Sir John Jenkins
I first went to Syria at the end of March 1982. Leaving aside the old city (whose beauty, centered on the great Umayyad Mosque, endures), Damascus was a grim place. Huge and menacing posters of Hafez Assad and his brother, Rifaat, adorned most buildings. There were beggars and child hawkers on the streets. The atmosphere was fearful: It was only weeks after the destruction of Hama, the ancient city on the Orontes, where the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood’s Fighting Vanguard had made its last stand.
The Brotherhood – or at least those parts of it that favored a confrontation with the Baath Party – had imagined the time was ripe for a popular uprising against the Alawite-dominated and Hezbollah-supporting government in Damascus. They were savagely crushed by Rifaat’s Defense Companies. Rifaat then saw an opportunity himself. While his brother was temporarily indisposed, he sought to launch a coup. It failed. He was exiled.
Meanwhile, an equally savage civil war was raging in Lebanon. And Israeli forces under the command of Ariel Sharon were seeking to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization and – eventually – install a compliant Maronite-dominated government. The human toll was huge, not least in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Elsewhere, the Iran-Iraq War was entering a phase of bloody stalemate, as Iranian forces retook Khorramshahr on the Shatt Al-Arab and pushed the Iraqi army out of the last meters of Iranian territory.
Forty years later, what has changed? Syria has been largely destroyed by a decade of brutal civil conflict. Hafez’s second son is in charge this time. His opponents have been a motley crew of Islamists – the ideological and, in some cases, the actual descendants of the Fighting Vanguard – along with old-fashioned Sunni ethnonationalists, some Druze and a lot of Kurds. There is no civil war in Lebanon. But the economy has collapsed, corruption has exploded (as have parts of Beirut port) and Hezbollah exercises an iron grip over domestic politics. Most importantly, Iran has constructed a network of allies and proxies from Iraq, through large parts of central Syria, all the way to the Mediterranean. It alone has benefited from the chaos. It is clear from the way it treats its own people that the Islamic Republic does not care about human suffering. It cares about its own survival, which it believes necessitates controlling or intimidating as many of its neighbors as possible. It illegally transfers ballistic missiles and other weapons to Tehran-aligned militias throughout this area – and indeed into Yemen – all designed to threaten not just Israel but anyone else who might stand in its way, including the states of the GCC.
It steals US dollars from the Central Bank of Iraq and through dedicated financial intermediaries and businesses across the region. With Hezbollah’s support, it has enabled Syria to produce and smuggle enormous quantities of Captagon tablets, it smuggles gold and stolen cars, works hand in glove with South American narcotics gangs, and engages in human trafficking and fraud of all sorts across the globe. It kills young Iranian women and men who dare to protest. This situation is not the same as 1982. It is probably worse. But some things remain the same. If you want a unified Arab position against potential threats, you are going to need to factor Syria into the equation. Syria has borders with both Turkey and Israel and a de facto border with Iran. It also acts as the springboard for both Hezbollah and the Iran-aligned Iraqi Shiite militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq. They established a position there with Iranian support after 2012 and have most recently been engaged in highly visible and self-interested relief operations after the disastrous earthquake that hit the northern regions of the country.
If Bashar Assad had been overthrown, the situation would still have been chaotic. But since he has survived, thanks to Russian and Iranian support, he is the man with whom anyone has to deal if they believe it important to take Syria seriously. He exploits this ruthlessly. This poses a set of dilemmas, both ethical and political. Assad bears a heavy responsibility for the calamities that have affected Syria over the last decade. He could have taken a different course after 2011 – as indeed he could have done during the so-called Damascus Spring of 2000/01. He could have loosened the repressive hold that the corrupt Baath Party had on the country without losing control. And he did not have to turn his goons loose upon ordinary Syrians – including children and women – who were simply protesting against brutality.
There were others involved, of course. The savagery of Daesh in its short-lived “statelet” around Raqqa and the Al-Qaeda affiliates in the northwest of Syria or Jaysh Al-Islam in parts of Damascus also contributed much to the disaster. As did the sheer fecklessness of the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, with its squabbling factions and the jockeying of its external backers as they sought to advantage the politically bankrupt Muslim Brotherhood and other clients. In August 2013, I was still the British ambassador in Riyadh and had a ringside seat. The failure of Western powers to take action after the regime’s chemical weapons attack on Ghouta was, in my view, a turning point. It confirmed Assad in his decision to double down. It also signaled to Moscow and Tehran that they could step into the vacuum without risk. They did so to great effect. Indeed, Russia went on to seize Crimea too. So, well done us.
