Syria: Is Bashar al-Assad winning the Diplomatic War? Rebels Fret

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, widely regarded as a war criminal with tens of thousands of deaths on his hands, is nevertheless on a roll.

Russia and Iran, the backers of al-Assad, are not eager to see him go. Russia is now putting in more troops and port and airport facilities.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted that al-Assad may have to be allowed to remain in power for a while, as Daesh is rolled back. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan have come to the same conclusion.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is under enormous pressure to get a new Syria policy given the failures of the past 4 years, the mounting refugee problem in Europe, the scandal over pressure on analysts to paint a rosy picture of the stalled fight against Daesh, and the reports that US-trained rebels in Syria gave 1/4 of their American weapons to al-Qaeda in return for safe passage.

The Syrian rebels are extremely upset and worried that the world may abandon them.

Now the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi in Iraq has put forward a plan to share its intelligence about Daesh movements with Russia and with the al-Assad government. From 2006-2014 there had been very bad relations between al-Assad and previous Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki blamed al-Assad for any new wave of bombings. After the rise of Daesh, al-Maliki abrupty changed his tune and switched to supporting Syria.

Iraq’s announcement purportedly took US Secretary of State John Kerry by surprise.

It had long been the Obama administration’s position, enunciated in spring, 2011, that President al-Assad must step down because he dealt with civilian protests by directing sniping fire, tank fire and artillery fire on them while they were unarmed. They regime has also tortured thousands of prisoners to death.

But someone told me there is an old Turkish proverb that “mountains and governments weigh heavy on the earth.” After four years, the rebels have not won and have no real strategic victory to their name. And significant portions of the rebels have either joined al-Qaeda (the Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra) or Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). These new allegiances make it impossible for the US to support those rebels. Indeed, US fighter jets have struck at both Daesh and Support Front positions.

Some say that al-Assad connived at this situation, deliberately driving Sunni rebels into the arms of extremists like al-Qaeda and leaving Daesh alone so it could opportunistically prey on the less extreme elements of the Free Syrian Army.

If so, the strategy appears to have produced some success. Al-Assad is a war criminal, and one thing we may conclude from all this is that the world is not a nice place.


Related video:

VOA News: “US Seeks Way Forward with Russia in Syria”

31 Responses

  1. Halle Juan,
    I regularly visit your website, and generally agree with your views and the views expressed by guest authors. The one big exception is Syria. If the west had supported Assad right from the start, there would never have been a “spontaneous” revolt, which in reality was well orchestrated and financed by Arab leaders not a hair better than Assad. There would never have been a bloody civil war, nor tens of thousands of victims, and maybe not even IS/Daesh.

    Knowing the chaotic situation in Libya, after removing dictator Khadaffi by illegal means, the West should have known better. I think the majority of the Libyans were much happier with Khadaffi than with the present situation, and I’m afraid the same goes for the majority of the Syrians as far as Assad is concerned.

    I do have one question: why are the refugees from Syria and Iraq coming so massively now, at this moment? The civil war in Syria started 4 years ago, Iraq has been a chaos for at least 10 years, IS/Daesh is around for more than a year – so what is driving these people to Europe now. What event has triggered this mass movement? I’d really like to know your ideas on this.

    Best regards,
    T. van Ellen

    • Your entire statement is based on the fact that you think that the U.S. should have stood in the way of the people of Syria and Libya from rising up and attempting to overthrow their dictators. Impossible and nonsense.

      • I wish there would be a revolution against a right-winger somewhere so we could see if “socialist” anti-imperialists would apply the same standard to those rebels. Otherwise they’re just as hypocritical as Washington and Moscow.

    • I think you are dreaming. Assad has proven to be as ruthless and blood thirsty as his father, maybe even more so. The peaceful protests which he met with murder were not much different than those which occurred throughout the Middle East. Where is your evidence that they were sponsored by outsiders?

  2. On chemical weapons and again in Syria the former KGB man has had his way. All he had to do was sit back until Western plans became obvious failures and step in with the only alternative.

  3. Naturally, the civil war has fractured Syrian unity. Bearing that in mind, Bashar al-Assad is likely to maintain his de-facto position until a viable unifying body can coalesce. This terrible epic will continue; with no end in sight.

  4. Being against war crimes in Syria, as anyone should be, does not require supporting rebels. The past four years have made it abundantly clear there were no good actors in Syria. The purportedly “good” FSA has also committed war crimes in Syria, and also does not merit support.

