It Would Have Been Preferable Not to Militarily Intervene in Syria – By Ambassador @nikolaosvandam

It Would Have Been Preferable Not to Militarily Intervene in Syria; It Has Turned Out to Be a Disaster
By Ambassador Dr. Nikolaos van Dam @nikolaosvandam 
Interviewed by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Originally published June 03, 2018 on American Herald Tribune

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are a diplomat and you know very well the Middle East region where you have been Ambassador of the Netherlands in several countries. You have also been Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria. In your opinion, does the diplomatic and political solution still have a chance of succeeding in Syria after this bloody war?

His Excellency Dr. Nikolaos van Dam: Whether or not a political solution is still possible depends on the main parties to the conflict, both Syrian and foreign, involved directly or by proxy. The aims of the warring parties are so wide apart, however, that reaching a compromise seems to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, particularly because the opposing parties actually keep preferring to eliminate one another. This provides more fertile ground for a military “solution”, which in the end, however, will not turn out to be a durable “solution” but rather a reflection of the military balance of power.

What might perhaps have been achieved through dialogue between the regime and its opponents in the earlier stages of the Syrian Revolution, became more and more difficult later on with all the killing and destruction that occurred. The longer the war lasted, the more difficult it became to negotiate and reach any compromise. The mutual hate between the conflicting parties is immense.

There was, of course, not any guarantee of success with the dialogue I have suggested for over seven years, but rejection of any dialogue was a guarantee for failure, as we have seen over the past seven years.

Most of the Syrian opposition at the time were not able to accept any compromise with the regime, not only because of their extremely hostile feelings and negative emotions towards the regime, but also because they still expected to receive strong foreign military and political support, as happened in Libya, which caused the fall and death of Libyan leader al-Qadhafi. The other way around, the regime abhorred the thought of having to share power with those who tried to topple it and wanted to bring its most prominent representatives before international justice.

One might argue that the regime has never been interested in any dialogue whatsoever that could have led to drastic political changes or reform, but it has – in my opinion – not been tried long enough. The serious efforts in the beginning should have been continued. Sometimes one should even make a serious effort if one is not fully convinced of the possibilities of achieving success.

Various countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and others, indeed made serious efforts to help finding such a solution in the beginning. But as from August 2011, various foreign leaders, including US President Obama and others started to call for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside or step down, and most of them have continued to do so time and again ever since, albeit more recently with some variations and changes.

Many foreign politicians naively expected president Bashar al-Assad to voluntarily step down as president of Syria, after all kinds of atrocities the Syrian regime reportedly had committed against the so-called peaceful demonstrators and, later on, against military opposition groups. They, together with the main Syrian opposition groups, wanted al-Assad to voluntarily sign his own death warrant, because the legal president of Syria, in their view, had lost his legitimacy. It was completely unrealistic, however, in the sense that what they wanted to happen – even though it might have been justified on basis of their views of justice and rightfulness – certainly was not going to happen in reality.

The alternative was to militarily defeat the Syrian regime. But direct military intervention at the time was rejected in the Western democracies involved, just as well.

Nevertheless, by way of an alternative, various Western and Arab governments chose to militarily intervene indirectly, by arming, financing and politically supporting the various Syrian opposition groups. This turned out to be enough to bring the regime in a delicate military position, but not enough to topple it. Later on, various countries also started to militarily intervene directly.

Most Western and Arab governments have claimed time and again that they wanted a political solution, and this was true in principle. But they only wanted a political solution that would lead to regime change, and this turned out to be impossible without sufficient military means. The results of indirect military intervention have been just as disastrous as direct military intervention would have been: notably almost half a million dead, millions of refugees, a country in ruins and a nation destroyed to a great extent.

You wrote a major book that I consider very important to understand what is happening in Syria “Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria translated among others into Arabic. Do you think we could have avoided the catastrophic scenario that happened in Syria? If yes, how?

One of the key questions in this book is whether or not the bloody war in Syria could have been avoided, and whether it could have been expected. My answer is that it was unavoidable and that it could have been expected. What could not have been predicted, however, were the disastrous effects of the so-called Arab Spring and the foreign interference in the Syrian War that started in 2011.

Already long before 2011, we have seen how on numerous occasions the Ba’th regime dealt in a ruthless way with any threats against it, whether these were imagined or real: people opposing the regime were imprisoned, tortured, killed, assassinated, or committed ‘suicide with more than one bullet’, or were dealt with by other repressive means.

A brutal dictatorship with such characteristics and behaviour like the Syrian Ba’thist regime, could not realistically have been expected to give up power voluntarily as a result of peaceful demonstrations, like those that started with the Syrian Revolution in 2011. Neither could the regime realistically have been expected to voluntarily give up its power as a result of a fierce war-by-proxy on Syrian territory, which was encouraged and militarily and financially supported by regional proxies, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or Western countries like the United States, Great Britain and France. I predicted more than two decades ago in my earlier book The Struggle for Power in Syria – and it was not that difficult to predict – that any effort to effectuate regime change was (and is) bound to lead to enormous bloodshed. And this is what we have seen during the years since the start of the Syrian Revolution and are still witnessing today. Those who did not expect such a huge bloodbath, either did not know enough about Syrian history, or they were suffering from an overdose of wishful thinking, or both.

As could have been expected, the Syrian regime seized all possible means to stay in power. Its strategy of temporary alliances with the aim of monopolizing power has been repeated on various occasions ever since 1963 until today, also during the Syrian War that started in 2011. It did not always matter to the Ba’thist rulers whether they formed alliances with other parties that were not at all ideologically close to them, or even with parties that were in fact their enemies, as long as they could achieve their principal aim, which was staying in power and monopolizing it. It was the end that justified whatever means.

Had the Western and Arab countries not interfered with their arms shipments and military support against the Syrian regime, there would, of course, also have been serious efforts of the Syrian opposition to topple the regime, inspired as they were by the developments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. After all, the leaders of these three countries had been toppled after massive demonstrations, and, in the case of Libya, after direct military intervention. Without foreign interference, however, the opposition insurrection would most probably have been violently suppressed much sooner, as a result of which much fewer deadly victims would have fallen; there would not have been as many millions of refugees as there are now, and the country would be less in rubble. Yes, the Syrian dictatorship would have continued relentlessly just as well, but it is also continued now, albeit it under circumstances that are much worse.

In my view, it would have been better for foreign countries to back off in the Syrian War and stay outside of it, rather than to try to impose a solution with insufficient military means, with the disastrous consequences as we know them today.

I find your article written in May 2014 “Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations” still relevant. In your opinion, was not the West’s aim to change the Al-Assad regime without having a specific plan, which led to the current chaos?

Even after seven years of bloody war, and some 500,000 dead, many Western and Arab politicians still tend to be blinded, to some extent at least, by wishful thinking, as a result of which they officially keep approaching the conflict in Syria from a supposedly moral high ground. They have not been prepared to accept the basic reality, that with a limited will and limited means only limited goals can be achieved. Various Western and Arab politicians have thereby indirectly helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.

I am not aware of any clearly defined plan of Western and Arab countries to help achieve a political solution. Yes, there are, of course, specifically defined principles and aims, some of which have been defined in the Geneva Communique (2012) and UN Security Council Resolutions, like UNSC resolution 2254, but there is no clear plan on how to specifically achieve the proclaimed aims in a peaceful manner in practice, taking into account the positions of the parties involved which turn out to block any political compromise.

In fact, the war was initiated (in reaction to the atrocities of the regime) without, however, sufficient means and planning that this war against the regime could also really be won. Before engaging in the war, interfering foreign countries should have sufficiently studied the military situation in order to be sure that their Syrian allies had a realistic chance of winning it; but they apparently did not. In order to be able to defeat and kill a lion, one should be sure beforehand to be the stronger and the better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed oneself.

What do you think of the retirement of the Iranian nuclear agreement by Donald Trump and what, in your opinion, will be the impact of such a withdrawal on the region?

The withdrawal by US President Donald Trump from the nuclear deal with Iran is extremely dangerous, particularly also because the US position additionally appears to be aiming at a kind of regime change in Iran. So-called “experiments” with “regime change” elsewhere have more often than not turned out to result in disasters. The examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen (not to mention Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) should be clear enough, but various Western and Arab politicians turn out not to have learnt any lessons from it. The US wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran, but only if Iran is going to do exactly what the US demands, and I do not think it is realistic to expect that this is going to happen.

There is the recurring phenomenon that when politicians want more than they can realistically get, they in the end turn out to have less than they originally had. Therefore, it is much better to keep the present nuclear deal with Iran intact, than to try to replace it at the cost of further violence and destabilization in the Middle East.

Do not you think there is a risk of a direct confrontation between, on the one hand, the United States and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia and, on the other hand, Russia and its allies such as the Iran?

With the exception of some politicians in Israel, I think most of the mentioned countries want to avoid a direct military confrontation with Iran, but present US policies may nevertheless result in such a confrontation. In Syria there is already the danger of military confrontation between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Iran, not to mention military confrontations between other parties militarily present in Syria and the wider region.

You are a experienced diplomat who knows the Middle East very well, do you not think there should be a political solution to the war that Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen?

Of course, there should be a political solution to the war in Yemen. This war, however, is yet another example of the disastrous results of foreign military intervention, which in turn undermines the prospects for a compromise among the Yemenis themselves. Military intervention of one country in Yemen (in this case Saudi Arabia) may trigger military intervention by proxy of other parties supporting the side that is attacked by Saudi Arabia.

Should not Europe play a geopolitical role in the region that could avoid a war?

The European Union should of course play a political role to prevent further war in the region, but it lacks the military capacities to impose it. And imposing solutions does generally not work if the directly involved parties themselves are not sufficiently willing to cooperate.

Do you think that the Europeans who are staying in the Iran nuclear deal can fill the void left by the Americans?

The European Union does not have the military capacities to fill the void left by the Americans. It is the Americans who should stick to the deal they co-signed themselves.

In your opinion, is it not time for a multipolar world where powers such as the European Union, China and Russia should be involved so as not to let the Americans decide alone on the future of mankind?

This is easier said than done. All this depends to a great extent on the military and economic power of the countries involved, and most of all on their political leadership. It is the people of the United States who have democratically chosen the American president, not necessarily on themes of foreign policy but rather on basis of domestic issues. Nevertheless, the American president, after having been democratically elected in his own country, is deciding in an authoritarian way on a lot of foreign issues over the heads of non-American peoples who have not had any say in his election. The American president is fulfilling his domestic electoral promises by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran and by moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and thereby in a so-called “democratic” way violates international law and international agreements. International law and agreements should have priority over domestic electoral promises.

As a diplomat, you have known a country like Libya that has now become a sanctuary for terrorists, endangering all the countries of North Africa and the Sahel. Can we hope for a political solution to the Libyan crisis and what, in your opinion, are the countries that could play a key role in the political process?

The military intervention of Western and Arab countries has contributed to a further civil war in Libya, which has lasted now for over seven years and has strongly divided the country. It gave rise to further terrorism, further instability in the region, a wave of refugees coming through Libya to Europe, slave trade among refugees, and so on.

Foreign military intervention in Libya under the United Nations principle of The Responsibility to Protect, would have required a multi-year huge military operation, for which not any Western country has been prepared. This is one of the reasons why it would have been preferable not to militarily intervene in Libya, because (like in Syria, Iraq and Yemen) it has turned out to be a disaster.

A political solution will probably only be possible if the main parties accept one common leadership, but they all want to dominate themselves. Therefore, it is difficult to clearly identify the countries that could play a key role in the Libyan political process. It should be a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political solution, in which the United Nations could play an intermediary role.

Do not you think that by not respecting the Iranian nuclear deal, the United States may lose all credibility and not be able to conclude other agreements and treaties in the future?

The United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has made it even more difficult to conclude reliable future deals in which the US is involved. In fact, however, the United States already lost some credibility long before. For instance, in the so-called Middle East peace process, the US never has really been an honest broker, due to its pro-Israeli position, which is partly a result of the strong pro-Israel lobby in the US. Nevertheless, the US remains a key country which is needed to help realize a political solution, just because it has the means to force Israel into a compromise with the Palestinians.

Another example is that president Obama did not act against the Syrian regime after it reportedly used chemical weapons in summer 2013, thereby crossing US President Obama’s so-called ‘red lines’. The United States did not react militarily, although it had been suggested it would. This seriously undermined US credibility and demonstrated that its threats had no teeth. All-out military intervention in Syria would have been unwise in my opinion, taking into account the possible grave consequences (as happened in Iraq after the US–British military intervention of 2003 and in Libya in 2011, as well as in Afghanistan). Threatening with military intervention, however, albeit only implicitly, and subsequently not carrying it out strongly undermined the credibility of the United States, and Western countries in general. It, moreover, gave the Syrian regime the impression that it could get away with almost anything.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

* Dr. Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria and the Middle East and a former Ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Germany and Indonesia. He is the author of various books, including: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, London & New York (I.B. Tauris), 2017, also available as e-book; The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Assad and the  Ba’th Party, Fourth Edition, London & New York (I.B. Tauris), 2011.

