Damascus’s regime is weakened but can count on allies, for now

The regime is weakened and has been humiliated by Israeli air strikes.
February 18, 2018
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad watch troops marching at the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria. (AP)
Uneasy alliance. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria. (AP)

Israeli air strikes in Syria are not new. For years, Israel has been striking at the Assad regime and Hezbollah targets in Syria with regularity and effectiveness. Where recent strikes differ is not in intent but in scale.

Israel estimates that it destroyed nearly half of the Assad regime’s air defences. This weakens the regime in relation to foreign powers. It also demonstrates divergence between the regime and its Iranian and Russian backers.

Russia’s power in Syria is not absolute but it is present. Before mounting its strikes, Israeli officials must have notified Russia. It is significant that the Russians failed to lift a finger to aid their Syrian client.

There is an Iranian dimension. Ryan O’Farrell, an analyst, said via social media that “the real question, then, is to what degree the regime was involved in sending the Iranian drone into Israeli airspace [and precipitated the violence] or whether this was Iran simply doing as it pleased on Syrian soil.”

O’Farrell said rumours suggested “that this was a premeditated action designed to draw the IAF (Israeli Air Force) deep into Syrian airspace” where the Syrians could attack Israeli jets.

This seems unlikely.

It is possible that the intensification of Israel’s intervention in Syria serves to further regime propaganda. The regime and Iran are more than nominally close in opposition to Israel, with the regime serving in an “axis of resistance” that includes Iran and Hezbollah. O’Farrell said: “A fight against Israel would help reorient the narrative back to the ‘resistance’ role that has bolstered the regime for decades.”

Yet the regime has suffered substantial damage to its air defences and its credibility.

That Russia likely acquiesced to the Israeli attacks makes the regime appear to be on life support, dependent on other powers that are not wedded to Syrian President Bashar Assad and have no reason to back him in all things.

John Arterbury, a security analyst in Washington, said via social media that “the regime is… beholden to the whims of its backers, as well as to the many militias that the regime and its allies support on the ground.”

He referenced to the recent firefight east of the Euphrates River between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters and pro-regime forces. Arterbury said this “underscore[s] that the regime is reliant upon and deeply intertwined with foreign-backed militias, as evidenced by the attack that featured Russian mercenaries prominently.”

Bente Scheller, director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Middle East office and author of “The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads,” said by telephone that “the Russians and the Iranians and any other power intervening in Syria at the moment are largely following their own priorities and aims.”

She said Russia is “very powerful” but cannot “force the regime to be obedient,” which must be “frustrating.” Assad has also shown that “whatever the Russians want, he won’t… [follow] their orders.”

Scheller referenced Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons, something that makes Russian advocacy on the regime’s behalf more difficult, and the Russian ambition to be visibly involved in brokering peace seem more remote.

“The Russians are much more pragmatic than the regime,” Scheller said. Russia would “like an international settlement” rather than “to retake every inch of Syria,” which is Assad’s professed ambition.

Arterbury agreed, noting that “divergence occurs, however, between how Iran and Russia intersect with the regime’s desire to retake all of Syria.”

“Iran,” he said, “is seeking to use Syria as a springboard and strategic reserve for its ‘resistance axis’ and is more closely aligned with the regime’s grand strategic aims.” Russia “has more modest ambitions, recent attacks along the Euphrates notwithstanding.”

O’Farrell noted the suggestion that “Iran and the regime are closer in their priorities than Russia and the regime, which some have suggested as a rift to exploit.” “Though,” he said, “I don’t see it as particularly realistic.”

There is little chance that the regime will be written out of its own war. Its forces are still present, though weakened. Regime forces cannot retake all of Syria, per Assad’s ambition, and they are increasingly dependent on foreign support. This foreign support looks unlikely to dry up, despite Iran provoking an Israeli response and Russia effectively allowing Israel to strike its ally.

Assad can look forward to manifestations of support and unbroken confidence from his backers. Arterbury summed up: “Ultimately, Damascus’s aims enjoy broad support from Iran and Russia but eventual concerns over Israel and the post-war landscape could eventually threaten the unity of action.”

The regime is weakened and has been humiliated by the Israeli air strikes. It can continue to count on the support of its patrons — at least for now.