by Jonathan Spyer
The Jerusalem Report
May 9, 2017
Originally published under the title “Assad’s Hollow Crown.” All photos by author.
The mortar shells came early in the morning. At about 5. At regular intervals. Solemn and sinister. They were a reminder of how close it all was. We were in the old city of Damascus. There was still fighting in Jobar, about two kilometers away. The rebels had also counter-attacked from the east, from the suburbs in eastern Ghouta, in the previous week. A shell had landed in the precinct of the Umayyad Mosque. This was not in accordance with the line being promoted by the regime, according to which the rebellion was on the verge of defeat. But there it was.
The old city was tense, behind a veneer of strained normality. There were checkpoints every hundred meters or so. These were maintained not by the army, but by the National Defense Force (NDF), an Iranian-sponsored paramilitary force created to fill the gap presented by the Assad regime’s lack of loyal manpower. Young men mostly, with a sprinkling of older types and a very few girls. Supervised by Mukhabarat officers with pistols in their belts. They were suspicious of foreigners. There had already been a number of suicide attacks by members of the jihadi organizations in regime-controlled areas.
For the most part, though, the atmosphere of strained normality held. Undoubtedly, fear of the regime played its part in the exaggerated professions of loyalty and love for Bashar that one would hear. But there was also justified fear of the Islamist rebels, and what their advance would mean. And, of course, there was mainly fatigue, and the desire of people to live in their own private circle, and willingness to cope with any governing authority which appeared able to provide for that. The Syrian pound had plummeted in value since the start of the war – from 48 pounds to the US dollar in March 2011 to 625 to the dollar now. There were long queues each morning to buy subsidized bread at the state bakeries. The traffic was on the roads, the shops were open, pictures of the dictator and his family were everywhere. But all was far flimsier and more brittle than it initially appeared.
I should explain first of all how I came to be in Damascus. I have been writing about Syria now for over a decade. I have visited the country numerous times since the outbreak of its civil war in mid-2011. My visits, though, were always to the areas controlled by the Sunni Arab rebels or the Kurdish separatist forces. This was a notable gap in my coverage. I wanted to remedy it.
The Assad regime makes it hard for journalists to acquire visas. The authorities are keen consumers of media, and keep track of the names of reporters who have spent time among their enemies. The number of journalists who have managed to report from both the government and rebel sides is very small. I had tried on a number of occasions to acquire a visa, but made little progress.
Finally, a colleague suggested the idea of joining a delegation of foreign supporters of the regime. With the war going its way since late 2015, the Syrian government has begun to cautiously open up to visitors. But like other authoritarian regimes, it prefers to welcome these in groups, and under careful supervision.
I made contact with the organizers of one of these delegations. The process was surprisingly straightforward.
We met in Beirut and then crossed the border. The tour was organized in cooperation with the Syrian Ministry of Information, so a representative of the ministry would be with us at all times. The participants were a varied bunch. Some pro-Assad true believers, some younger travelers. Mainly from the West, but a couple also from Jordan.
The Assad supporters represented that strange axis in contemporary Western politics where far left meets radical right. A British man on the delegation was fulsome with praise for Assad’s social welfare system. The West, he declared, was fearful of Arab socialist regimes such as Assad’s Syria and Gaddafi’s Libya coming to form an example for Western publics. And later, “The Rothschilds control the banking system in all the world. There’s five countries where the banking system is not controlled by them. Iran, Syria, China, Russia and North Korea.”
“Syria refused to make peace with Israel,” another participant, a young woman from Jordan, told me, “so they decided to start the war and bring down the Syrian government. They will only allow puppet Arab governments who do what they say – like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.”
“There was the Iraq war, of course. And then there was the war of 2006, which was supposed to defeat the resistance. Then when this failed, they decided to try the ‘Arab Spring’ instead.”
This message – that the war in Syria is the result of an Israel-inspired conspiracy intended to foment internal unrest and split the country into enfeebled cantons – is the central talking point of regime spokesmen. I would hear it again and again in Syria. Ironically, I had heard a precise mirror image of this theory from Syrian rebel commanders on the Turkish-Syrian border a few months earlier. In their telling, the conspiracy involved a nefarious alliance between the Iranians, the Assad regime and Israel.
