Syria's Changing Strategic Landscape

Syria's regime is now an Iranian proxy, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey support some questionable opposition groups.

Two astute observers of the Middle East Robert Ford, former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, and Frederic C. Hof, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, recently wrote two consequential articles on Syria. Both underscored that the Syrian regime has lately faced serious setbacks. Whereas Ford argued that increased dissent within the inner circle of the regime manifest signs of weakness that may spell the beginning of its end, Hof argued that the time has come for United States to exercise its leadership to put Syria on a path to stability and legitimacy. He explained that sustained U.S. diplomacy and leadership is required to assemble regional ground forces to sweep ISIL from Syria, permit a real government to emerge in free Syria, build a Syrian National Stabilization Force and stop Assad from terrorizing his population.

Ford and Hof’s arguments are sensible. But they leave out important questions related to not  inconceivable plans concocted by Iran on one side and Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the other. These questions deal respectively with the future nature of both the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition, and by extension the future of the Syrian state. These apparently coterminous and simultaneous ongoing plans are consequential not only for Syria but also for the region.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Syrian regime cannot be narrowly explained as an Alawi regime ruled by the Assad dynasty. During the reign of the late Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad, the security of the regime rested on a military-merchant complex at the center of which had been a symbiotic relationship between Alawi military officers and Sunni merchants. The elder Assad steadied this relationship by checking and balancing the power of Alawi security officers against the patronage his state offered to Sunni merchants. In other words, Assad’s infamous iron fist rule was in no small measure predicated on preventing divergent interests among and between his officers and his Sunni merchant class base of support.

The assumption of power by Bashar al-Assad in 2000 inaugurated a short era of political liberalization that evolved into what came to be known as the Damascus Spring. Significantly, the swiftness with which the reform movement spread took the regime off-guard. The regime feared that the trickle of reforms it allowed could cause a flood, sweeping it away in the process.

The regime thus reverted to its “time-honored” method of using violence and arresting reformers in the name of defending national and Arab security and rights. What the regime failed to do was to cope with or adapt to the unfolding momentous events that swept the region. As a result, the edifice of the regime that more or less rested on the delicate balance among the security lords and their extended clans, upheld by the Assad family, began to crack.

The death of General Ghazi Kana’n started the slow disintegration of the regime. A former intelligence chief in Lebanon, director of Political Security Directorate, and interior minister (2004-05), Kana’n died in October 2005 under suspicious circumstances. The timing of his death coincided with the beginning of the probe of the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.  Assad’s critics asserted that Kana’n was murdered because he was a liability for the regime in relation to the assassination of Hariri.

The next major event that shook the regime was the bombing of the National Security Headquarters in Damascus in July 2012, which took the lives of senior regime figures, among whom were General Asef Shawkat, brother-in-law of President Assad and deputy defense minister; General Dawoud Rajiha, defense minister; General Hassan Turkmani, assistant to the Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa and former defense minister; and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, director of the National Security Bureau. The regime was only able to withstand the murder of some of its security pillars and the multiple opposition offensives because of Hezbollah’s heavy military intervention, which seized the strategic city of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border.

Since then, Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ military involvement on the side of the Syrian regime has steadily grown. In fact, the regime temporarily reclaimed the military initiative thanks in no small measure to the military help of its allies and the infighting among the Syrian opposition, especially among the Islamists. Nevertheless, the newly acclaimed confidence of the regime has been tampered by the reality that its survival has become more dependent on Iran (and its allies in Iraq) and Hezbollah’s military involvement and strategic guidance. More specifically, Iran and Hezbollah have become partners in, if not the proprietor of, the regime’s strategic decisionmaking process. In fact, the Israeli attack on a Hezbollah and Iranian high level convoy reconnoitering the Syrian-controlled sector of the Golan Heights in July 2015 underscored the strategic depth of their involvement.

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