The Syrian Civil War, well into its fifth year, shows no sign of stopping with both the peace talks and the already fragile truce having essentially collapsed in recent days. Both the United States and Russia have recently stepped up their involvement in Syria, with the United States considering a much deeper commitment. But the question remains: to what end? The major problem facing all parties invested in Syria is that there is no choice that is really acceptable or sustainable.
The United States seeks to support the moderate sector of the rebel movement in ousting Assad, even as the US remains uncommitted to the removal of Assad as a fundamental condition of any diplomatic settlement. But posing further trouble for American policy-makers is the weakness of the moderate opposition. Ideally, there would be a single, dominant, moderate rebel group to support; and while that may have been the case of the FSA in 2012 the situation has deteriorated since then, leaving the US and its allies without any real options. While the moderate opposition (by this I mean rebel groups largely committed to a secular, democratic Syria) is not as weak today as international media often claims, it is still far from being in a position to claim dominance within the rebel movement. The group that represents the best option for the US is the Southern Front (loosely part of the Free Syrian Army).
The Southern Front is a fairly large, and fairly moderate, rebel group operating in Southern Syria and is the dominant group in that portion of the country. But with only an estimated 20-30 thousand fighters (estimates vary wildly) it is not capable of overthrowing Assad and uniting Syria on its own. To succeed it must work in tandem with other groups; however, while there may be many other moderate rebels on the individual level, there is no other major, moderate rebel group with which the Southern Front and the United States can work. And given the fact that even the Southern Front fights alongside jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, the US has hesitated to give the Southern Front its support. Furthermore, given the disparate (and often conflicting) array of ideologies represented in the rebel movement, any ‘grand coalition’ of rebel groups is likely to break down and slide into infighting soon after Assad is forced out of power (should that event even occur in the first place). This leaves the US with no partner that it can trust to be able to both overthrow Assad and ensure stability in post-Assad Syria, while maintaining a moderate character. But the situation is not any better for the Russians and Iranians.
While the US has no clear choices in the rebels, the Russians and Iranians have no clear choice in the regime. The Russians and Iranians have three main goals in Syria: 1. To preserve their respective influence in the country, 2. To stop the spread of jihadist groups, and 3. To maintain stability in the country. The Iranians have an additional fourth objective: to protect Shia Muslims in the country from slaughter by Sunni jihadist groups. In the short run, the Assad regime represents the best bet for the Russians and Iranians to achieve all of their objectives. Indeed, the Assad regime is committed to fulfilling all of these objectives. But it is incapable of doing so in the long run. The Assad regime’s long term survival depends on something it lacks and is incapable of ever gaining: broad, popular support. As previously mentioned in this blog, the root causes of the Syrian Civil War stretch back decades and stem from the regime’s overwhelmingly tyrannical nature. From its founding, the Assad regime has been based upon fear and characterized by its brutality. Even before the present conflict, the Assad regime has lead one of the world’s most extensive systems of ‘state terrorism.’ It is telling to note that one of the first, and perhaps the first, building ISIS destroyed in Palmyra, before all the historic ruins, was Tadmor Prison, a place that is synonymous in Syria with fear and death. Tadmor Prison was a place where such atrocities were committed that made even the fighters of ISIS indignant (and they are not exactly know for mercy). Given such a level of brutality, the Assad regime is never going to be able to gain the support of the population. If you want to know more about the Assad regime’s “Bureaucracy of Death” watch this video.
A further problem for the Russians and Iranians aside from the Assad regime’s unpopularity is its military weakness. As previously mentioned on this blog, the Alawite community (the overwhelming core of the regime’s support base) has seen over a third of their young men die in the conflict. The regime is simply running out of men to fight, and as such has had to rely on thousands of fighters from Iranian-supported militias and heavy, heavy support from Russian airpower (on top of the regime’s own monopoly on airpower) and Iranian financing. Without this support, the regime would have collapsed long ago. But the Russians and Iranians are neither capable nor willing to provide this level of support for the long term, and without this support the Syrian regime will never be able to gain full control of the country. With the regime as unpopular as it is, its presence in Syria is more akin to an occupying force rather than a legitimate government. And the Assad regime does not have the capability of occupying the full extent of the country.
To sum, both the United States and its allies and the Russians, Iranians and their allies are backing parties that they would rather not support and are incapable of achieving their long term goals. There is no group or individual in the rebel movement acceptable or capable of acting as a base for a new legitimate government of Syria. The Assad regime has shown, for years now, that it too does not deserve to and is not capable of acting as the legitimate government of Syria. There are no easy choices and Syria will most likely remain in chaos for years to come.