Remains of The Day

As the war in Syria starts to wind up a somewhat clearer picture of winners and losers has started to emerge; and at the forefront of those who have won stands Bashar al-Assad and Iran. SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI reports

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When Iran first started intervening in Syria on behalf of the legitimate government in Damascus, things were still very hazy. While the insurrection had not yet started gaining enough momentum to pose a mortal challenge to Bashar al-Assad government; it had begun to chip away on his writ at several corners of the country. Mostly because it was through these corners – or borders – that Syria’s neighbours started pushing in men and material in order to unseat Assad. Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all complied readily. Such was the mutual hatred for “Shia Rafidis” and “Infidel Alawites” that even the mutual acrimony that pitted Qatar and Turkey on one side against Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other, was kept on the back burner.
It was believed from Riyadh to Washington DC that Assad’s days were numbered. Any journalist who reported otherwise – including this correspondent – was ridiculed. With the emergence of al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Brigade, gloves were off. Not only US’s allies directly supplied and funded al-Qaida with men and material, US also looked the other way when it knew that the arms it is sending to the so-called Free Syrian Army will ultimately land up in the hands of either al-Nusra or Islamic State.
It was around this time that Iran and its ally Hezbollah jumped directly into the conflict. Fighters from both al-Nusra and Islamic State had first infested, and later controlled, Syrian-Lebanon border while the perennially inept Lebanese Armed Forces did little to stop them. As anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance was ruling the roost in Beirut, Hezbollah realised that it would be a folly to rely on the armed forces anymore. Some quick visits and consultations later, Hezbollah decided to intervene on behalf of the Syrian government.

along the lebanese border, hezbollah led the assault that has now permanently cleansed the area of al-Qaida and the islamic state

Iran came slightly later in the picture when it started sending Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers as advisors in Syria. It found itself much more deeply embedded when following a massive supply of heavy weapons to al-Qaida and other Islamists by Saudi Arab and its allies, Syrian defence line collapsed in the province of Idleb in the summers of 2015. For the first time since the insurrection, there was a real threat to Assad. As Russia intervened to save its ally and its interest, Iran also stood on the gas paddle.

Syrian Arab Army and Hezbollah fighters have gained unprecedented battlefield experience in this civil war; The West and Sunni Arab countries will try to rig elections in order to do away with President Assad

The situation two years later is more favourable. There is no threat to Damascus, as rebels – both FSA and al-Nusra – have been confined to four districts in the eastern suburbs of East Ghouta. A smaller enclave of Jobar still stands, but it can collapse any day. In the south, a ceasefire brokered by Jordan, Russia, Iran and the US stands as rebels occupy smattering of areas near Jordanian border but none of the big cities and very few of the towns. In The south-east, Syrian Armed Forces captured lion’s share of the province of Suweida last month that caught Israel’s famous Mossad napping. The area recaptured by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies was the size of Lebanon.
In the west, along the Lebanese border, Hezbollah led the assault that has now permanently cleansed the area of any remnants of al-Qaida and Islamic State. In the east, the run for besieged Deir-az-Zor is going on. A multi-pronged attack assisted by IRGC and Russian Air Force means that Syrian Arab Army and its allies Hezbollah, Syrian Socialist National Party and Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan have created two pockets amidst once Islamic State’s stronghold of East Hama, East Homs and South Raqqa. One of these pockets was captured fully this week, adding an area twice the size of Lebanon. The other pocket can survive for a few more days because of its hilly terrain and network of tunnels. However, as soon as the concerted ground attack is launched there, the remaining Islamic State fighters will have only limited time to either surrender or be liquidated.
This has created a scenario for Iran that is not only beneficial politically, but strategically too.

iranians have played an essential role in recovering lost territories and oil fields for the benefit of the syrian government

