By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
Surrounded, isolated and alone. A long, nearly four-year civil war has ravaged the safety of another brutal dictator named Bashar al Assad. Syria, as we knew it before, is no more.
The effects of the ongoing civil war have left more than 6 million displaced persons in Syria and 3 million refugees living abroad in places like: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and so on. There have been more than 200,000 killed.
The Syrian military is over-extended and undermanned. The Institute for the Study of War estimated that the Syrian Arab Military ranks were reduced from 325,000 in 2011 to 150,000 due this year, due to desertions, casualties and defections. more than 50 percent of Syrians are unemployment, power outages and food shortages prevail.
Damascus reportedly only controls some 40 percent of the Syria’s territory but 60 percent of its population. Most of its oil infrastructure has been damaged or fallen into jihadist or Kurdish hands. In 2011, Assad’s Syria was pumping an average of 380,000 barrels of day. In 2012, the figure was down to 164,000 barrels of oil per day, but by 2013, it was down to only 28,000. Groups like the Islamic State were selling oil back to the Syrian government and to others at extremely low prices. This actually helped Assad.
Analysts estimated up to $3 million daily profit going to the Islamic State from seized oil fields over the course of last summer. Just months ago, jihadists were capturing bases in the north more frequently and controlling most of the east or threatening Kobane. Western trained rebels pour in from the south. This has changed with American warplanes and partners fighting back. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters flow in from Turkey and other fighters through Syria’s porous borders.
Regional and international actors have circumvented any state sovereignty Syria has left by invading Syrian airspace to attack the Islamic State. The chemical weapons of the Syrian government have been removed, the Islamic State has carved a caliphate out of more than a third of the state and the U.S. recently spoke of taking Syrian President Bashar al Assad out of the picture for good.
Russia and Iran may be able to see further ahead, throwing in the towel for their support of President Assad’s regime. Russia has also chosen to place most of its strategic focus on Europe and to intimidate the West more than the jihadists in Syria. They have taken their eyes off Damascus to a great extent and sanctions and drop in oil prices are badly damaging their economy so much they are literally racing to the east for more business. They cannot afford to forgive the debt for long and especially that of a doomed government with no future.
Russia’s support for Syria fully rests on the narrowing chance of Assad’s military success and only by backing the right future political player in Syria will assure Moscow’s interests. If they have to ditch Assad, they will, but they are getting weary of fighting a losing battle and backing a losing side or a player that only controls a third of his country. Assad is pressured to take the offensive when he can but reduced to dropping barrel bombs from helicopters.
The U.S.-led offensive against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria has taken some pressure off Assad’s regime. But Moscow must figure out a way to restore enough order and maintain enough influence in the next Syrian government to serve their interests if Assad succeeds or fails. The latter is expected and it is for this reason that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with Syrian Ambassador Riyad Haddad Wednesday to discuss a political resolution to the war. Moscow is planning to host peace talks because it wants to influence the power share of any future Syrian government and mainstream opposition.
As for Iran’s support for Syria, it is even more imperative and also hindered by the continued international economic sanctions against Tehran and the billions of dollars in growing military and economic assistance costs showing little return in Damascus. Using proxy agents and thousands of military “advisors” they have tried to tilt the war in their favor with diminishing returns to date and incremental backlash.
Iran seeks seek to maintain a place in Syria which is now very much lost to history and they may lose their place in Lebanon too if they are not somehow a part of the Russian-Syria political talks with the Russians. They have expressed great interest in attending the Geneva communique but were not invited or wanted by the Syrian Opposition. The Iranians will want to insure the safety of the Allawite people and their base in Lebanon if they cannot insure the future of the Assad regime itself. They would likely be willing to see Assad go with the replacement of an Allawaite but it might be possible for them to accept a Russian brokered alternative if they could find a diplomatic, religious presence and economic settlement within a future Syria.
Turkey wants Assad removed no questions, ifs ands or buts. The West would like to Assad go but they have refrained from taking actions against him for fear of even greater jihadist gains; primarily of the Islamic State but also al-Qaida affiliates and others. It would seem that he is the key piece of the remaining civil war puzzle. Somehow he has eluded destruction with a boost of Russian and Iranian support that for a time was pitting him in a slight victory slot, than stalemate and now, possibly, checkmate.
What happens after Assad?
Much will depend on the manner in which Assad: departs from office, where he and his officials abscond, who assumes political power, what parties are included in the diplomatic talks for a peaceful resolution and so on. Still, even if everything was done perfectly and foreign states largely brokered and meted out Syria as a pseudo-neutral zone for regional and international state actors, that still leaves pro and negative non-state militants like: Hezbollah, the militias (Jaysh al-Sha’bi) and all the angry jihadists that want to massacre more people for a religious caliphate.
The key consideration is that the war is not over when the Assad government is over. In fact, the civil war in Syria very much continues or morphs into a new kind of war, where shifting political borders are not yet recognized. It is possible that Syria is consumed by Turkey form the north, Jordan from the south and Lebanon from the west. Russia defends Latakia and Tartus ports with its military. The Islamic State could be forced back into Iraq or squeezed from the west and the east but that would take massive and unprecedented diplomacy and coordination of effort across state and non-state actors of varying interests and hostilities. Something like that may still happen with the next few years or if there is a sudden evaporation of the Syrian state that pulls the region and world into Syria.
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