    There are many things that can be done to advance human rights across the middle east: sending weapons and financial support to rebel groups is not one of them. If we are burdened by the human toll by the Syrian civil war, then we ought to be burdened also by the Saudi bombing of Yemen, the government and Saudi crackdown in Bahrain on civilian protesters, and the rising autocracy across the region. In none of these recent events are we bystanders. We could simply stop shipping weapons to these regimes that insist upon committing these atrocities.

    The empty idealism that caused Western governments to support rebels in Syria resulted in four years of death and destruction. If we truly cared about the the people of the middle east, there’s so much that could be done instead of training rebel groups.

  5. “The US government is supposed to spend a total of $500 million to train 5,400 Syrian rebels in a year, but Austin said the training program will have to be scaled back after the initial failure.”

    Seeing our trained Syrian fighting force is down to 4 or 5 soldiers after spending over $40 million to train them let’s add this endeavor to our thick portfolio of disasters we have both inspired and encountered in the middle east.

    The question remains…who will replace Assad once he is ousted?

  6. Here’s an interesting thought: the sudden wave of refugees flooding into Europe has overwhelmingly come from refugee camps inside Turkey i.e. they aren’t actually fleeing from the fighting (they did that when they fled to Turkey in the first place) but are, instead, now being allowed by the Turks to leave those refugee camps and cross over into Europe.

    That’s not to denigrate those refugees – their life has been wretched for a long time now – but what I am pointing out is that Turkey appears to be using them as pawns.

    The Turks must have thought that this was a clever way to pressure NATO into going boots ‘n’ all inside Syria, or to build up so much outrage in “the West” that they take their anger and frustration out on Assad.

    Apparently all that Turkey has done is to kick an own-goal, because the reaction from the West appears to be that the Syrian war has to be brought to an end – pronto – and if this means sitting back and letting Russia and Iran help Assad stomp on the jihadists then, well, OK, stomp away.

    Good move, ya’ Turkeys.

    • That is absolutely true. Most of the Syrian refugees were in turkey and it’s obvious because there was no resent massive refugee movement from Syrian to turkey. For example Alyan and his family were renting a small apartment in turkey paid for by his Canadian sister and there were waiting for asylum refused by Canada. Keep in mind that the Kurdish northern Syrian village that they came from was massively attacked by the Turkish army after Isis took it over.

  7. I doubt Russian moves come as a surprise to Kerry. Whatever has clicked into start mode must have been planned for some time, it certainly isn’t precipitate and probably has roots in the new economic and trade foundations laid east of Europe. It’s been White House reaction for some time to ‘watch events closely’ and acknowledge various levels of ‘concern’ while avoiding anything much of a constructive nature. The conflation of al-Assad’s domestic excesses with Daesh is one of the main things that has allowed the whole situation to get out of hand. Syria, Iraq, Daesh and the streams of recruits and refugees now represent a multi-layered problem, and such problems call for separating the components and dealing with each in turn. The US hasn’t done that, Russia and China* appear to be doing so. It’s not helpful to look at these things as isolated events, they are elements in a process and it is arguable that the process is one in which the US has to adjust to relinquishing its effort to determine the future course of everything in favour of a more cooperative approach to international issues. It is probably not fair to blame Obama, who must think himself in something like the Looking Glass world where things that look tantalisingly familiar turn out to be anything but.

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  8. Bob Spencer

    They have decades of experience playing the “game of nations”. I haven’t studied this very intensely, but maybe the US had a chance to reduce this mess when Putin did his diplomatic rescue during the chemical weapon events.

  9. This rebellion has been uncoordinated and messy from the start. The rebels have never been able to create a government in waiting, a clear line of succession that would answer the question of who moves into the Presidential Palace when Assad leaves. This uncertainty certainly does not help break the loyalty to Assad that those who fear a Sunni Islamist government have, particularly the Alawites. In that sense their diplomatic failures are all their own, and can’t be blamed on any outsiders.

  10. I, too have often heard from supporters of the Syrian insurrection something along the line that “Assad … deliberately drove Sunni rebels into the arms of extremists like al-Qaeda and leaving Daesh alone” but have neither seen real evidence for that nor a strategic plan for Assad to put it into effect. Rather, it seemed from the start that rebel forces lacked cohesion, political vision, and especially aversion to violent takeover. The frequent desertion of US-trained “moderate rebels” to Nusra and even Daesh also points to their fundamental Islamist perspective.

