Like it or not, the Syrian regime aided by Russia and Iran has taken back most of the country. President Bashar Al Assad has beaten all odds to consolidate his power. The 2011 revolution failed primarily because apart from defectors who formed the Free Syrian Army, the Syrian military remained loyal to the state. The result was a seven-year-long bloody civil war.
There was once a viable political opposition backed by Western governments but its ranks have dwindled to nothing. Some 90,000 members of armed groups supported by Turkey are corralled in the province of Idlib together with millions of civilians awaiting their fate.
Almost half the civilian population of Idlib has fled to government-controlled areas despite Ankara and Moscow signing a Memorandum of Understanding to create a buffer zone devoid of heavy weaponry to avoid a devastating full-scale military offensive.
Whether that agreement will be implemented is moot; some groups, among them Hayat Tahrir Al Sham whose core units were formed by Al Qaida in Syria, refuse to comply. Foreign fighters have nowhere to go except back to their homelands where most will face arrest. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkish troops will remain to ensure stability and prevent violations.
Syrian President Al Assad is set on regaining every inch of Syrian sovereign territory. Confronted with warnings from Western powers and the United Nations of a humanitarian catastrophe, he has assented to the Russian-Turkish solution provided it is temporary.
Russia wants US troops out describing their presence as illegal under international law since, unlike Russia and Iran, their involvement was not invited by the Syrian government. America’s initial goal in the country was to cleanse Syria of Daesh and according to a recent statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that remains a “top priority” despite Daesh being a virtual spent force.
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama authorised the CIA and the Pentagon to train and arm so-called opposing forces whose recruits ended up joining extremist organisations more often than not especially after Obama reneged on his own red line with reference to the regime’s use of chemical weapons thus leaving moderate fighters in the lurch. In essence, Al Assad should thank Obama’s attack of cold feet for his ultimate victory.
The Trump administration’s highest priority is to send Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and various Shiite militias packing. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who views Iran as an existential threat has made it crystal clear that an Iranian presence close to Israel’s borders will never be tolerated. “We won’t give up this goal, as we didn’t give up the effort to cancel the bad nuclear deal with Iran, said Netanyahu in August. Russia offered to keep Iranian affiliated forces 100 kilometres from Israel’s border, which Netanyahu promptly rejected. For the sake of stability, Al Assad and Putin would be wise to give Tehran its marching orders. Now that the conflict is in its final stages, the regime is in dire need of international aid and reconstruction funds to be able to welcome home millions of refugees.
Permanent or semi-permanent Iranian bases will muddy the waters not only alienating Israel and the US but also potential European and GCC donors. Iran has no place in what will hopefully be a Syrian makeover. As long as Iran keeps its foothold it will remain a red rag to the Israeli bull. Russia is there to stay and will continue its role as defender. Al Assad must dissociate himself from his Persian partners-in-arms as a prerequisite to his nation’s re-acceptance by the community of nations.
Rebuilding the Syrian state in light of the circumstances is crucial no matter who is in charge. Syrians have greatly exceeded their capacity for suffering. Aid should be dispensed on condition there are free and fair elections monitored by the international community.
Provided Tehran withdraws its war machine and the Turks and Americans quit their interference Syria can be rebuilt anew. Enough playing with people’s lives! The game is over. The sooner big powers stop seeing Syria as a proxy battlefield and put the welfare of Syrians first, the better for all concerned.
Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon will be relieved of their weighty financial burdens caring for displaced persons. Europe will no more be required to pay bribes to Ankara to keep refugees from crossing the Mediterranean heading for European shores. And Syrians will no longer be unwelcome guests. When the sounds of gunfire and missiles are no more heard, the trickle of Syrians currently heading home will soon become a flood.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.