The Sword of Damocles

As the Syrian civil war enters its second decade in 2021, what started as a peaceful uprising against the political administration in Syria has developed into a power struggle amongst a myriad of foreign powers in the geopolitical bedrock of the Middle East.  Syrians protested in the wake of the Arab Spring a few months after it took hold in late 2010 across the Arab states.  The protests were met with force, violence escalated, and the country descended into civil war.  Ten years on, eleven million Syrians are displaced, both internally and as refugees mainly across Europe and neighbouring countries, whilst Bashar Al-Assad remains Syria’s President.  However, his power holds sway under a sword of Damocles.  The President has his allies but their allegiance is conditional, and that, like the horse’s hair from which the sword of Damocles hangs, creates an unpredictable situation.

President Assad’s orders to his military to forcibly stop protests before they engulfed the nation in April 2011, came not long after pledges of government and social reforms.  However, Syrians had lost hope in the transformation of the nation from a socialist to a market economy through the government’s tenth five year plan, which started well and should have come to realization in 2010 but had begun to falter.   The demonstrations spiralled into armed confrontation and civil war. 

Syria was provided military support by its longstanding financial ally Iran. Substantive support began with the sending in of a contingent of 4,000 troops in 2013.  There are many reasons for Tehran’s support for Syria, a nation at the cutting edge of the Shia-Sunni divide in the Middle East. The demographic makeup of Syria is multi faceted and a point of contention. Pre war population statistics are obviously no longer valid and indeed there has in any case not been a credible census in Syria since 1963. However the NCF estimates the pre war population of Syria as being:

Sunni Arab 51% (average of all best estimates 56.5%)
Kurdish 14% (average of all best estimates 12.5%)
Christian 8.5% (average of all best estimates 12% which seems high)
Alawite 14% (average of all best estimates 14%)
Druze 3% (average of all best estimates 3%)
Others e.g. Yazidis, Jews, Turkmans, Shiite 6% (average of all best estimates 2% which seems low)

Certainly if the Kurds are numbered with the Arab Sunnis there is a Sunni majority, whilst President Bashar Al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, regarded (on a very tenuous and scarcely credible basis) by Iran’s leadership as being a sect of Shia-Islam.  Arguably the relationship began as a tactical and strategic partnership, initiated in the 1980s by both governments’ shared contempt for President Saddam Hussein during the Iraq – Iran conflict.  This alliance has been sustained for strategic reasons and perhaps reinforced by a mutual distrust of Israel. Furthermore, geographically Syria is situated on a thoroughfare between Iran and its Lebanese Shi’a militia ally Hizb’Allah. 

Iranian support for Syria has of course also been financial, and has gone beyond mere remittances. Iran has provided the Central Bank of Syria with a $4 billion line of credit.

In the early days of the war, Arab nations including Saudi-Arabia and Qatar provided financial assistance to Syrian rebel fighters.  Israel also provided assistance to Free Syrian Army rebels in 2017 and carried out air strikes, which continue today, with one of the deadliest attacks allegedly killing 57 Syrian and Iranian soldiers last week.  These attacks have escalated in the last few months in the run up to the transition of power in the White House.

Iran’s strategic reasons for retaining President Assad as an ally go way beyond mere personal interest.  A change in strategy for Iran is none the less improbable despite talk of a new “Syrian Karzai”.  Meanwhile for Iran the prospect of brokering peace with anti-Syrian government rebels, who have been in the line of Iranian fire since the infancy of this war is a taller order than supporting the current status quo. 

