Michael Young

September 26, 2014

Toward a Syrian endgame?

The anti-ISIS campaign may lead to an Assad exit




This US Air Forces Central Command photo released by the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System (DVIDS) shows a pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles flying over northern Iraq early in the morning of September 23, 2014 after conducting airstrikes in Syria

If Iran and Hezbollah appear worried about the attacks being directed by the United States and its allies against the Islamic State, or ISIS, the reason is simple. They realize that the logical outcome of military operations in Syria is likely to be pressure for a political solution that leads to Bashar al-Assad’s departure.


The connection between the anti-ISIS campaign and the Syrian conflict was made on Thursday at a Friends of Syria foreign ministers’ meeting in New York. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed it succinctly: “For as long as the strife in Syria continues, the growth of extremist groups will continue.”


Applying the same logic as in Iraq, the Americans are also likely to soon conclude that only a more inclusive government in Syria can consolidate the gains made against ISIS. In Iraq, the aim was to bring Sunnis into the political process, in the belief that they are necessary to defeating ISIS, and to do so the Obama administration helped remove Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Why should Syria be any different?


Perhaps what disturbs Iran and Hezbollah the most is that their strategy in both Iraq and Syria is crumbling. When Mosul fell to ISIS, Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was asked what was to be done. “We must rely on Shiite solidarity,” Suleimani allegedly replied.


That was decidedly not the solution that the United States pursued, nor one that would have allowed the Iraqi government to prevail over ISIS. If anything, Shiite solidarity would only have solidified the Iraqi divide, allowing ISIS, with its core of Saddam-era officers, to reinforce its hold over Sunni areas.


In Syria, Iran’s policies have brought little more than fragmentation. That may be an Iranian objective, but the repercussions are turning to Tehran’s disadvantage. The minority backbone of the regime is breaking as Alawites and Christians take increasingly heavy losses. This is unsustainable, and already there are signs that the regime’s supporters are becoming angry over the way the war is being conducted.


In Qalamoun, Hezbollah and the Syrian army announced earlier this year that they had defeated the rebels. In fact, not wanting to engage in a bloody final push in such places as Qusayr and Yabroud, they allowed the rebels to evacuate the towns with their weapons and regroup in the hinterland.


Now Hezbollah is trapped in a battle it cannot win in Qalamoun, while the Syrian regime has lost ground in the south of Syria and around Damascus – not to mention its loss of large outposts in the north and east of the country. Assad once said that the fighting in Syria would be largely over by the end of this year. He may yet be right, but not quite in the way he envisaged.


Officially, Russian support for Assad has not diminished, but as Moscow wrestles with the consequences of the conflict in the Ukraine and an economy suffering from Western sanctions, its outlook toward Syria may change. Earlier this year Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, told one of his Lebanese interlocutors that in speaking to Russian officials, he felt that they had reached an impasse over Syria.


If true, the Russian impasse, along with the Iranian impasse, along with the air war against ISIS, may create the elements of a broader deal in Syria that sees Assad’s removal while also offering guarantees to the country’s frightened minorities. Yet Iran and Russia are wary that it may be Assad’s enemies who will get the best of any such deal, in part because it is their airplanes that are flying sorties above Syria and their weapons that will be sent to the “moderates” among the rebels.


The question is how the Obama administration will react to the inescapable reality that for its anti-ISIS campaign to succeed in Syria, it will require a parallel political solution to end the conflict there. President Barack Obama is not about to admit that openly, just weeks before midterm congressional elections, when isolationist impulses are still strong in America. However, once the voting is done, anticipate a change in attitude.


The challenge for Obama will be to prepare the ground for a political solution, even if we’re not there yet. The meeting in New York between the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers this week was a useful start, though Tehran and Riyadh remain far apart on Syria. Obama’s decision to bar Iran from the recent anti-ISIS coalition meeting in Paris was probably a mistake, given Tehran’s influence in both Baghdad and Damascus. The Gulf states may have been pleased, but reaching a consensus over Syria will not happen without Iran being a part of it.


In the end, Bashar Assad is expendable. Not even the Iranians can seriously believe that normalization in Syria will take place with him remaining in office. That means that a mechanism must be found to reduce the differences between the various regional actors involved in Syria. And there is a major difference today when compared to the past: America is engaged and it has an interest in creating a new political context that can shore up the gains it makes against ISIS.


Not so long ago, Obama didn’t want to hear about Syria. Now his aircraft are bombing Syria on a daily basis. Before long, expect the president to talk more about a resolution of the Syrian conflict. It is becoming plain that he cannot avoid doing so, even if the president’s predisposition to avoid problems usually means they come back to hit him twice as hard.  


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling





This is most asinine and vapid analysis I have read in a long time. I can't believe you get paid for this.




Wishful thinhing..




Yup. The "moderates" we train in Syria will implement a grand plan to remove Assad and destroy ISIS. Yup Mike, your right. lol . I know every fiber of your being hates this truth, but the Sunnis all are fanatic. Get iocer your PC belief.


But there may be another side to this coin. The "moderate" opposition yesterday surprisingly declared it is against the US strikes because 1) of civilian casualties (typically an argument used by anyone grandstanding against the US, even as the US is rushing to their help), and 2) it prefers that the US gives it the weapons and let it do the fighting. In other words, the outcome of the US strikes may in fact lead to a rapprochement between the opposition and the Assad regime against the "crusading imperialists". Remember that the so-called "moderates" in Syria are steeped in 50 years of Baathist indoctrination against anything western. Just as happened in Iraq, once ISIS is weakened enough in Syria, anticipate an overwhelming anti-American/anti-Western sentiment across Syria that may lead to an outcome not very much to Washington's satisfaction, including among others a backlash inside the Arab allies of the coalition. Arabs and Muslimsfundamentally hate the West, and so while they want the West to do their dirty laundry, they will quickly turn against it and blame it for all of Syria's torment once the danger against them abates.

sam from boston