December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.
Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.
But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.
Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.
Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.
The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”
Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.
Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.
Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.
Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.
The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.
One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.
Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.
The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.
The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.
These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.
An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.
Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.
Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.
The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.
Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.
Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.
Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.
IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.
Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.
The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.
As the war in Syria comes to its final stages, the future of the country and the whole region hangs in the balance. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad consolidates his power by defeating all opposition, resistance runs the risk of transforming into a new wave of organised terrorism.
My analysis at the beginning of 2018 predicted an imminent end to the conflict, with Assad victorious over the rebels. The final stage of the war was foreseen to be fought over the critical city and province of Idlib, the stronghold of the rebel groups. The capture of Idlib would cement Assad’s control of Western Syria demarcated by the Euphrates River.
Idlib and Daraa were the first places where the civil war broke out back in 2011. Daraa fell to Assad’s forces in July 2018. Inevitably, Idlib was next in line.
Since 2015, Idlib has served as a repository of insurgents escaping Assad’s forces. The strategy of Assad was clear: to overwhelm opposition forces in every city with Russian air support; destroy as many of the armed rebels as possible; allow remaining armed rebels to move to Idlib as a temporary safe haven and then launch a final attack on Idlib to wipe out all armed opposition. The plan followed exactly this path, and worked.
Millions of displaced civilians have also moved to Idlib, escaping the war elsewhere. The United Nations has warned an attack on Idlib could be “the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century”.
In July 2018, the world and the US administration waited nervously to see what the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit would bring for Syria. But the Syria issue was overshadowed by the issue of Russian meddling with the 2016 US elections and Trump astonishingly choosing to believe Putin rather than his own intelligence aides over the matter.
The relative insignificance of Syria during the summit, coupled with Trump’s lack of strategic insight, must have reconfirmed with Putin that the US was continuing to take a back seat in Syria. Soon after the summit, Assad and Russia intensified their preparations to attack Idlib.
Other key people in the US administration were not as uninterested as Trump. Security adviser John Bolton, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as well as other European powers issued repeated warnings against the use of chemical weapons.
In response, Russia has launched a PR campaign claiming that the US and Western bloc countries used a staged chemical attack as a pretext to strike Assad. At the same time, Russia was busy reinforcing its naval forces in the Mediterranean by adding 10 more battleships to its sizeable fleet.
Having pacified the US and its Western allies, Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Tehran in early September to decide the fate of Idlib and its inhabitants. Putin publicly rejected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for a ceasefire.
About a week later, Putin and Erdogan met. Putin announced an agreement between Russia and Turkey to create “a demilitarised zone of a depth of 15-20km, with the withdrawal from there of radically minded rebels, including al-Nusra”.
No-one is sure who the “radically minded rebels” are, but Turkey will act as a guarantor in the demilitarisation process, relying on its significant influence over the rebel groups.
Turkey had no choice. It was facing the real possibility of another wave of hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians adding to the 3.5 million Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey. More importantly, escaped jihadist operatives were likely to regroup in Turkey, creating a massive internal security threat to that country.
As the first group started to leave the demilitarised zone on September 30, a small group of refugees returned to Syria from Lebanon. These are certainly good signs, but they don’t mean the war has ended. There is not even an official ceasefire in place, and the UN continues to issue warnings that Syria is still too dangerous a place to live and operate.
What is certain is that all parties, including Turkey, the US and some opposition groups, have now accepted the inevitability of Assad staying in power as the only legitimate government in Syria. This reality will have two main ramifications.
Firstly, once totally free from armed opposition, Russia through the Assad regime is likely to challenge the US presence in Syria. Russia is not in Syria for a benevolent reason, but chiefly to ensure the permanence of its access to the Mediterranean Sea. A permanent US presence in Syria clashes with this objective.
By the end of 2018, and certainly in 2019, demands for the US to leave Syria will intensify – an eventuality that Trump clearly articulated back in April 2018. The US is likely to withdraw from Syria on the condition that Iran’s influence in the country is contained. Russia and Assad will make promises, but once the US is out, Iran will come back in.
Secondly, the biggest issue facing Syria is the deep feeling of resentment within a large segment of the population. They will question why the war was fought, creating 5 million refugees, displacing 6 million and killing more than 400,000, given that Assad is still in power in the end and Syria is no closer to being a democratic country advancing human rights and progress.
For some, the resentment will remain inward. But for a significant minority, the resentment will brew and turn into an unstoppable rage, perhaps manifesting in the familiar form of suicide bombing squads. They will reorganise themselves and launch a campaign of terrorism focusing mainly on easy civilian targets. This will only serve Assad’s narrative that fighting terrorism has reinforced his claims to legitimacy in the eyes of Syrians and increasingly within the international community.
