Next March will mark the fifth anniversary of what started as another chapter in the so-called “Arab Spring” morphed into a civil war, degenerated into a humanitarian catastrophe and, finally, led to the systemic collapse of Syria as a nation-state.

That sequence of events has had a profound impact on virtually the whole of the region known as the Greater Middle East, affecting many aspects of its component nations ranging from demography, ethno-sectarian composition and security. Since the purpose of this presentation is not to offer an historic account of the events, a brief reminder of some key aspects would suffice.

Syrian anti-government protesters hold banners calling for an end to a military siege in Nawa near the southern town of Daraa, the epicentre of protests that have shaken President Bashar al-Assad's once uncontested rule, on April 28, 2011. A defiant Syria vowed to restore "security and stability" despite growing international censure for its violent crushing of dissent, as activists called for more protests on April 29, 2011. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Protester i Nawa nær Deraa 28 april 2011.

Five years ago, when the first demonstration took place in Deraa, in southern Syria, much of the so-called “Arab World” was in a state of high expectations in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that seemed to have ended decades of despotic rule by military-security organs of the state. Despite important differences, the Syrian state at the time fitted the description of the typical model of the Arab state as developed after the Second World War.


It was, therefore, not fanciful to think that it might respond to the first signs of popular discontent in the same ways as similar states had done elsewhere in the Arab World. One important difference was that at the time the uprising started, the Syrian state, arguably the most repressive in the modern Arab World, apart from Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, had embarked on a program of timid reform and liberalization. The new dictator, Bashar al-Assad, had tried to portray himself as a Western-educated reformer attracted to aspects of pluralism and a market economy. He had allowed the emergence of the first privately owned banks and privatized a number of state-owned companies. He had also allowed the private sector to take the lead in a number of new sectors, notably mobile phones and the Internet. To be sure, the new banks, the privatized companies and the new technology companies were almost all owned by members of the Assad clan and associates with the military-security apparatus keeping a close watch on all activities. Nevertheless, there was some consensus among Syria-watchers in the West that the young Assad was taking the first steps necessary towards reform. This impression was reinforced by the fact that the regime allowed the emergence of a number of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) active on a range of issues, including human rights, albeit with security services keeping a close watch.

The Western powers tried to encourage what they saw as a slow-moving process of reform by offering Assad economic aid, largely though the European Union, and deference at the diplomatic level. Assad was invited to high-profile state visits, including to Britain and France, where he was given a front seat at the traditional 14thof July military parade in Paris.

At the time marchers were gathering in Deraa, the Obama administration was preparing the ground for Assad’s visit to Washington, with a number of high profile Democrats penning op-eds in praise of the Syrian leader as a reformer and moderate.

The then head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the US Senate, Senator John Kerry, had forged a personal friendship with Assad, whom he had met in a number of visits to Damascus, where their respective wives also developed a bond of sympathy.

Not long before the war in Syria began, Bashar Assad was hailed as a reformer and invited to high-profile state visits in the West. Above, Bashar Assad relaxing with Turkey’s then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), and with then Senator John Kerry (right).

The fact that Assad’s relations with the Bush administration had been stormy, to say the least, also helped Assad’s image with the Obama administration, which was building a foreign policy based on anti-Bush sentiments. (Bush had forced Assad to end Syria’s occupation of Lebanon; Assad had retaliated by allowing Islamist terrorists to pass through Syria to kill Americans in Iraq.) For three decades, Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad had been the only Arab leader to have had tête-à-tête meetings with all US Presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. President George W. Bush had broken that tradition by not bestowing the same distinction on Bashar al-Assad.

In the end, the Assad regime repeated the experience of virtually all authoritarian regimes that have tried the recipe for “guided reform.”

An authoritarian regime is never more in danger than when it attempts liberalization. Also, the fact is that not all authoritarian regimes have efficient mechanisms for reform. In some cases, the choice is between crushing popular demands for reform and the risk of regime change. As Latin Americans know well, while dictablanda (light dictatorship) could be reformed, dictadura(hard dictatorship) has to be overthrown.