  11. There are no good men among the living…it appears that what made sense tactically for some rebels – getting an ally with fighting experience – means that the West will not work with them.
    The West cannot work with any of the leading rebel groups. By the process of elimination, that leaves only the state regime.

  12. If you really think the West hates Assad because he is a war criminal, I have a bridge to sell you. They hate him because he is allied with Iran and Russia and because the Saudis hate him. Saudis now are slaughtering Yemenis by the thousands, but few in the West describe these mid evil despots as war criminals.

    • The West’s Israel-centric reasoning as well for being against Assad also factored in.

  13. Well president Obama few months ago admitted that Isis is the direct outgrow of the chaos caused by the Iraq war. Now he is saying its a direct consequence of Assad! Guys watch the clip from his interview with vice news before forming a radical views.
    President Barack Obama traced the origins of Islamic State militants back to the presidency of George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, arguing that its growth was an “unintended consequence” of the war.
    Military, Middle East, Terrorism, Iraq, USA, War, Security
    In an interview withVice News, President Obama said the rise of Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL) can be directly linked to America’s excursion into Iraq under Bush.

    “Two things: One is, ISIL is a direct outgrowth of Al-Qaeda in Iraq that grew out of our invasion,” Obama said in an interview with VICE News. “Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.”

    Obama stated that he is “confident” a coalition consisting of 60 nations “will slowly push back ISIL out of Iraq,” but added that the challenge of stopping extremism won’t stop unless there is a political solution to the internal strife affecting so many countries in the Middle East.

  14. Rebels Fret? Whatever for? they made their bed, they allied themselves with takfiri foot soldiers, slave traders and subhuman rapists. Their record of atrocity of past 4 years is even scaring their benefactors and king of all Arabs. Assad seems like a decent man by comparison and will probably be visible politically in Syria’s future. You have won. Declare ceasefire and renounce violence for sake of future generations.

  15. It’s out of context, invalid: Any political/military discussion about the ME’s events that does not openly factor in the fact that Israel is the only atomic power in the region.

  16. You quote statements to the effect that Assad has killed tens of thousands of people, and tortured thousands; presumably you agree; I trust you, so I believe these statements too.

    But it does not follow from this that the United States, or any other country, has any business interfering in Syria. It is breathtaking hypocrisy for the Obama administration to assert that “President al-Assad must step down” because his military fired on unarmed civilians; but more to the point, it is wrong for one country to interfere in the internal affairs of another, especially by stoking a destructive civil war which has destroyed large areas of cities and created about 2 million refugees (so far) in what used to be – for most of its citizens – a stable country.

    • So, by your reasoning, national sovereignty is absolute. Would it have been wrong for the US or some other country to send in troops to stop the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 in Rwanda? Are ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass murder allowable as long as they are done by a government?

      • IMHO, there are only two legal ways to intervene in the internal affairs of any sovereign country:1. At the invitation of the government, or 2. A UN Security Council resolution authorizing intervention.

        Certainly the unilateral interventions of US, NATO, GCC et al are not legal under international law; under the law of ‘might is right’ anything goes!!

        • The UN Genocide Convention, which has been ratified by 148 countries, outlaws genocide and specifies that signatories must do all they can to prevent and punish those responsible for genocide. Further the International Court of Justice expanded on this, to wit. The 2007 ICJ decision in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro—which found that Serbia violated its responsibility to prevent and punish genocide at Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina—clarified that a state’s prevention and punishment obligations extend beyond its own borders. The decision asserted that States are obliged to take “all means reasonably available to them, so as to prevent genocide so far as possible.” This obligation exists regardless of whether the state’s efforts to influence the perpetrators changes the outcome.

    • Okay, but remember your words about internal affairs when America’s second civil war begins in your lifetime. We have enough weapons, mostly under the control of right-wing generals and private citizens, to dwarf all these foreign wars put together. Much worse weapons are waiting to be built by a vast sea of 3D printers and CNC machines. The rationalizations for ethnic cleansing are already coming from the lips of presidential candidates. The world will have to watch helplessly.

  17. It looks likely that Assad will survive. I suspect that he will be like Pinochet only worse. He will have caused much more damage, killed many more people, will survive for some time and be indicted as a war criminal. Then, near the end of his life he will finally appear in the dock to answer for his crimes. Of course, he could be assassinated first after some form of order is finally installed.

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