Phillip Smyth on Syria

Phillip Smyth on Syria

Phillip Smyth is a researcher specializing in Lebanon, Syria, and the broader Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region and has been published by a number of publications including the American Spectator, the Counterterrorism Blog, the Daily Caller, Haaretz, MERIA Journal, The National Review Online, NOW Lebanon, PJ Media, and Voice of America. You can follow him on Twitter @PhillipSmyth.

John Little: We’ve seen countless accusations of chemical weapon use from both the regime and opposition forces. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have been overflowing with that content but most of it has been way off the mark. Some of the content creators are genuinely confused and many (on both sides) are pushing poorly constructed propaganda. I’ve consistently maintained that there is no upside to chemical weapons use by Assad. Using them on a large scale would be suicidal. Do you think that logic will prevail? What is the likelihood that Assad would do the unthinkable?

Phillip Smyth: If the regime openly uses chemical weapons (CW) (e.g. as Saddam did in Halabja) it will most likely result in a “Game over” situation for them. In that case, the “red line of red lines” would have been crossed and would probably lead to some variety of intervention involving external actors. Presumably, such an action may force the hand of even the most unwilling actor.The rebels understand this, as does Assad. It certainly accounts for numerous (generally erroneous) rebel reports of Assad having already used chemical weapons. It also serves as a main reason why Assad is not using them. He gains much more leverage from having his finger on the button than from pressing it.

There have also been numerous charges the Assad regime has already transferred some of these weapons to Hizballah in Lebanon. I have my doubts regarding those accusations aswell. Why hand off the keys to the castle before one has vacated the premise? For Assad, CW serve as the regime’s joker card–There are pluses and minuses. Thus, Assad understands that CW are best used as a strategic bargaining chip in the great game of retaining his hold on Syria.

Another oft-repeated line we hear is how “desperate” Assad has become. This is often described as a reason for certain actions executed by the regime (i.e. his launching of ballistic missiles). The message can be read as: “If he’s crazy and desperate, he can and will do anything”. However, there’s a huge difference between launching missiles and using the strongest, most deadly, and most internationally disapproved weapon(s) in his arsenal. Assad still has a functioning military, irregulars, and external help. This force is launching a number of counteroffensives now and Assad is not making a run for the hills.

Still, no one should discount the possibility of some type of chemical agent being used on a small scale to “Test the red lines” or accomplish other tactical tasks. Nevertheless, save for some cataclysmic collapse of the regime, I am hesitant to say Assad would use the weapons as an intrinsic part of a strategy to retake the country.

John Little: When the uprising started most expected the Syrian regime to have significant staying power and it has. However, we have seen a number of high profile defections, regime military installations are falling to the rebels, and Damascus is threatened. Where does the regime take it from here? Is their downfall now certain with only the timing and body count in question or is it still too early to tell?

Phillip Smyth: Assad’s downfall is an ongoing process–I believe that on the battlefield there may eventually be a major tipping point. This point has yet to be reached and the battle for supremacy in the country is currently a piecemeal one. The rebels lack game-changing tactics and weapons, are disparate, and still learning effective strategies. Assad is also continuing to hit back. Remember, Bashar’s father did not retain his position in the country through not building a working army capable of crushing dissent, a network of thugs, and duplicate intelligence agencies. Thus, Assad’s end–while coming into view–still requires a pair of high powered binoculars. Assad is in the battle to win, and right now we are still looking at a draw.

Body count is certainly a factor, but this too can go a few ways. Assad’s primary and most loyal fighting forces come from a minority group–his minority group–the Alawites. They understand the region’s zero-sum politics (there’s no such thing as “power sharing” and there will always be a dominant group and one or more under that group’s foot) and have tasted power; Their resolve to win or retain as much power as possible will be a hard nut for rebels to crack. There may come a time when Alawite mothers of sons, who continue to die in battle for Assad, become loud enough to affect change. Nevertheless, as with many Middle Eastern minorities, the communal survival mentality could and will likely override such sentiment.