U.S. Involves itself Ever Deeper in Middle East with No Clear Strategic Interest – By Sam Farah

U.S. Involves itself Ever Deeper in Middle East with No Clear Strategic Interest
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – June 6, 2018

On May 8, President Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Iran deal. On May 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his 12 points demanding total capitulation of Iran to the U.S. government. In doing so, he effectively putting the U.S. on a war path with Iran.

This deepening engagement of the U.S. in the Middle East defies logic. It is contrary to the geopolitical interests of the U.S.

The main argument for America’s engagement in the Middle East is oil and trade. For starters, the U.S. no longer relies on imported oil. In 2017, the net import of petroleum was 19% of total U.S. oil consumption, the lowest since 1967.

And of that dwindling imported oil portion that the U.S. relies on for energy security, the share of imports from OPEC and Persian Gulf countries has declined. Today, Canada is the largest source of U.S. petroleum imports, representing 40% of its total.

Second, the Middle East is not an important market for U.S. exports. In 2016, according to the World Bank, total U.S. exports amounted to almost $1.6 trillion, of which our two closest allies in the region — Saudi Arabia and Israel — took roughly 1% each, even when the value of all American weapons sold in the region is included.

Today the U.S. top export markets are Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, and E.U. countries. In addition, the two most important maritime trade routes are the English Channel and the Strait of Malacca. The Channel has traffic on both the UK-Europe and North Sea-Atlantic routes, and is the world’s busiest seaway, accommodating over 500 ships per day. The Strait of Malacca runs between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and according to estimates from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Review of Maritime Transport 2011, almost half of the world’s total annual seaborne trade tonnage passed through the Strait of Malacca.

There are two other arguments for U.S. involvement in the Middle East, one altruistic and the other Machiavellian. While American reliance on Middle Eastern oil has diminished, the Middle East remains an important producer of the world’s oil. Of the 87 million barrels of oil produced per day globally in 2011, approximately 20% passed through the Strait of Hormuz.

Some argue that the U.S. plays a crucial and altruistic role in protecting the free flow of oil from the Middle East and through the strait of Hormuz. Only the U.S. can prevent a global oil shock that could rock the global economy. But that American goodwill comes at a real price tag for the American taxpayer. Roger J. Stern of Princeton University estimates that the U.S. has spent $8 trillion between 1976 and 2010 protecting the oil flow from the Persian Gulf. The worry is that Iran, or another bad actor, could shut down the oil traffic in the Middle East and bring the world to its knees. This argument, however, belies the fact that oil is the lifeline of the Iranian economy and shutting down oil production or flow from the Middle East would also suffocate its own economy, and that any such action will bring together a global coalition to roll back Iran and reopen the flow of oil.

Others argue that U.S. military hegemony over the Persian Gulf is much more Machiavellian. They point out that the U.S. has not simply protected the free flow of the oil trade, but has also used its power to sanction oil production in countries whose policies it opposes, such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Libya. In line with this argument that U.S. hegemony over the Persian Gulf is pursued not merely to protect friends but also to punish enemies, the U.S. is ultimately seeking leverage over China by preserving its control over the Persian Gulf. But the U.S. already has significant forward power projection in the region, with both the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain and the U.S. Air Force at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar. The security of both these bases is jeopardized and the cost of maintaining our presence there is increased by provoking Iran as Trump and Pompeo are doing. Moreover, Roger Stern, in a piece published by TIME magazine, argues that the current U.S. military emphasis on the Persian Gulf has diverted precious defense resources away from the western Pacific, where China poses a far graver, long-term threat to American interests.

Today, any further U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is counterproductive to America’s interest. Ironically, President Trump ran his presidential campaign in part by building on Americans’ frustration with what they view as a foreign policy failure in the Middle East, promising to pull the U.S. out of the region. Instead America is deepening its involvement in the Syrian war, ramping up confrontation with Iran, and provoking the Muslim world by steamrolling the Palestinians. What the U.S. should instead do is work with its traditional global partners, as well as China and Russia, to build a framework for peace and stability in the Middle East. It should share the cost of protecting the Persian Gulf pipeline with countries that most benefit from it — namely Japan, China, India and South Korea.

Iran in Syria: “Cognitive Empathy” and Interests

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

How should Iran’s intentions in Syria be understood? The question is all the more relevant in light of the recent exchange of missile fire on the border between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria. Writing in The Intercept back in March 2018, Robert Wright argued that DC think-tanks “warp our vision” and prevent us from applying “cognitive empathy” when it comes to Iranian intentions in Syria in particular. By “cognitive empathy,” Wright means understanding how a particular side thinks about a situation and why it acts in certain ways in that situation. Through this lens, Wright argues that Iran’s intentions in Syria should primarily be understood as embodying objectives of defence and deterrence: intervening to save a key ally (the Syrian government) and deterring the threat of attacks by the U.S. and Israel against Iran.

There is some truth to Wright’s framing of Iranian intentions, and “cognitive empathy” is no doubt an important thing to remember in analysis. However, I believe his piece assumes too much of a false dichotomy: either Iran’s intentions are primarily defensive or offensive/expansionist in nature. In reality, it can be simultaneously true that Iran has a policy of “forward defence” in Syria (as Vali Nasr puts it) and wishes to increase its influence in Syria and the wider region in comparison with the pre-2011 status-quo for a variety of reasons that are not merely matters of defence and deterrence. Here, I will explore in more detail some key controversies regarding Iran’s presence in Syria and how they relate to questions of Iranian intentions in the country.

The Land Route: The concept of a land route running from Iran to the Mediterranean has repeatedly come up in reference to the military campaigns launched against the Islamic State in the east of Syria. It has been argued that Iran considers it vital to secure a contiguous land route as an alternative to its use of air routes to supply its clients inside Syria and Lebanon (airlift to Syria and then a very short land route to Lebanon), partly because the land route running from Iran to the Mediterranean would supposedly make it easier to conceal weapon supplies and thus prevent weapon transfers from being hit by Israeli strikes. In one reading, this land route would be a “prize of such enormity that even the great Persian empires have scarcely dreamt of it.”

Unsurprisingly, the campaigns launched against the Islamic State in eastern Syria last year involved a competition for grabbing territory in Deir az-Zor province, with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States on one side and the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies on the other.

I would caution against viewing a land route for Iran as the main motivation for the offensive on the part of the Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian government had its own very compelling reasons to go on the offensive: seeking to reclaim oil and gas resources and re-open a land trade route with Iraq in a bid to boost its economy and reduce dependence on aid from its allies. Further, the air routes Iran utilises are well-established and reliable. After all, there is no U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over all of Iraq and Syria. Technically speaking, a land route for Iran did exist for a brief window in the first months of 2012 following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, though it was not used.

However, it does not follow from these points that the Iranians do not have any interest in a land route. Indeed, Iranian-client forces- such as the Iraqi groups Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’, Harakat al-Nujaba’ and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, as well as the Afghan Shi’i Fatemiyoun- maintain a heavy presence in the Albukamal area in eastern Deir az-Zor province on the border with Iraq. There have also been deployments to Albukamal on assignments for units of the Iranian-backed Local Defence Forces, which is on the registers of the Syrian armed forces, has both Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] commanders and Syrian army officers in its leadership structure and has integrated many of the familiar Syrian Hezbollah groups into its ranks. Liwa al-Baqir, one of the most prominent Local Defence Forces group, has established a more lasting presence in the border areas and Deir az-Zor province . According to the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin, who is currently in Deir az-Zor and regularly goes to the Albukamal area, “The Revolutionary Guard [IRGC] is responsible for it [security in Albukamal].”

Members of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi (Idlib Local Defence Forces affiliate) with Afghan fighters in al-Mayadeen, eastern Deir az-Zor province.

These data points do not mean that there is no role for the Syrian army in security in the border areas. For example, Syrian army general Hassan Muhammad is both chief of staff of the Syrian army’s Third Legion (III Corps) and head of the Syrian government’s security committee in Albukamal. Part of his role entails security inspections along the border. Yet the concentration of Iranian forces and their clients in the area is highly unlikely to be a coincidence and points to an interest in a land route.

Rather than conjuring up sensationalist images of the land route as an imperial prize rivalling the conquests of Persian empires, one should instead think of it as a long-term project and a back-up plan in case the air routes are completely blocked off, in so far as a land route has real benefits on the ground. Thus, the land route would become more relevant in the scenario of a future war between Iran and another country (e.g. Israel and/or the U.S.). The concept of the land route is also inextricably bound to the political and security scene in Iraq. As Michael Knights notes, the land route can be seen as a “political space” rather than a “physical space.” As he explains, the land route “only exists on the days it’s used, and its basis is Iraq’s case-by-case willingness to allow it.”

Demography:  One way this argument runs is that there is an Iranian-backed/directed plan to depopulate large parts of Syria (e.g. the border areas with Lebanon) and replace the displaced Sunnis with foreign Shi’i settlers and their families. The supposed intentions behind this alleged plan are to ensure that these areas do not become future epicentres of revolt, to alter the nature of Syria’s demographic makeup (i.e. rendering it far more Shi’i and ideologically aligned with Iran) and to create a stable land-route running from Iran to the Mediterranean and populated with Shi’a loyal to Iran.

Little evidence has emerged to support claims of an Iranian plan along these lines. Demographic engineering on such a scale would be a very difficult task to accomplish. There is also little prospect for Iran to transform Syria into an Islamic republic. Meanwhile, displacements in many places are explained more readily in terms of the Syrian government’s own thinking (e.g. the Alawite-Sunni sectarian dynamic in Homs city and the desire for insurgent elements and their supporters in proximity to the capital to be removed).

Nonetheless, in a few areas- most notably the “Triangle of Death” area at the intersection of Damascus countryside, Quneitra and Deraa governorates- bases for Iranian client forces (clearly intended for long-term military purposes) have been established at the expense of displaced locals. For instance, the village of Deir Maker in that area is virtually devoid of all of its original inhabitants as it has become a base for Hezbollah, according to a rebel originally from Deir Maker who fought in Beit Jann, as well as sources in the nearby town of Kanaker to the northeast, which agreed to a “reconciliation” at the end of 2016.

Deir Maker and the wider area.

The outlet al-Modon touched on this matter in a report in May 2017, claiming that Hezbollah’s official in the “Triangle of Death” area- al-Hajj Abu Abdullah- had given orders to allow for Syrian Hezbollah fighters to bring their families to the area and settle there. The outlet claimed that more than 70 families of Syrian Hezbollah fighters had arrived to settle in the localities of Deir Maker and Sultana. The outlet added that the families of these Syrian Hezbollah fighters had come from al-Fu’a and Kafariya (the two besieged Shi’i villages in Idlib province) and the al-Wafideen camp (Sunni Palestinian-Syrian refugee camp northeast of Douma). The report says that in contrast, the displaced original inhabitants of the “Triangle of Death” area had tried petitioning the Syrian military intelligence branch in Sa’sa’ to return to their villages but without success.

Another issue that relates to Iranian intentions in Syria and partly touches on demography is the matter of encouraging conversions to Shi’i Islam. Iran, after all, is a state that engages in proselytism for Shi’i Islam, so it is logical to expect that Iran would exploit opportunities to promote the faith. Indeed, Iranian proselytism was already active on the ground in Syria before the civil war, despite downplaying of the phenomenon by some foreign observers back then. In some places of course, such as the primarily Druze province of al-Suwayda’, proselytising proves too controversial to make any meaningful headway, and there are non-Shi’a who join Syrian Hezbollah groups with no intention of converting to Shi’i Islam.

Arguably, the most prominent armed group linked to the phenomenon of conversion to Shi’i Islam is Liwa al-Baqir, which plays on the link between Bekara tribesmen and the fifth Shi’i imam Muhammad al-Baqir. Conversions of some Bekara tribesmen had already been occurring before the war in Aleppo province in particular, but Liwa al-Baqir’s ascendancy is undoubtedly continuing that trend and encouraging conversions beyond the group’s original recruitment base.

Proselytising efforts for Shi’i Islam in Syria have created some controversy. From a post in late February 2018 by a pro-government page for al-Zahara’ neighbourhood in Aleppo city: “By decree of the Awqaf ministry and his eminence Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun the mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic! Our correspondent has affirmed that people from the Iranian-Iraqi Ahfad al-Hussein commission are giving lessons in creed in a number of mosques of Aleppo urging children to become Shi’a and encouraging them with rewards and gifts.”

More broadly, the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin characterises one Iranian aim in eastern Syria as “Shi’ifying the Deir az-Zor region in its entirety.” As he explained to me:

“I am not against any sect or madhhab, but Deir az-Zor has Shi’i customs in it of course by instinct and habit, and a large proportion of the youth who joined the fighting fronts have become convinced to become Shi’a of course out of love for our Sayyid al-Hussein and Imam Ali, and there has been good faith on the part of the Revolutionary Guard [IRGC] and Hezbollah in treatment and granting rights. This thing has had a great impact on the generation of youth in the city [of Deir az-Zor].”

