The fog of war often makes it hard to see events clearly, but Ambassador Robert Ford, one of the best informed observers around and one of the people who has had the clearest insights into the Syrian war, is starting to see some important signs of stress on the Assad regime. Namely, dissension inside the regime:
There are four secret police agencies that are the foundation of the regime’s power, and in mid-March the regime publicly announced that the heads of two of them had been fired. The removal of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Syrian Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh was unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh and Shehadeh fell out over the regime’s dependence on Iran; there also are unconfirmed reports that in the wake of the argument Ghazaleh had to be hospitalized after he was physically attacked.
Signs that its resources are running out in a war of attrition:
Although the armed opposition announced its plan to attack the provincial capital of Idlib weeks in advance, the regime lacked forces to reinforce the city, which it lost on March 28 a week after the battle started. The regime has since tried to assemble forces for a counterattack, but its gains have been minimal. At the other end of the country, near the Jordanian border, the regime lost the regional stronghold of Busra Sham on March 25 and then the important Nasib border crossing on April 2—the last functioning crossing with Jordan. Regime counterattacks in those areas also stalled. In sum, the regime appears broadly on the defensive now, and its hold on western Aleppo appears insecure due to the vulnerability of its supply lines.
And signs of war-weariness among its support base:
After tens of thousands of casualties, there are hints that the relatively small Alawi community is tiring of the battle and wants out. The regime’s conscription drives in Latakia and Damascus have not met with public support. Instead, there are stories of families trying to get their sons out of Syria. (In contrast, the Iraqi Shi‘a responded robustly to Ayatollah Sistani’s call for them to mobilize to fight the Islamic State in Iraq.) Moreover, the Shout of the Nation (Sarkhat al-Watan) movement among the Alawi community has survived despite regime efforts to root it out after it was established in the wake of heavy regime casualties with the loss of Tabqa airbase in the summer of 2013.
The defeat of Assad remains the best thing that could happen in a Middle East in crisis. A signal defeat for Iran in the heart of the region would help restore a balance of power between the Sunni and Shi’a that just might be the basis of a new regional order. When Saddam Hussein, a nominally secular dictator who ensured the dominance of Iraq’s Sunni minority, fell, Iraq flipped to the Shi’a camp. That could have worked out if the United States had been willing to stick around in Iraq and help it find a path that was non-aligned with Iran. But when the Obama administration’s premature withdrawal left the country with no realistic alternative to falling into orbit around Iran, the regional balance was thrown into disarray. The perception that the United States was tilting toward Iran further destabilized the Sunni world, leading both to the weakening of longstanding U.S. alliances and to rising sympathy for radical Sunni groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda as Sunnis circle the wagons and prepare for sectarian war.
This is where regime change in Syria could help. Assad’s regime is the mirror image of Saddam’s—nominally secular but in fact ensuring the dominance of a small Shi’a-aligned Alawite community over a majority Sunni population—so its fall, and its knock-on effects in Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Shi’a political movement would be gravely weakened by the collapse of its longtime protector and ally in Damascus, would go a long way towards redressing the sectarian imbalance across the region. If the Shi’a and Iranians control both Iraq and Syria, they will also dominate Lebanon and, many Sunnis worry, the region. But if Syria flips to the Sunnis, the books balance, more or less.
At that point, creative diplomacy and smart policy might be able to begin to calm the region on the basis of the new reality. Bitter sectarian wars don’t spring up overnight and, once started, they rarely end quickly or neatly. And Syria, where both ISIS and the pro-Al-Qaeda groups are significantly stronger than any of the groups the West has flirted with over the years, is going to be a genuinely horrible mess.
We should have no illusions about the problems ahead. U.S. inaction has helped create one of the most toxic political environments in the world in Syria, and the consequences will be with us for a long time to come. The defeat of Assad early in the war, when the rebels were less radical and less revenge-minded than they have become through years of bitter fighting, would have meant one thing. Assad’s fall will almost certainly mean something much darker now, when the alternatives to Assad have become so profoundly unpalatable.
But even so, anything that can help restore a reasonable balance between the Shi’a and the Sunni is at least a potential ray of sunshine in a very dark landscape. Whatever horrors would be unleashed in Syria if a revenge-minded, radicalized opposition ends up defeating Assad, a collapse of Assad’s blood-drenched, Iran-aligned regime would make the Obama Administration’s diplomatic task a little easier. It was the specter of a U.S. aligned with a triumphant Iran that so alarmed the Sunni Arab world. If Iran’s regional ambitions have received a decisive check, there is more room for the U.S. to maneuver.
Much of the potential benefit of an Assad defeat has been frittered away by U.S. policy. Sunnis everywhere and Syrians in particular will not forget the dithering, the dashed hopes and the cynicism which were Washington’s principle contributions to the Syrian crisis. The abdication of political leadership will echo more strongly in the historical memory than the humanitarian assistance that Washington has, to its credit, put on the table. The specific legacy of the war—empowered jihadis in Syria who will reap huge rewards and become legendary figures across the Sunni world if Assad goes down—will be a lasting problem for the U.S. and its allies, and will likely be one of he most toxic and dangerous situations that America’s next president will inherit. The strategic improvement in the position of the world’s most dangerous terrorists that would result from an Assad collapse didn’t have to happen in Syria; U.S. policy there has made that outcome much more likely than it needed to be.
Assad’s fall could have important implications for America’s strategy towards Iran. If its Syrian client falls, and if its regional power and prestige take a damaging blow, will Iran continue to edge toward a nuclear deal? If the answer is yes—if defeat ends up making Iran more pliable—then this is good news, but suggests that the U.S. hasn’t taken a hard enough line up until now. If defeat makes Iran more amenable, then a tougher regional posture by the Obama administration might well have resulted in a significantly better nuclear deal than it now looks as if we will get. If on the other hand, a defeat in Syria makes Iran take a harder line in negotiations, the administration will likely fail to get a nuclear deal, and its legacy in the region will end up being enduring chaos in Libya, a bunch of empowered terrorists in Syria, and a failed detente with Iran.
A genuinely moderate Iranian regime could live with a Sunni Syria, but the current rulers in Tehran do not seem to be as patient and calm as all that. We can probably expect some serious Iranian efforts to prop up the Alawites, if not the Assad family. Syria matters much more to Iran than Yemen does; Iran will not give up Damascus (and Beirut) without a serious effort to prop up a friendly regime. Both sides in the Syrian war have continually surprised outsiders by being far more determined and far more brutal thany anybody expected. Iran may grow tired of Assad; it is less likely to tire of controlling Damascus. The signs point to a weakening Assad regime, but the fat lady hasn’t yet started to sing.
Meanwhile, as the war continues the biggest losers will likely be, as usual, the suffering people of Syria. There will be more economic collapse, more starvation, more refugees and more massacres. This is a war of peoples and not just a war of elites; the Alawites and their allies fear extermination at the hands of their enemies if they lose, and they are willing to massacre their opponents if that is what it takes to keep them at bay. For many of its participants, the Syrian civil war has become a war of survival, and like the wars in the 1990s Balkans, or like the Lebanese conflicts of the last fifty years, wars in which whole communities believe that their survival is at stake tend to become very ugly very fast. We may think we have already seen the worst in Syria; in fact, there could be much, much worse to come as the war drags on.