will not work: there will be no rebel sign-ups to a force intended to leave the regime in place. This will take time and serious commitment, and “fixing” Syria is still a very, very long way off, but such a strategy could make it better, which should be the focus of Western policy: to alleviate some of the suffering while securing our own interests. Iranian domination is not salvation for the minorities: Iran endangered them in the first place and has every interest in a protracted, sectarian war that positions Iran as the defender of these communities. For the West, the present predicament of handing Syria over to Iran, an Islamist regime lest it be forgotten, is a catastrophe, making all the key problems—Islamism, instability, and human rights—worse.