I remember being in the car with my father on September 29th of the past year. We were listening to a radio piece on NPR regarding American interests in Syria, specifically the threat of ISIS having gained some foothold in the Syrian Civil War. ISIS was arguably a more colorful and ideologically-rooted foe and their momentum of power certainly eclipsed any outsider interest in seeing Assad’s regime preserved.
One of the radio personalities posed a rhetorical question, pondering how much time would elapse before Russia would eventually divest its attention from propping up the failing regime and join the United States in efforts against the radical jihadists. The tone of the thing was clear, Putin was essentially being a stubborn child and would, of strategic and moral necessity, eventually come around to the Western plan of action. The very next day Russian air forces began a strike of northern Syria under the commitment of combating the “terrorist” elements there. The strikes did not focus on ISIS positions, but instead managed to hit the Free Syrian Army, a US backed rebel group. Far from joining ranks with the US, Russia began to dig her heels in even more. Why would Putin be committed to this suicidal course of action? Was the Assad regime a better dog to bet on than we in the West had given credit?
The Russian Navy and the Russian Base in Syria
The reality is that Russia is a state with broad ambitions and has very little reason to yield in this situation. Moscow has a long-running relationship with Syria and one of fruits of that relationship is the Russian naval base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Tartus has been in Russian use since 1971 when the USSR was Syria’s primary arms dealer, and Russian use of the port continued after the fall of the USSR, partly due to a deal that excused Syria of debts it had incurred under the Soviet Union.
Part of achieving her global aspirations, and something that Russia has appeared to be focusing on more recently, is the projection of naval power. It could also be argued quite easily that the recent annexation of Crimea, following a pro-Western revolution, was an effort to secure the continued use of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol; home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Likewise, Tartus, being the only Russian controlled port on the Mediterranean, is of immense military and commercial value. Russian naval doctrine as of 2001 specifically emphasizes a need to counter NATO influence in the Mediterranean. In June 2012, just a month before rebels attacked Syria’s largest city of Aleppo, Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, was quoted by Russian news agency RIA-Novosti as saying: “This base is essential to us; it has been operating and will continue to operate.”
The port at Tartus is in turn connected to a good infrastructure of highways and railways situated in the regime controlled west. So not only is the base relevant to long-term Russian interests in the Mediterranean region, the port and connecting transport routes are of great logistical relevance in the continued support of Assad. The broad utility of the port and the backing of the regime by Russia are in essence a Mobius strip. One situation feeds the other.
Syria and the “Axis of Resistance”
Aside from the Mediterranean base, an alliance with Assad taps into a network popularly referred to as the “Axis of Resistance.” The “Axis,” a term coined first in Middle Eastern newspapers as something of a parody of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” but later adopted in diplomatic language, refers to the alliance between Syria, Iran, and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The major ideological glue of this assortment is a stance against what is seen as American imperialism, and also against Israel, who is considered a proxy in the region. It is also worth noting that the bulk of Sunni-dominated states in the Middle East are NATO allies. If the sectarian frictions between the Shia-orientated “Axis” and the Sunni states was not enough, we can see that fuel is added to the fire in the overlap of NATO vs non-NATO allegiances to the existing religious strife.
Iran, whether through government funding or private donors, provides financial backing to Hezbollah, the two being akin in their variant of Shia-influenced theological outlook. The Assad regime, although mostly Alawite, a sect of Shia, is decidedly secularist even bordering on socialist and does not necessarily share the theocratic opinions of its allies. Nevertheless, Syria provides the material logistics to Hezbollah, sharing a border with Lebanon, and in turn enjoys something of a buffer state between itself and Israel.
This relationship is beneficial to all parties involved. As the war in Syria drags on, it is Hezbollah and Iranian Shia forces that are replacing the fatigued and casualty-worn Syrian Arab Army. Because of this network of cooperation allied in specific against American/Israeli/Sunni influence in the region, this “Axis” serves as the obvious counterpoint to the Western-allied Sunni states that Russia, with the goal of expanding her influence in the Middle East, is throwing support behind.
A perusal of many Western media outlets will gain one the impression of a depleted and dysfunctional Syrian Arab Army. In the same manner that we are compelled to believe that Russia will eventually come around to Western designs upon a common enemy, we are routinely reminded that the regime is also on the ropes. However, in addition to Assad’s network of foreign support, both in the Middle East and Asia, the domestic situation for the Assad regime presents some continuing advantages in spite of losses at the hands of its various competitors.
It is well known that the ranks of rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army are constituted in large part by defectors of regime military forces. Stories of large scale defections, including even extended members of the Assad family, paint a picture of crumbling unity which will not long stand against a tide of democratic reform. But who are these defectors, and what are they doing after abandoning the regime? Consistent statistics about defections are difficult to come by, but a tentative estimate stands around 100, 000 units, roughly half the original ranks of the regime’s Syrian Arab Army. Among these defections are reported officers of various rank, the presence of which could be of great leverage to the opposition.