After a brief period in which, Hamlet-like, he wondered whether to kill or not to kill, Assad opted for the latter, sending his tanks to crush Deraa. The recipe had been tried in 1982 under his father, General Hafez al-Assad, in Hama and had worked, ensuring almost three decades of stability for the regime.

Like other Arab authoritarian regimes facing popular revolts, the Assad regime was, at least in part, a victim of its own relative success.

The decades of stability after Hama and Syria’s effective, though not formal, end of the state of war with Israel, had allowed the formation of a new urban middle class, an impressive quantitative growth of educational facilities, and the revival of traditional sectors of the economy, notably agriculture and handicraft industries, that escaped central government control.

Assad’s record in such domains as literacy, improved health services that helped raise life expectancy levels, and access to higher education, was significantly better than the average for the 22 members of the Arab League. A new urban middle class with Western-style political aspirations had emerged only to find itself constrained by a Third World-style political system. The problem was that this new middle class, politically inexperienced not to say immature, could not go beyond expressing its aspirations in a haphazard way. It had no political structure and leadership to translate those aspirations into a strategy for a radical re-shaping of Syrian society.

Thus, like other nations experiencing the Arab Spring, not to mention the European Revolutions of 1848, the Syrian uprising faced the prospect of defeat by the authoritarian state it wished to reform. The failure of the uprising to develop a coherent strategy created a vacuum that other forces soon tried to fill.

The first of those forces was the Muslim Brotherhood, the longest-standing adversary of the Assad regime and its Arab Socialist Baath (“Resurgence”) Party machine. Having remained as mere spectator in the early phases of uprising, the Brotherhood, its leadership then based in exile in Germany, reactivated its dormant cells and started promoting sectarian themes: Sunni Muslims against the Alawite minority to which Assad belongs.

Paradoxically, the regime indirectly encouraged the ascent of the Brotherhood for two reasons. First, it hoped that a dose of sectarianism would unify the Alawite minority, 10 per cent of the population, around the regime, while persuading other minorities, notably Christians, some 8 per cent of the population, and Ismailis and Druze, another two per cent, that they would have a better chance with a secular authoritarian regime rather than a militant Sunni Islamist one. To drive that point home, the regime started releasing large numbers of militant Sunni Islamists, among them many future leaders of the Islamic Sate Caliphate (or ISIS). Assad also worked on Kurds, around 10 per cent of the population, many of whom had had their Syrian nationality withdrawn in the 1960s. In a presidential decree, he promised to restore their nationality while hinting at major concessions on the issue of internal autonomy for ethnic minorities.

By encouraging the sectarian aspects of the conflict, Assad also hoped to win sympathy and support from Western democracies that, then as now, were concerned about the rise of militant Islam as a threat to their own security.

By playing the sectarian card, Assad also won greater support from the Shiite regime in the Islamic Republic in Tehran. Shiism does not recognize Alawites, better known in clerical circles as Nusayris, as Muslims, let alone Shiites.

Nevertheless, Tehran knew that while the Nusayri-dominated regime in Damascus posed no ideological-theological threat to it, the Muslim Brotherhood and its doctrine of pan-Islamism did. Tehran needed a friendly regime in Damascus to ensure continued access to neighboring Lebanon, where the Islamic Republic was the major foreign influence, thanks to its sponsorship of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.

Already enjoying a major presence in Iraq, the Islamic Republic needed Syria to complete the “Shiite Crescent” which it saw as its glacis and point of access to the Mediterranean.

Even then, the struggle for Syria did not become, and even today is not, a sectarian war, although, within it we have a war of the sectarians. Other forces are present in this complex conflict. Among them are dissidents of the Ba’ath, especially members of its leftist tendencies who had been suppressed under Assad senior. The remnants of Syria’s various Communist parties are also active, as are small but experienced Arab nationalist (Nasserist) groups.