The campaign of terrorism may inevitably spill over to Russia for staunchly supporting Assad, and to the US and its Western allies for allowing Russia to take the upper hand in Syria, subverting all attempts to get rid of Assad.
Civil war in Syria may be coming to an end with Assad firmly in power, but the resentment it generates is likely to evolve into a new wave of terrorism.
Even after the recent arrests and deaths of dozens of its members, the Islamic State-linked network of militant groups in Indonesia organised under the umbrella Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) clearly remains a potent force.
In the past week, five bombings have rocked the island of Java, killing at least 26 people and injuring more than 50 – the deadliest series of terrorist attacks in the country since the Bali bombings in 2002. These attacks included the bombings of three churches in the city of Surabaya, carried out by a family that used its children as suicide bombers.
The latest attack came on Wednesday when four assailants wielding swords stormed a police station in Sumatra. One officer was killed and two others were injured. The alleged militants were shot dead.
Formed in 2015, JAD achieved notoriety in January 2016 with a military-style attack in the centre of Jakarta that resulted in the deaths of four people and four attackers. Dozens of other potential attacks were foiled in the two years that followed, but several smaller ones were carried out, directed largely against the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism police unit – the arch-nemesis of JAD.
Formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings, with assistance from the Australian Federal Police, Detachment 88 has emerged as one of the world’s most effective counter-terrorism units, having arrested more than 1,000 militants.
Last year, 172 suspected terrorists were apprehended and 16 shot dead, following 163 arrests in 2016 and 73 in 2015. Most of the militants recently arrested have been linked with JAD and the related Islamic State support network of Mujahidin Indonesian Timur (MIT).
Since it declared its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the Islamic State has perversely given special attention to planning and inspiring terrorist attacks during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began this week.
This is the first Ramadan since the group lost control of large swathes of its territory centred around Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. As the Islamic State is clearly desperate to maintain its brand and prove its continuing potency around the globe, there are now concerns the recent attacks in Indonesia are a sign the group has extended its reach eastward to the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Ever since the Islamic State shot to prominence with the fall of Mosul in 2014, there have been fears about its potential to reenergise the decades-old jihadi network in Indonesia.
Since 2013, it’s estimated between 600 and 1,000 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the conflict, most drawn to the Islamic State and its fabled caliphate. (Others were aligned with al-Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra.)
Indonesian police estimate 400-500 of these fighters subsequently returned home, either from Syria and Iraq, or from Turkey on their way to join the conflict. Many have been met at the airport by authorities and taken into rehabilitation programs. But others returned unannounced. With a lack of appropriate laws in Indonesia, these returning fighters cannot be prosecuted for travelling overseas to join the Islamic State.
After the recent JAD attacks in Indonesia, local police have spoken of sleeper cells of returnees from the Middle East and their associates, who lay low and give the appearance of having no inclination to violence, even while they prepare for an attack at an opportune time.
Initially, it was reported by the respected head of the Indonesian police, General Tito Karnavian, that a family of six involved in the bomb attacks on the churches in Surabaya had returned from the Middle East. Later reports suggested this was not the case. Nevertheless, they and the other two families involved in the attacks were close associates of Islamic State returning fighters.
The world rejoiced when Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State caliphate, was finally liberated in October 2017, following a four-month siege. With the fall of the city, the last holdout of its tens of thousands of local and foreign fighters was also defeated.
Months earlier, Mosul, the last city held by the Islamic State in Iraq, fell after nine months of the most brutal urban warfare since the second world war. With the caliphate destroyed, it was believed the Islamic State itself had been eliminated, too.
As it turns out, the fall of Raqqa did not see the final destruction of the Islamic State army. Rather, under a secret deal brokered by the Kurdish-led, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces who led the campaign to liberate Raqqa, thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families were allowed to leave the city in convoys of busses and trucks.
Many made their way to Turkey, where it seems some remain. But thousands more drove into the desert of eastern Syria, occupying territory along the Euphrates River and linked to others across the border in rural northern Iraq.
Many Islamic State fighters, especially local Arabs, have gone to ground, blending into villages and Sunni desert communities. Even in liberated Mosul, which is largely Sunni, many locals still express support for the militant group.
The election of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the failure to rebuild Mosul and other destroyed Sunni cities, mean that in Iraq, as in Syria, all the social and communal grievances that supported the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) remain in place.
Even as the Islamic State was losing territory in Iraq in recent years, its leaders spoke with the conviction of an apocalyptic cult, confidently asserting that even if they lost the caliphate, the insurgency would rebuild.
