As Aleppo Falls, Iran Rises
President Bashar al-Assad has emerged victorious in the battle for Aleppo, after five years of fighting, killings and widespread destruction. It is the greatest victory for the government, and severest blow to the rebels, in the bloody civil war so far. Many commentators view the quick collapse of eastern Aleppo as the end of a long drawn out revolutionary episode unleashed by the Arab Spring, a disgraceful defeat of the prodemocracy forces and their regional and extraregional supporters. The meaning and significance of the rebels’ elimination, in fact, go much deeper than that, and may be the prelude to a new Middle East regional order.
The quick fall of Aleppo into government hands raises a series of questions. First off, the Syrian prodemocracy movement, like its counterparts in Tunisia, Libya or Egypt, has been depicted as a fight between a brutal, unpopular autocratic regime and democratic forces. Certainly, the Assad government is an authoritarian regime, but there are doubts that all Syrian people view it that way. As recently as December 12, instead of rising up against the regime offensive in eastern Aleppo, people in western Aleppo burst into street celebrations at the news that the rebels were on the verge of total defeat and the liberation of eastern Aleppo was imminent. That President Assad enjoys significant popular support can hardly be denied, whatever the Western and pro-Western media may say.
Secondly, anti-government rebel groups portend no hope for a future democratic Syria; any democratic hope is a sham hope for the Syrians. There is great confusion about the patterns of political alignment and realignment in the war. Though initially branded a democratic revolution, and subsequently rebranded a humanitarian case, the different rebel groups hardly uphold democratic values and ideals. The Al Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which has recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham to mark its parting from the parent organization, is clearly not a group fighting for democracy in Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood fighters, backed by Qatar and Turkey, are not definitively inspired by Western democratic ideals either. And the Islamic State, with territorial control over the two provinces of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, is against Western democracy in its convictions and practices. Thirdly, more confusion shrouds the nature of the rebels’ regional supporters who are, by all means, authoritarian, hereditary regimes and often accused of violating basic human rights. Their much-publicized financial, military and diplomatic support for the so-called democratic forces in Syria, but not in Bahrain or Yemen, is simply a political shell game. Turkey, a major regional stakeholder in Syria, is also gradually taking a slide down the authoritarian road, a process set in motion after the July 15 military coup against President Erdoğan.
No less ironic is the American and European role in Syria. The Obama administration has beefed up efforts, in coordination with Iran, to degrade, if not totally eliminate, Islamic State fighters in Iraq; it has also sought to dismantle the Iran- and Russia-supported Assad government, which is fighting against the same Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups, including Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Many a commentator keeps wondering why and how the radical Islamic forces in Iraq are America’s enemies, while the same forces in Syria are simultaneously America’s allies. That is not the end of the story. In Libya, in the run up to topple the Qaddafi government in 2011, the United States and NATO worked hand-in-glove with the now-defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an Al Qaeda–affiliated organization that the United States had listed as a terrorist outfit in 2004 but that was delisted by the State Department in 2012.
America has an unsavory record of working with nondemocratic, radical forces while posing itself as a democratic behemoth to the gullible worldwide. The French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, addressing the European Parliament in early October, further exposed this ugly side of the West by accusing the European Union of throwing Syria into total chaos. She asserted: “You’ve done everything to bring down the government of Syria, throwing the country into a terrible civil war.” The West bluntly charges Syria and its allies Iran and Russia with violations of human rights and war crimes, which are largely true, while forgetting its own complicity in the crimes against the Syrians.
The Gas Pipeline War
In reality, rhetoric about democracy or humanitarian causes in Syria is a cover-up for geopolitical interests, a struggle for power and influence by various mutually hostile parties in the wider Middle Eastern context. This is by an old game of realpolitik that has been playing out since the end of World War I. In Syria, the game assumed a tragic dimension because of its strategic location and significance as an inevitable part of two proposed competing oil and gas pipeline routes from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean to supply cheap gas to European markets. In that sense, the Syrian war is seen by many as a gas pipeline war, with roots going down to the first oil war over Kuwait in 1990–91, and the second over Iraq in 2003–11.