Because almost every religious and/or ethnic community is divided, some siding with Assad and others fighting against him, it is difficult to establish clear sectarian demarcation lines. Even the Kurds are deeply divided among themselves with the PKK, the Turkish Kurdish party, present in Syria as exiles for decades, holding the balance of power.

A further complication is due to the involvement of a growing number of foreign powers, the latest being Russia.

We have already mentioned Iran’s involvement in trying to protect a regime with which it never succeeded in forging a genuine friendship. This was an alliance of necessity, not of choice, from the start, because Tehran needed Damascus to split the Arab World during the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war against a background of rivalry between Assad senior and Saddam Hussein for the leadership of the pan-Arab Baath.

Assad senior visited Tehran only once, for a few hours, and took extra care to impose strict limits on Iranian presence in Syria, while profiting from Iranian largesse in the form of cut-price oil, cash handouts and delivery of weapons. It was only under Bashar that Syria allowed Iran to open consulates outside Damascus and, eventually, set up 14 “Cultural Centers” to promote Shiite Islam. It was also under Bashar that Tehran and Damascus concluded a relatively limited “Defense Cooperation Agreement” that included joint staff conversations and exchanges of military intelligence.

Although more than a million Iranians visited Syria each year on a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Lady Zeynab near Damascus, almost no Syrians visited Iran, while trade between the two allies remained insignificant. In an interview given shortly before his death in combat near Aleppo, Iranian General Hussein Hamadani, recalled how senior Syrian army officers were “extremely unwilling” to let the Iranian military have a say in planning, let alone conducting, operations against anti-Assad rebels. The Syrian generals had a secular upbringing, loved their drinks, and regarded the Iranians as medieval fanatics clinging to anachronistic dreams.

By 2015, however, Iran was the principal supporter of the Assad regime. Iran is estimated to have spent something like $12 billion on its Syrian venture, including the payment of the salaries of government employees in areas still under Assad’s control. By the time of this writing, Iran had also lost 143 ranking officers, captain and above, in combat in Syrian battlefields. Sent to fight in Syria on orders from Tehran, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah has played a crucial role in limiting Assad’s territorial losses, especially in the south close to the border with Lebanon and the mountains west of Damascus. Conservative estimates put the number of Hezbollah’s losses in 2014 and 2015 at over 800, a third higher than its losses in the war with Israel in 2006.

Iran’s “Supreme Guide,” Ali Khamenei; has gone on record as saying he would not allow regime change in Damascus; he is the only foreign leader to do so.

While Iran is the major force backing Assad, Turkey has emerged as the main source of support for anti-Assad forces. In the first decade of the new century, Turkey, its economy experiencing sustained growth, invested more than $20 billion in Syria, thus turning Aleppo and adjacent provinces into part of the Turkish industrial hinterland. While Turkey’s critics accuse it of harboring neo-Ottoman dreams of domination in the Middle East, it is more likely that Ankara leaders see the Syrian imbroglio as an opportunity for them to “solve” the problem of Kurdish-Turkish secessionists based in Syrian territory since the 1980s.

Turkey’s “soft” Islamic leadership has always had ties to the global movement of the Muslim Brotherhood and is determined to see its Syrian allies end up with a big say in the future of that country.

Turkey has paid more for its Syrian involvement than has Iran for its meddling. Unlike Iran, which has not admitted a single Syrian refugee, Turkey has become host to more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, posing a long-term humanitarian and security challenge at a time Ankara is grappling with economic recession and rising social tension.

Ankara’s decision to goad large numbers of refugees into the European Union was an attempt at forcing the richer nations of the continent to share some of Turkey’s burden. After four years of lobbying, Turkey has not succeeded in persuading its US ally to endorse the establishment of a “safe haven” and no-fly zone in Syria to persuade at least some Syrians to remain in their own homeland rather than become refugees in Turkey and other neighboring states.

