A Waltz With Bashar
by Isaac Suarez
A pro-Assad settlement in Syria is less likely than Western media would have us believe
DECEMBER 22nd, 2016 marked an apparently decisive event in the Syrian Civil War. As the last buses ferried opposition fighters and civilians down the pockmarked thoroughfare of Castello Road to Idlib, regime forces occupied the last rebel-held neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo. The so-called “mother of all battles” was over. After a brutal six-year siege which had killed or displaced tens of thousands, forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had completely retaken the strategic city of Aleppo. Though the assault left all but a few regime held alcoves in the western part of the city in smoldering ruins, Assad hailed the victory as a “decisive step” to peace. On the contrary—the very forces that delivered Aleppo to Assad will likely assure the continuation of the conflict.
Still, the regime does have reason to celebrate. Western media outlets and officials largely concurred with Assad’s assessment. The fall of Aleppo marked the latest and most crushing of a string of regime victories in the cities of Qusayr, Homs, Daraya, Daraa, Palmyra and the Qalamoun mountain range on the Lebanese border. Assad could now claim control over Syria’s largest urban centers, along with approximately sixty-five percent of the population, the vast majority of the country’s industrial infrastructure in western Syria, to say nothing of the capital Damascus and the Alawite heartland of Latakia on Syria’s coast.
What’s more, Assad can reasonably cheer the erosion of international opposition to the regime. The ascendance of the Islamic State, or Daesh, and the fracturing of Syria’s opposition into an array of competing secular and Islamist groups diminished foreign support for rebel forces. Though the indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas by the Russian and Syrian air forces elicited international condemnation, the United States and the European Union did little beyond expressing outrage and extending limited humanitarian aid. Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency in November rendered the already distant possibility of an American military intervention to topple the regime nearly unthinkable. On the campaign trail, Trump referred to Assad as a “strong leader” and a potential partner in the war against Daesh. Nikki Haley, his newly appointed diplomat to the UN, publicly stated in February that “regime change” was “no longer a priority.”
The April 6th US airstrike on the Syrian Airforce base at Shayrat notwithstanding, the prospects of an American intervention to overthrow the regime appear remote. Despite launching the first US military strike targeted at Assad’s forces in response to a regime chemical weapons attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, Donald Trump and his White House have sent mixed messages regarding its position in the conflict. Though Nikki Haley has voiced a renewed US support for regime change, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated in his April 10th ABC interview that the strike was solely in response to the use of chemical weapons and the United States’ “military posture had not changed.” Given the deep unpopularity of any US involvement in the Syrian conflict among American voters and the risk of a military confrontation with Russia, the Shayrat Airstrike does not appear to augur direct US military intervention to overthrow Assad.
This shift in US policy mirrored those of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Formerly unwavering in his insistence that peace could only come with Assad’s removal, Turkish President Recep Erdogan conceded this position before participating in Russian-led peace talks in Astana in December of 2016. Saudi Arabia, preoccupied with its campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, has withdrawn much of its financial and material support to the opposition and done little counter the prevailing diplomatic trend toward rapprochement with the Assad regime.
However, while news coverage focuses on renewed peace talks—which would portend a political settlement where the pre-war regime remained in place, or debate the remote prospects of a US bombing campaign against the regime—the political reality within Syria undercuts Assad’s optimism. The regime’s recent battlefield victories belie the fact that the Syrian army no longer possesses the capability to retake or hold territory on its own. Offensively, the regime now depends on the destructive capacity of Russian air power, logistical support and training of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the battlefield leadership and raw manpower of Lebanese Hezbollah and various Iranian organized sectarian Shiite groups. Defensively, in the territory the regime ostensibly controls, a range of local pro-regime militias, operating under the aegis of the Iranian-trained “National Defense Force” or NDF, man checkpoints.
The result of this vast proliferation of pro-regime militias is a state of lawlessness which transcends confessional communities or political affiliation. Extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling in regime-held territory has become a daily reality for Syria’s citizens. Though the sectarian, foreign, and decentralized nature of Assad’s forces already do little to endear his regime to the aggrieved Sunni Arab majority of Syria, the resulting state of lawlessness has led to mass emigration even in areas that firmly support the regime. As Mustapha, a wealthy Alawite resident of Jableh in Latakia told an interviewer after being ransomed from kidnappers, “We really are living by the law of the jungle here. The strong eat the weak and there’s no law—much less security apparatus—to do anything about it… things get worse and worse in the city each day.” The conditions of sectarian divisions, the decentralization of regime’s armed forces, and the state of lawlessness will likely prolong the Syrian conflict and undercut Assad’s military successes.