Today, the group has active affiliates and supporters across the Muslim world, including in the southern Philippines, and a “virtual insurgency” throughout the many Western countries that contributed around one-quarter of the group’s total of 40,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria.
The insurgency is far from over, and in Indonesia it may well be that the worst is yet to come.
Syria is the outlier in the Arab uprisings, as again demonstrated by last month’s air strikes.
In 2011, public protests forced long-standing dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power in Tunisia and Egypt, respectively. Scholars questioned the notion that authoritarianism is a permanent feature of Arab politics. Not anymore. At least in Syria there is no doubt that the Bashar al-Asad government is consolidating its power.
I explore what makes Syria different from Tunisia and Egypt and why Syrian aspirations for political change have not eventuated.
It is worth going back to March 2011. School boys, influenced by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, wrote “al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nidham” or “the people want the fall of the regime” on a wall in the southern Syrian city of Dar‘a. The authorities responded by detaining and torturing the boys, which sparked public protests, first in Dar‘a and then in neighbouring towns and villages.
Initially, Syrians were not calling for the fall of the regime. At a conference in April 2011, even the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) preferred political reforms to outright revolution. A member of the executive recalled in an interview in 2015:
We as Syrians were calling for reform and calling for Bashar [al-Asad] to lead that reform.
This was not a new position for the SMB. From its formation in 1946, it participated in Syria’s early parliamentary democracy. The Brotherhood secured three seats in parliament in 1947, three in 1949 and ten in 1961. But the SMB’s parliamentary experience came to an abrupt end with the Ba‘th party’s military coup on March 8, 1963.
Excluded from parliamentary politics, and in the context of an Islamic insurgency turned uprising, the SMB adopted armed jihad in 1979. Membership of the Brotherhood was made a capital offence in 1980, and after the violent standoff between the Syrian government and Islamists in the city of Hama in 1982, the SMB was all but eradicated from Syria.
In exile, the SMB maintained its commitment to parliamentary democracy, and renewed its early commitment to non-violent political change. Its 2004 political platform emphasises democratic principles. It paved the way for the 2005 Damascus Declaration, a joined project between the SMB and the secularist opposition, to unseat the Bashar al-Asad government.
Bashar al-Asad survived both his international isolation in 2005, and the Damascus Declaration, only to face the Syrian uprising six years later. From exile, the SMB again confirmed its commitment to parliamentary politics in 2012, with an added emphasis on “equal citizenship”.
By 2012 violence had become the new normal in Syria. The al-Asad government’s use of force and its pardon of radical Islamists caused the metamorphosis of the Syrian uprising, first into an insurgency, and then a civil war. Opposition groups across the political spectrum, with few exceptions, were supporting an armed struggle in 2012. In March, the SMB’s shura (consultative council) also endorsed armed jihad and pledged moral and material support to the secularist Free Syrian Army. Later, the SMB also provided financial support to armed groups that shared its moderate or “centrist” stance.
The militarisation of the Syrian uprising served the al-Asad regime’s survival. However, scholars argue that it takes “extensive resources” to create and maintain armed groups, which is where Russia, the United States and its Western allies, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey entered the picture, and in turn serve to maintain the multiple wars in Syria.
Russia’s primary interest in Syria is to prevent regime change, as it occurred in Libya in 2011. Apart from using its veto in the UN Security Council, in September 2015 Russia started using its military air power, which enabled the Bashar al-Asad government to reclaim territory that it lost to the rebels earlier in 2015.
Iran’s focus is on countering United States and Israeli hegemony in the region, while the interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar initially coincided with those of the political opposition in exile, including the SMB. However, national objectives, primarily Ankara’s campaign against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, currently drive the Turkish military campaign in the north of Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s primary interest is to contain Iran’s influence in the region, including in Syria, as well as to prevent an “uprising” at home. Qatar’s ability to influence developments in the region, and in Syria in particular, has been curtailed by the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Saudi-led isolation of Qatar.
Qatar and the art of ‘brotherly’ diplomacy
The numerous and competing foreign interests in Syria have shown the UN Security Council to be an utter failure. In an unusual show of unity, the UNSC accepted the Russian plan in 2013 to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. It inadvertently strengthened Bashar al-Asad’s legitimacy.
The United States-led airstrikes this April against chemical weapons storage and production facilities attest to the UNSC’s inability to safeguard a rules-based international order. They also, again, served Bashar al-Asad’s political survival. As long as regime survival serves the interests of the main foreign actors involved in the Syrian conflict, authoritarianism will trump the Syrian opposition’s aspirations for political change.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
The latest military strikes by the US, France and Britain in Syria highlight the Trump administration’s uncertainty on its role in the conflict. With a near triumphant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad firmly under the control of Moscow and Tehran, the strikes against military bases suspected of facilitating the chemical weapons attacks will be nothing more than a footnote in the wider battle for influence in the region.
