Expect another year of chaos and surprises in Syria
2015 was a Reversal of Fortune for Syria: No ups and downs for its poor, suffering people — it has been a downer for them all the way. But for the different armies, religious movements, political factions and the major powers moving them like chips on a poker table, it was a year of endless ups and downs.
First, the United States backed the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Then it dropped it. Now the FSA may be seeking an accommodation with Russia.
The year began with the Islamic State (ISIS) riding high in Syria and for many months its momentum continued unabated. However, the Russian intervention in Syria, combining air strikes with ground operations carried out by the regular Syrian Army combined with a stepped-up rhythm of air strikes by the US-led coalition appears to have stalled ISIS’s gains.
December sees long-embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad riding surprisingly high and making a monkey out of the US government’s continued insistence that he must go. His Russian allies have proven relentless and efficient in bombing groups such as al-Nusra Front. And Iran remains committed to maintaining Assad in power, no matter what.
One key point often overlooked is that Russian Air Force coordination with Syrian ground forces appears to be much quicker and more competent than US coalition cooperation with the Iraqi Army.
Will this latest pattern continue into the New Year? Definitely.
Russia and Iran for their different but complementary reasons are determined to preserve Bashar Assad and restore his national power. But do not expect Russia and Iran to simply react to challenges from the United States, Turkey, ISIS or anyone else.
In 2016, Damascus can be expected to go on the offensive for the first time in many years and it will seek to roll back ISIS. Hezbollah for the moment will focus on joining in those efforts too, giving a short breathing space, but no more, to its main enemy, Israel.
However, expect more surprises and Reversals of Fortune down the line.
In 2016, Russia can be expected to step up its support for Syria, to boost its influence in the region and as retaliation for continued US-led economic sanctions imposed over Russia’s retention of Crimea and support for the secessionist Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. Do not be surprised if major Russian naval assets return to Latakia or if ground forces move in to further boost Assad and his army.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may even use Russia’s role in Syria as leverage with Saudi Arabia in seeking joint efforts to stabilise oil prices.
Syria has been a weak basket case for so long that nobody in the region has been able to contemplate it as a revived and renewed threat. However, if Assad’s rise in fortune thanks to his support from Russia in the air and Hezbollah on the ground continues, a revived Damascus regime is likely to prove assertive and threatening to its neighbours.
That will be very different from the cautious regional policies (except in Lebanon) that Damascus followed from the 1973 October War (also called War of Ramadan and the Yom Kippur War) with Israel to the start of the current great uprising in 2011.
The latest ridiculous and ignorant cliché making the rounds in Washington is that the credibility of the state lines drawn by Britain and France after World War I has run out.
That idea will be laughed out of court by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, none of which were established by imperialist-colonialist fiat and all of which were delighted to see the British and the French empires out of the region.
But Putin’s support for Assad shows that one state structure established by the French nearly a century ago is still going strong. Syria in its current form is not going away. The events of the coming year will confirm that.