I: The Hollowing of the Syrian Army and the Emergence of the National Defense Force
The Syrian Arab Army (SAA), theoretically the front line force of the Assad regime, survives as a shell of its already limited pre-war self. Despite retaining an estimated size of 180,000, roughly half its pre-war material power, the Syrian Army has proved unable to mobilize more than a fraction of this force. Primarily conscripted from the Sunni majority, the suspect loyalty of the SAA rank and file has severely limited its operational capacity since the beginning of the conflict. Though members of the staunchly loyal Alawite minority compose approximately seventy percent of the army’s officer corps and the majority of its elite units, the massive casualties and emigration of the war have sharply depleted this pool of loyal recruits. In late 2015, Assad himself publicly admitted the Syrian Army faced a critical manpower shortage.
In the face of this shortage, the regime has come to rely less and less on its regular army for frontline duty. Outside of the loyal, and primarily Alawite, Republican Guard Divisions, the Syrian Army’s role has mainly been to retain control of key military bases and provide logistical support to foreign and pro-regime paramilitary forces. Even in this support capacity, the SAA repeatedly failed to retain strategic positions before coordinated offensives by the opposition. The disastrous loss of Idlib, with subsequent regime routs from their bases in Jisr al Shughur and Ariha in April of 2015 demonstrate the weakness of the regular Syrian Army before the Russian intervention in the conflict.
To bolster the wavering Syrian Arab Army, the regime has come to rely increasingly on loyalist militias both on the front lines and to hold territory. Mostly organized either under the banner of the National Defense Force (NDF), or Syria’s various “mukhabarat” intelligence branches, these militias enjoy higher pay, prestige, and in certain cases superior equipment and training than the regular army. Though these groups operate within the command structure of the Syrian military and intelligence services, they exist as separate units from the regular army, often with discrete sources of training and ideological motivations. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has provided training and backing to groups operating within the NDF.
II. The Problem of Foreign and Sectarian Allegiances in Assad’s Forces
Neither the Syrian Army nor the NDF appear likely to survive in any form without extensive foreign support. Recent regime successes in Aleppo, Palmyra, Wadi Barada and Daraya depended on extensive Russian air support and troops provided by Hezbollah and Iranian-supported Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias. Though operating within the formal framework of the SAA command structure, Russian, Iranian and Lebanese commanders have asserted a great degree of operational control over their Syrian counterparts. SAA and NDF forces do not commonly depend on Syrian forces for funding and training. This leaves the regime reliant on the continued support from its foreign backers, ensuring the fate of Assad will be as much decided in Moscow and Tehran as it is in Damascus.
The nakedly sectarian appeal of many of these foreign forces complicates Assad’s dependency on multinational support. Though Hezbollah, Iran and their proxies ostensibly fight to preserve the secular Baathist regime, these groups are avowedly Shiite. IRGC affiliated foreign groups such as the Afghani “Liwa Fatemiyoun” and Pakistani “Liwa Zainebiyoun” mobilized, at least rhetorically, to defend Shiite holy places in Syria. The largely confessional affiliations of pro- regime militias drawn from Syria’s remaining minority communities compounds the problem of sectarianism among foreign forces. Some groups, such as the Hezbollah trained “Quwat al-Ridha” in Homs province, have adopted a sectarian Shiite identity. Even secular groups, such as the Alawite majority Marxist-Leninist “Syrian Resistance,” have been implicated in regime atrocities against Sunni communities in regime territory. Tasked with combatting opposition forces primarily composed of Sunni Islamist groups, the pervasiveness of sectarian revanchism within these paramilitary forces does little to endear the regime to the country’s beleaguered Sunni majority.
To be fair, it is easy to overstate the role sectarian identities play in the Syrian conflict. Defections from the Syrian Army remain rare after 2013 and many groups operating within the NDF are drawn from Sunni, as well as the Alawite, Druze and Christian minorities. The regime can still count on support from well-placed Sunni families and business interests, such as the infamous al-Berri clan of Aleppo. Despite the stark confessional divide between the mostly Sunni opposition and majority Alawite regime, well placed Sunni officials and families ensure that Assad has little incentive to stray from its secular, nationalist appeal. Ultimately, all loyalist groups operating in Syria depend on Assad’s survival as head of state to sustain the regime. The real existential problem for the Assad regime and its armed forces lie in its dependence on criminal networks that run concurrent to – but do not narrowly rely upon – religious or communal identity.