Striving for conversions to Shi’i Islam among parts of the native population seems much more realistic as a goal than settling large numbers of foreign Shi’a in Syria. Incidentally, from Deir az-Zor there have been claims of Afghan Shi’a settling in houses in Albukamal. On these claims, the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin explains that “this thing [Afghans occupying homes in Albukamal] is temporary as the area is almost devoid of people. As for the people who return, their houses are evacuated and handed over to them.”

Golan Front Against Israel: This concept has repeatedly come up in reference to the proximity of Iranian forces and their clients to the border with the Golan Heights and their presence in southern Syria more generally. The matter came up in an al-Mayadeen interview with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah at the beginning of this year:

“Q: Sayyid, there is the front of the south of Syria and many have spoken about it and it is a source of great concern with the Israelis: that Hezbollah and Iran, with the aid and support of the Syrian army that has also fought for seven years, are preparing a resistance on the borders from the Golan to the southern borders in their entirety. Is it true that there is a new resistance on the Syrian-Palestinian borders against Israel?

A: This is also among the matters about which it is better to be silent on in the end.

Q: This is a silent interview, Sayyid.

A: You are the one going to difficult questions. The enemy has the right to be worried, because what has happened in the south of Syria in the end is experience that has been made available now among the Syrian people and the Syrian army as a regular army. You know that those who fight in Syria are not only the army: those they call the auxiliary forces in the Syrian media. There are popular Syrian formations: youth from the sons of different villages, towns and regions, they have fought in their provinces. There is great advanced experience that these youth have obtained especially on the southern front because the fighting in the southern front has sometimes taken the classical form and sometimes the form of guerrilla warfare from the two sides. Practically this has given rise to a manpower structure on the level of thought, experience and preparedness that can be brought together perhaps during 24 hours. It is not conditional on the existence or lack of existence of a real formation. Our very presence in southern Syria, whose circumstances have been connected with the nature of the current battle in Syria: the fact we are present, it is natural that the Israelis should be worried, because there is conflict between us and the Israelis. Thus we see the Israelis are worried about all that is happening in the south of Syria. And they are working, applying pressure and trying to benefit from American pressure and speaking with Russia. And they are trying to threaten that there should be no resistance or resisting presence in southern Syria, but they have not realised this until now.

Q: I understand from your words Sayyid that resistance cells prepared for any future war with Israel have arisen there?

A: The resistance is present in southern Syria, and in all circumstances, regardless of the defensive title, this is very natural because it is Syria’s right that this should be present for it in the event of aggression against it one day and it has the right if one day it takes the decision to resort to the popular resistance in liberating the Golan. And if you remember in the last years before the beginning of the events in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad referred to this matter and also stated that it is possible for us one day to arrive at this choice. It is a logical and natural choice, and Israel deeply fears it.

Q: President al-Assad was speaking about a popular Syrian resistance. Now, according to what I understand from you sir, there is a popular Syrian and non-Syrian resistance present in the southern front?

A: Yes.”

Is the intent here to build up a “resistance” front and start a “liberation” war against Israel, or is it really just about deterring Israel from attacking as “no side wants war”? The answer lies somewhere in between. There is probably no wish for an all-out war on any side, but the constant rhetoric of “resistance” and fighting Israel demands some form of realisation on the ground in order to maintain credibility: that is, building up a “resistance” front in proximity to the border areas with a view to harassing Israeli forces through occasional small-scale probing.

In conclusion, there are grounds for understanding some of Iran’s policies in Syria in terms of pragmatism and rational interests, but there is also a clear element of ideology behind some of its actions, and those actions cannot be understood only in terms of defence and deterrence. Otherwise, one risks becoming an apologist for Iranian policies that are problematic in many ways, such as the aggravation of wider sectarian tensions in the region.

Turkey’s Afrin Operation Stokes Syrian Yazidi Fears and Fuels Displacement — by Sylvain Mercadier

Following the Yazidi Genocide that began Aug. 3, 2014 in Sinjar, most awareness of the Yazidis has centered on Iraq’s Yazidi community. Syria also has many Yazidi villages located in Kurdish areas. These homelands have been inhabited by Yazidis for centuries, but their populations have become increasingly vulnerable, first with the Syrian Civil War and now with Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas.
Syria Rojava Kurdistan YPG Turkey Afrin PKK Aleppo
Khaled is a Yazidi who was still living in his village when we interviewed him only a few days before the Turkish army and their Free Syrian Army associates invaded in March.

“The Yazidis living in the north of the Afrin district are leaving their homes one by one,” he told The New Arab, with an anxious voice at his home in Ain Dera.

“Many shrines have been destroyed. Women have been abducted. If the Turkish army and the Islamists arrive all the way here, we don’t know where we will be able to go.” The New Arab was not able to confirm his claim of women being abducted.

Khaled was sheltering a Yazidi family from Qastal Jindo, a village in Afrin already captured from the Kurdish YPG militia by the Turkish army.

Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an outlawed militant group which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for nearly 35 years. Turkish officials view Kurdish control of northern Syrian areas bordering Turkey as a major threat to the country’s national security.

Turkey, which has taken in nearly four million Syrian refugees, has trained and equipped fighters of the Free Syrian Army – mostly Sunni Syrian Arabs – and has used them to spearhead their operation to take over Afrin, a canton of northern Syria formerly controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia.

But reports are widespread that militiamen are abusing their newfound positions of power in the area. “In April, eleven Yazidis were kidnapped at the same time and their relatives were asked for large sums of money in exchange for their release,” says Murad Ismael, executive director of Yazda, a locally focused non-profit organisation.

Another villager spoke to us, but did not want his name published for fear of reprisals.

“They destroyed the Yazidi shrines immediately upon arriving,” he said. “We had fled Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish quarter of Aleppo, because of the in-fighting, and found safety in our original village of Qastal Jindo. Now we are refugees once again – and only God knows what we will be tomorrow.”

Despite an almost total blackout in the canton now under the control of the Turkish army, evidence has emerged suggesting minorities are being discriminated against for their religious beliefs by zealous Islamist militiamen allied to the Turkish army.

The fears Afrin residents shared with us before the completion of the Olive Branch offensive may have been justified.

“The number of Yazidis in Afrin was around 50,000 before the war. It fell to 35,000 as a consequence of the war. As the Turkish offensive started, the drop continued and reached approximately 25,000,” said Mahmoud Kalash, chairman of the Committee of Yazidi Intellectuals in Afrin.

It is believed that number has since fallen further in the formerly Kurdish-held canton. Several Yazidis have reportedly converted to Islam to avoid retaliation from Islamist fighters.

“The Turkish government set up a local council to administer Afrin. One Yazidi representative was appointed within this council, but no one seems to know who that person might be,” says Saad Babir, media director at Yazda.

In Ain Deraa, which had been a mixed Yazidi and Sunni-Kurdish town, residents had already seen their main sacred prayer site destroyed by an airstrike in January. This temple, a UNESCO site, was targeted despite there being no military activity near the site that we could detect when we visited.

“We used to go to this ancient site to pray and do our religious activities,” said Babir.

The Turkish army has denied shelling any cultural site, saying they only aimed at military targets.

Despite this, Saad Babir said at least eight holy Yazidi shrines had been destroyed in Afrin since the start of the Turkish operation. That number was corroborated by other activists on the ground, and by Yazda.


There is an ongoing population swap in the district. Families coming from refugee camps in Turkey are arriving while Kurdish residents are leaving. Some Islamist fighters have seized several houses, often choosing the most comfortable for themselves.

Rebel fighters evacuated from Ghouta and other previously rebel-held territories have been invited to settle in Afrin, though some have reportedly refused to take part in what they see as ethnic cleansing campaign.

The process of resettling Sunni Arab rebels from other areas of Syria coincides with a trend of preventing local residents from returning to their homes after the fighting. Residents here tell The New Arab that Kurdish and Yazidi civilians have been prevented from returning to their homes and forced to remain in the enclave of Tel Rifaat, the last territory in the area still controlled by the Kurdish-led administration of the Northern Syrian Federation – also referred to as Rojava.

Diseases are spreading in Tel Rifaat, due to the horrendous humanitarian situation for the displaced coming from Afrin and surrounding villages. Furthermore, Yazda reports that the Syrian regime has prevented some Kurds and Yazidis from reaching the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, where they could have found shelter and a better humanitarian situation, according to Saad Babir.

“This situation will be the continuation of the Shingal [Sinjar] massacre by other means and under almost total media blackout,” added another local who asked to remain anonymous.

International silence

“If the international community remains silent and does nothing to protect our minority, there will be even more annihilation against us. Our religion is a religion of tolerance; we did not attack anyone and did not take homes nor land from anyone,” stressed Mahmoud Kalash.

The ongoing Syrian civil conflict includes major powers such as Russia and the United States, as well as regional powers including Iran and Turkey. Because of this complex chess game, holding those now controlling Afrin to account seems almost impossible.

Despite evidence of the involvement of former al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters within the ranks of the rebels allied with the Turkish army, major international powers appear unwilling or unable to put significant pressure on the Turkish government to isolate those fighters.


This article was originally published May 9, 2018 in The New Arab.

Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist and political science graduate from St-Joseph University (Beirut, 2014) who has spent many years in the Middle East including Oman, the UAE, Lebanon, and Palestine, and currently resides in Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier

The Last Thing the Middle East Needs Now Is Another War  – By Robert Rabil

The Last Thing the Middle East Needs Now Is Another War 
By Robert Rabil – @robertgrabil
For Syria Comment – April 27, 2018

The growing vocal call to punish the Syrian regime for its flagrant violation of human rights, including its recent alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people, has become the peg on which to hang the coordinated efforts to cast the regime as a threat to the national security interest of United States. This call is clearly not about punishing the regime, as it deserves. It is about decapitating the regime and building up public opinion to support such a dangerous undertaking. Contrary to the desires of some U.S. media and governmental personnel, the recent U.S.-led strike against the regime’s chemical plants was balanced and morally justified. However, the critical stance of U.S. President Donald Trump on the Iran deal and the growing possibility he may cancel it could become the trigger to a military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran and the Syrian regime. The problem is that this probable confrontation will most likely involve Russia and Israel. Few arguments have underscored this threatening Iran-Syria linkage as meticulously as Bret Stephen’s argument penned on the pages of the New York Times under the title “Staring Down Syria.”

Stephen regurgitates the argument aired by some among the left, the right, and the neoconservatives that the Syrian regime is a terrible one that has engaged in some of the most egregious forms of oppression and suppression against its own people, including the use of chemical weapons, and thus it must be punished. Significantly, he unequivocally asserts that a punishment in the form of a limited missile strike will be ineffective and that the “U.S. should target Assad and his senior lieutenants directly in a decapitation strike, just as the U.S. attempted in Iraq in 2003, and against Osama bin Laden in 2011.” He then emphasizes that “if we [Americans] are serious about confronting Iran, Syria remains the most important battlefield.”

It is mind boggling that someone as astute as Stephen would call for the decapitation of the regime in the same way that the U.S. had done in Iraq without providing an alternative to the regime. No less significant, does “our” seriousness about confronting Iran require decapitating the Syrian regime? Is the eradication of the Syrian regime a prerequisite for confronting Iran? This is a dangerous and flawed logic divorced from the harsh reality of the Levant. How could anyone invoke what the U.S. attempted in Iraq without admitting and internalizing the staggering human and financial cost the U.S. has paid? Has the notion of what may happen the day after the decapitation strike and confrontation with Iran crossed Stephen’s mind, or the minds of those echoing him?

Undoubtedly, this course would impel Syria to further descend into anarchy and chaos, leading to significant regional and international strife. A decapitating strike against the Syrian regime and/or an open confrontation with Iran in Syria would most likely put Moscow and Washington on a path of armed conflict. Russia made its position clear that it will respond to any game-changing attack on Syria. Second, it is no exaggeration to argue that Levantine and foreign Shi’i and Sunni jihadis will abound, focusing on the death of American troops even more than demonstrating their hatred for each other. In this respect, it is noteworthy that although the U.S. has defeated the Islamic State in the Levant, the U.S. has not even come close to vanquishing sister Salafi-jihadi organizations roaming through parts of Syria. Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra (under its fresh name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham), to name only few, command thousands of jihadi fighters. Significantly, al-Qaeda in Syria or al-Nusra has replenished its ranks from other Salafi-jihadi organizations, including the Islamic State, and has entrenched its power in Idlib province. This development, by itself alone, constitutes a clear and present danger to the U.S., given al-Qaeda’s strategy to target the American homeland and interests. No less significant, the pro-Iranian Iraqi Mobilization Units, which are part of the Iraqi government, have reportedly cordoned off military bases in Iraq in which American troops and weaponry are stationed.  They have called on American leadership not to use American jets or planes in any attack against the Syrian regime. Regional countries, split along the Iran-Saudi fault line, will most likely continue stoking the fire of civil war by supporting their proxies. The removal of the Syrian regime by foce would quite possibly lead to the spillover of sectarian strife into Syria’s neighboring countries, where millions of Syrian refugees would find themselves at the mercy of sanguinarily resentful host populations and armed groups.