Despite strong Iranian support, President Bashar Al-Assad’s fight against the rebels took a new turn at the end of September 2015, when he called on Moscow to help in the fight with the rebels who were gaining strategic control of key towns in Syria.  Some say that this call for help came directly at the request of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, although the Institute for National Strategic Studies reports the Russia’s decision to intervene came prior to General Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.  Russia has been a long term ally of Syria. However, Putin’s willingness to keep President Bashar Al-Assad in power may be more covetous.  The war in Syria and decisions by other states have provided Putin with an opportunity, one that he has taken advantage of and which has fundamentally shaped his strategy

Russia’s strategy has been described as functional. “It constantly seeks to improve its short-term economic, military, and political advantages while reducing the short-term advantages of prospective adversaries.”  Its long-term vision is to become a global power in the region.  To achieve political hegemony, enhancing military bases in the region is critical, and the Syrian War has provided this opportunity. 

Russia is keen to orientate the Middle East towards itself and away from the US, with countries such as Iran this provides a mutual understanding, however re-orientating other regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf States is a greater challenge.  The crevice that Moscow regularly exploits is the sovereignty of leaders over their state, both from “external intervention and internal insurrection” by directly attributing the cause of such violations to the West’s foreign policy, demonstrated by the toppling of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Al-Gaddaffi.  Russia’s opportunity was further enhanced with Trump’s decision to pull its troops out of Syria in October 2019, which is illustrative of the US’s lack of interest in the region, making it easier for President Putin to induce the leaders of the Arab nations to regard him as a safe bet.

War is not a cheap venture through proxies or otherwise, and both Iran and Russia have accumulated a large tab in the course of their interventions.  Iran’s costs are between $600 and $700 million a month and that doesn’t account for the human loss with boots on the ground.  Despite avoiding heavy human casualties, as Moscow’s offensive interventions have predominately been airstrikes, the cost to Moscow comes in at $4 million a day for airstrikes, this doesn’t include the heavy investment in Syria’s Armed Forces in the form of arms and training.  Despite the advantages of the intervention, such as testing new military systems, combat experience and building up its bases, the long term gain for Russia in recouping the financial costs are high.  Both of Syria’s allies are taking a stake in the country’s infrastructure.  An agreement between Damascus and Moscow a few months after the departure of US troops permitted Russian energy companies to develop three blocks of oil and natural gas.  Reconstruction deals have also been struck by both countries, although there is contention between them as to how the spoils are shared out.

The longevity of the war in Syria is also taking its toll on those loyal to the President.  With high gains in the initial years of the war, their fortunes have turned.  The Caesar sanctions imposed by the US are crippling Damascus’ financial support network, as they specifically target third-country actors with cross-border business activities with Syria.  With the loss of revenue, President Al-Assad has turned on Syrian loyalists such as his cousin Rami Makhlouf, who was Syria’s richest national with investments in telecoms, real estate and hotels.  Makhlouf expressed his discontent in futile social media posts in May 2020, as the President confidently grappled for the countries assets and unpaid taxes to replenish his coffers

The exploitation of family division has been a feature of Bashar Al-Assad’s presidency. That said, in the eyes of some it exposes the pressure that Moscow can apply on Damascus, as Makhlouf was close to Iran and involved in contracts with Iran-affiliated Syrian businessman, a point of discord with Russia.  The family division in fact runs deep as President Bashar Al-Assad has a history of arresting and imprisoning cousins that displease him, though whether it reflects allegiances to Syria’s allies is questionable.  The Syrian military remains strong and confident in its own right. The lead command of the Fourth division is Maher Al-Assad, the President’s brother who remains intensely loyal and whose commanders are advised by Tehran.  Whilst the air intelligence affiliated militia fighting for the Syrian army, The Tiger forces, led by the charismatic Suhayl Al-Hassan, have attained elite fighter status and benefit from Russian support.

The impact of not only the Ceasar sanctions, but also sanctions applied to neighbouring Lebanon and Iran by the US are also damaging President Bashar Al-Assad’s cash flow.  This along with the ongoing cost of the war is filtering down to ordinary Syrians loyal to the Syrian government.  The war has caused the Syrian pound to lose 80% of its value, Syria’s agriculture and tourism industries have been destroyed, and the flow of currency coming in from oil exports lost. Eight out of ten people live below the poverty line.  In June 2020, fresh protests by Syrians living under Damascus’ control echoed the protests of 2011.  These Syrians add to the list of those the President is struggling to please, and as a token gesture he fired his Prime Minister Hamid Khamis.

