Assad’s new strategy: Wooing back defectors
On January 3rd, Nawaf al-Bashir, an influential tribal leader who was an early defector from the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, returned to Damascus.
He had been lured by a Russian-inspired campaign to woo key opposition figures back to the fold to divide the opposition and bolster popular support for new military offensives aimed at recapturing more territory from rebel forces.
The strategy seems to be working. Coming on the heels of the regime’s landmark December victory in Aleppo, some Syrian notables seem to have concluded that bringing down the regime is no longer possible and they are turning a new page with the Kremlin, via Damascus.
Bashir, 63, a long-time opponent of the regime who fled to Turkey in the summer of 2011 shortly after the war erupted, flew into Damascus Airport aboard a plane from Tehran — the most prominent counter-defection of the 6-year war.
Bashir heads the powerful Baggara tribe, with 1.5 million members from Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor in Syria to Mosul and Falluja in Iraq. The Baggara is an essential ally for Moscow and Damascus in their war against the Islamic State (ISIS), which has controlled Bashir’s native Deir ez-Zor since 2012.
When Bashir defected, he denounced the regime as “mafia, sinners and murderers”. But he recently declared: “We were wrong. I now stand with the people of Syria, its government and army in their war against terrorism and I place myself at the disposal of my people, the state and my president.”
Days after Bashir’s return, Brigadier-General Mustapha al-Sheikh, head of the Free Syrian Army’s military council, appeared on Russian television to praise Moscow as a “friend of the Syrian people”.
Russia’s military presence in Syria was “not an occupation”, he declared, hailing the recapture of Aleppo in December, which depended heavily on Russian air power. This is a far cry from the Syrian opposition’s ritual denunciations of the Russians as “war criminals”.
Sheikh was born in the Idlib countryside and was a long-time member of the Ba’ath Party, whose office in Idlib was headed by his brother. When he defected in December 2011, he ran the Chemical Department in the eastern province and was the highest ranking officer to quit the army.
Having provincial leaders like Sheikh and Bashir back in the fold could provide the regime and the Russians with a critical edge in the anticipated battle with the jihadists for Deir ez-Zor and Idlib, the next major offensives of the war.
Bashir was born in a village in the oil-rich region of Deir ez-Zor in 1954. He grew up during the early years of Ba’athism, when Syrian tribes in the eastern province were marginalised and ignored by Damascus. Many of the tribal lands were nationalised.
Bashir was proclaimed head of the Baggara when he was 26, and in 1988-92, served in the Ba’ath-dominated parliament. He shifted to the opposition in 2005, signing the famed Damascus Declaration, a pro-democracy manifesto that called for the end of one-party rule.
After his defection, Bashir fled to Turkey, retracting professions of loyalty he had made. “I apologise to the Syrian people for what was said,” he declared at the time. “We now want nothing but to topple the regime.”
His return has Russian and Iranian fingerprints all over it and speaks of pragmatism in seeking to rally Syrians in the fight against ISIS and a political endgame devised by President Vladimir Putin himself.
Having Bashir back in harness, they believe, will bolster popular support for a possible offensive on Deir ez-Zor, where ISIS scored an important victory on January 16th, with more victories expected.
Many of Syria’s Sunni Arab tribesmen joined forces with ISIS in 2012 or at least did nothing to impede the group’s rise. This was largely because they badly needed three things: leadership, money and protection from Iranian, Kurdish and Islamist militias.
The Ba’athists sidelined the traditional leaders of major tribes and replaced them with political nonentities. This left the north-eastern provinces helpless, weaponless and open to attack by any of the warring factions.
The Russians apparently reason that Syria’s rebellious tribes can be “bought back” to the regime if they are properly armed and trained, and one way of doing that is convincing people like Bashir to switch allegiance back to the regime.
He will no doubt be rewarded politically and financially for his counter-defection and this, so the Russians apparently believe, could lead to similar actions by other tribal chieftains.
Another notable they are eyeing is Ahmad al-Jarba, former president of the opposition National Coalition, who hails from a prominent tribe in al-Qamishly and was once close to Saudi Arabia.
Winning over men such as these would strip the opposition of some of its most prominent figures, reinforcing the belief that the regime, with Russia and Iran behind it, is back on top — at least for now.