Most importantly, is it in the national interest of Washington to risk a war over Syria, and by extension Iran, with Moscow after what United States has gone through in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for the enormous sacrifices Americans have made?

No doubt, Iran has played a spoiler role in the region and has projected its power at the expense of Arab Sunni state. Pointedly, Iran has been trying to entrench its military presence in Syria, including in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, thereby posing a serious security risk to Israel. Israel has tried to prevent Iran and its proxies, especially Hezbollah, from enhancing their military presence in Syria. It has consistently raided Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah army bases and units that could have potentially produced game-changing security dynamics. These raids, with the exception of Israel’s air strike against the Syrian army T4 base on April 9, 2018, have been carried out with the advance knowledge of Russia, with which Israel maintained a hotline to avoid any clash between the two countries. The Syrian T4 military base near Homs hosted, in addition to Russian and Syrian troops, an Iranian drone facility out of which an armed Iranian drone was sent to Israel on February 10. Israel shot down the advanced Iranian drone early on February 10 and subsequently carried out the attack on the T4 base in which seven Iranian were killed, including a colonel. The raid on the base put in sharp relief the conflicted Israel-Iran relationship, but it also underscored the deterioration of Israel-Russian relations. Israel, for the first time, did not give an advance notice of the strike to Russia, and Russia immediately sent a delegation to Iran to draw out a plan as how to respond to both potential wide ranging Israeli and American strikes. This did not happen in a vacuum.

Crucially, Israel-Russia relations have recently become tense, potentially affecting the national security interest of both countries. Israel has not been happy with Russia’s unwillingness to keep Iranian forces far from the Golan Heights, and Russia has not been happy with Israel’s maneuvering with the U.S. to deprive Moscow a political victory in Syria and bleed Iran there.

The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has ushered in a new set of dynamics in which Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization Units have strengthened their presence in Syria and have been trying to build up their power in Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that “Iran had taken over Lebanon…When Israelis and the Arabs agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover.”

In his policy recommendations for Israel for 2016-2020, former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin wrote “Israel must prepare itself for a full scale military conflict with Hezbollah.” Conversely, some Israeli analysts have argued that Israel’s shared concerns and growing intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia is pushing Jerusalem to the precipice of war. Clearly, the unfolding developments in Syria have made the geostrategic and military dynamics between Israel and Iran more complex and fraught with danger and uncertainty. Israel feels the urgency of addressing Iran’s growing strategic threat today before becoming a harsh and difficult reality.

Conversely, one has to wonder how Iran, representing Shi’a who make up some 15% of the Islamic World, has been able to project its power in a Sunni majority Arab Middle East?  How has Iran become an active player in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria? A combination of factors has advantaged Iranian involvement in these countries. One undeniable factor has been the unruliness of Arab politics. The Yemeni Zaydis, who are dogmatically closer to Sunni Islam than to Twelver Shi’a Islam, began their rebellion in the 1990s when the central authorities, supported by Saudi Arabia, sought to dispossess the Zaydis of their historic autonomy in Sa’dah. At the same time, Saudi Wahhabi scholars worked to convert the Zaydis to Sunni Wahhabism. At this point, a Houthi scholar sought the help of Iran and subsequently created the Houthi movement. Though most of the Shi’a of Iraq served loyally in the ranks of Iraq’s armed forces, the Shi’a bore the brunt of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule. Therefore, the Shi’a found in Iran a supportive neighbor. The Shi’a of Lebanon had been politically, socially and economically marginalized in the country. Lebanese from various sects attributed the pejorative term of Mutwali to the Shi’a. Notably, they bore the onus of the Arab-Israeli conflict when the PLO, supported by the Sunni leadership, transformed their villages in southern Lebanon into what came to be infamously known as Fathland. Many Shi’a suffered Jerusalem’s retaliatory military responses to the PLO terror acts in Israel carried out from Fathland. All this led to a Shi’a communal political awakening that found its expression in Ayatollah Khomeini’s religio-political mobilization. Ruling a Sunni majority country, the late Alawi president of Syria Hafiz al-Asad strove to forge intimate and strategic relationships with the Shi’a and Iran respectively. He sensed early on the strong anti-Alawi feelings among a large segment of the Sunni population, led by none other than the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove the newly self-installed Ba’thi regime in 1964, years before their rebellion in the early 1980s. Before even supporting a theocratic Iran against a sister Iraqi Ba’thi state during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Asad had already secured a religious opinion from the Iranian born Lebanese Shi’a religious scholar Moussa al-Sadr to the effect that the Alawis are part of Twelver Shi’a Islam.

Ironically, Arab Sunni blunders, including the social ramifications of their authoritarian and oppressive rule, affected Israel the most as it became a rallying cry for both political mobilization and political scapegoating across the Sunni-Shi’a divide in the Middle East. As such, Tehran’s projection of power stems no less from Iran’s regional ambition to prevent Sunni dictation of power in the Middle East than from Sunni political and social blunders. Confronting Iran, therefore, could not be adequately sustained without addressing Arab Sunni socio-political flaws, which helped create incubators of jihadis.

Similarly, Russia feels that Syria is integral to Moscow’s vision of what it considers its strategic sphere of influence. Damascus was a Soviet capital satellite, which President Putin of Russia considers today as essential to project Russian power across the Eastern Mediterranean. This is reinforced by a) Russian concerns of preventing Syria from becoming a jihadi transmission belt deepening transnational Islamism and Salafi-jihadism at the expense of Russia’s moderate Islam, and by b) Russian need to use Syria as a leverage card in its strained relationship with the European Union in relation to the Crimean and Ukrainian crises. No wonder Russia has signed long term agreements with Syria to maintain virtually permanent naval and air bases in the country. The agreement, ratified in January 2018, will allow Russia to expand the Tartous naval facility, Russia’s only naval foothold in the Mediterranean, and grant Russian warships access to Syrian waters and ports. The agreement could be renewed after it elapses in 49 years. In much the same vein, the agreement has also given Russia an indefinite access to Hmeimim air base, from which Russia has launched most of its air strikes against jihadis. Certainly, Russia is in Syria to stay and will not easily buckle under pressure, whether be it political or military, should its presence in the country become threatened.

In this respect, Russia’s strategy to proceed with a political plan to cement its presence in Syria without incurring a heavy financial and military cost, reminiscent of Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, has more or less been affected by the United States and Israel’s doubling down on Russian efforts, the Syrian regime and by extension Iran. Russia needs them to regulate its military involvement in Syria. But this neither means that Russia is at one with Iran leading a Shi’a axis nor one with the Syrian regime extending its oppression to the rest of non-Western Syria. Russia has often made it clear to Jordan, Egypt and Arab Gulf countries that it is not supporting an anti-Sunni Shi’a axis. At the same time, Russia cannot disassociate what’s happening in Syria from the rising tension between NATO allies and Russia, as well as from what Moscow perceives the evident shift of the U.S. government toward an anti-Russian stance.

Taking this into consideration, one can easily argue that a premeditated plan to change the politico-military configuration in Syria would entail, at a maximum, a Russian military response, and, at a minimum, further Russian political and military support to Iran and its proxies. Herein lies the real challenge for the U.S. and Israel. How to punish and/or curb the power of the Syrian regime and Iran without pushing Moscow headlong into a strategic alliance with Tehran? This challenge will undoubtedly come again to the fore as the Syrian regime attempts to clear Western Syria from opposition groups. Will the regime use chemical weapons again? The use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians has been the most convenient, yet horrifying, tool for ethnic cleansing. Saddam Hussein used it strategically and expediently against both the Iranians and the Kurds to horrify them into submission and fleeing what he considered his territories. The recent reportedly use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians in Douma brought about the swift surrender of the Salafi-jihadi opposition group Jaish al-Islam.

In this instance, the recent U.S.-led campaign to strike the Syrian regime’s plants of chemical weapons has been adequate and morally justified; and can be repeated should the Syrian regime again use chemical weapons.

When all is said and done, it is the Syrians who have born the brunt of Arab political blunders, Middle Eastern oppressive rule, regional jockeying for power, and international disorder. The tragedy of Syria has long since transcended the country’s borders. Only a political resolution to the Syrian crisis is adequate. In this respect, Washington, as it debates what it is going to do with the Iran deal, can pursue the following broad guidelines to avoid becoming militarily involved in the Syrian crisis:

  • Washington does not need to increase its number of troops in Syria. Washington already has leverage vis-à-vis the other actors for it controls a large swath of territories in the northeast of Syria, including an important bread basket fertile ground next to the Euphrates River and few oil wells.
  • Washington, despite its growing tension with Moscow, needs to sanction Russian influence in Western Syria and maintain at all times the American-Russian deescalating mechanism.
  • Washington needs to create a parallel yet integral deescalating mechanism including the U.S., Russia, and Israel.
  • Washington needs to create an American-Russian commission to debate and negotiate contested points as a precursor and a complement to American involvement in the Astana talks.
  • Washington should actively engage in the Astana talks, co-sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey to deescalate conflict in Syria and pressure the addition of Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the group.
  • Washington can balance its relationship with both the Kurds and the Turks, both of whom Washington needs to defeat Salafi-jihadism in Syria. True, the battle against ISIS has been won; nevertheless the war against Salafi-jihadism is far from over. Washington can promise the Kurds a form of autonomy east of the Euphrates, and promise the Turks no support for a contiguous Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria. At the same time, Washington should persuade Syrian Kurds to act separately from the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as is the case with the Kurdish parties in Iraq.
  • Washington should create a context for a political trade-off between northwestern Syria and eastern Syria. Washington needs the cooperation of both Turkey and Russia to bring about the defeat of al-Qaeda in Syria (Al-Nusra) in northwestern Syria, sanctioning thereafter Russian influence there. In exchange, Russia would sanction some form of autonomy for the Arab tribes of eastern Syria, whose security could be enhanced by American and Jordanian support.
  • Washington should work on a compromise between Russia and Israel over the security measures of the deescalation zone in southern Syria. Russian and Jordanian troops, supervised by British and American intelligence units and ground surveillance equipment (similar to that alongside the Lebanon-Syria border), can man military outposts and checkpoints to enforce the agreed-upon security measures.
  • Parallel to creating an American-Israeli-Russian deescalating mechanism, Washington should encourage revitalizing Israeli-Russian relations.
  • American efforts should precede and then complement UN efforts.

In sum, the Syrian crisis is a complex one. It pits domestic, regional and international actors against each other. The growing tension between the U.S. and both Russia and Iran has the ingredients of an armed conflict in the making. Nevertheless, changing the political-military configuration in Syria and curbing Russian and Iranian power is hardly possible without a strong American military presence in Syria and regional cooperation, neither of which are possible for the time being. The words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ring true: “The Last Thing the Middle East Needs Now Is another War.”

Robert Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. The views expressed in this article are his own. He can be followed @robertgrabil. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (2003); Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); and most recently White Heart (2018).

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) Expansion in Syria – By Jesse McDonald

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) Expansion in Syria
By Jesse McDonald – @JJMcDonald10 
For Syria Comment – April 22

What does the future hold for political groups operating in the Syrian theater?  The plethora of loyalist militias and whether they fall under the central governments authority is something to monitor.  However, there are forces also politically represented who have remained obedient without straying too far outside the regimes orbit.   One group in particular developing quite rapidly at the grassroots level is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which the remaining of this article focuses on.

Now, there is a faction of the SSNP which initially joined the opposition, including its leader Ali Haidar, who is currently the Syrian Minister for Reconciliation (an extremely important ministry).  This split, known as the intifada bloc, never caused too much of a headache (as evidenced by Ali Haidar’s appointment).  In fact, Haidar is quoted as saying he is opposed to a complete break with the regime since that also entails a break with its popular base.  As a result, SSNP headquarters in Beirut and Haidar in Damascus seem to have reconciled, an act needed considering they are united on standing with Assad.

This paper will highlight the SSNP’s sudden influence in Syria since the war began, in part due to their relationship with both the Assad regime and Ba’ath Party.  It explores the possibility of some form of cohesive partnership between the SSNP and Ba’ath in the years ahead.  A partnership generated by the necessity to maintain and hold allies during this delicate phase.  Then, showcasing several areas in Syria where the SSNP has flourished will be presented, before ending on the party’s connections to Hezbollah and Russia.


Ironically, one of the characteristics which hurt the SSNP in the past, namely competition with the Ba’ath, may in fact be a great asset looking to the future.  The two parties have always been close (going back to the 1940s), but it was the SSNP ultimately banned in Syria from 1955 until 2005. Previous competition stemmed mostly from similarities opposed to outright hostility based on solid discrepancies rooted in their core.  Both competed for members who often switched party lines.  For lack of a better term, these feuding cousins appear to have sued for peace during Syria’s current turbulent environment.  War can bring historical political rivals closer together when allies are desperately needed.

