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Assad is a long way from victory in Syrian conflict
Russia and Iran have a costly dilemma on their hands in Syria
FT MARCH 8, 2017 by: David Gardner
The destruction of Syria, which began six years ago this month, shows
limited signs of abating, even though Bashar-al Assad’s Russia and
Iran-backed regime recaptured the rebels’ last urban stronghold of
eastern Aleppo in December.
A partial ceasefire is very patchy. A bewildering assortment of forces —
including Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish as well as Kurdish
militia and Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries — crowd the battlefield and
episodically combine against Isis. Al-Qaeda can still strike at the
heart of the regime, as it showed with a deadly attack on military
intelligence in Homs last month. Mainstream rebels are regrouping to
protect themselves. Talks about a transition out of war are going nowhere.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, whose air force was decisive in
salvaging the Assads and which helped pound Aleppo into rubble, has
decided this is the time to tell Europe to finance the reconstruction of
That is brazen. The expression “you break it, you own it” became a
geopolitical jingle after the US in 2003 used a bull to liberate the
china shop of Iraq, where their soldiers still find themselves, hundreds
of billions of dollars later, fighting the most virulent jihadis yet.
But translated into Russian for Syria, the meaning would appear to be:
“we break it, you pay for it, but we and our friends own it”.
No doubt the Kremlin sees signs the US under President Donald Trump has
ditched any idea of toppling President Assad. In Europe, moreover,
political panic about any further surge of migrants and refugees from
the region seems paramount.
Yet the confidence of Moscow — and Tehran — should not hide the fact
that they have a real and costly dilemma on their hands in Syria.
First, the extent to which the Assad government controls the roughly 35
per cent of Syrian territory it holds is moot. The manpower shortages of
a minority regime have made it dependent on Russia, Iran and powerful
paramilitaries such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah. Damascus has had to
subcontract local control to a mosaic of warlords and militias, private
armies and racketeers — all invested in the lucrative distortions of a
war economy characterised by penury for the mass of Syrians, roughly
half of whom have been uprooted. There is nothing stable about that.
Second, to what extent are Russia and Iran willing to assist the Assads
in breaking out of their mini-state and reconquering the rest of Syria?
The Syrian state almost certainly does not have the numbers to retake
and garrison eastern Syria. Look at how Palmyra in central Syria keeps
changing hands — the regime has only just recaptured this Graeco-Roman
jewel after it fell to Isis for a second time in December while the
focus was on Aleppo. Palmyra, moreover, was taken back after US air
strikes on Isis there. The Syrian conflict is protean and
shape-changing, but President Assad would be unwise to bet the palace on
the recurrence of such a weird coalition.
Third, ostensible control of “useful Syria” is false comfort. Aside from
the security fact that much of the rest is jihadi-infested, this implies
the east is almost all “useless” desert. It is not. The resilience of
the almost 50-year-old Assad regime required the energy resources and
crops of the east. Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces produced 60
per cent of the country’s cereals, 75 per cent of its cotton, and all
its oil and gas in 2010, before the rebellion. Far from useless, the
east is essential to a regime recovering minimal self-sufficiency.
Syria’s power-generating capacity, dependent on gasfields in the east,
is about a quarter of what it was before the war.
Russia and Iran would have to fight to retake all of Syria. That would
be costly, in blood and cash. It would greatly increase the autonomy of
Mr Assad, now a ward of two states. Yet their Syrian rump protectorate
is already very costly. Arab securocrats say Iran alone had to spend
$8bn a year in 2013-14. Russia and Iran are dependent on oil and gas at
a time of depressed prices and both subject to international sanctions.
True, Moscow has taken out long leases on Mediterranean port facilities
at Tartus that it intends to expand, and an air base near Latakia.
Tehran’s revolutionary guard — a business empire as well as
expeditionary force — has secured potentially valuable mobile telecoms,
phosphate mining, port and power-generation contracts.
But the sort of money needed to reconstruct Syria is likely to be at
least $250bn and maybe eventually double that. There will be no
international queues to do it without basic stability and agreement on
power-sharing. The “realism” taking hold in Brussels and Washington
needs more input from reality. Europeans, in particular, desperate for
anything that turns the tide of refugees back into Syria, should be
clear that some of the demographic changes there are intended by the
regime to be permanent. The regime’s patrons, too, will have time to
reflect on the mess they own.
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