The bigger issue is how many trained, loyal, and equipped fighters can and will Assad continue to throw into a multifaceted and geographically diverse front line? I expect that those numbers are not as high as Assad truly hopes for, but they are still strong enough to hold key strategic urban areas (such as Damascus, parts of Aleppo, and sections of Homs and Hama).

Assad’s viability also depends on what one defines as a “High profile defection”. None of Assad’s inner-Alawite circle of advisers or people in true power positions have left the regime or joined the rebels. This reflects the tightness of his ranks. Some have described Assad’s rule of Syria as reminicent of a mafia-don. It’s a bit more complicated and dependent on broader concentric and connecting circles of family, clan, sectarian, and business based loyalties. Hafiz Assad and Bashar both did a nice job cultivating links to and cutting in many urban Sunni bourgeois and like it or not, many of these links still exist, albeit at reduced levels.

I hate to continue statements which seem to push the narrative of sectarianism, but like it or not, it’s a reality. To which sect did “High profile defectors” Ryad Hijab (prime minister) and Manaf Tlas (general in the Republican Guard) belong? They are all Sunnis.

Additionally, Syria is awash with generals, so another “General’s defection” is hardly the equivalent of say Ulysses S. Grant joining forces with Robert E. Lee.

I also recall an article in the Arabic daily, Al Hayat from the summer of 2012. It discussed the “Highest ranking Alawite to defect”–Apparently, a leader of Assad’s air force intelligence special forces. His rank was not mentioned and he never gave his full name. He is just a small fry in a large pond of people actually running Assad’s show.

Regardless, it gives us some insight into the amount of security agency duplication found in Assad’s and even other dictatorial regimes. One force spies on the other, which spies on the one spying on it, which is spied on by another, which has 49 “commanding generals” who do little beyond sit at a desk and report on their juniors and seniors. At the end of the day, the Assad family and broader clan still run the show.

However, there’s no doubt in my mind that these defections did and continue to rankle a good number of Assad’s people in Damascus. Yet, those defectors are not leaders, per say. To paraphrase Alex Karras (Mongo) in Blazing Saddles, most of these “High ranking” defectors are, “Only pawn[s] in game of [the Assad regime’s] life”.

So is Assad’s collapse a “Sure thing”? It’s certainly growing more possible and has been growing for a year. It is my contention that when Damascus falls, for all intents and purposes, so does Assad. He needs the capital city for ideological and social reasons. Without it, he’s just a former ruler-cum-warlord. Yet, even in that scenario, there’s the potential that he is still around controlling some chunk of territory. I just do not feel we are going to see a Libyan-style end a la Qaddafi in Sirte for Assad in Syria.

John Little: What options do you think Iran is considering as they contemplate a post-Assad Syria? They won’t have a lot of friends in the mostly Sunni opposition but inaction isn’t exactly an option for them – nor would it be expected.

Phillip Smyth: It really goes without saying that Syria is a strategic linchpin for Iran’s regional policy. The Iranians are doing their best to continue propping-up the Assad regime. Simultaneously, they are also creating sub-networks among their coreligionists (Syria’s Shia community); In much the same way they did in 1980s Lebanon and more recently in Iraq.

Iran has been rather public in their announcements that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force is operating inside Syria. The same thing goes with Lebanese Hizballah, which has been reported guarding important Shia religious sites and fighting rebels in many locations. Iran is also ferrying Iraqi Shia fighters (from groups Iran helped create, like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah, and from allies like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Liwa al-Yom al-Mauwud–formerly known as Jaysh al-Mahdi) into Syria. When Richard Engel was kidnapped, he reported his captors were Shia and they were trying to gain the freedom of pro-Assad/pro-Iran Lebanese Shia actors held by the Syrian rebels.

Thus, in a post-Assad Syria, it can be assumed Iran will attempt to draw the country’s Shia under their protective wing, likely creating proxy militias on the ground while backing any remnants of the Assad

At the outset, it would appear Iran is playing a strictly sectarian game and will not be able to draw any support from Syria’s Sunni majority. Many analysts argue Sunni sectarian anger against Iran and the Shia as a whole is too great. However, this neglects the region’s constantly morphing multi-polarity.

Iran has a lot of money, arms, and strong forces. In any coming Syrian anarchy, all militias on the ground will need capital and support–Even if it is covert. The Iranians will reach out to just about anyone who takes their hand. Many speak of the “Sunni-Shi’a split”. Unfortunately, they forget that Iran has made some incredible inroads among a variety of groups. Of course, not many Sunnis (especially now) would wish to publicly recognize they get support from Shia Iran, but they do.

At this moment, Syria has around 1000 militias. Post-Assad (and even now) they will all be fighting for a slice of the pie. In keeping with the Middle Eastern version of the “Golden rule”, Iran is “The one with the gold [who] makes the rules”.

A great example to look at regarding how Iran will inject itself and retain some level of presence in Syria, are their (often via Hizballah) moves in the predominantly Sunni, Tripoli, Lebanon.

For all of the talk about sectarian fighting (between Alawites and Sunnis) going down in Tripoli, there are quite a good number of Sunnis–especially militiamen–who are or have been on Hizballah’s payroll. Some of these fighters continue to battle the city’s Alawites (Hizballah’s allies), but due to their economic conditions, they can be called to fall in line when Hizballah asks them to.

In the past some have even been wooed over using the plea of “‘Islam’ must unify in the face of Western enemies and Israel”. This is the kind of ideological logic pro-Iranian Sunni Islamist groups, like Tripoli’s Tawhiid Movement, use (i.e. “Sunnis and Shia are both Muslims and should not fight each other, but the greater foes). Nevertheless, I am guessing such a strategy will only have a limited effect in the near-future.

Hizballah and their Iranian paymasters also are not simply calling for their Sunni proxies to battle other Sunnis or fight directly on the side of Hizballah. They work slowly, giving some of Tripoli’s poorer Sunnis a financial cushion and aid them in other ways. In that way, Iran slowly embeds itself into the community. The potential for Iran/Hizballah is that this builds a lot of long-term influence in key areas among groups of people who should despise them. I cannot see why they wouldn’t try the same thing in Syria.

Wars make strange bedfellows and sands can shift at a moment’s notice. In a Syria sans Assad, Iran’s influence will be diminished to a great extent. However, they will not cease their attempts to gain connections whenever or wherever they can.

John Little: What is your take on the more Machiavellian view held by some that it is in the West’s interest that this conflict enters a sort of long-term standoff where Assad remains weakened, but in control of his arsenal (especially his chemical weapons), and the conflict churns through the more radical parts of the opposition?

Phillip Smyth: I hold a mixed interpretation of that viewpoint. The war on the ground is devolving into what has been termed a “Spanish Civil War” style conflict. It would appear to many that it is counterproductive to jump in.

On the sidelines such a scenario may be a wonderful thing to watch: Assad, Al Qaida, and other radical Islamist groups beating each other senseless–It also couldn’t happen to a nicer collection of foes. However, the situation on the ground isn’t always that simple and often a sequence of events does not always play out how one may have hoped. Even in an environment pitting just radical Islamists against Assad–with both forces lacking any love for the United States–the risks are just as high as the benefits.

As of right now, despite the fact that radical groups are taking center stage and getting a lot of coverage, it doesn’t mean they make up the majority of the Syrian opposition. Watching from the stands may result (as it has in the past) in even more polarization. Such a situation would not be good for the U.S. or region in the long-run.

Radical Sunni Islamists have already demonstrated that no matter where they spring-up, they don’t stay put. They will continue to spread problems to the region around them, even if engaged in an ongoing conflict. Case in point: Jabhat al-Nusra, which was spun from a very busy Al Qaida in Iraq. It’s a fallacy to believe they will simply be sucked into the Syrian conflict and just wear themselves down. In fact, I’d say they’ll use the conflict like they tried to use Afghanistan or Iraq. Only, this time, they won’t be facing a high-technology enemy which can more effectively check their growth. They will sharpen their skills, expand in size, and may spread like a virus to neighboring areas.

