When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, it seemed like another example of the Arab Spring which led to the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya and the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt. The end of the rule of the Assads (father and son) seemed likely. Some who were widely optimistic saw this as a chance for a democratic secular regime in Syria. Now, after more than 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands more uprooted from their homes or taking refuge in Turkey and Jordan, the muddled situation is becoming clearer. Several factors will ensure Assad not only survives, but continues to rule Syria.
First is that Assad is critical to Iran's foreign policy, and Tehran will not let Assad fail. Two of Iran's objectives are control of Lebanon through Hezbollah and the destruction of Israel. These two are interrelated. If Iran is truly serious about its stated desire to eradicate Israel, then Hezbollah is its proxy. With more powerful missiles and weapons than it had in the last war with Israel, Hezbollah is an even more formidable adversary than the one which last fought Israel to a virtual draw.
Iran's support of Hezbollah is dependent upon the flow of arms from Tehran to Lebanon. These move via air over Iraq, whose government has been obliging, into Damascus. From there, they move over land to Lebanon. If Assad were removed in Syria and the new government were hostile to Iran, this would have a devastating effect on Tehran's ability to supply arms to Hezbollah. A sea route would not be possible because the Israeli Navy controls access to Lebanon.
A second factor is Putin and Russia. The relationship between Russia and Syria is long and deep. For decades, Syria was the Soviet Union's primary client state in the Middle East. The Soviets, offsetting Washington's support for Israel, not only supplied military aircraft and other arms to Syria but stationed troops as military advisors in that country. Not surprisingly, many Russians married Syrian women and took them back to Russia.
With the demise of the Soviet Union and the weakness in the Russian army, Moscow's influence in Syria waned. Until recently Russian warships had not been in the Eastern Mediterranean since 1992.
Now the Russian bear is back. Putin is determined to play a role on the world stage. The Russian military is being rebuilt.
Syria has become the first test case for Putin to flex his muscles. In the recent negotiations over Syria's chemical arms, Putin has demonstrated he is standing squarely behind Assad.
From a study of Putin's past, as I did in researching my new novel, The Russian Endgame, one fact is crystal clear: Putin always plays to win. Illustrations are the ruthless way in which he has dealt with rebels in Chechnya; hostage takers in Moscow; defiant oligarchs; and singers who dared to criticize him. Putin will not let Assad, his ticket to reentry as a Middle East player, fail.
A third factor is the sectarian nature of the conflict. Syria has become the newest and most lethal battlefield in the bitter war within the Muslim world between Shiites and Sunnis which has raged since Mohammad's death in 632 A.D. A majority of this diverse country is Sunnis. Next are Shiites with Assad belonging to a Shiite sect. Not surprisingly, most of the top military officers and government officials re Shiites. Viewed in these terms, an entrenched minority is fighting for its control of the country.
On a larger tapestry, the Syrian civil war must be viewed in the context of the Sunni-Shiite conflict which has intensified in the Middle East in the last few years. It pits Saudi Arabia on as the Sunni leader against Iran, whose people are Shiites and Persians, not Arabs. Tehran has assumed the mantle of leadership of the Shiites. The Saudis and Sunnis have been squaring off through proxies in Iraq. Now in Syria.
There is a difference between them. The Iranians are supplying troops and heavy weapons to bolster the Assad regime. In contrast, the Saudis, while blustering about the horror of a Shiite "fertile crescent" have been largely ineffectual in helping Sunni insurgents in Syria. Sunni Turkey has the army and strategic location to make a difference if it were to intervene. Erdogan, however, has shown no inclination to do that.
This means that we have two militarily powerful nations on Assad's side -- Iran and Russia. Both have supplied heavy arms to Assad. They have also added their own fighters, namely Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah's troops, who enabled Assad to prevail in critical battles. Russian warships are on the coast of Syria ready to help Assad.
Arrayed against them are the Sunni rebels, a combination of poorly armed Sunni secularists from Syria and foreign Sunni Jihadists who have joined the fray. The U.S. and Western Europe are only giving the secular rebels small arms. According to U.S. officials, the CIA has trained fewer than 1,000 rebel fighters this year. In contrast, Iran and Hezbollah have not only inserted their own troops, but have trained more than 20,000 to fight for militias supporting Assad. A U.S. missile attack on Assad would have helped, but that has been canceled.
To make matters worse, the secular rebels and jihadists are now battling each other. Each is trying to assert control over portions of Syria. In this situation, how can they possibly hope to oust Assad?