After seven years, who will stop Iran in Syria?
The Syrian people’s revolution against a regime that stripped its citizens of their dignity will soon have completed its seventh year. In 2011, Syrian teenagers and children wrote on the walls of their school in Daraa: “The people want to bring down the regime.”
Seven years later, Syria has become a battlefield. We say a battlefield because confrontations between regional — or even international — powers might very well take place there.
With the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey maintaining significant military presences in Syria, fears of a regional conflagration are real. Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the raids by Israeli warplanes on Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria intensify those fears.
The Syrian revolution started as a peaceful uprising by citizens who had had enough of decades of dictatorship, which began with the transformation of Syria into a police state run by Abdel Hamid al-Sarraj from 1958-61. That was during the fateful period of Egyptian-Syrian union — three years of hollow slogans and ruinous socialist policies. The brightest and most talented Syrians left the country and settled in neighbouring Lebanon, where they were instrumental in that country’s rapid development.
The Ba’ath regime, which followed the Sarraj regime, did its best to wipe out any hope an average Syrian citizen may have held on to of recapturing his country. The Ba’ath Party grabbed power in Syria on March 8, 1963, paving the way for an illegitimate sectarian regime.
It is not possible to understand the causes of the Syrian revolution without revisiting the origins of the minority regime that began taking shape in February 1966. Former Syrian President Hafez Assad secured a complete power grab in November 1970, transferring power to his son in 2000.
Over seven years, the peaceful popular revolt in Syria transformed into a raging civil war. Religious organisations took over the scene and engaged in endless battles with each other and against the Free Syrian Army. This was the second phase of the popular revolution. It was partly a civil war but also a series of proxy wars waged by foreign parties.
Little by little, the battered Syrian regime used the emergence of the Islamic State as a pretence of fighting terrorism. The cities of Homs, Hama and Aleppo were given up. Only Damascus is still in its hands and the regime is trying to change the sectarian composition of the city. The regime and its backers know that losing Damascus will seal the fate of the Assad regime in all of Syria. This is why the Iranians called the Russians to their rescue in September 2015.
What is happening in Syria is a sustained attempt to create the conditions for major conflagration in the region. The events in Eastern Ghouta reflect the impasses in which Russia and Iran find themselves. Russia is using all kinds of shelling to bring Eastern Ghouta to its knees.
What if the rebels in Eastern Ghouta surrender? Will Washington dare to negotiate with Russia about issues beyond Syria? The problem with Russia is that there are parties that mired it in Syria but there are no parties that are willing to confront it with other issues, Ukraine for example.
A few weeks ago, Iranian officials declared that Iran had invested more than $20 billion per year to keep the Assad regime in power in Damascus. Another official blurted out that, were it not for Iran’s support, Bashar Assad would have left Syria in 2012. There must have been a conscious decision to prop up the Assad regime and Bashar Assad knows quite well what the implications of this are in terms of who will be in charge if he remains in Damascus.
Seven years of involvement in Syria and no one knows how far Iran is willing to go to create a new reality in Syria. That could lead straight to a direct confrontation with Israel, which is going through a crisis because of investigations into Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s shady deals.
The end to the Syrian tragedy is receding every day. Turkey has learned its limitations and Russia has learned that getting out of Syria is not as easy as entering it. Iran, however, is willing to go as far as playing the war card.
Above all, however, the United States has yet to demonstrate that Donald Trump is not Barack Obama. Huge joint US-Israeli military exercises will do little to discourage Iran, which is counting on its Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani militias in Syria to carry out its dirty work.