Syria Ascending While Lebanon Flounders

Wednesday, November 7, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

President Michel Aoun must be gnashing his teeth as his erstwhile partner, Hezbollah, has created yet another obstacle to the formation of the government, insisting on the allocation of a ministerial position to its Sunni allies in the March 8 bloc. After coming within sight of a deal before this latest roadblock, Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri decided it was better to stay in Paris after expending enormous energy placating all of the demands so that a list was almost assured. Almost – until Hezbollah decided that no government was better for its interests, once again giving critics the opportunity to challenge its participation in any government.

Syria wasted no time in building on its success at the Istanbul meeting of Russia, Germany, France, and Turkey to dismiss the UN’s formula for a constitutional conference and submit it/Russia’s formula for a “peace process” in the country. Not once, but twice, the final communique emphasized Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, challenging the US and Israel in particular, which have very specific ideas about the country’s future. Although Syria and Iran were not specifically mentioned, it is clear that the outcome of the meeting was a plus for them and Russia.

With recent reports of its naval expansion in the eastern Mediterranean and control of its own airbase near Latakia, Russia shows that it has returned to the region for the long haul. Iran will continue to have influence in Syria both through its own forces and commercial activities, as well as through Assad’s reliance on Hezbollah. What is unclear is if Iran will have direct control over its drone and missile production facilities in Syria allegedly run by the IRG, or if these will be transitioned over to Syrian and Hezbollah forces.

Turkey has upped the ante by attacking YPG forces that are part of the US-led effort against ISIS in the Euphrates area, creating more problems for the US, UK, and French forces there. Additionally, there is some confusion as to how Syrian Kurds will participate in any peace formula given Turkey’s hardline towards their presence. Ironically, given the history of both Assad regimes being elected with more than 90% of votes cast, an article from the Carnegie Endowment site Diwan noted “It takes fierce optimism to believe Syrian elections can be held in compliance with the highest international standards of transparency and accountability,” as mentioned in the communique.

A related issue tackled on the Diwan site is how the Syrian regime will manage the many militias it supports as the war winds down. In the jargon of conflict resolution, the process is called DDR, or “disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation.” The effort is based on the assumption that there is a means to delineate between Syria’s regular and irregular forces, which may seem like an unnecessary exercise for the regime at this time. Usually, the challenge is returning opposition forces to a status that allows efforts at peace-building and reconstruction to proceed. In Syria, one cannot overlook the country’s need for “Sustaining a network of regime-affiliated personnel to neutralize domestic opponents, compensate for the shortcomings of the Syrian state and army, and prevent the regime’s collapse. In the post-conflict phase, these militias will not be easily dismantled because they have become an integral part of the power structure and will increasingly operate under the umbrella of the regular forces.”

If fact, the integration of militias and regular forces has been going on for some time as the Assad regime has sought to build local capabilities to support its goals. Those who have achieved success in the many areas of conflict in the country are already being integrated into the regular army. For others, the potential for lingering dissatisfaction and opposition would only fester, as was the case in Iraq.

As the article concludes, “Rather than risk such an outcome, the regime would prefer to continue to incorporate these militias and leaders into official structures while attempting to keep the system in balance by playing different power centers off against one another. Integrating the militias into the regular forces also gives the regime room to employ the state’s legitimacy to try to keep them in check.”

While the US has settled on a Syria strategy for this quarter, there are concerns that it lacks a strategic goal to guide its policymaking. As an article posted by the Atlantic Council’s Hariri Center points out, “The Trump administration’s professed strategy of using the American presence in Syria to force favorable concessions deemed to be in the US interest is too easily thwarted by rival players. There will be no winner and, instead, the game will continue to reset.”

The argument is made that if the US decides to stay in Syria, assuming Turkey and Russia will not pose threats to our presence there and costs will be contained, thus avoiding Congressional attention, the US has a workable strategy. But Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Syria are aware of the Administration’s thinking and will continue to challenge the US presence by attacking the YPG, making civilian overflights of US positions, putting pressure on transportation routes for supplies, and continued exclusion of the US from efforts to deliver a robust peace effort.

In the meantime, Russia and Iran are extending their logistics networks throughout the country, contracts for reconstruction are being signed, and overall it looks like a scenario ensures Russian interests and preeminence in the region. The core of the conundrum as described in the article is “The United States has conditioned a peace agreement on the removal of Iranian-commanded forces. This begs the question: What happens if the Syrian regime, even after an agreement is reached with Russia on some sort of governance changes, requests that the Iranian government stay in Syria, while demanding that the other external actors withdraw?”