Says noted Middle East expert Elijah J Magnier, “The war in Syria generated an Iranian presence in the Levant differently and more intensively than in 1982 when thousands of troops came from Tehran to the Zabadani border region to support and establish training camps for the Lebanese Hezbollah with the approval of Hafez alAssad’s government. Today, the Iranians have played an essential role in recovering territories for the benefit of the Damascus government, and they have spent billions of dollars in Syria. This investment not only supported the army, paid salaries to troops, bought oil, established factories to manufacture weapons, and provided logistical support to the army and allied forces, it also built medicine factories and fulfilled other social and industrial needs to support the Syrian economy – to a point where Iran has a presence throughout the Syrian territory.”
“All that because of the war: the United States allowed its CIA and the states of the region (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) to fund extremists and offer different kinds of military and non-military support to overthrow the regime. The aim was to plunge the country into chaos, create a failed state, and try to fuel sectarian war, paving the way for the extremist organisations that destabilised the Levant and eventually the entire Middle East,” he added in good measure.
However, this is not to say that the war is over. As soon as Deir-az-Zor is recaptured, the focus will shift to the areas under opposition’s control; especially the province of Idleb. Because of the evacuation deal stuck by the government in several parts of Syria, most of the terrorists were transferred to Idleb. It became a rebel stronghold for almost a year and a half with around 35,000 fighters, but then factors beyond their control struck.
As Assad’s departure started to appear impossible, Saudis started to focus on other areas. The primary among them was to isolate Iran in Arab and Muslim world. Somewhere down there they also realised the threat posed by Muslim Brotherhood, and decided to arm-twist Qatar – Brotherhood’s main benefactor – to start distancing themselves from both the Islamist organisation as well as Iran, with which Qatar shares one of the world’s largest gas fields. As Qatar dithered, Saudi and its Gulf allies put an economic blockade around it, believing that Doha will capitulate soon. That was a gross misjudgement. Not only Doha did not capitulate, but doubled down on its relationship with Iran. It resumed full diplomatic relationship with Iran last week that was downgraded following Saudi’s insistence last year. The side-effect of this crisis was that Qatar and Turkey substantially decreased the financial support for Brotherhood allied militant groups in Idleb, leading to their implosion. Almost around the same time Trump administration also announced its plan to wind up support for the Free Syrian Army. The opportunity was availed by al-Nusra that swooped in and not only destroyed the remnants of other rebel groups; it also gobbled up any of the factions that broke away from its parent group.
“The Free Syrian Army and the more radical groups have in any case been decisively defeated, with Russian help. The only reason given for continued US backing of a lost cause was to maintain some leverage to force Bashar al-Assad from office. But alAssad won’t be forced out as long as he has Iranian and Russian support, so that wasn’t going to happen. The US programme was just prolonging the violence in some northern provinces,” concedes Juan Cole, noted foreign policy analyst who is known to be anti-Assad in his outlook.
That leaves the biggest enemy that Syria and Iran have in common: Israel. Since the very beginning of the conflict, Israel wanted Assad to go. Its primary motivation behind Assad’s departure was the possible drying up of supply line for Hezbollah, which had bested it in the war in 2006. Israel not only helped and supplied weapons to various terrorist groups; it was later revealed that it ignored the presence of Islamic State and alNusra across its illegally occupied Golan border.
What happened instead was that while Hezbollah lost close to 900 of its fighters in Syria, it also gained immense experience in the battlefield. But more than everything else, it also increased its stockpile of weapons by several folds even after repeated attacks on its convoys by Israel. It is now understood that Hezbollah has over 1,50,000 missiles in its arsenal and tonnes of experience in the battlefield that cannot be quantified. What’s more, Hezbollah is already in an advance stage of raising a Syrian Hezbollah that can be deployed swiftly towards Golan in case a conflict breaks out with Israel. Those in the know say that the Syrian version of Hezbollah is being raised exactly on the same principles as Lebanese Hezbollah was, and hence can be expected to be a very effective militia.
It does not come as a surprise hence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been grovelling up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has blown hot and cold last week and has threatened that Damascus palace will be attacked if Iran and Hezbollah are not reined in in Syria. According to sources, Putin was not very sympathetic to his complaints. Although even if he were, Iran has its own sphere of influence in Syria that is simply irreplaceable.

while hezbollah lost close to 900 of its fighters in the syrian civil war, it also gained immense experience in the battlefield

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realises that his country has hedged on the wrong horse in Syria, and is trying desperately to cut his losses by appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin; (Right): Prince Mohammad bin Salman has bitten more than he could chew

“As it is well known in every war, the winner imposes the conditions on the loser: the Israeli Prime Minister backed a losing horse and believed – like many world leaders – that Bashar al-Assad would fall in 2012, a few months after the war imposed on Syria. Netanyahu was confident that the “axis of the resistance” (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) would lose the war and that Damascus would fall under the control of Takfiri extremists. In fact, Israel has no alliance with Sunni jihadists, it’s just because these have declared a sectarian war on the Shia in general and Hezbollah in particular, and therefore the vital supply line between Tehran-DamascusBeirut was supposed to be – happily interrupted,” says Magnier.
In the political and diplomatic arena, most of the western powers have reconciled to the fact that Bashar al-Assad is here to stay. Ambassador Ford of the USA, who was the brain and brawn behind the insurrection, ultimately threw his towel last week, and conceded that there is no military arrangement that can see Assad leave. The mood in Amman and Doha is no different. Saudi Prince Salman, who is trying to extricate himself out of the disastrous war in Yemen, is still hoping for a military solution, but he is increasingly becoming more isolated than ever on this issue. This was followed up by the news that Turkey has stopped paying to the members of Syrian National Council. It’s a great setback for the opposition as it knows that the council will simply not survive without endowment.
From the Syrian government’s side, reconciliation deals are going great and as many as 700 settlements, villages and towns had agreed to the reconciliation at the turn of August this year. Under the deal, Syrian nationals who had taken up arms against the government are asked to surrender, and are then granted general amnesty if they have not killed anyone. Those indulged in serious crimes are awarded relatively lighter sentences. Russian government has been the primary brainchild behind this arrangement, which has seen several surrendered militants joining the pro-government militia National Defence Forces, and fighting from the side of the government.
This has not only freed up soldiers to fight at other fronts, it has also saved many lives that would have been lost had the agreement not been stuck.
Syrian war has entered in its final phases. That is not to say that the war is over. Far from it. Once the battles are over, the diplomatic mechanisations will take over. The West and Sunni Arab countries will still like Assad to go in some way or other. Magnier too has indicated towards it in one of his recent columns. He believes that the Hezbollah lost close to 900 of its fighters in Syria, it also gained immense experience in the battlefield. that will be agreed upon in the future. But that is far from guaranteed. Even the most ardent of anti-Assad experts in the Arab and Western world concede that Bashar al-Assad commands the support of the majority of Syrians, including Sunnis.

even anti-assad experts now concede that bashar al-assad enjoys the support of the majority of syrians, including sunnis

As the war winds up, every country involved in this conflict will try to count its wins and losses. While it will be a huge personal victory for Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Syrian nation; the country that will be the happiest from the outcome is Iran. This conflict has established Iran as the de facto regional power. At a very minimum of personal cost, not only has it inflicted tactical defeat on Saudi Arabia, it has made the situation further precarious for Israel as well. With nuclear deal in the pocket, and investments flowing in; Iran will use the opportunity to further strengthen itself in the neighbourhood and the region. This will possibly mark the ending of America’s unrivalled influence in the region, and its once famed capability to control events.