[Midden-Oosten] Free Aleppo is crushed, but who is the actual winner?
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Wo Dec 14 00:52:05 CET 2016
How Relevant to Syria is Syria’s Regime?
December 8, 2016 By Jett Goldsmith
On October 31, 2016, the Turkish daily newspaper Yeni Safak reported that
Turkey and Russia signed a “landmark agreement” in northern Syria,
ostensibly partitioning portions of the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia,
Raqqa, Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor to a Turkish-backed assembly of “local
elements” and FSA-aligned brigades.
This report is unconfirmed by independent sources – Yeni Safak operates with
a hardline pro-Erdogan editorial stance, and the paper has been known for
inventing stories in the past – but it reveals the new status quo which has
conformed to the on-the-ground reality of conflict in Syria: the Assad
regime is simply no longer central to the discussion.
This new reality may be difficult to parse for those who have identified the
conflict as a simplistic portrayal of the Assad regime fighting against an
opposition composed almost entirely of ISIS and Al-Qaeda militants. But that
storyline, albeit pushed conveniently by state-run media outlets owned by
Syria’s foreign backers, is almost entirely false.
On the side of the regime, most offensives are headed by a collection of
loyalist militias and foreign, Iran-funded proxies. Hezbollah, which
recently released a set of propaganda photos showing a parade of its
American-made Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) in Syria, has lost more
fighters to date in the Syrian war than it has in the entirety of its
three-decade-long war with Israel. And as Rao Komar wrote for NOW Lebanon in
November, pro-Assad proxy militias are becoming increasingly comprised of
Pakistani and Afghan Shiite fighters from the furthest expanses of Iran’s
This reality in which the regime wields little influence over its territory
is reflected practically in policy discussions between change-makers on the
ground in Syria. On November 7, 2016, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs
Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford reported that the United States had met with its
Turkish counterparts in Syria, and agreed to develop a plan for “seizing,
holding, and governing Raqqa” after Islamic State fighters are driven from
Turkey has recently backed FSA brigades and local militias in the fight,
dubbed “Operation Euphrates Shield”, to drive ISIS from northern Syria,
while the United States has relied heavily on the use of Kurdish YPG
brigades integrated into the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
Along these lines, most territory liberated by Turkey – particularly towns
on the west bank of the Euphrates River, such as Qabbasin and Tel Rifat –
has been handed over for governance to FSA forces, while much territory
liberated by the SDF – such as the city of Manbij – has been ceded to YPG
It’s likely that such a plan between Turkey and the United States would
reflect a compromise between the two powers’ preferences for governance, a
de facto partition of Syrian territory which will see the Syrian state’s
grasp over its land and economy decline even further. When Turkey isn’t
ceding territory to FSA militias, it is threatening the use of military
force – in Al Bab, Afrin, Tel Abyad, Sinjar, and Tel Afar – a posturing
which has rarely been met with any sort of response by the Assad regime.
None of the land captured by foreign-backed forces in northern Syria has
been ceded to the Assad regime, nor does the regime have a practical
capability to assert its desire to control this territory. As it stands, the
Syrian Arab Army and its collection of fledgling loyalist and foreign
militias barely has the capacity to govern its own territory – and though
the most recent regime coalition offensive on the eastern portion of Aleppo
city has been successful in seizing nearly the entirety of Aleppo from
opposition forces, it has been bolstered by an intensive bombing campaign
from Syria’s superpower patron state, the Russian Federation, as well as the
IRGC’s wide-ranging network of proxy groups.
The proxy war for Syria
In the hours following the horrific Ghouta chemical attacks on August 21st,
2013, a German naval intelligence craft intercepted a communication between
a high-ranking Hezbollah operative in Syria and an official at an unnamed
In the intercepted communication, the Hezbollah operative bemoaned Assad’s
order to use sarin gas on a residential suburb of Syria’s capital city.
“Assad had lost his temper and committed a huge mistake by giving the order
for the poison gas use,” the Hezbollah operative was reported to have said.
In the recent Aleppo offensive in February of 2016, in which opposition
forces headed largely by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham captured numerous strategic
points involved in breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo city, alleged
Hezbollah fighters were captured on video mocking the Syrian Arab Army for
being effectively nonexistent. “We can’t find them anywhere,” one Hezbollah
fighter says, perhaps referencing reported cases of SAA fighters fleeing
from their positions – like in the heavily fortified military academy
complex – in response to successful advances by opposition fighters.