In the case of the rebels, such claims come in Islamic garb, giving them a more contemporary feel. With the regime supporters, the justifications are wrapped in the antique tones of the old secular Arab nationalism of the 1960s and ’70s. Ironically, of course, behind the nationalist rhetoric of Syria being the last defiant fortress of pan-Arab resistance and so on, the Assad regime is today entirely dependent for its survival on non-Arab forces – namely Russia and Iran.
Indeed, perhaps the most striking and immediately apparent element in regime-controlled Syria is the yawning gap between the rhetoric of the regime, the impression it wants to give, and the underlying reality. I’m not referring to the gulf between the gaudy ideological proclamations and the reality of a brutal police state. This should be obvious. What I mean is the gap precisely between the attempt to convey the impression of a powerful, consequential Arab nationalist regime and the fragmented, enfeebled reality of a regime dependent on other forces both above and below it, and controlling only a part of the territory over which it claims sovereignty.
Syria today remains effectively divided into six enclaves. The government controls Damascus, the three major cities to its north – Homs, Hama and Aleppo, and the western coastal area. There are two rebel held enclaves – Idleb province in the north west, and parts of Dera’a and Quneitra in the south west. The Kurds control a large area in the north east and an isolated canton further west (Afrin). The Islamic State organization, meanwhile, holds a diminishing area in the east and south. There is an additional Turkish-supported rebel enclave between the towns of Azaz and Jarabulus on the Syria-Turkey border.
The regime has been advancing since the intervention of Russian air power on its behalf in September, 2015. But the advance is slow, and it remains doubtful if Assad will ever have sufficient strength to reunite the entire country under his rule.
By itself, the regime is very weak. The Russian contribution is decisive in the air. Iran and its proxies are the key element on the ground. The Assad regime from the outset has rested on a narrow base of available support. The Iranians have trained the auxiliary forces that make up the numbers, like the NDF that guards the Damascus old city. Teheran’s proxies – Lebanese Hizballah, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Afghan Fatemiyun and others – play a vital role on the ground.
Without Russian and Iranian assistance, a total regime victory is impossible. The unanswered question at present is what the Russians want. They, above any other force, control the direction of the war between Assad and the rebellion against him. In the meantime, Russian paratroopers in uniform stroll cheerfully through Damascus and Aleppo, and the regime-controlled part of Syria has effectively become a proxy, or puppet of Moscow and Teheran’s interests.
Controlled from above, the Assad regime is also subject to fragmentation from below. There are over a hundred pro-regime militias active in the Syrian war. They constitute around half of the available troop strength available to the regime. These militias are not mere servants of Assad. Rather, they are centers of power and resources for the men that control them. Some are small local groups, numbering just a few dozen fighters. Others are countrywide and make use of heavy weapons including armor and artillery.
So the “regime” side in Syria today isn’t really a single entity at all. It is a coalition of interests, of which Assad and the power structure around him constitute only a single part. But it is in the interests of all these elements that the Assad regime present itself as a single, united and sovereign force. The regime’s antique Pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric, and the echoes it finds among some elements in the West and the Middle East are a part of this.
We entered Aleppo via the Sheikh Najjar industrial district in the east of the city. The destruction wrought by Russian air power on formerly rebel-controlled eastern Aleppo is chilling, awe-inspiring in its proportions. Whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble and rendered uninhabitable. Moscow employed the means of total war on the city. What remains is mostly silence. Just a few families have returned and are living among the ruins.
I have been in Sheikh Najjar once before. That was in the summer of 2012, when the rebellion had just broken into the city. I remembered it as we walked among the desolation.
It had been before the rebellion had taken on its definitively Sunni Islamist character – though the signs had already been prominently there. I remembered the constant noise, the government planes overhead, the commanders of the long defunct Tawhid and Afhad al-Rasoul brigades in the Shaar and Saif al-Dawli neighborhoods, the terrified civilians in the basement of the Dar al-Shifa hospital, as the regime aircraft dropped their bombs outside.
Dar Al-Shifa is long since destroyed, of course. The civilians have gone too. Replaced by silence, and ruins.
A massive poster of Bashar Assad and his brother Maher is mounted at the entrance to the Aleppo Citadel. “Congratulations on your victory, O Aleppo.” it reads. Another, seen all over the western part of the city, depicts a stern, helmeted member of the security forces and reads “Aleppo is in our eyes. This has a double meaning in Arabic – “we are watching Aleppo,” but also “Aleppo is precious to us.” This is the way the Assad regime speaks to its subjects. A threat, lightly coated in a sickly sweet rhetoric.