The Assad’s have always been closer to the Syrian nationalism side of their Arabism vision compared to one focused on a traditional Michel Aflaq –type Ba’athism.  Additionally, and more importantly, numerous Syrian political groups with initial SSNP leanings eventually merged into the Ba’ath Party.  One example being Akram al- Hawrani- a leading figure in Syrian politics and one of the SSNP’s first members.  Akram helped found the National Youth Party, becoming its leader in 1939.  Negotiations for cooperation with the SSNP failed, so Hawrani turned the National Youth Party into the Arab Socialist Party in January 1950, before merging with the Ba’ath Party in 1953. 


Ghassan Jadid, a leading member of the SSNP in the 1940s and 1950s, rose to the position of defense chief for the party in 1954.  His brother Salah, first paid his allegiance to the SSNP before switching over to the Ba’ath in the 1950s.  Salah Jadid was one of the five members of the secret Military Committee catapulting the Ba’ath to power in Syria.  Hafez al-Assad was another one of these five members.

Hafez al- Assad was married to Anisa Makhlouf al-Assad, Bashar’s mother, who was an active member of the SSNP before her marriage to Hafez.  Anisa’s brother, Mohammad, was also a member and one of his sons, Rami Makhlouf, recently declared he was a party member in 2013.  Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s first-cousin, is considered the wealthiest man in Syria with vast influence over multiple sectors of Syrian society.  It goes without saying his addition would be a major boost to the SSNP’s role in the years ahead.  A declaration of support by a figure of Rami’s magnitude would have been unfathomable years ago.


As somewhat touched upon above, such a shift of allegiance is not staggering considering the two parties interests overlap in many ways.  Championing secularism, espousing anti- Zionist views, attracting minorities, and passionately defending the integrity of the Syrian nation are a few common attributes that have brought these two closer.  Melting together behind a matching vision for Syria, and considering the ease both have targeting similar support networks, enables the SSNP and Ba’ath a certain degree of flexibility to join forces.  Any potential ‘merger’ works for the Ba’ath in this regard while simultaneously allowing the SSNP valuable time to attract followers and reestablish themselves in society after fifty years sitting on the sideline.  High ranking officials in the Assad / Mahklouf camp have an avenue, by working together more with their SSNP allies, to preserve their status without disrupting any assets or the day-to-day affairs of running the country.  A smooth transition could very well occur even if no formal announcement or legal procedure makes it official.

Active in Syria since the 1930s and sharing a long history with the Ba’ath Party puts the SSNP in a unique position.  This is a party whose rich literature coupled with an abundance of educational publications available to Syrian’s provides a foundation to cultivate future generations.  Entrenched in the political landscape with a structural organization already in place has allowed the party to accelerate their outreach to Syrian communities.  Not only is the regime aware of their activities, they actively join in some of the SSNP’s celebrations.  Such events include, honoring Syrian soldiers who have died, culture seminars, opening offices and publicly teaching SSNP ideology, which will be explored below.  Notwithstanding, Ba’ath Party officials direct participation in these events, exhibits a level of understanding between both parties.  Trust is further solidified following years of the regime fighting together with the SSNP’s militia- Eagles of the Whirlwind.


Over the last couple years (2014-present), the SSNP has significantly increased its presence throughout Syria, particularly in Homs and Hama, but also in Latakia, Damascus and its suburbs.  Their growth in these governorates primarily centers around towns and cities inhabited by minorities but this should not take away from the fact that the party is indeed expanding.  Becoming the second largest party in Syria behind only the Ba’ath.  It appears the SSNP is able to accomplish this in coordination with the regime, not in spite or because of any rebellion due to regime weakness or inability to act.

The following are several displays of the SSNP’s activities in Syria, beginning in Homs.

The SSNP’s stronghold in Homs is located in the city of Homs’ Old City neighborhood.  Here, SSNP members are in full control of certain areas, even conducting security checks and manning checkpoints.  Vehicles are checked for bombs by local SSNP men and party celebrations are guarded by armed members. These acts point to confidence in the regime and the local population.



However, such overwhelming freedom from a party banned until as recently as 2005 does not seem to be threatening the regime.  The regime is instead delegating authority to a trusted partner who as of now does not challenge Assad or circumvent his authority.  In fact, the two parties participate together at speeches, rallies, seminars and anniversary events in the city.


The SSNP has a big following in Wadi al-Nasara (‘Valley of the Christians’) in western Homs and also in the towns of Sadad and al-Qaryatayn- members are most likely gelled with NDF or SAA units in these two cities.  However, there are indications Sadad is completely controlled by local fighters in the SSNP.  Nevertheless, the SSNP’s freedom to operate, often with members of the Ba’ath Party, is quite striking.

In Hama, the SSNP is most visible in the towns of Marhdeh, Suqaylabiyah, and Salamiyah, with fighters participating in battles on the provinces eastern countryside front.  Marhdeh and Suqaylabiyah, in northern Hama, have been on the front lines for years and SSNP fighters were with government troops spearheading assaults on rebel positions stationed in adjacent towns (such as Halfaya).   The city of Salamiyah (birthplace of Fatimid Caliphate) has witnessed its share of attacks with local Isma’ili men joining the SSNP to defend their town.  Consequently, since fighters with the SSNP in these three cities are often locals, as danger recedes, the SSNP is already fairly entrenched to carry out municipal administration.  As recently as last November the party opened a radio center in Marhdeh but have had offices serving local needs for a couple years at these three locations.

SSNP Hama FB post on 8.1.17 showing SSNP members handing out candy to Syrian troops in Marhdeh

SSNP Salamiyah FB post on 12.1.17 celebrating the party’s founding anniversary.  Syrian Peoples Assembly member and SSNP figure Mazen Azzouz (who was born in Salamiyah) attended along with a member of the Ba’ath Party in Hama.

The SSNP is also very active in the city of Latakia, hosting sporting matches, excursions for the youth, and training seminars.  The province of Latakia is an Alawite, and subsequently Assad stronghold, so the SSNP’s activities in this area is something to pay attention to.  Lastly, the countryside and suburbs of Damascus with an SSNP presence are the cities of Maaloula, Zabadani and Saidnaya (Eagles Whirlwind fought in all three cities) located outside the capital, with an office also in Damascus.  The SSNP’s flag openly waiving in Damascus, even if solely for visual effects, is significant for a party beginning to taste freedom under Bashar’s regime.




The regime forming local committees or delegating security still ensures movements and decisions are under the watchful eye of the central government.  Changes, such as conceding room for organizations like the SSNP to maneuver, have been imposed out of necessity.  The Assad regime is aware that on their own they will not be enough to guarantee its power.   Weapons provided to the SSNP or sensitive decisions ultimately rests with high level regime officials.  This might explain why the SSNP is able to: stage rallies; open media centers and headquarters throughout several cities; hold seminars, conduct training sessions in party ideology as well as fitness exercises; hand out leaflets to civilians informing them of the parties message; and organize blood drives for Syrian troops (the list goes on).  All of the above suggest regime trust in the SSNP.  If Rami Makhlouf is indeed a SSNP comrade, and considering his families history of allegiance to the party, coupled with an overlapping interests between the SSNP and Ba’ath parties, such developments might be an early indicator of a new alliance.

High ranking officials will head to the party which preserves their interests while ambitious individuals with the means will follow in search of prosperity.  For decades the Ba’ath was the only option.  Consequently, people joined.  The situation in Syria might not allow for the Ba’ath to continue as it did before the war.  Hence, gravitating, or blending in with various elements of the SSNP could be a viable option to safeguard their status moving forward.


Distributing leaflets in Homs city on anniversary of SSNP’s founding FB post 11.17.17 


Given Hezbollah’s vital and dominant position in Syria’s war, the organizations link to the SSNP is relevant when analyzing what role the SSNP could play in the years ahead.  Upholding a Syrian nationalist attitude, re-establishing control of cities (SSNP fights with SAA and Hezbollah to do this), maintaining and even expanding economic hegemony and not upsetting support coming from Damascus to supply Hezbollah in Lebanon remain priorities for Assad.  The SSNP is not, for the moment at least, deemed a threat in the matters mentioned above.  There aren’t sweeping reports of looting, violence, or insubordination (plaguing many regime militias) in the areas they have most clout.  Perhaps this signals a degree of comfort on the part of the regime to allow SSNP added freedom.  Garnering the trust of Hezbollah also certainly helps.  Moreover, the SSNP is in a political alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon (March 8th) and the two sides fight together at times in Syria.



There are not many independent Syrian forces fighting with the SAA and Hezbollah, certainly not while also representing a political party.  Below features several strategic Syrian cities and provinces where Hezbollah and the SSNP fought together.  This section is not going to delve into every front or town, but rather, inform the reader on areas of higher interest that witnessed a more sustained presence of fighters.  Let’s begin with the historical town of Maaloula near Damascus.

A delegation from SSNP’s leadership presented condolences and congratulations on the death of three reporters from al-Manar crew in Maaloula Syria on March 14, 2014.  Asad Hardan was part of this delegation while head of SSNP’s political bureau, Ali Qansu, expressed his condolences on behalf of the SSNP in a statement to al-Manar (showing the strong partnership with such high level representation).  It is important to remember that when fighting erupted in Maaloula in 2013, Hezbollah was fighting with the Syrian army and members of the SSNP for control of the ancient Christian town.  In September of that same year, allied rebels alongside what was then al-Nusra, briefly took control of a section of Maaloula.  However, Hezbollah and their allies mentioned above were able to regain control and drive the rebels out.  It was at this time, when residents and media outlets began to investigate what had just occurred, al-Manar’s crew was ambushed and killed.  Such instances of cooperation however further strengthen Hezbollah’s and the Assad regime’s argument that they are the protectors of minorities.  Bashar paid a visit to Maaloula, where residents still speak Aramaic, the following Easter and Hezbollah has the ability to demonstrate their bodyguard role for Christians in Lebanon as well as in Syria.

Other examples of Hezbollah fighting side by side, or at least in the same town, as the SSNP:

The mountains of Latakia province have been a particularly deadly area for the Eagles of the Whirlwind.  The Kurd Mountains (Jabal al-Akrad) and also the towns of Kabani and Kinsaba are several hot spots where members of Hezbollah and the SSNP found themselves fighting on the same front.  According to Fars News Agency, in 2016 large number of reinforcements from the provinces of Tartous and Homs were sent to the Northwestern battlefields where many were to replace the Desert Hawks (Liwa Suqour al-Sahra) in Jabal al-Akrad.  The SSNP were one of these groups tasked with protecting captured territory.  Besides holding territory, SSNP fighters have been very active as part of offensives in the countryside of Latakia over the years.

In addition to fighting with Hezbollah in Latakia countryside, SSNP fighters were also stationed together in the Qalamoun region along the Syria-Lebanon border, primarily in the battle to retake the town of Qaryatayn.  The following is from one report out of Fars News Agency: The Syrian army’s 81st and 120th brigades of the 2nd Division- in close coordination with the Syrian Social National Party (SSNP), Dara’a Qalamoun (Qalamoun Shield), and Liwa Suqour Al-Sahra (Desert Hawks Brigade)- liberated several sites from ISIL near the strategic city of Quaryatayn in Homs provinces’ Southeastern countryside. Homs province is another part of Syria with a heavy SSNP presence.  Speaking with members based in Homs city, the party plays an overwhelming role in security, checking for car bombs, and making sure vital services are running properly.

In 2015 the Syrian army pushed to gain control of the strategic town of Zabadani.  According to several media reports, the units involved were from the Syrian army’s 63rd Brigade of the 4th Mechanized Division, in coordination with Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces (NDF), and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).  The Eagles Whirlwind were mostly stationed in the eastern sections of Zabadani acting as a bulwark against attempts by forces from the FSA, Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham to infiltrate into the city.  While the SSNP’s forces were stationed in the East, Hezbollah alongside the Syrian army, were spearheading the advance in the western sections.  Similar to reports coming out of Latakia countryside, indications point to the Eagles of the Whirlwind acting more as protectors of a secured territory as opposed to a force on the front lines of an attack.  Perhaps such a maneuver is strategic from the Assad regime or perhaps this simply comes down to a lack of experience / manpower from those fighting under the Eagles emblem.

To close this section, both parties are also present in Hama province.  Specifically, in the northern countryside of the province, with the city of Mahrdeh being a focal point.  The strategic town sits along a highway connecting the provincial capital and is considered one the largest Christian cities in Syria.  There is a definite SSNP presence with a growing local party office, along with a local NDF unit.  When offensives were launched from Mahrdeh, particularly on the town of Halfaya, SSNP forces were on the front lines alongside (reports of) Hezbollah fighters.  Hezbollah’s presence in Mahrdeh was addressed thanks to a letter by a group calling themselves ‘Syrian Christians for Peace.’