Trump must look towards the future and focus on influencing the reconstruction of Syria.
Without an active United States, Turkey, Iran and Russia will push international aid agencies and influential Western donor governments onto the sidelines. Instead, they will take the lead in rebuilding Syria in their images, an outcome that will hurt the Syrian people and further destabilise the region.
It is hard to find parallels in history with the extent of destruction in Syria.
Not since Dresden has devastation been so extensive. The four-year siege of Sarajevo, where regular bombardment from the surrounding mountains ravaged the city and reduced many areas to rubble, is a comparable yardstick repeated across Syria in Damascus, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Hama.
And then there is the human cost. More than 6 million people are internally displaced. Another 5 million are living as refugees.
Each person fled a home, a job and a community that will have to be re-established. This won’t be easy, given those who have migrated to Europe are estimated to represent between one-third and one-half of all Syrians with university-level education.
Even if it is theoretically possible to overcome these challenges, the most basic level of reconstruction has been estimated at US$100 billion, and possibly as high as US$350 billion. This far exceeds the estimated US$60 billion reconstruction cost of rebuilding Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
Some reconstruction experts have advocated sidelining Assad’s Syria, and only providing support to rump areas under the control of US allies. NGOs are advocating conditioning international support on a political solution being agreed, respect for human rights, and protection of an independent civil society.
The Western-led international aid community faces a conundrum as it sits on the sidelines watching others prepare for the post-conflict reconstruction. Should the international aid community adapt and compromise or stand firm with their demands and principles?
Without the West driving the development agenda, Syrian authorities will eschew aid focused on human rights, gender equality, market liberalisation, and democracy. They will have little patience for the Western allegory of aid as salvation, in which the original sin of colonialism drives an effort to save people from poverty by recreating their societies in our image.
Instead, akin to Chinese aid to African countries, major infrastructure projects that serve government interests will top the agenda at the expense of assistance to the other pillars of successful modern countries.
These projects will be funded, managed and implemented on a quid-pro-quo basis. Syrian elites and foreign governments will secure most of the benefits.
For an aid industry weaned on Western donors and their gender mainstreaming, community consultation, and pro-poor development, adjusting to taking direction from a Syrian government dismissive of the Western conscience and liberal democratic values will pose a substantial challenge. It will lead to serious ethical questions being asked.
Such questions will revolve around whether:
aid agencies participate in donor co-ordination led by an illiberal Russia, an ostracised Iran, or an Islamist Turkey;
collaboration with the Assad government irrevocably compromises NGOs’ work; and
aid agencies can contribute to sustainable development if they are prevented from strengthening civil society.
There is no right answer to these questions. Some will take the pragmatic path; others, the high road.
For many aid workers – particularly those associated with advocacy NGOs – staying true to their worldview will mean being sidelined. They will be forced to operate in neighbouring countries, as Syrian authorities refuse to tolerate what they will perceive as social engineering disguised as humanitarian assistance.
This will leave UN agencies flying the flag of the development consensus in word only; they will be bereft of many of their implementing partners. Without these partners, they too will have to reconsider their modus operandi: partner with local sectarian NGOs with questionable affiliations, or undertake more direct implementation.
Under these circumstances, new approaches to implementing humanitarian and development programs will be need to be sought.
One opportunity is to harness Syria’s rich tradition of religious institutions playing a leading role in society. But even such a pivot will pose a conundrum: engaging with these groups will require the international aid community to reconsider its secular agenda.
How the international aid community responds to these challenges will shape outcomes not only in Syria but for future humanitarian crises.
Trying to force the Western development agenda onto Syrians will be counterproductive, leading to the strengthening of non-Western aid organisations that operate outside the decades-old development consensus.
With new-found experience and cashed-up from the largest reconstruction effort since the second world war, these agencies will begin to set the agenda not only for Syria, but in other countries whose leadership will prefer respectful collaboration over what’s seen as Western condescension.
Alternatively, Western aid organisations can acknowledge this emerging dynamic and find ways to work with the regime, its sponsors in Russia and Turkey, and the young, emerging aid organisations.
This will require compromising some of the ideals that have been at the heart of the sector and adopting new ways of working. But doing so will lead in the long run to a wider buy-in to the development consensus by the next generation of global aid actors.
A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.
What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?
Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.
The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.
A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.
Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.
The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.
Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.
In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.
Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.
It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.
For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.
Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.
In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:
We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.
Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:
We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.
The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.
It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.
Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.
A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.
The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.
It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.
Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.
Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.
A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.
Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.
The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.
While the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.