Winning in Syria and the Middle East - By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam - Syria Comment

Winning in Syria and the Middle East – By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam

David W. Lesch

Winning in Syria and the Middle East
By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam
For Syria Comment – July 16, 2018

The common perception today is that Russia has won in Syria, having supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is now steadily reasserting its control over previously lost territory. As a result, Russia has inserted itself as the power broker in Syria, if not the entire Middle East.  The summit between Presidents Trump and Putin on Monday in Helsinki, where the subject of Syria was high on the agenda, seems to have consecrated Russia’s victory. Countries tend to gravitate toward winners, not losers.

Kamal Alam

The United States, on the other hand, directly and indirectly intervened in multiple conflicts in the Middle East since 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, followed by involvement in a series of upheavals brought on by the Arab Spring:  Libya and Syria most notably. No one would say the US has won in any of these cases—far from it.

On the surface, this is difficult to comprehend.  After all, the US has by far the most powerful military on earth. The image of Russia’s only aircraft carrier limping toward, breaking down, and being towed in the eastern Mediterranean in support of Assad’s forces was a stark reminder of this reality.  So how did Russia win—and why did the US fail over and over again?

There is one outstanding difference in the Russian versus American military interventions in internal national conflicts in the Middle East:  in Syria, the Kremlin supported the entrenched state. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the US supported opposition forces seeking the overthrow of the entrenched state.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the US and NATO reversed their policy and actually wanted Libyan President Muammar Gadafi to remain in power against the opposition forces unleashed by the Arab spring. Is there any doubt that with US military support he would still be in power today?  Perhaps he too would be mopping up pockets of resistance much as Assad is doing today in Syria.  However illogical or immoral it may have seemed at the time to most in the West, let’s say Washington wanted Assad to stay in power seven years ago when the Arab spring hit Syria. Would not the US be the one crowning its success there, not Russia? Ironically, the US supported the Iraqi state against ISIS—and won.  But the US is not going to get much credit for solving a problem it largely created when it dissolved the state via the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its chaotic aftermath.

The US can overthrow just about any government in the world or keep one in power if it sets it mind to it.  That’s how overwhelming its military might is. The US could have removed Assad if we really wanted to.  The problem is that the Middle East security state, by its very nature, constructs a ruling apparatus and governance system that is pervasive. It is one that becomes very good at preventing the development of any viable, coherent opposition movement, usually through a combination of divide and rule tactics and repression.

If the government is overthrown, as it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there is very little left to take its place. New governments were brought to power by external forces, therefore lacking indigenous legitimacy, with little experience in politics (especially democratic politics).  What inevitably results is rampant instability, with more people as time goes on willing to accept the return of authoritarianism if it will keep the lights on, the grocery stores stocked, and suicide bombings at a minimum.

In Syria, the Assad government had more legitimacy than most gave it credit for—or at the very least it was adept at convincing a number of groups in a war weary population that it was their best bet moving forward.  This was particularly true of minority groups in the country as the Sunni Arab-dominated opposition became more jihadist as the war deepened.  Although the top echelons of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus are disproportionately composed of Alawites, there are also a number Greek Orthodox, Druze, Sunnis, Catholics, and Armenians in decision-making positions, offering and reinforcing in practical terms to many Syrians an alternative model to the monotone jihadist one. Compared to many other armies under pressure from the Arab spring uprisings, the Syrian military remained relatively cohesive and continued to fight. And perhaps it is not so much that the Assad government had more legitimacy then we imagined from the outside, it is that the largely fractured opposition had less. Recall that the Syrian government recognized by most in the West (and in the Arab world) in the early days of the civil war was led by the Syrian National Council, made up mostly of exiled Syrians who lacked any sort of legitimacy inside the country among the armed opposition actually doing the fighting and dying.  This seemed to mimic the famously disastrous playbook the US employed in Iraq, i.e. relying on exiles who lacked standing among the real power brokers in the country itself.

In addition, the Assad government had a myriad of existing patron-client networks, network building knowledge, and well-honed co-optation tactics, especially with prominent Sunni families and tribes established over decades of constructing a neo-patrimonial state. It will be difficult for the Syrian government to re-establish and maintain its patrimonial position in a clientelist network altered by the socio-political landscape of over seven years of war—and the concessions it made to keep many Syrians on its side—but this networking dynamic proved to be vital in terms of the scores of local reconciliation agreements the government entered into with opposition elements, largely negotiated by members of the government’s intelligence apparatus.  The longer the state hung on and provided even a modicum of state services, and the more it advanced militarily after the Russian intervention, Assad’s perceived legitimacy began to grow simply because he was seen as the only viable alternative to many Syrians. And he is being increasingly seen as the only viable alternative by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others, who are now more focused on making sure the Iranians are kept at bay in Syria rather than removing Assad.

