At the outset of Syria’s brutal four-year civil war, I was an almost unique voice in the British media deploring the push to depose the secular dictator President Bashar al-Assad, especially in the absence of a genuinely popular uprising against him. Here in The Spectator I tried to point out that such a short-term strategy would have devastating long-term consequences. Assad, I argued, would not fall, because the people of Damascus would not rise up against him. The so-called secular rebels were in fact vicious Islamists in disguise. Western interests in the region would be dramatically undermined by Saudi and Iranian militias, who would fight a devastating proxy war. Syria’s extraordinarily diverse population risked annihilation as a result. And we could even end up provoking a full-blown war with Russia.
No one listened, and I tired of trying to convince them of their folly. Four years on, the suffering of the Syrian people — 250,000 slaughtered, half of the population internally displaced and millions more made refugees — is obvious. And last week, in the midst of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since the second world war (brought about in no small part by fleeing Syrians), the extent of the West’s geopolitical miscalculations became painfully evident. Jihadists of various affiliations, who are now unequivocally the only opposition, were encroaching on Syria’s Alawite-dominated coastal heartland, and inching ever closer towards Damascus. So the long-time Syrian ally Russia called Washington’s bluff by establishing military bases in the regime stronghold Latakia. In a flash its tanks, fighter jets, military advisers, warships and even its most modern anti-aircraft missile system were in place. Its engineers constructed an airport landing strip almost overnight, as its navy conducted menacing drills in the nearby (Russian-leased) Syrian port of Tartus.
This was the most brazen overseas military deployment by Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. But it caught Nato off guard. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, we learnt of the Islamic State’s new caliphate — arguably the most important development in the region since the founding of Israel in 1948 — only when its leader announced the event on YouTube. Still, the question remains: why did the Russians move to guarantee Assad’s survival? The short answer is because the West’s Syrian strategy was in such disarray that Russia could expect Nato to look the other way.
In recent months, for fear of prolonging Assad’s rule, rather than seriously confronting the Islamic State the Pentagon has instead focused on doctoring intelligence briefings to sex up its limited successes. Meanwhile its harebrained idea of training an entirely new rebel army from scratch — to simultaneously topple the Assad regime and defeat the Islamic State — cost more than $40 million, and produced just four or five soldiers. Thirty of another batch of 75 immediately defected to al-Qaeda.
Vladimir Putin now pitches himself as Europe’s migrant-crisis saviour. Only by saving Assad, he argued, can we stem the flow. Bizarrely, he sounds as though he is making more sense than anyone else. Assad’s forces, long thought to be on the verge of collapse, meanwhile celebrated the bolstering of their military arsenal by bombing Islamic State targets in the north. Wave after wave of airstrikes hit their targets with previously unimaginable precision. Who could object to that? Senior Washington and London politicians, after years of repeating like a mantra that The Evil Dictator Assad Must Go Now, suddenly found themselves mumbling that, come to think of it, Assad does not need to go just yet after all. In fact, Nato should co-ordinate with Russia, in a renewed effort to destroy the Islamic State and stem the flow of refugees. Russia’s bluff played off.
Assad is in fact now more popular than ever in the roughly one third of Syria he still controls. Anyone in Damascus or on the coast who supported the Islamic State long since either joined it or blew themselves up among the infidels. The West, though, is more hated than ever. A recent poll found that 80 per cent of Syrians believe we created the Islamic State — a common belief, incidentally, throughout the Middle East (and not entirely inaccurate). So it took Washington and its reactionary Gulf allies four years and billions of dollars to end up eating humble pie. They have now effectively admitted that Moscow was right about Syria all along. In the process, they have undermined any humanitarian credibility our military adventurism may still have had after the Iraq nightmare.
And Russia has its navy, as well as its most advanced anti-aircraft missile system, on the edge of Europe. Since the Islamic State has no navy or air force, these are warnings to the West. Russia also looks set to deploy ground troops to Syria. Any effort to overthrow Assad in the future, we are being told, means war with Russia. Worse, we have managed to screw Israel, our only steadfast ally left in the region. For Iran joined the Russians in deploying elite Republican Guards to Syria, bolstering ties with a Hezbollah that is already leading Shiite militias fighting alongside Assad’s forces. The Obama administration has been spending the past few years trying to convince the world that Iran’s mullahs are to be trusted. So Iran knows that any criticism from Washington about its Syria meddling would play right into the hands of the nuclear deal’s opponents.
Yet more evidence, then, that US-backed calls for the removal of Assad, with the goal of weakening Iran and Hezbollah and installing a Saudi-backed proxy regime, will have the exact opposite outcome. For the entrenched regime, if it survives, will not only have the full military backing of Russia, but will also be a political tool of the Iranians.
John R. Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East.