Obviously, Russia is now interested in a settlement securing the Assad regime and targeting Salafi-jihadists. It has recently pressed for a truce in Aleppo, which neither the Assad regime nor Hezbollah initially favored. Eventually, the truce was violated. As it turned out, in June 2016, the dynamics produced by the violated truce revealed that the key players in the pro-Assad camp had incongruent priorities and expectations. The regime’s forces came under attack in the southern countryside of Aleppo. Not only did the regime’s forces decide to withdraw from strategic areas seized by Hezbollah at a significant human cost, but they also exposed Hezbollah’s flank, leading to the murder of several Hezbollah fighters. Furious with what it considered a reckless and cowardly act by the regime’s forces, Hezbollah retaliated by gunning down the Syrian officer who gave the order for withdrawal. In response, the regime used its aircraft to fire at Hezbollah fighters.
Although the fallout between Hezbollah and the regime’s forces was tactical and swiftly nursed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah has espoused a more assertive attitude vis-à-vis the regime in the pro-Assad camp’s decision-making process. It’s no secret that Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah has a considerable disdain for Assad’s security officers, on account of their corruption and depravity. Moreover, reports has circulated that Hezbollah has begun an effort not only to reinforce its military presence in Syria, but also to complement this presence with a social infrastructure in line with and serving as an extension to what the Islamist party has in Lebanon.
Hezbollah’s actions did not go unheeded. Revelations of hostility between Assad forces and Hezbollah soon appeared on social media. A pro-Assad member of parliament, Sharif Shehadeh, wrote a post on his Facebook page in which he criticized Hezbollah for violating Syria’s sovereignty. He wrote: “National sovereignty is a red line—decisions must always be made by the Syrian army. . . . My sons in Hezbollah, you came to support us and not to dominate us. I urge you to rethink your calculations.”
In the meantime, Iran has shown signs that it is shifting its policy in Syria toward a political resolution. In a joint press conference with his Norwegian counterpart on June 13, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif stated: “The Syrian crisis can be only resolved politically, and a solution to the Syrian crisis will not be achieved through military means.” This focus on a political solution came on the heels of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council announcing that its secretary, Ali Shamkhani, was appointed as Iran’s senior coordinator for political, military and security affairs with Syria and Russia. Following a meeting with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu in Tehran on June 10, Shamkhani stated that “it is necessary that inter-Syrian dialogue replace war and bloodletting in the country.”
Apparently these statements, and the new position obviously created to coordinate with Russia on Syria, support the view that Iran is now ready for a political settlement in Syria. This view falls in line with Iranian attempts to forge deeper relations with Russia and cut its human losses and those of its ally Hezbollah. For Iran, the main objective of securing a vital area in Syria serving to extend its influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean has been achieved. It is a matter now of planning how to protect this arc of influence from Tehran to West Beirut, an endeavor hardly possible without Russian support. Certainly, it took Russian diplomatic and military involvement in Syria to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime despite Iran and Hezbollah’s support.
Consequently, one could safely argue that the key players defending the Assad regime have plans incongruent with Assad’s outlook for Syria. Only recently in June 2016, in his first address to the newly installed parliament, Assad vowed to recapture every inch of Syria. This is clearly out of touch with the reality dawning on Syria that Hezbollah, Iran and Russia have as much say about the future of Syria as Assad. Moreover, it is hardly possible that Assad has the manpower to reconquer the territory that his regime lost. Put in strategic terms, Assad has become a pawn for Iran and Russia’s strategic vision for the Levant, where their interest overlaps in Syria.
Taking all this into consideration, it becomes clear that the Syrian crisis has undergone a new configuration, whereby the pro and anti-Assad camps have seen their both priorities change and overall Syrian policies fail. This has thrown Syria into a deadly impasse with thousands of militants hardly ready to give up their weapons and go home. But what this impasse has yielded is a realization among the key players in Syria that a political settlement is now the only option to stop the bloodletting and the consequential regional and global spillover of the Syrian crisis.
Against this background, it becomes foolhardy for the United States to engage in any military activity against the Assad regime, as proposed by a number of U.S. State Department officials. Rather, it behooves United States to take the lead and negotiate with Russia first and then with Syria’s neighbors the demarcation of red lines as cease fire lines in the country, while at the same time planning an alternative to the Assad leadership. The recent proposed American plan for a U.S.-Russian Joint Implementation Group is a significant step in the right direction.
The purpose of the JIG is “to enable expanded coordination between the United States and the Russian Federation beyond the established safety of flight procedures. The participants, through the JIG, are to work together to defeat Jabhat al Nusra and Daesh [ISIS] within the context of strengthening the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) and supporting the political transition process outlined in UNSCR 2254.” Some analysts have criticized the Terms of Reference of the JIG for its misplaced belief that Russia and the Assad regime would hold up their end of the bargain. By violating the agreement, the Assad regime, as the analysts assert, would kill the prospects of turning the cessation of hostilities into a true ceasefire.
While it is possible that the Assad regime may violate the agreement, its violation would be more tactical for, as I tried to show, the regime’s hands are tied to Iran and Russia’s strategy. The war in Syria will not end any time soon. But some dark clouds on the horizon for its settlement have been cleared.
Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014) and the forthcoming The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016).
Image: Fighting between Kurdish gunmen and Jabhat al-Nusra Front in the town of Ras al-Ayn. Wikimedia Commons/Younes Mohammad