Officials in these countries have been taking a diplomatic beeline to Putin to accomplish this. On this issue, all roads lead to Moscow. Instead of having to create a government out of a jumbled mess as the US attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan (and to a lesser degree in Libya), a halfway functioning state is already in Syria through which Russia has regained a central position in the country and in the region. This is not to say that the US should always back the entrenched state in similar circumstances, but recent history clearly suggests it should better understand the challenges of going against it.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and author of the upcoming book Syria (Polity Books, 2019).

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, England.

Comments (22)


Eugene said:

What can be said that hasn’t already been said? The history has been set, the Zionist in Israel are war criminals and the western governments are accomplishes to the present actions taking place today. As the saying goes,”Money Talks, Bull Shit walks”, so to even think anything will change, won’t. Perhaps if Israel gets – the Zionists – get their wish for war with Iran, the rain of rockets into Israel will be such, that not much will be left habitual.

July 17th, 2018, 5:10 am

 

habib said:

“The United States, on the other hand, directly and indirectly intervened in multiple conflicts in the Middle East since 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq”

Errr, how about “instigated” multiple conflicts? Were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq somehow started by someone else?

July 18th, 2018, 1:18 am

 

habib said:

“For the sake of argument, let’s say the US and NATO reversed their policy and actually wanted Libyan President Muammar Gadafi to remain in power against the opposition forces unleashed by the Arab spring. Is there any doubt that with US military support he would still be in power today?”

Err, why make up a hypothetical scenario, when you have the current war in Yemen as an actual example of this?

So did the US and their allies win in Yemen yet?

July 18th, 2018, 1:22 am

 

habib said:

“For the sake of argument, let’s say the US and NATO reversed their policy and actually wanted Libyan President Muammar Gadafi to remain in power against the opposition forces unleashed by the Arab spring. Is there any doubt that with US military support he would still be in power today? Perhaps he too would be mopping up pockets of resistance much as Assad is doing today in Syria.”

Err, Yemen anyone? Why do we need a fictional scenario like this?

Did the US and their proxies win the Yemen war yet?

July 18th, 2018, 1:29 am

 

ALAN said:

This blog actually serves the interests of criminal Putin, and his assigned tasks. America is a super-state and its strategy and objectives are the highest priority over all Putin’s clumsy wishes. It’s need to put everyone in their dimensional limits.

July 18th, 2018, 6:28 am

 

Bashar said:

“The United States, on the other hand, directly and indirectly intervened in multiple conflicts in the Middle East since 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq”

You deliberately forgot to say:

United States was DIRECTLY INVOLVED IN 9/11. Don’t you remember???

July 18th, 2018, 2:14 pm

 

habib said:

How are Putin’s wishes any more clumsy than those of the US, which are basically just “protect Israel at all costs”?

July 18th, 2018, 11:14 pm

 

ALAN said:

Assad, the father and the son, protected Israel’s security on the border more than anyone eles. The Syrians paid war taxes from their salaries to the Assad government , which threw bombs, purchased of Putin on the heads and homes of the Syrians. How much is a criminal, the doctrine of Stalin established in Damascus? F**k off criminal Putin!

July 19th, 2018, 4:26 pm

 

habib said:

Syria did more to hurt Israel than any other Arab/Muslim country the last 40 years.

But yeah, if you repeat it enough times…

July 19th, 2018, 7:53 pm

 

Mina said:

We are now told that Israel evacuated via the Golan some 400 “white helmets” to Jordan, from where they will be relocated to Europe and the US.
What an irony for the Syrian people to see that the people who called their fellows to take to the streets against Asad “because he was an Israeli spy” end up enjoying free holidays in what their Islamist PR consider an enemy state…
Ya umma… etc

July 23rd, 2018, 6:49 am

 
 

Mina said:

The most disgusting being of course that none of the newspapers reporting it ask by what miracle these guys all ended up in the same place ready for transfer while their ‘rescued victims’ are denied access to a refugee camp in the very same place… or why not a visa to the same countries… Anyway, they will certainly form a cohort of interesting specimens to be watched by all the mukhabaraat of the planet for a long while.

July 23rd, 2018, 1:38 pm

 
 

Eugene said:

To MINA:

The latest # seems to be 800 W.H.’s exited through Israel. Distributed in a # of different countries, who in reality, were military advisers of those receiving countries. Seems rather convenient that there were 800 W.H.’s in that one area?

Considering the collection of weapons that have been given up by the “rebels”, leaves no doubt as to the complicity of the various countries already implicated in the destruction of Syria and the displacement of its civilian population.

July 29th, 2018, 5:46 pm

 

ALAN said:

Mr. EUGENE is misleading, talking about the destruction of “Syria and the displacement of its civilian population”
not mentioning about the disgusting Stalinist approach remained victorious in Damascus, and Putin ran to the West looking for a Western participation in reconstruction. Keeping Moscow’s puppets in Damascus governed Syria, with absolute supremacy of the criminal Putin on Syria.
Putin won his Syrian colony even if Assad remained alone on burned land

August 4th, 2018, 3:54 am

 

Eugene said:

To Alan:

How am I misleading? You have a biases against Assad/Putin, which is your right to have, but Putin wasn’t the one who started the war in Syria. That the country is in need of rebuilding, goes without saying. Keep in mind that every country so far that the western partners have engaged in making war in, their hallmark is death & destruction & displacement. Who exactly is the criminal here, or perhaps they all are?