Russia’s military intervention certainly changed the dynamics of the war.  In addition to conducting airstrikes, Russian generals are stationed on the ground to assist with reconciliation deals.  This aspect of the war, local committees engaged in dialogue, as well as peace talks held in Astana and Sochi, witnessed members of the SSNP partner with the Russians.  Ali Haidar (mentioned above), leader in the SSNP and long- time oppositionist to the Assad regime, now is Syria’s Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, inevitably putting him in contact with Russia.  It is also highly likely both sides would have interacted due to the Eagles of the Whirlwind and SAA fighting together.

Recently, a delegation composed of three members of the SSNP held talks with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov in Moscow.  The talks zeroed in on the conference in Sochi and Turkey’s military maneuvers near Afrin.  Additionally, Ali Haidar has been working more closely with the Hmeimim – based Russian Coordination Center as one team, to boost local reconciliations throughout Syria.  He was recently seen with Russian General Victor Bankov from the coordination center meeting members of local reconciliation committees.  Moreover, fighters with the Eagles of the Whirlwind have received medals of excellence from the Russian Ministry of Defense.  Further evidence of the growing alliance between the SSNP and another power with influence over Syria’s affairs.




Syria is increasingly under the stewardship of a new class of businessmen with ties to the Assad’s and Makhlouf’s.  Reconstruction deals favoring these connected individuals will only benefit them at the expense of Syrian citizens.  While still operating under the Ba’ath Party guise, it is uncertain how the party will emerge through the scars of war or restructuring due to possible peace deals.  Regardless, the SSNP has a deep-rooted history with many of these power brokers, which is worth paying attention to when analyzing the party’s potential cushion in absorbing Ba’ath party officials.  Such a scenario might paint a picture of revamping the political establishment, while in reality nothing much would change, at least in the short term.

The SSNP not only has a close relationship with the Assad’s and Mahklouf’s, but also more so recently, with the Ba’ath Party.  Meaning, members are familiar with one another’s vision for Syria, which is currently geared around stabilizing the Syrian state and cohesion of Syrian society.  The party is also in a position of strength negotiating reconciliation deals with rebels through Ali Haidar’s ministry.  Assad relies on Haidar’s (and the SSNP’s) image as opposition figures to appear more neutral during negotiations.  Moreover, the party has an active fighting force (Eagles of the Whirlwind), and a long record of political involevement in Syria, helping cement its position in towns across the country.  Figuring the parties intimate friendship with Hezbollah (thus factoring in Iran), and now Russia into the equation, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) is in a favorable spot during this critical moment of Syria’s history.


–Al-Akhbar. “Hezbollah military investigation reveals who killed Al-Manar TV crew.”

-Al-Akhbar. “Syria’s Ali Haidar: Both Sides Have Extremists.”

-Fars News Agency. “Hezbollah Hits ISIL’s Military Positions in Lebanon’s Al-Qalamoun Region.”

-Fars News Agency. “Syria: Thousands of Fresh Recruits Joining Army’s Imminent Operation in Idlib.”

-McDonald, Jesse. “The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind & Their Emblem.” Syria Comment.

-Pipes, Daniel. “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition.” Page 102.

-SANA. “Minister Haidar: We work with Russian coordination center in Hmeimem as one team to boost local reconciliations.”

-Seale, Patrick. “Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East.” Page 63.

-Syria Times. “SSNP Politburo Member to ST: Sochi Congress Must be Based on Current Military Developments in Syria.”

-Syrian Christians for Peace FaceBook post on April 3, 2017.

-Zaman Al Wasl.


Trump May Be Right – By David W. Lesch

Trump May Be Right
By David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment – April 17, 2018

In the wake of the recent US targeted attack in Syria, President Trump’s comments a couple of weeks ago that the US needs to get out of Syria as soon as US-backed forces mop up the remnants of the Islamic State has run up against elements in the administration who want a sustained US presence in the country. They believe a couple of thousand troops and some military bases supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are needed in the country in order to assure that ISIS is defeated and does not re-establish itself, to provide some leverage vis-à-vis the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus regarding any sort of political settlement, and to contain Iran, which many fear is well on the way to creating a strategic land bridge from Teheran to Beirut. There seems to be a real battle in the administration over the direction of Syria policy.

But let’s examine these goals a little more closely.  What exactly is the US doing there? Certainly the Kurds are not counting on a continued US presence, especially not after Trump’s remarks; indeed, they have long been striking deals with the Syrian government and the Russians to hedge their bets.  Frankly, once the US leaves, Damascus would then be free to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Kurds regarding autonomy over something less than the 27% of Syrian territory now under their sway, which could then ameliorate the Turks, who might feel secure enough to pull back from northern Syria.

Staying in Syria in order to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State is laudable.  But what does “defeat” look like? ISIS still holds pockets of territory along the Iraqi border, but it seems to be reverting to what it was before, i.e. a terrorist organization carrying out attacks against perceived enemies. It appears that eliminating those last bastions of ISIS control, in order to protect Iraq as much as Syria, will do the trick in terms of satisfying Trump.  This can be facilitated with a Turkish-US modus vivendi that will allow the SDF to re-focus its attention to the east rather than be diverted to protect its Kurdish comrades fighting Turkish forces in the northwest. The Turks, probably giddy with Trump’s desire to get out, might just let the Kurds resume anti-ISIS operations knowing that a US departure would facilitate their Kurdish objectives in Syria.

Over the long term, however, only stabilization efforts in the cities and towns abandoned by ISIS will prevent it from re-establishing a presence or finding safe havens in which to brew it special brand of chaos. Stabilization will only seriously occur once there is a political settlement. However morally repugnant, this means that the government of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, will ultimately be responsible for stabilization. Russia and Iran did much more to help Assad stay in power than the US and its allies did to remove him.  So, to the victor go the spoils, and that includes putting Syria back together again and all the challenges that it entails.  Political and economic opportunity meet target on one’s back.  Trump does not want that target to be US troops. In any event, if the EU and regional Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, can stomach Assad staying in power, perhaps the spigots of reconstruction aid will open up in a way that will help stabilize the country. Syria still has a functioning central authority that retains a certain amount of legitimacy which can, with international assistance, prevent it from falling into full failed state status, which is exactly the terrain in which ISIS operates.  We already have too many Yemens and Libyas in the area.

Regardless, the US is on the outside looking in on a political settlement.  That ship has sailed for all intents and purposes.  The Russians, Iranians, and Turks are setting the table, and the Syrian government at the moment is not entertaining any serious concessions of the kind the US and various Syrian opposition groups have been clamoring for. How can we lose leverage when we never really had it? Yes, the US-supported SDF hold the vast majority of Syria’s oil wells in the east, which the Syrian regime desperately wants back—this is potential leverage.  But the regime will be patient.  It has already proven its ability to extract the necessary resources from its population and its allies to stay in power. It will just wait a little longer.

Finally, the Iranian corridor:  well, folks, it’s already there, and there is not much we can do about it short of going to war with Iran. Teheran has already achieved most of its strategic objectives in Syria, first and foremost by keeping Assad in power.  Besides, there is a much better deterrent in the region than the US to keep Iranian influence in check:  Israel.  The Israelis have already sent a very strong message to Iran (and Assad) through its forceful military response to the Iranian drone that was shot down over Israeli territory earlier this year.  In fact, many believe Iran’s relatively low profile in the Syrian government’s retaking of Eastern Ghouta over the past few weeks was in direct reaction to this.  It doesn’t want to bait the Israelis to intercede even more forcefully.  This apparent passivity just means that Iran already has what it wants.  Keeping it at that level will be the job of the Israelis and also the Russians, who are keen to not let the Iran-Israel dynamic ignite a regional war. We can expect an Israeli-Iranian dance in Syria in coming months, if not years, to determine exactly where the red lines are.

Although awkwardly expressed in a manner that telegraphs our intentions and diminishes our diplomatic leverage, Trump’s assertions are consistent with how he has viewed US involvement in Syria from the beginning.  His initial tweets in response to the chemical attack on April 7 displayed anger and exasperation.  It was almost as if Trump was saying to Moscow and Damascus: “I told you I was getting out, but you guys keep doing stupid stuff that pulls me back in.” The limited nature of the response suggests that Trump’s view on Syria still holds for now, as long as the the Syrians behave—or at least get the Russians to control their client-state (good luck with that).

Ironically, maybe getting out of Syria will in the end save the most lives in the country by eliminating the regional and international tug of war that Syria has become and creating space for a political settlement. An imperfect peace is better than the wars—actual and potential—in Syria.

*David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author or editor of 15 books on the Middle East.

Creating a New Syria: Property, Dispossession, and Regime Survival — by Erwin van Veen

bulldozers removing barriers from a road in the town of Harasta, east of the capital Damascus, Syria, Saturday, March. 24, 2018, where thousands of opposition fighters and members of their families are expected to use to head to northern Syria. The planned departure toward northern Syria comes a day after an agreement was reached between Faylaq al-Rahman and the Russians to evacuate the second of three pockets held by opposition fighters in eastern Ghouta. (SANA via AP) Hafez Hafiz al-Assad Asad

Bulldozers remove barriers from a road in Harasta, east of Damascus (SANA via AP)


By Erwin van Veen

While all eyes were fixed on the US-led military response to the alleged chemical attack in East Ghouta, a little-noted event occurred that could potentially have a much greater impact on Syria’s future. About 10 days ago, President Assad’s regime passed Law no. 10. The law foresees the creation of local administrative units in each district of regime-held territory that will be in charge of reconstruction efforts. All Syrians will be required to register their private properties with these units by providing proof of ownership, in person or through legal representatives. This must be done within roughly the next two months. The risk of noncompliance is that the Syrian state will take possession of the unregistered properties.

With half the Syrian population displaced and many property transfers prior to 2011 having been done informally, this will be a mission impossible for many. Depending on the implementation and enforcement of the law, its most likely consequence is that the Syrian state will acquire a substantial amount of property in the near future—land, buildings, and other immovable assets—within the territories it currently controls. The real implication here is twofold. Most importantly, President Assad’s regime will lay its hands on the assets it needs to finance the country’s reconstruction and reestablish its power base, preserving its long-term viability and independence. Moreover, it will dispossess hundreds of thousands of Syrians—possibly millions—who escaped the fighting or forced recruitment. Law no. 10 is a Faustian masterstroke—both in its injustice and its ingenuity.

The background is this: The World Bank has estimated the tab for reconstructing Syria at upwards of USD $200 billion. The Syrian regime has been broke for some time, kept financially afloat by the Iranian Central Bank and assorted Lebanese banks. Russia and Iran have neither the will nor the funds to finance Syria’s reconstruction. The Gulf countries, United States, and European Union have made it clear that likewise they will not carry Syria’s reconstruction without a “meaningful political transition”—a reference to their desire for real political concessions in the future governance of Syria. Most who are familiar with the conflict expect such a transition to happen when hell freezes over.

And yet, reconstructing Syria is essential to President Assad’s regime. This is not because it cares about restoring basic services like healthcare and housing to a decent level, or about the return of Syrian refugees. Figures like Syrian Major General Issam Zahreddin (since killed in battle) made it abundantly clear some time ago that returning refugees should not count on a warm welcome.

No. Rather, reconstruction is essential to the regime’s survival because it must reward the networks of businessmen, military, and militia leaders that helped it win the war. Reconstruction is also vital to the regime’s autonomy because it must re-establish its powerbase and independence vis-à-vis its international backers who will expect the future loyalty of a faithful Syrian ally when this conflict is over. Iran, for example, is already working to establish a long-term social, religious, and military presence in the country.

The imperatives of regime survival and autonomy mean that its reconstruction logic will echo its warfighting logic: indiscriminate punishment of disloyalty to impose fear, selective co-optation, and deal-making with opposition groups where this offers a low-cost solution on regime terms and safeguards core regime interests. Initial urban reconstruction efforts of the regime in Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo, on the basis of Decree 66 (2012), already show how the regime uses high-end property developments to generate funds and reward loyalists through forcible dispossession below market rates, as well as the use of regime-linked real estate and construction companies. The nationalization of property enabled by the closely-related Law no. 10 will take this approach to a new level.

An additional consequence of Law no. 10 is that it will enable large-scale demographic engineering by reallocating appropriated property to new owners. This will not necessarily be sectarian in nature as the majority of both Syrians and regime-loyalists are Sunni. Rather, it will create large loyalist urban centers to underpin the regime’s power base and limit the return of refugees, who are largely not perceived as supporters of President Assad.

In addition to remaking urban centers as areas of repopulated loyalist concentration, the strategy will probably also involve undoing the existence of impoverished Sunni-belts around Syria’s main cities from which so many rebels were recruited. Insofar as these poorer suburbs are currently depopulated due to rebel recruitment, casualties, and flight, the regime is likely to use Law No. 10 to appropriate the land (in many such areas, property rights were not well established even before the war) and to then prevent their resettlement if and when refugees return. Any Sunni populations that have not fled but are still living in such suburbs at present will also be at risk of forced displacement and dispossession commensurate with the extent of their perceived disloyalty to the regime. It is clear that the regime has no problem initiating displacement on a large scale when it suits regime interests. Dealing with the suburban belts in this fashion will remove a source of resistance against the regime once and for all.