In the case of higher-tiered officers, the defection of such individual have the potential of valuable intel regarding the organization or resources of the regime. In the case of junior officer defection, if whole groups had defected along with their lower-tiered officers having direct management of the units, those defections would represent an appropriation by the opposition of entire, pre-trained squads made cohesive by shared battle experience. The inherent value in individually functioning, well-coordinated squads under trusted junior officers cannot be overstated, and any number of these would be a boon to the FSA. These are simply speculations, but worth considering when divining a future course of the events.
In addition, the ethnic constitution of the FSA is estimated to be about 90% Sunni. By contrast, in an effort to consolidate authority, Assad made sure that the majority of the SAA officers were drawn from the Alawite minority. Tension of a sectarian and political nature have visibly arisen in Camp Apaydin, a community of former SAA members just over the border in Turkey, and these tensions may be a barometer for feelings on the ground among the active FSA.
Although the West likes to point at defections and disunion in the SAA, there is less attention payed to the various regime-loyal militias. These militias collectively amount to about 100, 000 units, essentially replacing units lost due to defections. The militias were known in the English language as “Popular Committees” until the middle of 2012 when the regime began to fund and organize the various groups into the National Defense Forces. These forces draw largely from various minority groups in Syria, Alawi, Armenians, Christians, and Druze among them. The initial motivations of the individual militias is assumed to be defense of their particular communities, whether against the regime, ISIS, or the Sunni dominated resistance. However as the conflict progresses these minority communities are largely throwing in with the regime, opting for the secular, albeit brutally authoritarian Assad, instead of leaving fate to the sectarian FSA or a potential foreign Western occupation. Now that these localized militias are under the financing and banner of Assad, and receiving further training from Hezbollah and Iranian forces, there is no reason for them not to dig their heels in and defend the rump state.
However, aside from speculations about sectarian frictions among the militias, a further complication to the unity of the NDF is the inclusion of smuggling gangs known as the “Shibaha;” that word meaning roughly “ghost” in Arabic. These gangs have their origin in the 80’s and have long acted as enforcers, quelling uprisings under the elder Assad. In the 90’s the recklessness of the gangs ended up becoming a problem for the regime, and Basil Assad, the brother of Bashar, was ordered to clamp down on them, which he did successfully. These gangs were only re-legitimized recently in the context of the recent conflict, and it is likely that they are responsible for the accusations of theft and raiding among the populous and even a skirmish between NDF and SAA forces. At any rate, the situation on the ground for regime forces is not entirely without leverage.
The American Position
So far, the United States has taken a behind-the-scenes role in the Civil War. We have adopted a humanitarian stance in the situation, continuing our vow to topple dictators in the world wherever they might be found. As a Westerner myself, whose philosophical foundations are descendant of the European Enlightenment, I certainly do not see Assad as a ruler who embodies humanitarian principles. However, while ordering the army to fire upon unarmed protesters is not the mark of a leader who embraces the gestalt of a republic based on human dignity, it is ISIS, not Assad, who represent a greater threat to the stability of the region as well as an ideological threat within the Islamic and global world.
The US has taken the position that the fall of the regime is necessary for combating terrorism. Other parties, including Iran and Russia, have taken the position that the regime is a necessary bulwark against ISIS, and that stripping Assad of his executive powers would create a power vacuum which would further accommodate the activities of extremists. Regardless of which of these opposing views bears greater frame on reality, there are clear additional motivations for Russia to hold her position, namely the Tartus port and an allegiance with the Axis of Resistance to offset NATO influence. In the same way, the US would be motivated to see Syria under the control of a NATO ally, and our pretensions to structuring democratic societies around the world overlap nicely with our strategic interests in this particular case.
I would estimate that most Americans do not chose to view their country in the role of “empire,” and those who do, do it begrudgingly. Regardless, our country is the hegemon, although it’s arguable that we have been slipping in that role. Most Americans will continue to elect leaders who actively promote our role as superpower. Establishment politicians on both left and right will criticize each other over the severity and the finesse of our militaristic adventures overseas as managed by the opposing party, but the endgame is the same. As America approaches the presidential primaries and narrows down her choices for a new Commander in Chief, it’s interesting to consider that outsiders not beholden to party platforms, candidates like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, are in the position to offer differing solutions on the international platform, although these differences are more a departure from current strategy and not from our general imperial spirit.
Whether the average citizen reasons American involvement abroad as necessary for not upsetting the current balance of power, or because we see some moral defect in the non-Western world for which a forcible intervention to the ends of structuring democratic government is the only solution, our civic identity as American individuals necessarily entails a vague understanding of our country’s foreign policy, the players involved, and the stakes for which we fight. For our mission to promote human rights abroad and for our pride in our history of democratic institutions at home we owe it to ourselves, and to those overseas who our activity affects, a greater understanding and concern for the nation’s role in the world.