III. “The Law of the Jungle:” Problem of Criminality and Corruption in the Regime’s Armed Forces
The Syrian armed forces, intelligence services, and loyalist paramilitary groups have come to rely on profits from the illicit economy to survive. Operating thousands of checkpoints throughout regime territory and various battlefields, members of army and militia units augment their salaries by extracting rents from travelers and confiscating property the property of rebel sympathizers. Kidnap for ransom, especially across sectarian communities has also become a popular means to generate revenue. In the military’s higher ranks, or among well-placed militia groups, smuggling goods from Lebanon to regime and rebel-held territory provides a lucrative source of income. The largesse and distribution of these sources of revenue in many cases supersede the rank and duty, reducing the damage caused by high-ranking defections.
The prominence and flagrant criminality of NDF and militia commanders demonstrate how deeply reliant the regime has become on these parallel command networks. Many, such as the Sami Aubrey in Aleppo, and Talal al-Dakkak in Hama, were well-connected businessmen before the war and enjoy close personal ties with the Air Force Intelligence Directorate and the Assad family. Dakkak in particular has gained a notorious reputation for organizing an extensive kidnap for racket, smuggling oil and natural gas and feeding captured enemies to his pet lion.
These illicit activities on the part of local militia commanders frequently undermine the strategic interests of the regime. Despite the fact that fuel shortages have forced residents of Latakia, Homs, and Hama to live with only an hour of electricity per day, Dakkak’s network profits from smuggling oil and gas refined in Homs to rebel-held territory. Even so, neither the regular army nor the government in Damascus has made any efforts to stop this enterprise. When an Army patrol intercepted one of Dakkak’s oil convoys bound for Idlib in late 2015, the soldiers simply turned over the fuel to the local Airforce Intelligence Directorate, who, in turn, sent the fuel along to its original destination.
In regime-held territory, civilians continue to suffer critical shortages of basic necessities and the daily threat of random robbery and violence. In government-controlled Hama, one activist reports that kidnapping has become “as profitable a business as any” and that militias are beholden “to no law but their own.”
Assad’s government possesses neither the ability nor inclination to challenge the illicit activities of its forces. Military bases, particularly in the southern and western parts of Syria, allow loyal military commanders and militiamen to carve out their administrative fiefs or “qutaa.” The decentralization of the armed forces regional “qutaa” command structure and the proliferation of paramilitary groups make direct control from Damascus infeasible. Further, Assad relies upon the parallel networks of these criminal enterprises to preclude any possible challenges to his power from within the military or intelligence services. Control of this profitable war economy gives the regime means to reward the loyalty of its armed forces. Access to the war economy, determined by familial and sectarian proximity to Assad’s regime, have come to supersede traditional rank as a determinant of authority in Assad’s armed forces.
The decentralization of command and erosion of professionalism within the Syrian Armed forces complicates any efforts on the part of the regime to govern its territory or reintegrate opposition-held areas. Smuggling and kidnap for ransom have become realities of the Syrian war economy, in both regime- and rebel-held territory. This pattern of lawlessness in rebel-held areas has already done much to delegitimize secular and moderate Islamist groups in rebel territory. The promise of a return to the rule of law played a major role in the emergence of radical Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Sham and Daesh.
Conclusion: Federalism or Warlordism? The Uncertain Future of Assad’s regime
In the most recent cease fire negotiations in Astana, Russia proposed a formal policy of “decentralization” as a means to reunify Syrian territory. Russia, doubtless aware of the administrative reality in regime territory, promulgated a draft constitution which would radically redistribute political authority to provincial governors and sub-provincial municipal councils. Though both sides rejected this draft constitution, this Russian gesture likely signals that the legal devolution of power from Damascus to local councils will serve as de jure means to reunify Syria in any internationally brokered settlement.
Unfortunately, the proliferation of armed groups in regime territory and their dependency on illicit sources of revenue will limit the efficacy of any attempts to empower local elected councils. Possessing weapons, manpower, access to foreign and regime funds, and various familial and personal ties to the regime, the loyalist armed forces will have little reason to abandon their livelihood even with a peace agreement. The illicit activities of these groups will, in turn, stymie efforts at economic reconstruction or develop the rule of law. Their sectarian allegiances and continued dependency on Russian, Lebanese and Syrian support will continue to exacerbate the grievances of disaffected rural Sunnis who do not benefit from these patronage networks.
Beyond the recent, almost completely unanticipated, US airstrike on the regime’s Shayrat airbase, Assad currently has little reason to be sanguine. Despite recent battle field victories and talks of a continued ceasefire, the regime’s hold on the country is far weaker than it appears. Reliant on foreign support and the loyalty of his commanders, Assad can only sustain his regime by playing to sectarian tensions and sacrificing the rule of law. Under those conditions Assad’s war against his own country will continue, with no end in sight.
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 0. MEDIUM.