August 4th, 2018, 5:17 am

 

ALAN said:

Russia’s criminal behavior in Syria is just the latest in a long string of crimes perpetrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin is a war criminal. The U.S. may need to negotiate with him, but it should remember that he is a butcher.
He has a long record of inhumanity. He was an agent of the Soviet secret police, a criminal institution with a record that goes back to mass killings perpetrated by the henchmen of Soviet dictators Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Putin knew the KGB’s record when he joined it in 1975, at the height of its crackdown on the Soviet dissident movement and just seven years after the country’s armed forces crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.
When Putin came to power in 1999, he almost certainly approved, and perhaps even orchestrated, the bombings of two apartment buildings in Moscow, in which hundreds of innocent Russians lost their lives. As Amy Knight, a specialist on the KGB, argues, the evidence makes it “abundantly clear” that the Russian security service, the FSB (which succeeded the KGB), was “responsible for carrying out the attacks.” Concludes Knight: It is “inconceivable” that the bombings would have been done “without the sanction of Putin,” who exploited the panic they created to crack down on the Chechens and present himself as an indispensable leader.
During Putin’s years in office, a series of Russian democrats, journalists and opposition leaders have been killed in mysterious circumstances.
Putin used the bombings to reignite the Second Chechen War, in which he launched a massive air and land campaign that produced thousands of refugees, reduced much of the Chechen capital Grozny to rubble and killed at least 25,000 civilians.
Putin has funded, promoted, supplied and aided and abetted the Russian and pro-Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine. Thus far, that war has taken 10,000 lives. It was Putin’s proxies who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, killing 298 innocent people aboard.
Russia’s ruthless bombing of Syria’s civilian population and targets : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maMtI-QC9E0
During Putin’s years in office, a series of Russian democrats, journalists and opposition leaders have been killed in mysterious circumstances — the most prominent being Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Sergei Yushenkov, Paul Klebnikov, Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.
The record speaks for itself: Putin is a killer and war criminal — no different in the breadth and depth of his criminality than the Serbian war criminal, Slobodan Milošević.

August 4th, 2018, 4:07 pm

 

Eugene said:

TO Allen:

Once again,I ask you how I misled? You’ve shown your opinion is one sided, your bias toward Putin. As for citing the various acts to him as factual, you assume because they happened, that he is responsible for them. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not championing him or Russia, but you avoid the real story: i.e. who started this war to begin with, as well as who supplied the ammunition. You also forget to mention the “Rebels” part in the atrocities directed toward the civilian population in Syria. If you want to call out “WAR CRIMINALS”, then do it on all the different countries, both east & west, who participated. You are trying to revise the blame, for what ever reason. There are no good guys in any war.

August 4th, 2018, 6:32 pm

 

Ghufran said:

If you are looking for a clean politician you might as well look for a virtuous prostitute, there are no honest brokers in the Middle East but Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Turkey with NATO support or silent approval did more damage in Syria than other powers, and If it was not for Putin alqaeda and its affiliates would have been in control of most of Syria. Whether you supported armed rebels or not the truth is they only brought destruction to Syria and never had a chance of bringing security or making life better for Syrians because they are religious zealots who used khaliji money and Turkish support with NATO approval to conquer Syrian lands and transform Syria into another Afghanistan and the only man who had the will and the power to stop that was Putin. Putin’s history as a bully and a KGB chief is not relevant here.

August 4th, 2018, 11:41 pm

 

ALAN said:

The Stalin-Putin military doctrine and the doctrine of security were sown by the USSR in many countries. The harvest of the long practice of such a doctrine is repressions and wars, not excluding Russia itself. It is not worth moving away from the substance of the problem itself. Time passed without a return when it was possible to coerce the Syrian people with such a doctrine!
can not mask the essence. The war began because of this. which allowed others to find the ground for intervening and blow into the fire of war.
Let Putin just take his scums (Wagners) and goodbye to the state military forces of Russia from our territory without a return.

GHUFRAN
I recommend you to be a citizen of the GREAT RUSSIA

August 6th, 2018, 10:02 am

 

ALAN said:

Russian fascism by Konstantin P. Petrov – Soviet & Russian military leader, a Russian social and political activist. Candidate of Technical Sciences. Member of International Informatization Academy

Putin Fashist!

August 6th, 2018, 10:09 am

 

ALAN said:

Picking up the pieces
How Syrian society has changed
http://www.synaps.network/picking-up-the-pieces

August 10th, 2018, 5:37 pm