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How Bashar Assad Won in Syria

Obama, Netanyahu and Erdogan all allowed the Syrian president to survive and ultimately, with a lot of help from Russia and Iran, murder his way to victory

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A man passing a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad at the newly opened crossing between the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria's Boukamal, September 30, 2019. The Arabic sign reads, "Congratulations victory."
A man passing a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad at the newly opened crossing between the Iraqi town of Qaim and Syria's Boukamal, September 30, 2019. The Arabic sign reads, "Congratulations viCredit: Hadi Mizban,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

There can be no illusions now. After eight and a half years, Syrian President Bashar Assad has won his country’s civil war.

His blood-soaked presidency has endured the near-decimation of the Syrian army and an earlier loss of control of most of the country, including the main cities other than the capital, Damascus.

In the latest developments in northern Syria, the Kurds have been forced by Donald Trump’s abandonment to make the cruel choice to consent to the return of the murderous Assad regime over a murderous Turkish invasion. In the process, Assad has been allowed to reestablish his rule over the last large swath of territory.

As Pence pushes Syria cease-fire with Erdogan, Trump undercuts negotiationsCredit: Haaretz

Now, with the exception of the Turkish “security zone” and small enclaves in the northwest and along the Jordanian border, Assad controls nearly the entire country.

>> Desperate Kurds see only enemies around them. A special report from Qamishli, Syria

Trump’s green light to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to invade is merely a footnote to a long list of shame. Roughly half a million Syrians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the civil war. Half the country’s population has been displaced, and at least 5 million people have been forced to flee Syria.

Yet the Arab League will soon readmit Assad. The dossiers detailing his crimes against humanity are being prepared at the International Criminal Court, but he will avoid prosecution by traveling only to countries that won’t extradite him.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 44Credit: Haaretz

He will probably remain a pariah for years, barred from most capitals with the exception of Moscow and Tehran. But there will be enough countries, such as China, willing to take part in rebuilding Syria in partnership with Assad.

How did he do it? The simple answer is he had crucial support provided by Iran, with cannon fodder in the form of tens of thousands of Shi’ite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, along with a credit lifeline of billions of dollars as well as oil, arms and other crucial supplies. And when even this was not enough and Assad was on the brink, Russia stepped in and unleashed an air campaign, bombarding bakeries and hospitals in rebel areas. Yet he was able to survive for more than four years prior to the Russian deployment in September 2015.

The century’s largest bloodletting

There were other actors involved in the war besides Iran and Russia. Why didn’t they do more to prevent the largest round of bloodletting this century? The last time hundreds of thousands of civilians were butchered in one country like this was the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The world had an excuse of sorts then: The mass killing took place over a relatively short period — just three months. And it took time before reliable news began coming out.

No such excuse exists when it comes to Syria, where the full extent of the devastation was known almost in real time, and there were multiple opportunities for intervention. They simply weren’t exploited.

In the first few months, as the rebellion spread across Syria, the inaction was due in part to faulty intelligence. Dictators had been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and Assad — a member of the Alawite minority who was facing a popular uprising by much of the Sunni majority — seemed the next likely victim of the Arab Spring.

A huge portrait of Syrian President Bashar Assad features in the Old Market district of Aleppo, September 27, 2019.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko,AP

Israeli intelligence officers spoke at the time of his demise within “a matter of weeks, perhaps even days.” But they failed to appreciate his ruthless tenacity and the lengths to which his Iranian allies were prepared to go to support him.

Control of the air

One thing Iran was not prepared to do was to commit large numbers of its own forces. The Iranian-equipped Hezbollah fighters who were sent to Syria from Lebanon managed to hold onto some key locations, such as the corridor from Damascus to the Lebanese border. But they were insufficient to regain control of wider regions lost to the rebels.

As the Syrian army disintegrated on the ground due to mass defections, the regime retained one crucial advantage — control of the air — as its ramshackle air force continued to bomb rebel areas largely unimpeded.

But the rebels’ pleas for shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, similar to those the United States had supplied three decades earlier to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, were turned down. Western leaders deliberated over the issue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of those arguing that the risk of the missiles falling into the hands of jihadists and ultimately being used against Israeli and Western aircraft was too great. It was a valid argument, but it left the Syrian rebels exposed.

Another option, which would not have necessitated supplying weapons, would have been imposing a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas, where Western air forces could have patrolled and shot down any Syrian bombers. But it was rejected by President Barack Obama’s administration.

In response to a request from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin for an assessment, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided him with an exaggerated price tag ($1 billion a month) and a very unenthusiastic prognosis. It was clear that Dempsey’s boss, Obama, was against the idea.

