As the civil war enters its fifth year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain an understanding of the turn of events in Syria: Who is fighting whom and why? Who are the good guys and who are the bad? Before we try to untangle the knot, one thing is clear: Those responsible for the unimaginable killing and destruction are the Assad regime and its allies – Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Only Russia has the air power capable of destroying what still remains intact in Syria, as it did in Chechnya, and only Assad has a quantity of aircraft capable of spewing destruction on such a large scale. Neither ISIL (aka ISIS or DA’ESH) nor the rest of the opposition possess heavy weapons, aircraft, or ground-to-air missiles, leaving them defenseless against air strikes.
Geographically, Syria is split in two: The “populated” area in the West and the “desert” area in the East. Assad abandoned the latter at the very beginning of the war and it ended up in ISIL’s hands. From Daraa in the south, near the border with Jordan, to Aleppo in the north, near the border of Turkey, stretches a road running through the capital Damascus and the cities of Hama and Homs, which remain in the hands of the regime. The war is over the “populated” area, which includes Syria’s most important cities. Assad’s control over this area is precarious, and without massive Russian intervention, his regime would be on the verge of falling.
The great puzzle is not what has prevented the downfall of the Assad regime, but why the United States is silent in the face of unbridled Russian aggression. The realization that Assad has no future in Syria is now an international consensus uniting most leaders, including Putin and Obama. While Iran continues to ally itself to Assad and is prepared to fight to the last Syrian, most reasonable people understand that Assad has lost his legitimacy after displacing 10 million people, almost half Syria’s population. With hundreds of thousands becoming refugees overnight and dozens being killed every day, how can one explain the fact that US Secretary of State John Kerry hasn’t sardonically quipped – as he did when the Israelis shelled Shejaiya in the last Gaza war – “That was a hell of a pinpoint operation!”
Furthermore, why are the Russians and the Americans supporting the YPD Kurdish party? After all, the Kurdish aim is to exploit the Syrian civil war and establish an autonomous Kurdish province called “Rojava” bordering Turkey, like the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. And how to explain the fact that the same Kurds are fighting beside Assad against the Syrian Opposition Forces and are helping him besiege Aleppo? How does it serve American interests to transplant into Syria a failed sectarian Iraqi model (aiding the Shiites and abandoning the Sunnis)? And how can we talk about war against ISIL when, in fact, Syria is divided along sectarian lines and, as in Iraq, the large Sunni majority is left without hope? But the biggest question is this: In the aftermath of the nuclear agreement with Iran, what does the US want in the Middle East? Does it support a Shiite government in Iraq? Does it favor the removal of Assad and support the Kurdish YPD?
Indeed, diplomacy is the name of the game. John Kerry will keep meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and, between handshakes and smiles, convey a sense of agreement between the great powers. Recently the two held a conference under the dubious title, “Conference of Friends of the Syrian People,” which gathered all the bitter enemies of Syria who are massacring and starving the Syrian population every day. The nuclear deal with Iran and the chemical weapons agreement between Obama and Putin created, say American diplomats, “positive” momentum. So they sit and talk while the Iranians and the Russians terrorize the world.
The latest farce was the convening of the Third Geneva Convention, where Kerry forced the opposition to participate without having discussed the future of Assad. Indeed the desired conference was held and served as a prelude to the murderous Russian assault on Aleppo, which sought to overwhelm the opposition and obviate the need for further negotiations.
The Obama doctrine is simple, if somewhat unreasonable: The civil war in Syria must be resolved on the basis of a compromise between the regime and the opposition. It sounds logical enough, except that Assad does not recognize the opposition, and the opposition will never share power with a regime that has massacred and exiled the Syrian people.
It is clear that Iran continues to prop up the Assad regime, which gives it a power base in Syria and provides vital backing to her protégée, Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is clear that Russia is not ready to forgo its alliance with Syria in favor of the United States. It is also clear that Saudi Arabia and Turkey are determined not to let the Iranians, the Kurds or the Russians decide the fate of Syria. But what about Obama? Since his policy of diplomacy is not working, he makes do with passing out vague tips to the world backed up by zero action: Obama tells the Russians that it’s not worthwhile to continue waging war for economic reasons and warns them against becoming embroiled in the conflict; he warns Assad that even if he conquers Aleppo, most of the country will still remain outside his control; he cautions the Saudis not to get militarily involved in Syria and is preventing them from equipping the opposition with anti-aircraft weapons; he has forbidden the Turks from bombing the Kurdish region or establishing a no-fly zone; and he urges the Europeans to be compassionate and to absorb the millions of refugees knocking on their doors. However, after backing down from his own “red line” in the chemical weapons affair, what he is ready to do remains unclear.
The problem is that the Iranians, Russians, Saudis, and Turks are stubborn enough not to heed the learned advice of the American president. As long as the Russians, Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Kurds tighten their siege on Aleppo, and as long as the Saudis and the Turks threaten to send in ground forces – the Turks to fight against the Kurds and the Saudis against the Iranians – what will the Americans do? And if they do something, how will the Russians react? The situation is complex. Turkey is a member of NATO, and any Russian attack on her will be considered an attack on NATO. Saudi Arabia, for its part, might expand and replicate its war (against Iran in Yemen) in Syria. Thus while Obama shilly-shallies – spewing advice, cooperating with Russia, and accepting mass slaughter – the Middle East slides toward an all-out war that may easily engulf the world.
Some unresolved questions remain, such as, who are the rebels? The rebels are a horde of local militias competing for Saudi and Qatari funding. Since the Americans refuse to support the revolutionaries, including the liberal and democratic opposition, the Saudis and Qatar use oil revenues to “buy” those local militias that share the fundamentalist Saudi ideology. The resulting strength of these fundamentalists gives the Americans a reason to turn their back on the rebels. American inactivity has led to the rise of ISIL, as well as to the Saudi and Qatari intervention in Syria. And now it cooperates with Russia, which fights the very rebels that America nominally supports. Putin is doing Obama’s dirty work.
It is easy to say that Syria has fallen to the bad guys and so the West cannot support any party in the conflict. However, in Syria there are bad guys and then there are very bad guys: The regime is the source of evil there, and its continued existence only increases the power of the extremists. Nonetheless, Syria also has much going for it. While the number of warring militias is not large and their impact is limited, there are still hundreds of thousands of young Syrian democrats who waged the revolution, and without them Syria has no future. They have not disappeared and they continue their activities, whether in Syria or in exile. They are determined to build a modern democratic state living in peace with its neighbors. The good guys are the majority. They work tirelessly to build a civil society. They see the totalitarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, and in Iran and know that there’s not much to learn from them. I met a Syrian refugee in Germany who said, “We chose democracy as in the West, and we expected the West to support us, but when they said, ‘You must decide between Assad or ISIL,’ we refused. We want democracy and we are willing to sacrifice our lives for it.”
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman