Sometimes, it’s good enough just to survive. Saddam Hussein decided to trumpet his “victory” over Iran by building a massive pair of arches in central Baghdad. Not being dead or out of power was a big win considering that Saddam had bit off much more than he could chew by invading his larger and stronger neighbor.
Meanwhile, in Syria, a dictator who should be out of power by now seems about ready to do the same thing.
Syria’s destiny was never its own
I’ve argued before that outsiders would decide Syria’s civil war. Neither side was ever strong enough to overcome the other. This isn’t all that odd for a civil war of this scale – two equally matched portions of society pitted against one another need help to change the scales. In America’s War of Independence, France’s intervention was decisive. In America’s Civil War, Britain’s non-intervention equally so.
While Russia has continued to supply Assad with heavy arms, little of that did much good against the irregulars hiding in street alleys and out of sight. No, rather, it was Hezbollah’s (and by proxy, Iran’s) entry into the war in May that finally put a force on the ground capable of pushing the balance into Assad’s favor.
And without help, the rebellion is permanently on the back foot
The fracturing of the rebellion into de facto pro and anti-Western camps has hurt its operations. A house divided cannot stand, etc, etc.
Like the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (as well-noted here), the rebels can’t hope to survive in the long run against Syria’s armed forces if nobody’s supporting them. It may take months, even years, but the superior organization and arms of Syria’s government will eventually wear them down.
Alas, Syria’s too big to fix easily, too poor to care about
Interventionists will make two arguments – that there’s a strategic necessity or a humanitarian one. In the former, a country must either threaten a friend or give advantage to those who influence it. In the latter, outsiders must be in a position to make life better for civilians within a conflict zone. Alas, Syria meets neither criteria.
Syria has nothing to make it of strategic value to the West – no oil, no Panama Canal, no rare earths. In fact, the West gains from a ruined Syria. Even if a hostile government eventually reasserts total control, it won’t matter because they’ll spend a decade getting Syria back to what it once was.
But unlike Libya in 2011, Syria’s population is too diverse, with densities too high, to intervene with a light footprint and expect nice results. Overall, Libya’s been a success, despite the bits of anarchy flourishing here and there, because generally life is better now than before. But no such guarantee can be made in Syria. Toss out Assad and what do you get after? Perhaps heart-eating jihadists bent on blowing themselves up in buses all over the world.
As Robert Kaplan rightly notes, there’s little to be gained for the West in fighting this war on anyone’s side.
Off Syria goes to become another Lebanon
The core segments of Syrian society that still support Assad are too small now to dominate the whole country. But they can form proto-states. Here, Lebanon is the example. There’s still a central government of sorts. But in truth, the whole country’s decentralized. No, it’s not a great model. But it keeps the peace.
As Assad’s heavy equipment wears down or is destroyed, the war will turn more and more into a small-arms war (as brilliantly shown here at Vice magazine). Iran’s not about to send tanks to help; neither will Russia. So as the war becomes about numbers, Assad and his cadre will fortify themselves in their cities and abandon the countryside and villages.
That’s good enough to call it a win
In the time-honored tradition of delusional Middle Eastern dictators, Assad and his lovely wife can pat themselves on the back and think they’ve done alright. Being alive and in charge of part of Syria is better than facing war crimes trials in The Hague or being strung up by rebels in a public square. They’ll never be able to visit the river villages of the Euphrates again, perhaps, but they probably won’t want to, either.
- Assad Is The Most Powerful Warlord In A Country Of Warlords (businessinsider.com)
- The West should prepare for Assad’s victory in Syria (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)