Though these are the primary aspects of the strategy, Law no. 10 may very well additionally facilitate small-scale sectarian demographic engineering in a few strategic areas. The “four-town deal” that swapped the population of two Sunni villages with two Shi’i ones west of Damascus suggests that the Syrian-Lebanese border could be such an area. Incidentally, this particular deal was enabled by Qatar as the price for release of their captured royal hunting party in Iraq.

If the re-entrenchment of the Syrian regime was not already a sad enough finale, the emerging parallels with the plight of many Palestinians are uncanny and will constitute a further source of international concern. Not only is the relative size of the Syrian diaspora growing fast, but Law no. 10 may well have an effect similar to the Israeli Absentee Property Law, which effectively nationalized Palestinian lands whose owners had fled after November 1947. The Israeli/Palestinian problem still haunts the world’s conscience 70 years later, though apparently not enough to end its neglect and resolve the problem.

In 2017, Pearlman quotes Talia—a fleeing TV correspondent in Aleppo—regarding a sad but remarkably poignant moment: “I waited for the driver outside. I kissed the walls on the street, because I knew that I was never coming back to them.”

Law no. 10 just brought this scenario one step closer to reality.


Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. Follow on Twitter.

Addendum: “Displaced Syrians ensnared by new property law stand to lose everything” by Bahira al-Zarier & Barrett Limoges for Syria Direct, 17 April 2018.

Law 10 gives property owners both in Syria and abroad just 30 days—starting April 11—to present their deeds to local council offices in the country. Otherwise, the state can liquidate their titles and seize their holdings. Once the registration window closes, “the remaining plots will be sold at auction,” reads Article 31 of the law.

For citizens living abroad like Muhammad, family members as distant as a second cousin may present the documents in their stead.

However, the millions of Syrians impacted by Law 10 include refugees and internally displaced people without family back home to assist with registration, as well as people whose deeds were lost or destroyed during the war.

Perhaps most ominously for opposition supporters, all property owners wishing to register their lands must first obtain approval from state security officials, a lawyer in Damascus familiar with the law told Syria Direct. The lawyer spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions.

“Without this approval, they will not be able to prove ownership of the property,” said the lawyer. “Therefore, it would be sold at auction or claimed by another person.”

“Herein lies the seriousness of this decree,” she added.

The need for security clearance could exclude large swathes of the Syrian population inside and outside the country with outstanding arrest warrants or known anti-government sympathies from registering their property.

Muhammad is one of them. Although he still has the deed for his house and land in the south Homs village of al-Buwaidah a-Sharqiyah, he says the Syrian government has issued an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

“I am wanted by the regime on charges of incitement and attending demonstrations,” says Muhammad. “I understand that the regime means to take our property with a legal text, creating new laws to suit their interests.”

These two clarifications were tweeted by “Syria Law Journal”

Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East – By Joshua Landis

Syria, Deterrence of Chemical Weapons and U.S. Policy in the Middle East
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – April 12, 2018

President Trump has been provoked into action by the terrible videos coming out of Syria. They are horrifying. He can uphold the Obama policy, which is to stand by the international norm of prohibiting the use of chemical weapons if it is proven that Assad used chemical weapons. It is the policy that he has already adopted following the use of Sarin at Khan Shaikhun. The mistake of both Obama and Trump has been to allowed the use of chlorine gas to slip under the radar. It was not originally proscribed in the 2013 deal, and though added to list later, it has not been acted upon. Trump can probably deter further use of chlorine gas in Syria by hurting the regime with a missile strike. But such a strike will be a narrow response, unlikely to change the course of the war. Some 1,900 Syrians have been killed so far by chemical weapons. Further missile strikes will not address the deaths of close to half a million Syrians.

Opposition members, Sunni states, and Israel will again be disappointed and critical of Washington when a narrow exercise of deterrence doesn’t alter the balance of power in Syria or signal the beginning of a US war against the Assad regime.

Trump’s instinct to keep the US from establishing a permanent role in Syria is fundamentally correct, in my estimation. 

The US would be committing a grave mistake should it try to build a viable state in North Syria for the Kurds. Northeast Syria is a poor part of country that is beset by many problems. Kurds and Arabs have diametrically opposed national ambitions in the region. The tribes are at each other’s throats after years of war and being forced to join one rebel force after another. Blood feuds abound. Social services and the foundations for a state are practically non-existent in the region. Kurds number about 2 to 2.5 million in population. For US policy makers to be arguing that Northeast Syria is the right place for America to build a viable policy in the region that can roll back Iran, bring about regime-change in Damascus, and reestablish American credibility in the Northern Middle East is frankly incredible. Those who espouse such a policy probably know little about the social and political realities of the region and do not appreciate the commitment and great expense that such an effort would entail, not to mention that it is likely doomed to failure. It will be even more difficult than building a viable central state in northern Iraq that would include Kirkuk, etc.

But the US does not have to abandon the Kurds of Syria to the predations of Turkey or the Assad regime.

The US should be helping the Kurdish leadership of North Syria negotiate a deal with Assad that promotes both their interests: Kurdish autonomy and Syrian sovereignty. Both have shared interests, which make a deal possible. Both see Turkey as their main danger. Both need to cooperate in order to exploit the riches of the region. Both distrust radical Islamists and fear their return. Neither can rebuild alone. Syria’s Kurdish regions need to sell their produce to Syria and to establish transit rights; Damascus needs water, electricity and oil. Of course, policing any deal between the PYD and Damascus will not be easy. Northern Syrians will look to Washington to help guarantee their liberties. But helping both sides to strike a deal sooner than later is important. Washington has the leverage in Syria to make such an agreement last and to help the Kurds; it does not have the leverage to depose Assad or roll back Iran. Today, demands are not entrenched, institutions and parties are not established, and borders are not fixed. Tomorrow, they will be. The US can help the Kurds get a better deal on resource sharing than they have had in the past.

To build an independent or quasi independent state in North Syria that has its own army and that can defend itself in the face of Turkish, Iranian, Russian, and Syrian efforts to destroy it will require a commitment of decades, not years. It will need billions upon billions of dollars and a real nation-building effort, not simply a stabilization program.

If the US wants to get out of Syria in the next few years, it cannot tell Kurds that it will remain in the region for the long-haul to promote a viable statelet in North Syria and make it an instrument of an ambitious U.S. policy to hurt all of its neighbors.

The US has failed in its effort to produce a US-friendly and democratic Northern Middle East, where Sunnis and Shiites power-share and emulate US forms of governance. Turkey has turned to Russia and authoritarianism. Iraq is a Shiite-dominated state that needs decades to build reliable institutions that will allow it to turn away from dependence on Iran. Assad’s authority has survived in most of Syria, and Hizbullah is more powerful than ever in Lebanon. For the US to believe that it can reverse this history of political failure and misspent millions by launching a comeback in North Syria is nothing short of laughable.

To promote US policies of counter-terrorism, refugee return, and stabilization, not to mention economic revival for future generations, Washington should admit its losses and stop further efforts to defeat Iran or Russia in the region. It should allow these powers to rebuild the region. The US does not have to cooperate with Assad in rebuilding or spend its own money on the effort, but it should allow the region to stabilize and revive on its own, finding help where it can. Blocking highways, withholding oil resources to punish Assad, and building up yet more militias will not further long-term US objectives. It may gratify our allies, who want the United States to roll back Iran. It may also satisfy those who want to turn the region into a quagmire for both Russia and the Iranians, but it is neither wise nor humanitarian.

The US has the dominant position in the southern Middle East – the Gulf, Egypt and North Africa – where oil wealth is plentiful. It can do without the northern Middle East and should recognize the new security architecture of the region, where Iran has influence in the North. The US can help Israel and Saudi Arabia deter and contain Iran without a launchpad for power-projection in north Syria.

Only by returning to the simple truth that prosperity will advance U.S. interests will the US begin to put an end to terrorism, promote democracy, and attenuate the flood of refugees that pours from the region. Democracy, moderation, and the acceptance of liberal values will only come with education and economic growth. There is no quick fix to the region’s problems. Ensuring that Syrians and Iranians remain poor in the hope that they will demand regime-change is a bad policy. It has not worked despite decades of sanctions. Instead, sanctions have brought collapse, war, and bitterness to the region. Dividing Syrians and keeping them poor may ensure short-term US interests, but in the long-term it will ensure failure and more wars. Only by promoting growth and unity can the United States advance stability, the rule of law, and liberal values.
Addendum II: The fact that Chlorine is not listed as a Chemical Weapon in the Chemical Weapons Convention does not constitute a “loophole” in the 2013 agreement. “The of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC,” wrotes Amy Gordon, who helped negotiate the CWC for the U.S. and led the substantive input to the Senate for its ratification. Here is her nice note of correction:

Dear Josh,

I follow your site faithfully and think it makes a huge contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the complex issues unfolding in Syria.
One small correction, however.  Regarding chlorine. The fact that it is not listed in the schedules of the CWC does not mean that it constitutes a loophole in the 2013 agreement. The use of any toxic chemical as a weapon of war is banned under the CWC. The lists are simply meant to capture a range of the most toxic chemicals descending from those which have no commercial use to those which have some or mostly commercial applications. Nothing further needed to be done to establish the illegality of the use of chlorine as a weapon of war.
You probably don’t have time to read the link, but here’s the OPCW’s authoritative description of chemical weapons.
The real question regarding chlorine use, therefore appears to be political, not legal. Unfortunately, I can’t say why the CWC parties have been relatively sanguine about chlorine use and exercised about nerve agent, except to say that the effects of nerve agent are more severe and dramatic, creating a public reaction that makes official indifference more difficult.  No doubt events on the ground in Syria are contributing as well.
Best, Amy
Research Professor: Institute for Security and Conflict Studies
Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University
Addendum: A friend asked: “Can you tell us what we do if ISIS reconstitutes itself to a degree in Syria?”

I wouldn’t envision the US leaving Syria for another year or two and not before it could help the Kurds and Arabs of the region get on their feet and restore essential services such as water and electricity to Raqqa. By that time, I would imaging that the Kurds and Syrian military as well as the Iraqi military will be able to police the area. The reason ISIS was able to spread in eastern Syria was that the Syrian army withdrew in 2011 in order to try to control the cities in the west. The Syrian Army handed authority to the Kurdish forces in the region that became the YPG, but they were too primitive and few in number to take control of the region. Salafist militias pushed aside the more moderate local clan based armed units that at first emerged in villages and towns across the region. Al-Qaida in Iraq was able to spread out into Syria and eventually split into two factions: Nusra led by Joulani and ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Iraq. It will become increasingly hard for ISIS to make a come back with central authority restored in Iraq and Syria and much tougher militaries in both countries.

The Syrian situation is far from good. But I do not believe that the US will be able to impose itself in the region over the long-haul, as those who argue for remaining in north Syria argue. My hunch is that some president will want to get out, probably pressured by a public that suffers from sticker shock and sees no long-term interest for the United States in Syria.

I think Israel can protect itself by laying down a red line, as it is doing with its present strikes against Iranian and Hizbullah forces and interests in Syria. This Israeli strategy worked with Hizbullah in Lebanon. There is no reason to believe that it won’t work in Syria. Syria’s leaders have seen no interest interest in war with Israel since 1973. The sooner stability in Syria is restored and the sooner the government regains control over the situation, the less likely it will be that Iran can force Syria into an aggressive action against Israel that goes beyond self defense. 

Peak Fragility: Why The Middle East Is Doomed — by Ehsani

By Ehsani

The Mideast is doomed. Egypt alone needs to create 700,000 jobs every single year to absorb the new job seekers out of its 98 million population. A third of this population already live below the poverty line (482 Egyptian Pounds a month, which is less than $1 a day). The seeds of the vicious circle that the Mideast region finds itself in today were planted at least five decades ago. Excessive public spending without matching revenues was the catalyst for a faulty and dangerous incentive system that helped to balloon populations beyond control. A governance system that was ostensibly put in place to help the poor ended up being a built-in factory for poverty generation. Excessive subsidies helped misallocate resources and mask the true cost of living for households. Correlation between family size and income was lost.

Successive Mideast leaders are often referred to as evil dictators. I see them more as lousy economists and poor users of simple arithmetic, unable to utilize an excel spreadsheet to help demonstrate the simple, yet devastating power of compounding. Unless you are a Gulf-based monarchy enjoying the revenue stream from oil and gas that can postpone your day of reckoning, the numbers in nearly every single Arab country don’t add up.