However, the Iranian assumption that whatever happens in Syria will have no bearing on Iran’s own national security, while Turkey is in direct danger, may be misguided. The Islamic State Caliphate (ISIS) has already reached a tacit agreement not to go beyond a 40-kilometer line from Iran’s borders with Iraq, thereby indicating its desire to avoid a direct clash with Tehran at this point.

There is no guarantee that such self-restraint will remain in place in the context of failed states in Syria and parts of Iraq. Iranian authorities have publicly stated that some 80 Islamic State armed groups are present in Afghanistan and Pakistan close to Iranian borders. Iran’s security could also be threatened by a deeper involvement of various Kurdish communities, Syrian, Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian exiles in those countries, in a broader regional conflict. Iran’s total support for Assad may also land the Islamic Republic on the side of losers, when, and if, the remnant of the regime in Damascus collapses.

Russia, which has also entered the fray in support of Assad, may already be rethinking its rash decision to become involved in a conflict it does not quite understand and in a country where, a quarter of a century after the fall of the USSR, it has few reliable contacts.

Three events seem to have persuaded President Putin to soft-pedal his initial gang-ho posture. The first was the downing of the Russian passenger airliner by ISIS, a reminder of the vulnerability that Russia shares with all other states in the face of global terrorism. The second was the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane by Turkey, a reminder that in a situation as messy as the one in Syria, there is no way to guarantee that everything will remain under control all the time. The third event was the attack organized by a pro-Caliphate crowd on a Russian military base in Tajikistan, ostensibly to avenge the murder of a local girl by a Russian soldier.

Russia is home to an estimated 20 million Muslims, practicing or not, mostly of Sunni persuasion and at least theoretically sympathetic to the Syrian Sunni majority fighting Assad. Russia’s firm backing for Assad could provoke a terrorist response not only against Russian tourists, as we saw in Sharm al-Sheikh, but inside the federation itself.

The country most dramatically, and perhaps permanently, affected by the Syrian conflict is Lebanon. More than 1.8 million Syrian refugees have arrived, altering the country’s delicate demographic balance.

The current Lebanese caretaker government, with the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister holding immense executive powers, is keen to grant the new arrivals citizenship as fast as possible. If the new arrivals do stay permanently, Lebanon would become another Arab Sunni majority state with Christians, Shiites and Druze together accounting for no more than 45 per cent of the population.

Neighboring Jordan is also affected in a major way, this time in favor of the dominant Hashemite elite. The absorption of some 1.2 million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunni Muslims, and a further half a million Iraqi Sunni refugees would dilute the demographic mix in favor of non-Palestinian communities, notably Bedouin Arabs, Circassians, Druze, Turkic and Christian minorities, which account for no more than 35 per cent of the population.

The country most directly affected so far is Iraq, which has lost a good chunk of its territory, notably its third most populous city, Mosul, to the Islamic State caliphate centered at Raqqah in Syria. Baghdad’s leaders are concerned by the thought that Western powers may end up accepting a new partition of the Middle East that would include the emergence of a new Sunni-majority state composed of four Iraqi and five Syrian provinces.

The idea of talking to ISIS has already been raised in Britain by the new leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, with the suggestion that second-track channels be opened with the Caliphate to probe the possibility of peace talks and a compromise. Such a move would amount to a first step towards recognition of a separate new Sunni state.

Iraq is also concerned about the future of Kurdish areas taken back from the ISIS Caliphate by Kurdish fighters from Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Will the Kurds give back those lands to Baghdad once calm returns?

The idea of a new Sunni state on the Euphrates has promoted another idea, that of a state for minorities such as Alawites, Christians, Ismailis and Druze on the Mediterranean, extending from parts of Lebanon to the Syrian coastline along the mountains west of Damascus. That would roughly cover the portion of Syria that during their Mandate the French called “la Syrie utile” (useful Syria).

