Syria in the Jaws of the Bear

I sat in on an American Academy discussion of Syria the other day by some 40+ foreign policy experts.  What did not surprise me about the discussion was the general agreement in the group on who the many players are who are involved in the conflict.  It was no surprise that no one had easy answers for managing the Syrian problem given the existing stakes held by Iran, Russia, Turkey, the Kurds, and Israel, not to mention ISIS.  What did surprise me, however, was that no one stressed the existing religious cleavages that have dominated Syria for generations, and that no one seemed to understand the basis of Bashar al Assad’s power or appreciate the importance of the long standing Russian commitment to the Assad family, handed down from the Soviet regime to Putin.

When I was first assigned to our embassy in Syria in 1978, we had a limited presence in an unassuming villa close to President Hafez al-Assad’s office and a block from the Ambassador’s residence. My political section was made up of me, bolstered the following year by the addition of another officer.  The economic section was equally impoverished. Down the road about a mile, the Soviet embassy overpowered its neighborhood with a massive Stalin style blockhouse and a wealth of Arabic speaking officers, largely drawn from the GRU and the KGB.  The then President Assad, the father, depended on the USSR and KGB for support with weapons, technology and intelligence.  In return, the Soviets gained naval port facilities, arms sales and a significant toehold in the Middle East. 

My role in our embassy was to make contacts in the Syrian Baath party and the media, to sort out the structure of the overlapping security services, to manage high level US VIP visits, and to act as liaison with the head of the Syrian Jewish community as we worked to facilitate the emigration of young Syrian girls, who needed to find mates in the US. We made some progress until the Camp David Accords in 1979.  Camp David sharpened the split between the ‘73 war allies Egypt and Syria, and threw the Palestinians under the bus of autonomy. Sadat got the Sinai back – the Syrians got what they thought was the short end of the stick.   After the Camp David Accords, there was virtually no possibility that a Syrian peace agreement with Israel could go beyond the disengagement that had already been negotiated by Kissinger.  Accordingly, while we were delighted about the Egyptian success, our embassy in Damascus was not a great fan of an agreement which ended hopes of better relations between the US and Syria and which would only reinforced the Soviet position in the region.

A lot of time has passed, and Putanistan has replaced the Soviet Union.  The FSB and SVR have replaced the KGB. The GRU holds a dominant presence in the Syrian Military and security services. Russian arms are proliferating in Syria and the Russians have thrown their support fully behind Assad’s son Bashar.  At the same time, the Russians have a growing permanent naval presence in their base in Tartous, with 1700 Russian troops.  And it is being upgraded to service Russia’ Fifth Mediterranean squadron and its largest nuclear-powered ships.  In addition, according to the UAE “Future Center,” (Dec 10, 2017) the Russians have upgraded their airbase at Hmeymim with 2000 soldiers, 32 fixed wing planes, 16 helicopters and two air-to-air missile systems. The UAE suggests that Russia currently has nine bases in Syria, two of which are in Assad’s home town of Lattakia.

The US officially has 503 U.S. troops deployed to Syria, sent to train and assist opposition firces. The actual number of US troops has been suggested by one general officer to be over 4,000 including Special Operations forces, forward air controllers, artillery crews and others sent for months-long temporary deployments.  US forces are largely in the northern part of Syria and are targeted on ISIS.

Iran has also enhanced its position in Syria through its support of Bashar Assad. The entrenched Shiite-Alawite position and Iran’s coreligionists in Hezbollah have given Iran further leverage over what happens in Syria.  According to Robin Wright in an article Dec 11, 2017, the Trump Administration, which inherited the Obama “anything but Assad” position, is now prepared to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s rule until the scheduled 2021 Syrian elections.”  It is not clear to me what will change in the interim to make it possible for the Syrians to dump Assad in 2021. Assad’s status is deeply rooted in Syria’s 20th century history. 

The Alawites were the minority in Syria before Hafez al-Assad took power in 1963.  They had been a despised under-class, reviled by the upper-classes and were expected to fill the menial low-level jobs in the society.  In 1963 they came out on top but the pinnacle has been shaky. Alawi instability, punctuated by Sunni Islamist terrorism against the center, has meant that every year since Assad’s takeover, the regime has had to work harder to sustain its hold on the core elements of the country.  They have done this through bribery and rewards to the loyal and brutality against the opposition. But neither rewards nor brutality have led to assured permanence. To compensate for its minority status, the regime has made common cause with the Russians and Iranians, recognizing that the Alawites and Al-Assads can stay alive only so long as they can hold on to power.  So we should not expect them to go quietly or to risk losing the support of their allies. A true revolution of power would lead to brutal retaliation against the existing Alawite power structure.  It would mirror the aftermath of the Iranian revolution with bodies of Alawi security agents lined up for graphic photos. 

At the same time as the Russians and Iranians have strengthened their grip on Syria, US policy has been erratic and spasmodic as it has tried to put distance between ourselves and the Assad regime and as we have tried to thread the needle between the Kurds and Turkey. A Pew survey this year in the region resulted in 64% of the responders saying that Russia is more influential in the region than the United States - no surprise there.

The Administration needs to pick a clear policy, almost any policy, and stick with it so that our allies and enemies know where they and we stand.  We have flipped and flopped over the future of Assad to the point that he can justifiably claim that he is not an impediment to peace. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying so much about which personality will rule. 

When Hafez al-Assad died, I hoped that the new leader Bashar would mean a new day.  And he started out well in our initial visits to Damascus. Who would have imagined that an ophthalmologist would be worse than an autocrat?  Therein lies a lesson - the problem is not Bashar al-Assad.  The problem is the regime.  Get rid of Assad and you solve nothing unless the regime goes with him.  Get rid of the regime and its levers of suppression and then there will be a chance for a new and different Syrian day.  But that would require an investment and a firm policy that the US appears unwilling to make, at least thus far.  For now, perhaps it is time to stop worrying so much about specific borders staked out by a couple of Europeans many generations ago and to start to worry about the people who live inside those  borders as well as those who have fled for their lives in the interim. In the short term that might do more to reestablish American credibility and burnish the honor of our policy than all the special ops and drone attacks combined.


Ned Walker