Analysis |

After Four Years of Civil War in Syria, Assad's Ouster Is No Longer the Goal

The West and Arab countries are now fighting for influence in the face of Iran and Russia.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian refugees play in the streets of Damascus, February 18, 2015.
Syrian refugees play in the streets of Damascus, February 18, 2015.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

This week will mark four years of civil war in Syria, the same length as the First World War. The body counts are also beginning to show a resemblance to the “war to end all wars.” Some 300,000 killed, maybe even a bit more, maybe a bit less; some 4 million refugees and displace persons; billions of dollars lost under the piles of rubble; but who is counting and who really cares when this war is already seen as a chronic war lacking a solution or way out.

It is also doubtful whether the horrifying figure published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees – that the life expectancy in Syria plunged some 25 percent, from 75.9 years to only 55.7 years – will receive more than just a little sympathy.

Anyone who wants to draw the map of control in Syria will find themselves helpless in the face of the huge number of militias, gangs, government forces, foreign and local fighters who control the scattered crumbs of the country. This week, the adviser to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Hossein Hamadani took pride in the fact that “Iranian commanders liberated over 85 percent of the territory that was controlled by the rebels.”

On the other side, coalition forces supported by the United States report that they have succeeded in damaging the economic infrastructure of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria. The Kurds have told how they have recaptured dozens of villages captured by ISIS. However, the “good” rebels (such as the Free Syrian Army) are on the verge of collapse and disintegration, the Syrian opposition is complaining of a lack of aid from Western countries and no one knows to say when, if at all, a diplomatic move that will lead to a solution will occur.

A strategic battlefield

From a small local operation that started in March 2011 with the brutal repression of demonstrations in the Deraa region along the Syrian border with Jordan, a war was born that has turned Syria into a strategic battlefield in which the Western and Arab powers are no longer fighting over the continued existence of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad or his removal, but over control and influence in the face of Iran and Russia.

Relations such as those between Turkey and the United States, as well as between Arab nations and the United States and Saudi Arabia, have undergone a severe shakeup. ISIS has pushed Al-Qaida from the center stage and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has moved into the back room.

A week ago, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat – owned by Prince Faisal, the son of Saudi King Salman – published an article about Hezbollah’s taking over the center of Damascus. “The old city of Damascus has become the quarter of Hezbollah control,” was the headline of the article, which described how Hezbollah soldiers had set up roadblocks and put up iron gates at the entrances to streets where Alawite citizens live.

Hezbollah forces check everyone who enters and leaves - and either allow them to do so or not. They have banned cars and motorcycles from entering those streets. In addition, they watch over the streets where Christians and Sunni Muslims live; and the report says they have turned the center of Damascus into a twin of the Dahiyah neighborhood of south Beirut, which is considered the stronghold of Hezbollah.

Free Syrian Army fighters fire a locally-made weapon towards forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, March 12, 2015. Photo by Reuters

Hezbollah’s actions are no different than those of the forces of the Jabhat al-Nusra organization, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida, in the territories it controls. Here too, a radical militia manages the municipal services, courts and schools through local citizens, exactly the way the Free Syrian Army runs life for civilians in its territories, or the same way the Chechen militia affiliated with Chechen terrorist organizations runs its areas near the city of Latakia in northwest Syria. ISIS still controls large parts of northeast Syria, which is also where Syran Kurds have declared autonomy, and which act as if it was an independent country with its own private armed forces - and is still listed on the list of terrorist organizations by the United States.

But this kaleidoscopic picture is just an introduction to the strategic and diplomatic struggle between the countries neighboring Syria. Every militia has its own sponsor-nation that funds and supplies it with arms - and through which it becomes a party of interest and power in the international arena. Iran, for example, does not make do with granting the Syrian regime an almost unlimited line of credit, or with the recruitment of Hezbollah to fight in Assad’s service.

Officers and soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are taking an active role in managing the fighting. The pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini have turned into huge posters hung in the streets and villages under Hezbollah control. Planning of Syrian military operations is done in full coordination with Iranian commanders, who approve or reject all operational plans.

It was reported recently that Qatar is trying to persuade Jabhat al-Nusra to cut its ties with Al-Qaida and return to being an independent militia, in order for it to join the rebels backed by the United States and western nations. Saudi Arabia is funding the Free Syrian Army but also religious militias who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.

No dialogue

In the more outlying neighborhood are Russia and the United States, and the gap between their positions toward Assad seems unbridgeable for now. Russia is trying to jumpstart a diplomatic process in which representatives of the opposition groups and the regime will participate, while the United States is still steadfast in its position that as long as Assad remains in power there is no room for dialogue with the regime. But this position too does not rest on firm ground.

Some of the opposition organizations are willing to hold a dialogue with representatives of the government, even without any preconditions on the removal of Assad. In Saudi Arabia commentators are keeping busy with the question whether to take the demand for Assad’s removal off the agenda in order to find a solution to the crisis, or whether to stick with the policy of the previous king, Abdullah, who took the side of those groups demanding Assad’s ouster.

A man pushes a bicycle as he walks past damaged buildings in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, February 24, 2015. Photo by Reuters.

This week Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Damascus and one of the strongest supporters of Assad’s ouster, wrote an article for Foreign Policy titled “America is losing the War in Syria.” Ford recommended stopping the demands for Assad’s removal as a precondition to talks. There are those in Syria who interpreted the article as the first sign of a change in U.S. positions towards Assad, an interpretation which is not necessarily correct. The leader of the Syrian opposition Khaled Khoja seems to agree with this position, as he said training 15,000 Syrian fighters over three years is not enough and not significant.

Coalition forces may have carried out some 1,200 attacks from the air in Syria, and Pentagon estimates are that these attacks have killed over 8,500 ISIS fighters, but this also marks one of the major failures of this policy. The war against the jihadists makes the other militias stronger and is not part of a plan for an overall solution to the war in Syria.

As a result, it is the militias who determine what happens on the ground in Syria and they are the ones that dictate international actions. That is how in the best case, in which the jihadis are defeated, Syria will return to the situation it was in a year ago; and in the worst case scenario, in which the international coalition becomes tired of the war, the bloody status quo will continue with ISIS being accepted as part of the political reality in the region.

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