And that is why there is now so much discussion within the GCC and in Egypt and Jordan about “bringing Syria back into the fold.” Amman has been active along these lines for some time. Its foreign minister has visited Damascus. Jordan shares a long border with Syria and is quite reasonably concerned about the impact of the conflict on its own domestic security and stability. Egypt wants stability on its eastern flank to pursue its own project of economic rebuilding – an essential but uncertain enterprise. The speaker of its parliament was recently in Damascus and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi phoned Assad after the earthquake to express his condolences. And the Arab states of the Gulf – some of whom have made public overtures to Damascus already, with visits by Bashar to the UAE and Oman and two visits this year by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to Damascus – are worried that a bigger conflict with Iran may be coming down the track fast.
Under pressure from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranians have accepted new inspections of their nuclear facilities. But the recent discovery of particles enriched to 84 percent – near weapons-grade – remains unexplained. The negotiations to relaunch the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal ran into the sand months ago. Restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile exports expire this October. And the new government in Israel – in spite of its internal turmoil – has made it clear that Iran’s enrichment activities are bringing conflict closer. The Israel Defense Forces held joint all-domain military exercises with the US a few weeks ago. The signals are clear. So, you can hardly blame those who think that now is the time for hard-nosed pragmatism. Focusing on the chief threats to your own national security and setting lesser problems to the side has been the way of the world for centuries, whatever idealists may prefer to think. A government’s first responsibility is to its own people. That was, in effect, the message of the Kingdom’s foreign minister at the Munich Security Conference, where he said that the status quo on Syria was not working and a new one was needed.
But consider this too. Syria will need physical and economic reconstruction. Aleppo, Homs, parts of Damascus, the coastal strip, Idlib, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, for example, have all suffered massive damage. Millions of Syrians are either internally displaced or are refugees in neighboring countries or farther afield. Many have had their properties seized and reallocated by the regime. What is to happen to them now? And who will pay for this? It will not be Iran or Russia, both with major economic problems of their own and whose response to the earthquake has been underwhelming.
Syria’s own resources have been severely depleted. As a consequence, it has turned itself into perhaps the biggest narco-state in the world. Its oil fields in the east are largely under the control of the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, whose relationships with Turkey, Russia, Iran and Damascus are complicated and often murky.
Idlib in the northwest remains under the control of Tahrir Al-Sham, a one-time Al-Qaeda-affiliate that is trying to become respectable, with Turkish support. The Turks themselves have positions inside the border in Afrin and elsewhere and see the Kurds as their main enemy. They will want to maintain freedom of maneuver while Recep Tayyip Erdogan calculates his own electoral advantage. The US, the EU and the UK are unlikely to ease sanctions in the short term.
None of this seems easily resolvable, either by Damascus or Iran. And anyone who decides that Assad is now the best of a choice of evils will have to bear in mind that he will demand a quid pro quo. That will come with a large invoice. And he has a record of non-delivery, so there is no guarantee that reengagement by his Arab neighbors will seriously affect his two-decades-long alignment with Iran. The balance of power that his father established with Tehran is now only a memory. Particularly after the exposure of Russian weakness in Ukraine, Bashar is now wholly dependent on Ali Khamenei for his survival. Relieving the suffering of ordinary Syrians is, of course, an act of mercy. But Assad will try to exploit any assistance to suit his own purposes, as he has done before. If the wider aim is to loosen Tehran’s grip, then it will be a very long game indeed. And it cannot simply involve Syria. A long-term strategy will need to address the challenges of Lebanon and Iraq. As long as Hezbollah and the Iraqi Hashd militias call the shots there, Syria will not change.
Equally, serious political reform and the emergence of a strong anti-Hezbollah bloc in Lebanon, plus a start to the genuine economic integration of Iraq into the wider Arab Gulf community – perhaps initially through the creation of an integrated energy market involving Iraq’s surplus gas – would be a good start. And then, who knows what will happen within Iran itself? You can reasonably argue that small and verifiable steps are perhaps the way ahead. But we should not expect things to get better anytime soon.