“Over the last 15 years the West has been trying to bring democracy to the Near East”
“Ruined apartment building in the city Nubl, which has been under siege by the rebels for more than three years.” Photo credit: Michael Alaeddin, February 11, 2016
“But bringing in democracy by force of arms doesn’t work.”
In Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag
February 16, 2016
Translated from German by Tom Winter
The American Syria expert and professor of Near East Studies Joshua Landis considers, in an interview, that the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is winning the civil war — Thanks to the support of Russia.
NZZ am Sonntag: The suffering of the Syrians is unimaginable. New figures speak of 470 000 dead, millions displaced, torture victims in the tens of thousands, hundred thousands starving. What can be done to stop the suffering?
Joshua Landis: The simple answer is: end the civil war. The great problem is, how can that be done. There are lots of temporary measures, which is what US Secretary of State John Kerry means when he speaks these days about ceasefires. But none of these measures entails a political solution.
There is a fierce debate going on in Washington: Should the US and the West let Russia bring the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the finish line and make him the winner in this civil war? Or should the international community, especially the supporters of the rebels – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Gulf States and the United States – massively threaten and intimidate the Russians so they stop the hostilities?
What is the answer?
The Russians and Assad will win. At least temporarily. First, because the West is unwilling to get really deep into the civil war. Secondly: Compared to the rebels and their supporters, the Syrian regime, with Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, is now in a phase of success, they are determined and powerful.
The main supporters of the rebels are in deep in other wars: Saudi in Yemen and the Turks in their southeast, in conflict with the Kurds. They can not afford to get too involved in Syria. And despite all their protestations, Syria is not important enough to them.
And the Americans?
Syria isn’t important enough to them, either. Look at what the foremost presidential candidates are saying — Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton. Nobody is talking about facing off with Russia. They talk sternly about it, the fight against the Islamic State, but solving the Syrian knot is not in it.
Over the last 15 years the West has been trying to bring democracy to the Near East and so to eliminate dictatorship and oppression. After the attack of 9/11 the US occupied Afghanistan and then they invaded Iraq. Later on there came the knockout blow to the regime in Libya and the ejection of the Yemenite dictator. And now, the regime change in Syria. But bringing in democracy by force of arms doesn’t work. The attempts of the US to bring on regime change have led to the collapse of countries and the nourishing of extremist Islamic groups.
And what about Russia?
Russia intervened on September 30, 2015. President Vladimir Putin said, in effect: “Well, enough of this. The Middle East is not ready for democracy.” Putin is now promoting the Russian model of the Strong Man. Just as it works in Russia, with him at the top, so it should be successful in the Middle East. With Assad in Syria, Abdelfatah al-Sisi in Egypt, or any other dictator.
We don’t know. At the start of the war in Syria, President Obama, the British, the French, and also the Germans excommunicated Bashar al-Assad. They insisted they would join the Syrian opposition, they would separate the Moderates from the Extremists, and build up the Moderates. And these were then going to eliminate Assad and the Syrian Army and the Extremists. The West worked on this model for five years. It has been a spectacular failure. Today the three most powerful forces are Assad, the Islamic State, and the Nusa-Front, plus the Syrian al Qaida affiliates.
Should the West have supported the Moderate Rebels more?
That is the issue in Washington. Many say: Yes, the US has wasted an opportunity. But I believe that the Sunni opposition would not have been capable in any case. Not because they have too few weapons, but because they are organized by villages and tribes. According to the CIA, there are more than 1,500 militia. Despite the request of the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it is the Sunnis that have failed to create a unified leadership. The rebels have failed. They always want to blame the West. But there is nothing to indicate that more support would have helped.
So Obama was therefore correct, in doing little.
Yes. But he did more than we think, because he has inspired the rebellion. We were betting that Assad would fall in the first months. Every western Intelligence service was exaggerating the power in being, and misunderstoanding the strength of moderate forces. This policy has contributed to the destruction of Syria. We can blame Assad for everything, and he certainly carries a large part of the blame. But we should not close their eyes to our own responsibility.
Now there is supposed to be a cease-fire next week. What’s that worth?
The Nusra Front and the IS are excluded. But the Nusra Front is the heart of the armed rebellion, it dominates the region around Idlib. The Qaeda offshoot is allied with Ahrar al-Sham, the largest non-terrorist group: They fight together at the front, they care for their wounded. Assad can now tell Ahrar al-Sham Step aside, here we come with our tanks and we are retaking Idlib. What is Ahrar al-Sham to do? Keep the ceasefire, or do they stand with their partners from the Nusra Front? Russia and the Syrian army can hunt everything from the air, and the West can not say anything because he is against al-Qaeda. That is the dilemma. Russia and Assad will exploit it shamelessly.
Do you expect the war will continue?
Yes, probably still a year or two. If the Russians bring Assad to victory with their air support, there will be more refugees in the short term. But in the long view it could end the civil war and smash both IS and the Nusra Front. So political stability and security would be managed, which would let many refugees to return home. But, of course, not all those who actively participated in the uprising. That’s the problem when a dictator wins.