Kissinger’s Prophecy Fulfilled in Syria
Syria has managed to bring both the Turks and Kurds to its door by skillfully outplaying the two enemies to make itself indispensable to both. Syrian government forces claim they have entered Manbij, and the Kurdish group People’s Protection Units — fresh from a U.S. betrayal — are reaching out to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Simultaneously, the Turkish government is making its biggest concession yet in announcing that it would consider working with Assad should he win a democratic election. One is reminded of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s maxim: “The Arabs can’t make war without Egypt; and they can’t make peace without Syria.”
It was a backhanded tribute to Syria’s consistent hard line against Israel and the United States. Its critical geographical position and what David Lesch called ‘’Syria’s consistently punching above its weight’’ made it the key lynchpin for stability in the Middle East. Without any love lost between the Turks, Kurds, and Damascus, it is a testament to the staying power and resilience of the Baathist state that it is the one that has outlasted all its enemies one by one and, furthermore, is seen as the solution to preventing further chaos. As the Gulf Cooperation Council states open their embassies one by one, Ankara does a complete U-turn from its previous position of “no future for Assad,” and Washington finally openly accepts Assad staying in power, some important questions should be raised. First and foremost, why were the “experts” so wrong in assessing Syria? Damascus is well on its way to resuming its regional role, as even Israel’s hardline, recently resigned Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated that Israel would consider a diplomatic relationship with a newly powerful Assad.
Not All About Russia and Iran
Many analysts prepared briefing paper after briefing paper talking about a post-Assad Syria and state building in post-war Syria. These writers who discussed the imminent fall of Assad forgot to read the history of the Levant. While they made comparisons to state-building and reconciliation and conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, and Bosnia, they missed the way Syria under the Assads ran the show from Damascus. This was the show that made Syria the deciding factor not just in Lebanon but also in peace talks with Israel, the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, the fierce competition against President Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the very military-dominated state relationships with the two most powerful armies in the Arab world — Algeria and Egypt. The Syrians were the main pivot point on which the region depended on for security; the Arab League called on Syria to send their forces into Lebanon, the Turks called upon them to rein in the Kurdish forces that were being allowed safe sanctuary, the Saudis relied on them to tip the balance against Hussein, and the Americans and Israelis kept close to them for final negotiations over the Golan Heights. Longtime observers of Syria who had spent real time with the country’s leadership and had meaningful access to the power corridors of Damascus, such as Lesch, Patrick Seale, Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Brent Scowcroft, all cautioned against predicting the demise of Assad. Furthermore, they spoke of a need to work with Assad, as he would be the last man standing. In an early January 2015 hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Brzezinski and Scowcroft — two doyens of American national security —questioned the need to fight Assad and furthermore stated that “Assad had more support that any one of the groups fighting him put together.”
Whilst the E.U. foreign policy chief spoke of a new Afghanistan for Russia in 2015, it was clear to me that the Russians would succeed where the American interventions had failed since 2001. Assad had survived, albeit on the ropes, till the arrival of the Russians. The Syrian state still held on to the biggest cities, and even half of Aleppo was with the government forces. Assad survived the brutal bombing that took out his four security chiefs and main defense advisers in 2012. Assad also survived the so-called pivotal moments when senior defections from Manaf Tlass and Riad Hijab were supposed to usher in a collapse. Then there were the lies of the Syrian opposition claiming that Ali Habib, defense minister and one of Syria’s most celebrated generals, had defected. In fact, he had never left Damascus to go to Turkey, as had been claimed. Similarly the alleged defection of Vice President Farouk Sharaa turned out to be untrue.
In 2016, leading Syrian activist and academic Mohammed Alaa Ghanem penned an op-ed in The New York Times that sums up how the war against Assad was lost: The men and institutions that mattered remained loyal until the end. Ghanem argued for the need to help Assad’s top officers and intelligence personnel defect. Of course, that has never happened. Despite massive loss of territory and close advisers being killed in 2012, the Syrian military has remained loyal and no major defections ever took place. I wrote an article in response that explained that there were no major defections — specifically from the inner circle — despite financial compensation offered by the Gulf states and the West.
Two leading British generals espouse the view that Assad has considerable support where it mattered. Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, the former head of British Special Forces and commander of forces in southern Iraq has spent a long time studying Syria and Iraq. In his first comments on the subject last year, he told me in an earlier piece that Assad has genuine cross sectarian support and there was no need to fight Assad – it would not be easy. Shaw recently told me, “It was always doubtful Assad would lose. He had support and a strategy to outdo his enemies, a loyal army, and security service which had Sunni, Christian, Alawi.’”
Maj. Gen. John Holmes, commander of the British Special Air Service who has spent time with me in Damascus, told me:
During my visits to Damascus I saw little evidence of a government in decline; in fact quite the reverse – it seemed to me that the government and the army were very much in control of a very challenging situation. I formed the impression that the government had its hands on all the levers of power and that security and stability were the order of the day in those parts of the country that they controlled. The army appears to have put difficult times behind them and are now successfully consolidating in the areas under government control.
Former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Lord Richards, whom I have been advising on Syrian affairs since the beginning of the war, and former Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt both called for pragmatic cooperation with Assad and his military as the only way to end the war in Syria. Richards has been clear from the very beginning that Assad had more support than people were willing to accept and believe. Rather than fighting him, letting him win was the best prospect for peace in Syria. Richards, whom I interviewed for this article, told me:
It is very clear why countries such as UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain are talking to Assad again. He has proved his Arab and Sunni credentials despite an Iran connection and they know, give or take, that he has won his war. I always thought he would outlive his enemies.
What Will a Triumphant Assad Do Next?
A leading Lebanese politician recently argued that Syria is preparing to re-impose itself on Lebanon as a direct counterweight to Iran and Hizballah. This correlates with Barak Barfi and Justin Goodarzi, who have both insisted Iran has never been the absolute overlord in the so-called “Shia Crescent” that many claim it is. Indeed, Syria has been at odds with Iran innumerable times in Iraq and Lebanon. Similarly, Emma Sky, in her book The Unravelling, talks about how the Iraqis and Iranians were fuming at how Damascus was supporting Sunni and ex-Baathist groups opposed to Shia dominance in Baghdad. John Nixon, in Debriefing the President, talks about how Hussein got agitated every time Syria and Hafez al-Assad’s name came up. The very mention of Syria frustrated Saddam, as it was Iraq’s main rival for dominance in Arab affairs. Soner Cagaptay, in his book The New Sultan, also discusses how Syria stopped support to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, thereby leading to stability between Ankara and the Kurds and contributing to the friendship between Assad and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Now, as the Kurds and Erdogan again grudgingly look to Damascus, the Arabs — despite an Iranian presence — march back to Damascus, and Lebanon and Israel again revert back to dealing with Assad as the arbiter, the regional situation represents a complete reversal of previous expectations . Put another way, it is a continuance of Kissinger’s prophecies. It was those “real” warnings and the study of Syrian history that led numerous British generals to caution any fight against Assad and push instead for a continued security relationship with Damascus that has come full circle. It is no coincidence that Assad has won. There is a history behind it — and such repetition of events is eerily the norm in Levantine affairs.
This article has been updated to include an additional quote from Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw.
Kamal Alam is an adviser on Syrian affairs to former Chief of Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces Gen. The Lord David Richards of Herstmonceux. He is also a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and teaches Syrian military history at several army colleges.