It is important to note that excessive population growth is not the only issue here. Japan and many parts of Europe are suffering from too little population growth. The problem in Arab societies is lack of productivity stemming from weak private sector and overburdened, bankrupt public sector. As students of economics know, “Potential” Economic Growth of a country is derived by adding the growth rate of its labor force to the growth rate of the economy’s productivity. High labor force growth therefore ought to be a plus for the “Potential Growth.”

The Arab World’s problem is that it suffers from shockingly low levels of “productivity.” This may seem like a fancy word but the concept encapsulates everything that Arab economies and societies suffer from. Why does the Arab world have such low productivity? The answer lies in everything from the excessive size of the public sector to subsidies and overbearing regulatory systems that lead to corruption. As public sector liabilities grow, funding for education, healthcare, and infrastructure suffers.

Why is the size of the public sector—coupled with excessive subsidies—the problem? Because what starts as the noble cause of helping the poor ends up masking the true costs of increasing family size. Governments soon go broke. Services suffer. Anger rises. We know the drill now.

Population in Syria and the costs of raising a family

The average cost of raising a child until age 18 for a middle-income family in the U.S. is approximately $245,340 (or $304,480, adjusted for projected inflation). That is about $15,000 per child per year for a two-parent family with median annual income (college costs excluded).

Growing up in Syria, I can still recall the “Family Booklet.” The more dependents you had on that booklet, the greater was your allocation of subsidized rice, sugar, tea, edible oil, etc. Your home electricity was also subsidized. So was your diesel. Schooling? Free all the way. Not only were almost all your food staples and energy use subsidized, the Syrian state also used to give a prize (nishan) to women who gave birth to 12 children or more. Syria at that time had about 6 million people (and produced 300,000 barrels of oil a day and had plenty of water).

Without having to pay full price for bread, sugar, electricity, tea, fuel, or education (all the way to college) and with the state becoming by far the largest employer (job guaranteed), the Syrian population doubled every 22 years. Imagine the pressures on the state coffers.

There’s no need for much imagination as to how the Syrian state fared as its population doubled every 22 years while its oil reserves and production dropped by 50%. It was still expected to offer all those freebies to a populace that never once asked how the state was to pay for all this. Not only did Syrians never ask how their state could meet those obligations while their numbers doubled every 22 years, but the state itself never explained it. It is debatable that the state was even aware of the power of compounding and what effect it has in the outer years (50 years ahead).

As state finances (revenue minus expenses with little to no borrowing program) suffered, so did the services. Schools, hospitals, and municipal services became insufficiently funded. They were examples of Paul being robbed to pay Peter (subsidies & a losing public sector). As the state could not increase salaries alongside inflation, real wages and standards of living suffered. Even Mother Teresa would have had to accept a bribe if she had 5 kids and a salary of $150 a month.

Corruption is an inevitable by-product of a broken system

When the state can’t meet its built-in obligations, services suffer and corruption becomes rampant. The public’s anger grows, fingers start to point at anyone and everyone who is getting a bigger slice of the cake—and the cake is not growing anywhere near the number of mouths it needs to feed. In the end, governments that start off by offering more than they can sustainably afford in the long run end up being criticized and even toppled for seemingly not providing enough to a population that grew beyond the capacity of the system to handle.

When governments spend, they can fund their expenditures in three ways: 1) collect taxes; 2) borrow (assuming lenders are available); or 3) print money (assuming the central bank is not completely independent of the government). Without a sustainable tax base, it is unlikely that lenders will be willing to fund governments unless the latter are asked to pay unsustainably high interest rates. Similarly, printing money will soon lead to the debasing of the currency and rampant inflation.

What about collecting taxes?

Inscribed over the front door of the US tax office (IRS) are the words “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” As someone once also said, “Countries that don’t have a properly observed tax regime usually fall into chaos and corruption.”

Growing up in Syria, avoiding taxes was akin to breathing. It had to be done. Often times, tax rates were impossibly high (the top marginal rate was once over 70%). Not paying taxes is not just the fault of citizens but also that of the government which needs to accurately calibrate those rates. Regardless of underlying factors behind poor tax collection, the fact is that the Syrian government was expected to provide services, run losing businesses (public sector), and offer generous subsidies without matching tax collection or borrowing. Something had to give, and it was the quality of services.

As spending increased with the rise of the population, government investment in schools, hospitals, roads, municipal services, civil servant salaries, and human capital suffered and even froze. The public had the right to complain but the public didn’t want to know how the government was funding itself. “When the children come, God will deliver their fortunes along with them”—this is what we grew up hearing from families whose incomes did not seem to support the number of children they had. People would laugh it off as a joke. Sadly, this was Syria’s ticking time bomb.

On my trip to Syria few months ago, a young gentleman at my hotel explained to me how he was finding it hard to resist the pressure from his extended family and friends to stop having children at 5 kids. His father had 11 kids. His brothers had 8-9 kids. Having only 5 kids himself was insulting to his manhood. Like most Arab countries, Syria’s peak fertility (average number of children per woman) occurred between 1975 and 1980. The world’s highest in that period was Yemen at 8.7. Syria ranked 9th in the world at 7.47. It was in the company of Senegal, Malawi, Niger, Kenya, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Gaza.

Even by 2005-2010, Syria’s population growth rate was still among the top 10 in the world at 3.26%. It also had one of the world’s youngest populations with a median age of only 15.4 years (only 4.8% of the population was over the age of 60; these statistics are from the UN’s World Population tables).

Egypt did embark on a strong population control strategy

Over two decades and by early 2000, Egypt’s population growth rate dropped from 3.5% to 1.7%. Large billboards were used in rural areas. An expanded use of contraception programs was also effective. Sadly, success didn’t last, and by 2007, complacency had set in. Mubarak also started pushing back against international NGOs administrating the programs. Once he was overthrown and Morsi came in, all contraceptives were banned. Before long, the growth rate was back up to 2.55%, taking the country’s population to nearly 100 million.

While Egypt at least tried its hand with family planning, Syria never did. But this article is not about the merits or problems of population growth—it is about fiscal pressures and what this dynamic inflicts on state budgets in a world of high subsidies, excessive public spending and limited resources.

The Syrian government was either not fully aware of the unfolding dynamic or was aware but found it politically difficult to embark on a serious family planning program. Was the religious minority status of the leadership a factor in terms of trepidation as to how the majority religious establishment would react? Whatever the motivations or excuses were, the fact remains that no steps were taken to match the baked-in future population numbers with revenues or resources. The only way forward was to make cuts in government investment, freeze public salaries, and watch the quality of services decline.

Many have blamed the current Syrian leadership for a long list of governance shortfalls. No one (including Assad himself) can claim otherwise. What this long explanation seeks to highlight is that—at least empirically speaking—Bashar al-Assad inherited a near-impossible economic dilemma.

The Corrective Movement

Ironically, when Hafez al-Assad took over, he wrestled the Ba’ath party to the right as he fought off the more leftist wing that had initially taken power along with him. He immediately embarked on his “Corrective Movement.” I recall American cars being allowed in as imports (yellow Dodge taxis).

Older members of my family still refer to the period between 1970 and 1976 as Syria’s golden period. Merchants saw their businesses boom as foreign trade was relaxed and the Corrective Movement quickly became seen as a tilt to the right from an earlier ultra-leftist leaning. Regardless of your politics, Hafez al-Assad was a larger-than-life figure in modern Syrian politics. Soon after taking over, he powered forward in building a top-down centralized state (Syria was part of the Soviet camp during the Cold War) that would come to dominate Syria’s future.

Merely six years after Hafez took over, sporadic, anti-government assassinations became widespread. Syrians would later find their government at war with the Muslim Brotherhood, which culminated in Hama in 1982. This six-year battle between Islamists and Damascus left its mark on Syria’s DNA thereafter.

Having been a nearly existential crisis, the Syrian leadership abruptly reversed the trends of 1970-1976 (when it had opened the economy and relaxed international trade) and instead moved in almost exactly the opposite direction. The old eco-Corrective Movement was frozen. Security now reigned supreme.

Between 1982 and the year 2000 (when Bashar took over), the Syrian leadership spent most of its energies making sure the Islamists and Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) movements would never see the light of day again. Being charged with belonging to Muslim Brotherhood received the death sentence by law. Add in the collapse of the Soviet union (Syria was a big victim of this significant moment), falling reserves and oil production, currency devaluation, restrictions on foreign exchange transfers using draconian laws, Syria’s economy took a beating just when its fertility was among the top 10 globally.

Fast forward to 2000…

The current President Assad took over in 2000. Yes, expectations and hopes were high both domestically and internationally. A very young population now had one of theirs. He had studied abroad. He was surely going to reverse directions both politically and economically. But from the start, Bashar’s main challenge was always going to be how to meet those high expectations. Political activists and thinkers quickly set up discussion gatherings to create a new political platform where they could start to participate in political life.

Economically speaking, there was now talk about allowing foreign banks to operate and even starting a stock market. Economic reforms of this type were always going to produce winners and losers. Those with capital made it big. They now owned banks, insurance companies, and hotels. And the losers? Losers were all those among the 7.4 kids per family born around 1980 to mothers with high fertility rates and fathers who did not have the income to support them. Those in rural areas fared worse. They were ill prepared and uneducated. The state was increasingly unable to support them.

The state in this period also never implemented a family planning campaign—after all, how would Islamists have reacted to an Alawi president trying to “reduce the numbers of the majority”? The state also never communicated to the public that the course the country was on was arithmetically untenable. The clock kept ticking. This is not to say that the state did not make mistakes. Old agrarian policies were by now resulting in over-exploitation of groundwater resources (again this was an inherited legacy). What was new was the 2007-2009 drought that was one of worst in recent memory.

What about corruption?

Corruption thrives in heavily bureaucratic centralized systems where civil servants suffer from frozen salaries and inflation rates that eat away at their real purchasing power. Without supplemental income, employees at all levels of the state apparatus can hardly survive. As the state can’t afford to raise salaries commensurate with inflation, employees at all levels are left to fend for themselves to make ends meet. The state knows it, the public knows it, and what you end up with is institutionalized corruption as inevitable consequence of a broken system.

For corruption at this level to be addressed, levels of public spending and liabilities have to fall dramatically. The size of government has to be smaller. The public sector has to slim down. Those left can now receive proper wages. Taxes must all get collected as the state gets a handle on finances.

What about corruption at highest levels? What about Rami Makhlouf? As we found out recently in Saudi, this problem is not restricted to Syria. This is not to say that Rami and the leadership did not make a huge mistake in occupying such visible positions in Syria’s economy. After years of complaints by both the business elites as well as average Syrians, it was decided that large projects are best shared by broader section of the country’s merchants and businessmen. This is when holding companies like “Cham Holdings” was set up to bid on large infrastructure deals. Mr. Makhlouf was, however, still the largest shareholder of such holding companies and this explains why the anger and resentment towards him and corruption in general never subsided.

What about Western political meddling?

The State Department had run a democracy promotion program since September 11, 2001 and many activists were supplied with media training and equipment to help them capitalize on the moment when it presented itself. March 2011 was that moment.

What about the political reforms that were expected after Assad’s arrival in 2000?

This was a classic case of high expectations clashing with reality on the ground and the system as a whole. What was seen as needed “reforms” to some was viewed as a dangerous slippery slope by others. Everything described above comprised the nasty cocktail mix that was waiting in the wings as events unfolded March 2011. Those who wanted more political participation included the poor, those from the rural areas, the Islamists, and the regional/Western adversaries of the Syrian leadership.

Assad may not have anticipated the tsunami early on, but by the summer and end of 2011, he had made up his mind. This was going to be a fight till the end where losing was not an option—the leadership would stop at nothing until victory had been ensured.

The Future

In conclusion, Assad inherited a number of intractable economic problems. This legacy was born out of years of governance challenges. How would one maintain a largely socialist structure while the population doubled every 22 years and revenues from the country’s natural resources were falling by nearly 50%?

When and if Syria’s war is over, a new chapter and contract must be inaugurated. The private sector must become the engine of growth. Regulations must be streamlined. Taxes must be cut to levels low enough to ensure a respectable collection rate. And one final proposition—an item for a wish list of sorts: Rather than financial handouts, Syria must ask for a 20-year grace period that would allow it to export to the rest of the world free of duties.

Sanctions also ought to be lifted. Investments in labor intensive industries must be encouraged to help employment. If and when the economy finds its footing, it is critical that women’s labor participation rises from the abysmal rates in the region. Studies conclusively show that increased female participation in the labor force is the single biggest factor behind population growth control.

Syria has no easy road ahead, but such measures may help alleviate the challenges that must eventually be faced and promote the recovery of the nation in its post-war future.

Perhaps as importantly as economics, Syrians will have to decide what it will mean to be Syrian. Decades of Arab nationalism saw the larger Arab world upheld as more important than Syrian identity. This war—and Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbors—may have convinced many Syrians (and perhaps the leadership itself) that the time has come for Syrians to forge a more independent Syrian identity that binds its citizens together apart from conceptions of a broader Arab culture.


An earlier version of this article originally appeared here.