by Zaakir Ahmed Mayet (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 9, Safar, 1439)
The context of the war on Syria was linked to the wave of the Arab Spring (aka Islamic Awakening). The spark of self-immolation in which Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi sacrificed his life set off an inferno that spread quickly from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Yemen, Bahrain to Syria, and even to the Saudi Kingdom itself. The hegemony of US and Western interests were under threat and a swift and rapid answer was required.
The uprisings called for an end to monarchical and military rule. The Egyptian uprising was crushed via a triple-sided threat: Mubarak officials ensconced in government structures, the military (SCAF), and foreign elements of the United States. The end result was grave miscalculations and internal dynamics that saw the Muslim Brotherhood shattered, its leadership imprisoned, and its structures scattered to countries such as Turkey and Qatar.
Interestingly, at the time Qatar was also placed under pressure to cut ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Libyan crisis developed rapidly into the benevolent dictator versus the people. Unlike the protests in Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt, the Libyan revolt turned into an armed rebellion and insurrection. This devolving situation turned one of the most progressive countries, in terms of services to its people, into a failed and lawless state. This opened the door for US hegemonic forces and the invasion of Libya. A quick survey demonstrated that the GCC states cooperated with Western forces to re-establish the hegemonic foothold so as to ensure that the uprising was quelled.
Not only did this civil war (enigneered from abroad as we know in hindsight) between state and people provide a perfect excuse for intervention, it also allowed for a continued status quo of civil war, demonstrated how armed insurrection could topple government and provided a case study of how the tide can be quelled to prevent the emergence of a civil momentum. The protests in Libya began in February 2011 and the subsequent military operations came to an end in August 2011. The end result was that hegemonic oil interests were secured, any positive regime change against Western interests quelled and the formula of insurgency for regime-change or perpetual conflict finetuned.
Shortly after the start of the Libyan rebellion, the Syrian theatre exploded with protests calling for reform. It is important to place a proviso at this point to ensure that the bulk of the analysis is captured in its correct light for the purpose of understanding the geopolitical and military picture surrounding the current Qatari situation. The Syrian conflict, as we understand it today, is one that is charged with emotional and religious sentiment.
It becomes virtually impossible to suppress one’s emotions when hospitals are targeted, masjids are destroyed, refugees have their dignity ripped away, barrel bombs are thrown from the sky, and reports of torture emerge. The violence from both sides is gross and ignites strong emotions.
In order for the conflict in Syria to be properly understood, we must consider its three dimensions. The first is humanitarian to which our emotions are most strongly connected, and rightly so. The second is the political dimension which must be dealt with in the framework of negotiations, theories of democracy, and even economics. The final and most crucial in this piece is the military and geopolitical aspect, which demands an absence of emotion to view the Syria conflict in its truest form. It is on this premise that we proceed.
Numerous analyses have been presented to explain the Syrian issue, each containing its own biases and failures. In all the analyses only one has explained events in a truthful and unbiased manner. In 2015 a senior official in the resistance movement structures explained what had happened. Syria had been ruled by HafiΩ al-Asad, the current leader’s father. Upon his death, his ophthalmologist son, Bashar, took over. In March 2011, legitimate protests began calling for reforms within Syria as the people were unhappy about the hereditary lineage of leadership. The Syrian regime reached out to the Palestinian liberation movement Hamas to mediate a peaceful end to the protests. It was the position of Hamas that they do not intervene in internal state matters. However, after much persuasion, the movement assisted in trying to bring stability to the state that it had called home. The negotiation process was slow and in the interim al-Asad offered reforms to aid the process.
It is said that during the reform process, Iran had advised al-Asad to enact reforms and embrace the demands of the people via legitimate avenues. Al-Asad’s younger brother, Maher, however, was not happy with Tehran’s advice nor with the negotiations that were taking place. As Commander of the Syrian Army’s 4th Armoured Division, Maher convinced Bashar to quell the uprising using live ammunition and force. Bashar went against Iranian advice, pulled Hamas and others out of the negotiations and deployed Maher to suppress the protests.
The results were catastrophic. Images of massacres in the streets fueled further protests and led to exploitable circumstances beyond Bashar’s control. He was shunned by his erstwhile allies Iran and Hizbullah and the situation began to deteriorate.
A slight digression is necessary to explain the concept of destabilisation, which is crucial as a tool for hegemonic powers. In 2013, a key think tank of the United States Military Establishment, the RAND Corporation, published an extensive report titled “Ending The US War In Iraq — The Final Transition, Operational Manoeuvre And Disestablishment Of United States Forces in Iraq.” In the said publication it was stated,
Consequently, building the political, economic, and security capacity of the host nation was viewed as central to conducting a successful COIN [Counter Insurgency] operation. While building the capacity and legitimacy of the government, a COIN strategy must also seek either to delegitimize the insurgents and separate them from the population or to find a mechanism to bring the insurgents back into the political process. However, as the host government increases its capacity, especially in the security sector, the less likely it is that the government will seek a negotiated settlement with insurgents. Thus, a successful COIN campaign that strengthens the capacity of the government to conduct COIN operations may actually undermine the long-term resolution of a civil war because those who hold governmental power have little incentive to establish and enforce reconciliation and reintegration programs.
This paragraph is explosive in that it highlights two realities; first, that insurgencies or guerrilla warfare cannot be stopped by conventional militaries. This is true when looking at the record of superpowers verses asymmetric forces such as in Russia vs. Afghanistan, US-NATO Coalition vs. Afghanistan and the “Coalition of the Willing” vs. Iraq. The second reality is that the presence of armed movements or insurgents “undermines the long-term resolution of a civil war.” A perpetual status of instability which neutralises the state alternatively makes it susceptible to foreign intervention.
