US Senate committee on appropriation heard last Wednesday the responses of both Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey to a question from Senator Richard Durbin about the idea of establishing safe zones in Syria to protect civilians. Both defense officials rejected the idea, albeit with different nuances, from a cost evaluation perspective.
Prior to the hearing, Senator Durbin joined Senators Tim Kaine, Lindsay Graham, and John McCain in signing a letter to President Obama requesting the Administration to consider establishing humanitarian safe zones in Syria. The responses of both Secretary Carter and Gen Dempsey dim any chance of an already reluctant Obama to do anything in Syria other than the too little too late “train and equip” program.
However, what merits to be looked at, publicly or otherwise, is the substantial offers of assistance proposed by the US Arab allies and Turkey in the way of burden sharing of operations and expenses of the kind Sec Carter mentioned. Even if these offers were not sufficient in the President’s opinion, some effort could have been done to increase the share of those allies in the total operation. But the truth is that the proposal of establishing a No Fly Zone in Syria was resisted all along by the Administration, particularly the White House and the NSC.
In the meantime, Syrian civilians have to pay the price of a retreating Bashar Al Assad’s anger. And this anger falls on their heads daily in the form of waves of barrel bombs and chlorine shells in and around Idlib and other parts in North and South Syria. Assad says he is targeting the opposition. It is unclear until today how a chlorine shell will release gas that picks only opposition fighters and avoid children and civilians. These attacks however will change nothing on the ground other than increasing the pain and sufferings among the Syrians. Militarily, they make no sense and they do not produce any positive result to the regime.
The Syrian opposition is regrouping and restructuring its capabilities in a fast pace. This is reflected in the battle fields. But their fight seems to be entering its second phase of stalled balance. It is very likely now that we will see a new situation that mounts to a long term de facto partition of the country. Tehran and its allies hope that the planned partition, which will be implemented intentionally, will turn into a long term status quo.
Under pressure from recent advances of the opposition, Iranian Generals in Damascus decided to implement their plan B any way despite some objections from their Syrian counterparts. The Iranian plan is to pull out all Iranian military assets, personnel, Shia militias and Hezbollah units from the North of Syria and position them, instead, in Damascus and the South West. Assad forces will concentrate on Damascus and the North-West coastal areas. The Iranian Generals’ selective areas of activities are divided into two axes or stretches of land. The first extends from Palmyra to Al Qusair on the borders with Lebanon. The second begins at the Sayeda Zaineb quarter in Damascus and the Maza Airport to the Northern areas of the Alawi coastal land (where Assad forces will be concentrated) passing through Zabadani and Serghaya and including Northern Qalamoun.
The decision was understood by both Sunnis and Alawis as a self-serving strategy that sacrifices a unified Syria for securing Tehran’s strategic goal of keeping an open corridor to Hezbollah in the South of Lebanon. It comes contrary to what Bashar Al Assad himself wanted, as he still has illusions about being the president of “all Syria”. The central point now in the ongoing fight has returned to Damascus. Zahran ‘Aloush forces are only 5 miles far from the capital. The fate of Damascus itself is being debated between the regime, Al Quds Brigade generals and Hezbollah Commanders. The emerging view may lead eventually to a divided capital, the same as Beirut was during Lebanon’s civil war, with the west kept under the control of the pro regime forces.
These sketchy images of a de facto partition of Syria are helpful insofar as they reveal the directions of event. Reality on the ground is hard to mold in any precise manner or be packed in any final demarcation lines. Nonetheless, it is obvious now that the full brunt of the task of preserving Al Assad regime is gradually falling on the shoulders of the Iranians. The IRGC in Syria understands that there is little sense in wasting resources to keep vast areas of no strategic value and be subjected there to a war of attrition by the opposition. Already, Iran and Hezbollah pulled out all their forces from the North of Syria in implementation of Tehran’s plan B there. Pro Iran and Assad forces will dig deep in their selected areas and seem to be preparing to keep it for a long time.
The Iranian-Hezbollah move makes sense, but only tactically. The inhabitants of the areas selected by the backers of the regime are mostly Alawi. The Alawi community cannot be mistaken for a Shia population. They are not Shia. Furthermore, they are instinctively secular. They openly mock the Iranian model of “Vilayat e Faqih”. They also consider themselves patriot Syrians and are opposed to the idea of partitioning their country. They harbor an increasing belief that Bashar placed their community in an existential danger when he chose to use force to quell the protesters opposing him at the beginning of the Syrian revolution.
The importance of building bridges between Syria’s Alawi and Sunni communities is gaining now much more central weight. It will be up to the Alawis to decide if they want to remain under Iranian protection in a coastal enclave or to preserve their national identity as Syrians in a unified country where they are treated as equal citizens. It will be up to the Sunnis to provide their Alawi compatriots with enough meaningful and concrete assurances for their place in a future pluralistic and democratic Syria. The current position of some opposition groups does not inspire Alawis to believe any such assurances. An intra-opposition debate about the collective position towards the Alawi community has to start and be as candid as possible. If sectarian sentiments remain the way they are, those who harbor them will be responsible for the expected long term partition of Syria.
The fact that the Iranians will focus only on protecting selected stretches of contingent territory, and that these territories are mainly Alawi populated, may invite a comparison between the presence of Iranian forces in Baghdad and the South of Iraq, for example, and their presence in the West of Syria. In Iraq, the Iranians move among a Shia population. This is not the case in Syria. If Bashar Al Assad loses Damascus, he may remain as a symbolic president presiding in honorary terms over an Iranian-Hezbollah military structure that is defending only a powerless president in selected areas of Syria.
The collapse of the “Syrian” state structure would have been completed with the implementation of Iran’s plan B, and we will be facing already the next episode of the Syrian unfolding tragedy. The opposition will soon have anti air craft missiles which will help stop Al Assad barrel bombings. But this will also lead to semi-permanent status quo of a country divided into two parts.
All the while, US diplomacy is trying to find a way out. But the problem of any diplomacy emptied of a role on the ground is that it rarely catches the attention of anybody.
In his negotiations with Johan Kerry, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif put forward the elements that Tehran requires in any future deal in Syria. Among those elements is that Iranian interests in Syria should be respected, multi-party guarantees (international/regional) of a corridor to the Hezbollah strong hold in the South Lebanon, guarantees that any future Syrian government will honor Syria’s financial debts to Iran, commitments of never pursuing any Iranian individual or entity for crimes of war or demands of compensations, and respecting the rights, properties and investments of Iranian citizens settled in Syria lately.
These demands do not reflect realities on the ground. The proposed deal will stall, leaving only the de facto partition of Syria as the only available default line at this phase of the crisis that merits indeed to be called the “mother of all crisis”. The Russians, busy in Ukraine and with problems in their ties to Europe, opted to reducing their involvement.
Turkey and to a lesser extent Qatar will have the decisive say in the North. Saudi Arabia will have it in the South. While the question of the fate of Damascus is gaining prominence, few months from today, if not sooner, the Syrian capital will be a central battle field as the battle will be about the demarcation line. The opposition hopes to kick Al Assad and his allies out of the capital altogether. This will require more time however.
A divided Syria is slowly emerging from the dust and the smoke. But that will not make the crisis any closer to its end.