The elections for the Presidency are scheduled for June 2021, and despite the outcome being predictable, a final victory in the war in the President’s eyes would solidify his support from those around him.   Syria’s civil war that enters its tenth anniversary in March, has been dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, and drawn in many regional actors.  Now President Assad wishes to gain control of the final rebel strong-hold. 

Idlib a province in the North East of the country remains under Turkish backed-rebel control.  This is the area in which many civilians and rebels have escaped to after their towns came under siege from Syrian’s armed forces, including Eastern Alleppo, Homs, Darraa and East Ghouta.  Despite Syrian government supporters believing they can take military control over the area, there are many factors that make this unfavourable.  Firstly, the area has strong Turkish military support.  Turkey borders northern Syria and hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and their repatriation will be less likely if President Assad takes control of Idlib.

To avoid an escalation, Russia met with Turkey at the Astana framework talks in April 2020 between Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

Another reason why an outright Syrian Army assault on Idlib will not be favoured by Russia, is doing so could arguably contravene UN resolution 2254 that was unanimously agreed upon by all member states including Russia, in December 2015, three months after Russia intervened in the war.  This calls for a ceasefire, constitutional revision, and new free and fair elections. 

Although this UN resolution was described by the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, as “Syrian-led, Syrian owned, credible, balanced and inclusive”, President Assad has a large swathe of influence over the committee formed to revise the constitution, as half the members are nominated by the Syrian government providing him with a de facto veto power, and those representing the Western approved factions of the opposition present seem to have little interest in progressing matters.  The ceasefires agreed to date have all collapsed and the most recent agreed through the Astana framework by Turkey, Iran and Russia in March 2020 remains perilous with incidences of violence.  The failure of these ceasefires is because these ceasefires are often used as strategic military tactics to pause the war on one front and to re-align troops to another front that is on the verge of being secured.  However more importantly, these ceasefire agreements do not initiate peace agreement talks that are inclusive of Syrians. 

Arguably further military intervention in Idlib by the Syrian government’s coalition forces would exacerbate the existing humanitarian catastrophe.  There have been grave breaches of humanitarian law throughout this war and they continue, including the targeting of civilians and torture of prisoners by all sides as reported by the UN Human Rights Council.  An assault on Idlib, that homes nearly three million people, over three times its population before the war, would be difficult for the international community to swallow, especially as there are no other humanitarian corridors that could provide protection to the Syrian refugees trapped there.  Conditions in Idlib are dire for the tens of thousands in makeshift camps, with freezing temperatures and flooding, the situation exacerbated by the spread of Covid-19.  Furthermore only one of the two remaining border crossings for humanitarian aid remains open, after the UN resolution 2533 to keep the other, Bab-Al-Salaam open was vetoed by Russia in July 2020.  Although open military assault is not currently being pursued in Idlib, humanitarian assistance is being restricted to maintain a stranglehold over the province. 

To avoid a humanitarian disaster in the region and with the agreed ceasefire in Idlib, the UN needs to use this space to secure a peace deal that sees a political settlement providing Syrians with a voice in their country’s future, and for this security is paramount in Idlib.  Setting up an administration made up of Syrians in Idlib to start negotiating a peace agreement, that includes the repatriation of Syrians could be a next step.  This could only be possible if the UN mandated a protectorate force to provide the necessary security in the region, a force that would be tolerated by the rebel forces.  

However this may not be acceptable to President Al-Assad. The end strategy will need to be carefully negotiated with Iran and Russia, who both share interests, but may reassess their allegiances as President Biden enters the Oval office in the White House. 

Edited by William Morris

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