These two instances are simply a slice of all the unheard chatter shared
between fighters across the battlefield in Syria, but they capture the
current state of Assad’s armed forces better than most: both involve foreign
agents – fighting on behalf of Assad – speaking contemptuously of the regime
they’re fighting for.
This deep sense of contempt held by regime coalition forces is also
reflective of the group composition of these foreign, largely Iranian-backed
In Iraq, Shiite militia fighters are being ferried to Syria by Iran, where
their salaries are paid by the IRGC to fight on behalf of the Assad regime.
In August of 2016, senior US military officials reported that Iran was
paying the salaries of nearly 100,000 Shiite militia fighters – largely
bannered under Hezbollah, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) –
fighting in Iraq.
In 2013, Al-Monitor reported that 14 Iranian-backed Shiite brigades were
operating in Syria, with many comprised of foreign fighters from Iraq and
(increasingly) Afghanistan. In January of 2016, the spokesman for the
Iranian-established paramilitary Badr Brigades said that “[Iraqi] fighters,
along with the Lebanese Hezbollah militants, have a great positive impact on
the course of the war against IS in Syria.”
Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba is another prominent force directing regime
offensives, primarily in Aleppo. The group publishes frequent reports on its
offensives in Syria, operates at least 3,000 fighters in Aleppo, and is a
direct descendant of the similarly Iranian-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Despite
both groups’ propagation of jihadist ideology, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba
has frequently clashed with Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Syria; Iranian state
media released footage in May of Hezbollah al-Nujaba fighters killing 23 JFS
fighters (then known as Jabhat al-Nusra) in Khan Touman, Aleppo.
In fronts throughout the country, regime offensives are being led by
loyalist militias. These militias often have little institutional connection
to the Syrian Army beyond making use of its logistics framework, but are
frequently led by pre-war shabiha with business and family connections to
the Assad regime. Fighters for these groups are largely motivated by either
pro-Assad and pro-Ba’athist ideology, or more often, by personal profit.
Despite this, pro-government militias have been hit with attrition on a
similar – if smaller – scale to that of the Syrian Arab Army. An Ahrar
al-Sham fighter from Latakia, who requested to remain anonymous, tells me he
has witnessed numerous defections from the pro-regime National Defence
Forces (NDF) to Ahrar al-Sham, one of the hegemons of the Syrian opposition.
He described a rendezvous between Ahrar al-Sham commanders and several
fighters from the NDF who had attempted to defect. “Many of these men simply
don’t want to fight, let alone fight revolutionaries,” he told me.
“Forced conscripts especially would often defect,” he said. “Men taken off
the streets, hiding in homes along the coast and in Damascus… “
Assad or We Burn the Country
And yet despite this reality of an increasingly fledgling regime presence in
Syria, high-level diplomatic discussions have focused almost exclusively on
one subject: the issue of what to do with Assad.
This is a strategy of diplomacy inherently doomed to fail, as localized
regime loyalists have consistently proven that “Assad or we burn the
country” is a slogan truly reflective of the regime’s core – those deeply
committed to the Assads’ cult of personality will never accept a Syrian
destiny controlled by anyone other than Assad.
And it is also a strategy of diplomacy inherently misdirected; despite the
regime’s fierce, bloodthirsty defense of its “sovereign right” to rule Syria
indefinitely, it possesses nowhere near the capacity to actually hold this
stance. The Syrian Arab Army, once numbering in at nearly 625,000 active
duty and reservist fighters, has been crippled by attrition, defections, and
a constant siphon of knowledge and expertise. As defense policy analyst
Tobias Schneider wrote in August for War on the Rocks:
“Following the swift collapse of its forces in
the Battle for Idlib last year, President Bashar
al-Assad had given a much publicized speech admitting
the regime’s armed forces were suffering tremendous
manpower shortages and would have to withdraw
from certain fronts. Newspapers had been reporting
for many months before of desperate conscription
and recruitment efforts around the country. By
late July, Assad appeared to crumble under the
cumulative weight of years of slow attrition and
defection, triggering a combined Russian and Iranian
intervention seeking to reverse the regime’s fortunes.”
Schneider agrees with the common assessment that the Russian and Iranian
intervention has provided a precipice for the regime to desperately maintain
its slipping grip over Syria, but he also addresses the warlord-based
economy which has emerged as a direct result of severe regime attrition:
“While much better supplied by the Syrian Arab
Army’s still-standing logistics skeleton, the
government’s fighting force today consists of
a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned
with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors,
and local warlords. […] Today, where briefing
maps now show solid red across Syria’s western
governorates, they ought to distinguish dozens
and perhaps even hundreds of small fiefdoms only
nominally loyal to Assad. Indeed, in much of the
country, loyalist security forces function like
a grand racketeering scheme: simultaneously a
cause and consequence of state collapse at the
How did Syria reach the point of “hundreds of small fiefdoms” united,
however loosely, under a delicately hung portrait of Bashar al-Assad?