But there was no need for the United States to have gone it alone. Neighboring Turkey had been prepared at that point to put its bases and its considerable air force at the disposal of operations enforcing a joint no-fly zone, along with other NATO countries. The Americans wouldn’t have had to provide all the aircraft or manpower — or even most of it. But Obama simply wasn’t interested.

The refusal to impose a no-fly zone, which doomed the rebels and opened the way to Russia’s deployment in 2015, did much more to help Assad than Obama’s decision to back down from his “red line” commitment and not retaliate for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians in eastern Ghouta.

Later, in April 2018, Trump did retaliate, attacking regime targets after the chemical attack on Douma. But that had absolutely no impact on the general course of the war.

Even after Russia deployed its aircraft to Syria, there were those who continued to advocate a no-fly zone, including not only Syrian civil-society organizations but even Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who supported such a step during her failed presidential bid.

No match for an aircraft carrier

The Russian force at the Khmeimim base in Syria was small, at no point numbering more than a few dozen aircraft. It was effective in pulverizing civilian targets only because it encountered no opposition in the air. The air wing of just one U.S. aircraft carrier would have been double the size and many times more effective. And NATO countries could have easily mustered a far superior force, which would have kept Russian aircraft out of northern Syrian airspace.

But it wasn’t just the United States. Britain, whose parliament voted against retaliating for the Ghouta attacks, bolstered Obama’s case for inaction. And France could have led an air campaign to protect Syrian civilians, using the British air force base in Cyprus and the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, which spent many months near the Syrian coast. They also chose not to act, but they almost certainly would have joined a U.S.-led taskforce if Obama had demonstrated leadership.

Erdogan alone

Turkey’s Erdogan was the only leader calling for a no-fly zone. His air force was capable of going it alone but he had his own agenda, which consisted mainly of bombing the Kurds and allowing proxies, including jihadist fighters, to enter Syria and be supplied from his territory. Israel, Syria’s other neighbor with a sufficiently large and capable air force, also pursued other interests.

There were senior Israeli generals who urged Netanyahu to “ground” Assad’s bombers. One of those who spoke openly (he was retired by then) was Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, who in interviews repeatedly recommended such a move, saying that as Jews we could not stand aside while civilians were being massacred across our border, and that bombing Syrian air bases was both feasible and morally justified.

But Netanyahu would only target Iranian assets in Syria that were deemed to be potential threats to Israel. He even gave Russian President Vladimir Putin public assurances that Israel would not harm the Assad regime, other than when Syrian air defense units fired on Israeli aircraft.

The Obama administration would finally lead an international air campaign in Syrian airspace — proving that it had been possible all along. But the air campaign was only against the Islamic State group and not against Assad, who had facilitated the rise of ISIS in Syria by releasing jihadist prisoners and refraining from attacking its strongholds.

The strategy was simple: Target Free Syrian Army rebels while allowing ISIS and the Al-Qaida-affiliated Al-Nusra Front to operate unimpeded, taking over Free Syrian Army bases and territory. This divided and weakened the rebels, who had initially mostly been relatively moderate local Syrians. It produced the myth that the rebels in Syria were all murderous foreign jihadists while Assad was the “secular” protector of Syria. It worked: ISIS widened its bloody caliphate and diverted the world’s attention from the fact that most of the casualties in Syria were still being caused by the regime and its Iranian-equipped and Russian allies.

Obama’s repeated reason for not acting was that the United States couldn’t “change the equation on the ground” simply by bombing the regime, and that there was no one to take over from Assad. But that was a deliberate misrepresentation of the situation in the early years of the civil war, when senior officers and officials had defected to the Free Syrian Army and had plans to establish control over the country.

At that point, denying the regime its military advantage in the air would not have necessarily meant Assad’s imminent collapse. He could have probably held on in Damascus and the Alawite enclave on the Mediterranean coast. But it would have saved the lives of countless Syrian civilians in rebel-held areas and made it much more difficult for ISIS to expand there.

Perhaps Obama will express remorse or provide a better explanation in his yet to be published presidential memoirs.

The argument that there was no guarantee that Western intervention would not have itself ended in chaos is a perfectly valid one. But the West did end up intervening anyway, in the campaign against ISIS. A no-fly zone at the very least would have saved lives, providing large safe havens within Syria and somewhat alleviating the world’s worst refugee crisis since India’s partition in 1947.

Ultimately, Assad won because he was prepared to drown his country in blood to remain in power, with Iranian and Russian help. And in his vainglorious stupidity, Trump has merely ushered Assad over the finish line. But the Syrian president couldn’t have won unless Obama, Netanyahu and Erdogan had allowed him to.

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