Russia, another state that has recently become involved in Syria, could secure the aeronaval facilities it seeks in the Mediterranean in the territory of that new state.

Needless to say, the Kurds, divided in communities present in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and (former Soviet) Azerbaijan, are already affected by the Syrian conflict. The idea of a united Kurdish state has never been more present in the imagination of Kurds across the region. However, its realization has never seemed as remote as it is today. Various Kurdish communities and parties are engaged in a bitter struggle over control of the Kurdish narrative and agenda, at times even coming close to armed conflict. Conscious of the dangers involved, the Iraqi Kurdish leader Masood Barzani has been forced to hastily shelve his declared plan for declaring Kurdish independence in the three Iraqi provinces he controls in coalition with a number of other parties.

United in their fight against ISIS in their own neck of the woods, Kurds are deeply divided about what to do next; the danger of them using their guns — many supplied by the US — against each other cannot be ruled out.

Conflict in Syria also affects other Arab and Muslim countries, partly because of the magnet for jihadism created by the Caliphate and other Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front). By the time of this writing, groups claiming some links with Syrian jihadists have carried out or attempted acts of terror in 21 Muslim-majority countries from Indonesia to Burkina Faso, passing by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Libya. Such groups were also responsible for attacks or attempted attacks in France, Belgium, Germany, Britain and the United States.

The oil-rich Arab states of the Persian Gulf have been active in support of various anti-Assad groups. But they, too, are in danger of repeating their disastrous experience in Afghanistan when they helped jihadis fight the local Communists and their Soviet sponsors only to end up with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

In fact, for more than half a century, various jihadi leaders have dreamt of seizing control of at least one oil-rich Arab state capable of ensuring financial resources for their strategy of global conquest.

Later this month, a new international conference on Syria will open in Geneva. On the agenda is a plan for power-sharing, a new constitution and general elections under UN supervision within two years. Originally, the plan was developed by a New York-based think-tank in 2012 and conveyed to Assad through two prominent Lebanese political figures. Assad gave it a cautious welcome. The plan also enjoyed some support from the NSC in the Obama Administration. However, almost at the last minute, President Obama vetoed it, publicly stating that Assad must go.

If the plan had a slim chance in 2012, it has virtually none today. The reason is that no one is quite in charge of his own camp in Syria, assuming that one may discover easily recognizable camps capable of acting as distinct entities.

Syria had never been a distinct state entity until the French mandate, experimenting with at least five different versions of statehood, turned it into one after the First World War.

By 2011, when Deraa triggered the national uprising, Syria had become a proper nation-state with a sense of Syrianhood (in Arabic: Saryana) that had never before existed. This Saryana was evident in the nation’s literature, cinema, television, journalism and, more importantly, the version of Arabic people spoke from one end of the country to another.

With the collapse of the Syrian state, now in tenuous control of some 40 per cent of the national territory, and the intensification of the conflict with all its inevitable sectarian undertones, that sense of “Saryana” has come under strong pressure, and, in areas under the control of the ISIS Caliphate, singled out as enemy number-one. Syria today is a patchwork of emirates, large and small, coexisting and/or fighting in the context of a war economy and emphasis on local, ethnic, and religious particularism. Many of these emirates have developed a system of coexistence that allows them to run the communities under their control and guide them in different directions. In most cases, the direction in question is towards what is marketed as “pure Muhammadan Islam” in many different forms. But in a few cases, much to the surprise of many, timid experiments with pluralism and democracy are also under way.

The challenge today is not to rescue, through diplomatic gimmicks, a Syria that has largely ceased to exist but to help create a new Syria. That, however, is a challenge that no one today appears willing, let alone able, to face.

Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe. These remarks on Syria were delivered at the Seminar on Regional Security organized by George C Marshall European Center for Security Studies, in Munich, Germany on January 25, 2016.

Syria: Checkered Past, Uncertain Future
by Amir Taheri
February 10, 2016 at 5:00 am