Let’s say Assad starts to triumph over the disparate rebels and radical Sunni Islamists. We will then see an emboldened Iran. If Assad is left in place during a stalemate, the pro-Iranian set will be shaken, but won’t be out of the game. In that case we will have two radical anti-American foes in control of large chunks of the Levant. Sure, they would be fighting one another, but that does not mean they will cease their other activities in the region.

Remember, in the early and mid-1980s, when Iran was “Tied down” fighting Iraq, they still found enough time to build Hizballah, bomb the Marine Corps. barracks in Beirut, attack some embassies, and hijack a few aircraft. Just as the “War weary” Saddam Hussein–after almost a decade of fighting Iran–Invaded Kuwait.

I for one do not see a scenario like you describe really playing out. There are too many variables which would be immediate regional game-changers in such an environment. Who says Assad, after a few more months or years of brutal fighting, can really hold onto his strategic weapons? Can Assad really “Churn through” the radicals, or will the conflict resemble something closer to the Lebanese Civil War with internecine fighting and defacto cantons? It’s really impossible to know.

I would leave with this: The U.S. needs to tread carefully but realistically assess its interests. Do we want Iran to hold onto a link to the Mediterranean and Hizballah? I don’t feel we should. However, does this mean it would be acceptable to have Al Qaida managing swaths of territory in a strategic Middle Eastern country? Absolutely not. Thus,I don’t believe it would be very prudent to just let the two foes kick each other into oblivion. There’s too much room for something blowing-up in our faces.

There are many covert, more quiet, and cost-effective ways to affect change. Nevertheless, right now, the United States is sitting on its hands in near bewilderment with no real policy to speak of.

John Little: Can Russia remain relevant as Syria descends into chaos? Could they still possibly broker a political solution to this crisis or is it just too late to engineer a smooth transition of power?

Phillip Smyth: As early as summer 2012, we heard many calls that Russia was essentially irrelevant. This was mainly due to the fact that it was doing little more than equipping Assad and attempting to buy him some breathing space in the international community and with the rebels. Certainly, few consider Moscow to be an unbiased actor.

Recently, rebels (with Khatib) and Assad rejected Russian overtures–Overtures that I’m sure were little more than additional feet-dragging measures and likely seen by rebels as nothing more than bolstering for Assad’s position. The Russians will continue to throw out offers for peace talks, but the writing on the wall says that calls for “Political transition” will amount to very little.

Realistically, Moscow remains relevant insofar as how much backing they continue to offer for Assad. Nevertheless, one must consider who is pushing Russia as a potential peacemaker. Ironically enough, it’s the United States. For months the U.S. has been promoting a policy of using the Russians to establish a “Political compromise”. Will that policy work? No. Is there any hope for Russia to mediate a transition? It’s doubtful.

John Little: Russian foreign chief Sergei Lavrov recently warned that a protracted stalemate could lead to the breakup of Syria. Does that seem like a plausible outcome to you?

Phillip Smyth: We’re already seeing the “Break-up” of Syria. When you have 1000 militias on the ground all holding different positions. If we thought 1985 West Beirut was bad, this will be worse.

However, it’s important to remember that Lavrov is using a narrative first honed in Damascus by Assad. It’s the typical pan-Arabist line which encourages autocratic-central governance over a diverse population while simultaneously threatening a potential break-up if any movement exists countering the aforementioned central authority.

Regardless, in terms of an officially recognized “Break-up” of Syria (i.e. an internationally recognized Alawi state/Kurdish state), my position is a mixed one. I believe that on a defacto level, in a post-Assad atmosphere, large chunks of Syria will be dominated by certain ideological, ethnic, and religious groups . We are already seeing what can be termed as “general autonomy” for Kurds in the northeast. However, it’s really up to how all factions decide to play these developments in the long-term.