It’s pretty clear at this point that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are in a state of alarm. A string of setbacks at the hands of rebel armies as well as from its own internal chaos has put the murderous Assad regime on the defensive. This is raising not just hope that Assad is in trouble but that the West might sense Assad’s weakness and be tempted to intervene to push him out. It is indeed a shame that we ended up here. But further intervention in the Syrian civil war would be a mistake. It’s still too late to save Syria.
The deterioration of the Syrian government’s command was fully apparent earlier this week, when General Rustom Ghazali, a powerful intelligence official, died of wounds reportedly sustained at the hands of the guards of a rival general. Both men, according to the New York Times, were then fired. (It wouldn’t matter for Ghazali, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.) The Syrian command appeared to be splintering.
Then rebels took a strategic town and a military base in Idlib province, near Turkey. “The rebel gains in Idlib have put the opposition on a path to advance into the neighboring provinces of Hama and Latakia, bastions of support for Mr. Assad and key to his grip on power,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Most of Idlib province is now under opposition control, giving rebels a firm foothold to advance on regime forces elsewhere in the country.” And as Max noted yesterday, some observers are starting to talk again about a Syria after Assad.
In light of all this, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Jeffrey White and Oula Abdulhamid Alrifai offer some reason to temper the rebels’ confidence: “Yet if the regime is able to hold on, prevent further serious losses, and retake more lost positions, the final outcome would represent something of a setback for the rebels. It would be an opportunity lost, and it would make the regime’s position in Idlib secure for the time being, albeit reduced — at least until the rebels could mount another major effort.”
But, they add, the Idlib campaign could turn out to change the entire trajectory of the war. And they suggest helping nudge that outcome along:
As of this writing, the Idlib campaign looks to be one of the more important developments of the war, possibly even the elusive turning point that signals a clear shift in momentum against the regime after four years of inconclusive fighting. For those seeking a positive outcome in Syria, now is a good time to apply maximum pressure on the regime, either forcing it to genuinely negotiate a transition or causing its military failure.
It must be tempting to see the possibility that Assad could fall as an opportunity for the West. But in fact some of the appearance of weakness on the part of Assad’s government is actually evidence of its strength–or at least durability and resilience–in the military realm.
To understand why, it’s instructive to go back to a quote from a Washington Post report on Ghazali that Max quoted in his post: “Western diplomats monitoring events in Syria from Beirut say the two men appear to have clashed with the Assad family over the growing battlefield role played by Iran.”
That, in a nutshell, is why Assad is not just a nudge away from falling. It’s no wonder Assad’s high command are bickering: they’re increasingly irrelevant, and have been for some time. Not entirely irrelevant, to be sure. But the fact of the matter is that the Syrian civil war has completed Assad’s turn to becoming a traditional Iranian proxy. And Iran is not going to let its proxy fall in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere.
Assad created a monster, not only in unleashing his family’s characteristic oppression and bloodlust on the opposition but also in deliberately allowing ISIS and other extreme Islamist groups to thrive at the expense of more moderate rebel groups. This not only ensured that the more moderate rebels, which had the West’s backing as an alternative government to Assad, would never get strong enough on their own to take power. It also meant that the only groups who could possibly finish Assad off were the ones the West was invested in defeating.
Those groups, like ISIS, were destabilizing Iraq next door. This drew the U.S. into a de facto alliance with Assad because it brought them into an alliance with Iran. The rise of ISIS–which, again, Assad facilitated–also ensured Iran would do whatever it took to keep Assad in power.
The internal turf wars in the Syrian command are not evidence that Assad is on his way out. They’re evidence that what remains of the Assad power base has become almost a wholly owned subsidiary of Iran.
Not only is the West fooling itself if it thinks it can push Assad out at this point with minimal military involvement, but it’s still in partnership with Assad through the Iranians.
From a military perspective, there is no “Syria.” There are three “Syrias,” which amount essentially to competing factions fighting for territory. We are currently aligned with the strongest of these, Iran, against the second-most powerful group. What we are not going to do is somehow throw in our lot now with the weakest of the factions, especially since we’ve constructed our management of Iraq by allowing Iran a significant role.
Syria can’t be saved. It’s a terrible tragedy, and there’s an argument to be made that it didn’t have to be this way. And certainly, the world should not ignore it. But those who dream of a Western military effort against Assad will keep dreaming.