Assad's Hollow Victory Will Give Little Hope for Syria - or the Middle East
The Syrian war is almost over. Pockets of opposition resistance remain and ISIS is still being cleared out of the North-Eastern part of the country. But, in the narrow sense that it is still in situ, the Assad regime has won. This, though, may not be the end of Syria’s nightmare. As happened in Lebanon in the 1980s, a country broken by civil war can easily and tragically become a battleground for regional rivals who are reluctant to fight on their own soil.
Assad’s triumph is a grimly hollow one. Achieving it has involved destroying half of the country while killing, maiming and exiling millions of Syrian citizens. More accurately, it is not even Assad’s victory: rather, the willingness of his Russian, Iranian and Hizbollah allies to join him in committing war crimes ultimately outweighed the backing anyone else was ready to provide the opposition.
Even though the worst of the fighting is over in most of Syria, its prospects remain dire. The country is still burdened with the same brutal, corrupt regime that the initial street protests in 2011 sought to overcome. Much of its economy and infrastructure is in ruins. Reconstruction is going to be grueling. Syria has few functioning sources of revenue and its pariah government will find it difficult to attract international funding.
Nor will Assad’s wartime allies be of much help. Russia is a fellow kleptocracy with sanctions and economic problems of its own. It will not provide Syria with much useful advice, inspiration or financing beyond, perhaps, a few Potemkin construction projects for President Putin to have his photo taken in front of when he visits. Russia did not get involved in the conflict because it wanted to help Syria and its people. Its intervention was a self-interested exercise in demonstrating its ruthlessness to the world and distracting domestic attention from the difficulties at home. Those objectives have now largely been fulfilled.
Iran’s involvement is likely to remain more active and risks bringing more misery to Syria. Its aim in propping up Assad was to create an arc of control across the region. Iran already had a strong presence in neighbouring Iraq. The Syrian war enabled it to extend the territory under its supervision all the way to Southern Lebanon. This gives Iran full control of its weapons supply lines to its Hizbollah militia proteges there, and enables it to bring its Revolutionary Guards right up to the Israeli border.
Iran’s objective is to expand its own power in the region in relation to rivals such as Saudi Arabia. Being able to threaten Israel gives Iran a huge weapon to force those, such as the Saudis and the US, who might want to challenge its interests or activities elsewhere to back off.
Iran has shown few qualms about engaging in military aggression beyond its borders
Israel views having the hostile Iranians and a better supplied Hizbollah on its border with justifiable alarm. It has already launched several limited military missions during the Syrian war to diminish this threat by destroying weapons convoys. One bombing raid, in January 2015, on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel killed a senior Iranian general and six Hizbollah fighters.
This week, the Israelis notified the world, via the visiting UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, of its concerns about Iran’s alleged construction of precision missile building sites in Syria and Lebanon. The implication was that if you do not do something about it, then we will.
The danger of this situation escalating out of control - and Israel, Iran and others ending up fighting a proxy war in Syria - is clear. Iran has shown few qualms about engaging in military aggression beyond its borders. Hizbollah is more deeply entrenched in Lebanon than ever before, far better armed than when it fought Israel to a stalemate in 2006 and further battle hardened by its experiences in Syria. But backing Assad cost it considerable popularity in the Arab world that it might seek to regain by re-engaging the Israelis.
The chances of such a tragedy happening are also increased by the political situation in Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is mired in a corruption investigation and has rarely shown any scruples where his own political survival is concerned. These circumstances could tempt him to lead Israel into a small, victorious (he would calculate) war more quickly than would usually be the case.
As they slowly emerge from one brutal war, Syrians must now hope that the Israelis, Iranians and others can resist the temptation to use their battered country as the venue for settling their differences.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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