This knowledge will help us understand the importance of the acts that follow. After the massacre unleashed by Maher al-Asad, the Syrian opposition protestors followed the questionable Libyan model. On July 8, 2011, French and US ambassadors in Syria joined the protestors. Shortly thereafter a wave of lower level defections occurred from the Syrian military and on July 29, 2011, merely 20 days later, the first armed movement, “The Free Syrian Army” (FSA), was formed. It was at this point that the legitimate and peaceful protests morphed into something very different and in line with hegemonic interests. As time progressed the rebel movement mutated into different strands. At one stage there were over 40 different groupings in Syria. Al-Asad had been receiving very little assistance from Iran or Hizbullah with the exception of advisors, this being the price he paid for not following their wise and astute advice given with sincerity.
In August 2012 a report by Reuters confirmed what analysts had been speculating from the beginning, that the rebels in Syria were being supported by the hegemonic powers. The report stated “Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence ‘finding,’ broadly permits the CIA and other US agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Asad.” The aim underpinning support for the rebels was evident from an interview conducted with a key FSA figure by the Israeli publication, Israel Hayom. The rebel identified only by an alias Kamal, stated, “Al-Asad’s fall will eliminate the link in the chain that ties Iran with Hizbullah in Lebanon. Not only would you be rid of an enemy, but you [Israel] would also weaken two others.”
In 2011, the opposition formally established its headquarters in Turkey as announced by Burhan Ghalioun. Chants began filling the streets of Syria, “No to Iran and no to Hizbullah, we want (Saudi) King Abdullah” accompanied by the burning of Hizbullah flags in cities like Tabaqah in Hamah. In an interview in December 12, 2011, Ghalioun told the Wall Street Journal that a change would be in the cards. The article said “that a Syrian government run by the country’s main opposition group would cut Damascus’ military relationship to Iran and end arms supplies to Middle East militant groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, the group’s leader said, raising the prospect of a dramatic realignment of powers at the region’s core.”
In December 2011, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was asked about the impact of al-Asad’s overthrow. He said, “The fall of Asad will deal a crushing blow to the radical axis and this will weaken Hizbullah in Lebanon.” He echoed similar sentiments at the World Policy Conference in Vienna. Syrian rebels uttered similar statements, “Once we are done with Syria we will slaughter with knives, O Hasan Naßrullah.” When attacking the Qußayr countryside, the rebels stated, “Bases of Hizbullah within Lebanese territory will be targeted.” Messages from Jabhah al-Nußrah also indicated that they would attack Hizbullah in Lebanon.
Strategically, al-Qußayr was the central corridor for weapons from Syria and Iran to Hizbullah. The Israelis had fully understood this and Meir Dagan, the Mossad Chief, stated at a conference in 2012, “Effort to lessen the influence of Iran in the region, will occur via bringing about a situation whereby Bashar al-Asad falls, which will weaken — automatically and directly — Hizbullah in dramatic and effective manners.” A 2012 lecture at the Washington Institute titled “Is the End Near in Damascus” provided a clear and direct insight into US-Israeli thinking on Syria. It was said, “But this nasty and ugly regime will be gone and with it the lynchpin of the Iranian position in the region and Hizbullah’s strategic position. I think we should be happy.” According to Israeli army analyst, Nadav Pollak,
Along with Hizbullah and Iran, Syria is part of the greater “axis of resistance,” which seeks to confront Israel, along with Western and Sunni interests in the Middle East. A weaker Syria thus would mean for Hizbullah and Iran a weaker resistance coalition, and Asad under threat, called for a response. Especially grim for Hizbullah and Iran was a scenario in which Asad might be replaced with a more Western-friendly government.
In fact, in a Washington Institute discussion, Jeffrey White said when questioned in 2012 about Iran and Lebanon,
I think we’ve seen the limit of Iranian military intervention. They are not going to do anything greater, anything significantly different. They are not going to fly in revolutionary guards and try and save the regime. They might send an aeroplane to get Asad out but I don’t think we will see any grand Iranian involvement in the conflict. I think they understand the limits, geographic limits what we are talking about and they almost certainly don’t want to commit their forces to a losing situation. They would be caught up in a collapse and defeat of the government.
The collapse of Syria was manageable for Israel according to the analyst who said “you have tensions on the Golan front… But the current security problem, the Israelis know how to deal with very effectively.”
According to the rebel leader this writer had spoken to, it was only after extensive assessment of attitudes of the rebels, that were diverse in their composition, that a decision was taken. It was evident that the rebels were either partial toward or in line with Israel. This was a grave threat to the resistance axis. Attacks within Lebanon began increasing dramatically and in 2013 Hizbullah officially entered the Syrian theatre with sizeable force. On May 25, 2013, Hizbullah Secretary General, Sayyid Hasan Naßrullah announced, “Syria is the backbone of the resistance and the support of the resistance. The resistance cannot sit with its hands crossed while its backbone is made vulnerable and its support is being broken, or else we will be naive.”
This changed the face of the war in Syria with the presence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops, Russian hi-tech weapons systems and Hizbullah with advanced fighting capabilities. This rewrote the entire rubric of Western interests in the region and spelt the doom of the hegemony. These events were completely unexpected and a resistance victory was not part of the calculation for the hegemons.
Zaakir Ahmed Mayet is Chairman of the Media Review Network of Pretoria, South Africa.