Despite repeated assurances by Assad that he will remain in power
indefinitely, and a steady stream of Orwellian, “we’ve always been at war
with Eastasia”-esque claims that Syria is in fact better off now than it was
five years ago, it has become increasingly apparent to the outside observer
that the Syrian state has degraded into a series of localized fiefdoms run
as mini-mafia states.
But this system isn’t spontaneous; it didn’t manifest simply overnight amid
an attrition of centralized state structures. The foundation for devolution
into the sort of state which would make a Somali warlord blush has been laid
since the earliest days of the Syrian Ba’ath Party, making Syria’s
contemporary series of fiefdoms a simple reflection of the country’s pre-war
socioeconomic system – a cronyist, corporatist, oligarchic system which has
been shown to be heavily reliant on patronage, and only sustainable in the
Syria’s delicate pre-war sociopolitical status has led, perhaps more than
any other factor, to the current state of Syrian society. As Hafez al-Assad
seized power in an intra-party coup dubbed the Corrective Movement, he
imposed a system of economic fiefdom and patronage described by Robin
Yassin-Kassab and Leila al-Shami as having a heavy mix of proto-fascist and
Pre-war businessmen and those crime lords sanctioned by Hafez himself – the
shabiha – comprised a major portion of the tiny sphere of influence which
controlled every aspect of Syrian society. Prominent families tied to the
Assads by marriage, such as the Makhloufs and the Shalish family, were
afforded contracts and business deals which allowed them to establish total
dominance over Syria’s economy. As Bashar al-Assad engaged in a period of
neoliberal reform after his father’s death, cronyists like Rami Makhlouf
were afforded the ability to turn their grip over the Syrian economy into a
stranglehold, consolidating entire economic sectors and state industries
into family-owned-and-operated conglomerates like SyriaTel and Cham Holdings.
In effect, Bashar’s efforts at neoliberal reform in the early 2000s elevated
the level of economic disparity in Syria from untenable to revolutionary – a
sentiment further onset by the driving forces of rapid urbanization, and the
worst drought the Middle East has seen since humans invented agriculture.
In order to remain loyal to a regime which could offer little but personal
empowerment and petty cash, loyalists were granted a relatively high degree
of autonomy, and were able to smuggle arms, traffick drugs, and terrorize
Syrians with impunity. The term shabiha, which was coined by Syrians to
refer to the state-sanctioned quasi-paramilitary groups founded by Hafez
al-Assad in the 1980s to traffick drugs and engage in illegal economic
activities, means “ghosts” – a reference to the shabiha’s apparent impunity
Many of these pre-war cronyists, both those shabiha and the people like Rami
Makhlouf who operate under the auspices of legitimate business affairs, are
still active in the midst of Syria’s civil war. Many presently comprise the
current warlord system of semi-autonomous militias and localized fiefdoms
loyal to the regime, and in the wartime economy, these cronyists have
managed to carve out a living roughly equivalent to the sort which they
enjoyed prior to the outbreak of war.
In many instances, localized pro-Assad militias are led by robber-barons and
opportunists who hail from the areas they purport to control; Sami Aubry,
for example, used to operate nearly all of Syria’s amusement parks and
entertainment centers, including Syria’s own off-brand franchise of
“Chuck-E-Cheese”-styled restaurants. Now, he heads the National Defence
Forces, one of the most prominent pro-regime militias active in Damascus and
It is this system which has led to the current state of affairs for the
Assad regime: weakened, beset by attrition and economic peril, increasingly
reliant on foreign backers and sectarian militias to secure its territorial
And it has become increasingly important to apply this context to high-level
diplomatic discussions on Syria: the regime is not, after all, a power
broker in its own country. Hezbollah, Iranian-backed militias, and Russian
airpower – in other words, foreign intervention – have ensured regime survival.
Jett Goldsmith is a journalist from Denver, Colorado.
He currently serves as news editor for Neowin,
and formerly co-founded the investigative reporting
and geopolitical analysis outlet Conflict News.
He is currently an undergraduate student in International
Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow
him on Twitter @JettGoldsmith.
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