Western Aleppo, nevertheless, appears superficially untouched by the war. The rebels, entirely lacking in air power and with only primitive, improvised artillery, were never able to make a serious impression on it. But the regime’s hold is narrower than it appears. Even now, the rebels are not far from the city. They are located just north west of Aleppo in Kafr Hamrah and Huraytan. The strained normality of the street scene in the west of the city is punctuated every so often by deep, ominous booms of artillery fire from somewhere not very far off. The war is not over. Nor has it gone away.
A single highway snakes its way south of Aleppo through regime-controlled territory, with the rebels to the west and Islamic State to the east. At its narrowest point, near the town of al-Sa’an, the government controlled area is just a few kilometres wide. You must take this road to get from Aleppo to Homs.
The devastation in Homs is, as in Aleppo, breathtaking. Whole neighborhoods turned into wasteland, rendered uninhabitable. Homs was one of the nerve-centers, the heartlands of the revolt against Assad. Destroying the rebellion there meant destroying much of the city itself. This the Russians have undertaken and largely achieved.
Our guide in Homs was an ebullient Alawi Syrian lady called Hayat Awad. Hayat was brimming with vim and confidence and contempt for the ‘terrorists’, as she called the rebels. But she wore a pendant around her neck, showing the face of one of her sons who had died fighting the rebellion while serving in Assad’s army.
Hayat trudged with us through the endless dead streets where the rebellion had lived and been destroyed, dispensing the official regime version of the conflict as she did so. “They destroyed everything at the behest of the Jews,” she declared, “because the Zionists want to claim that they have the oldest culture, but they were not able to do this because Syria has a history 7,000 years old.” We were in a Christian church damaged in fighting between the rebels and regime in the Homs old city at the time.
Casual anti-Semitism of this kind is common and entirely mainstream in the Arab world. No logic is required for it. Consider the claim: Sunni Arab jihadi fighters in Homs had deliberately set about destroying the Christian heritage in the area because the jihadis are in alliance with a broader Jewish and Zionist plan to destroy non-Jewish cultural heritage in the Middle East. This is part of a Jewish plan to pretend that theirs is the oldest culture in the area, or the world. Such an idea is obviously insane. It is also to be found among the mainstream of discussion in regime-controlled Syria.
Hayat Awad declared this in front of a small audience consisting for the most part of people who would declare themselves progressives, leftists and liberals in their own Western homes. Not a word of protest.
While we were in Homs, a “reconciliation” deal was under way. The rebels were set to leave the last neighborhood of the city under their control, al-Waer. These agreements are part of the regime strategy to reduce the area of the country under the control of the rebellion. They involve laying siege to the area in question and then offering the rebels and their supporters the option of leaving for Idleb, which is under the control of rebel organizations. In the case of al-Waer, the rebels and their supporters were being permitted to leave in exchange for the lifting of the rebels’ own siege on two isolated Shia villages in Idleb province – Fu’a and Kafriya. The deal was delayed after a rebel group attacked a convoy of civilians coming from these villages in Rashidin, at the entrance to Aleppo, but has since been implemented.
Some observers of the Syrian war consider that these deals amount to a form of ethnic cleansing or depopulation, whereby Sunni Arab populations are being systematically induced to leave the government-controlled area. No evidence of a clear and consistent plan on the part of the regime or its backers has yet emerged in this regard. Indeed, the regime continues to accept refugees seeking to enter its zones of control from rebel areas, so claims of a general strategy of sectarian expulsion are unproven. In Daraya, Moadamiya, Zabadani, and Aleppo City, the evidence shows that residents were given the choice of evacuation to Idleb or residence in nearby regime controlled areas. But in Homs city, specifically, it is clear that only very small numbers of civilians have been permitted to return. Some accounts suggest that only people who actively sought to reach regime territory have been allowed to return to their neighborhoods. Hence the acres of ruined and empty houses stand as a warning of the strength available to the regime and its backers and the tactics they are prepared to employ.
In one of the ruined houses we found remnants left by the retreating rebel fighters. Some shell casings, and a Saudi-produced theological book about Ramadan, entitled “Spirit of the Fast.” A sort of testimony or warning to those who might celebrate the destruction as a victory – that this other, Sunni Arab, Islamist Syria, despite it all, is not yet destroyed.
In a meeting with a serving general of the Syrian Arab Army, I asked what the regime’s strategy was for re-uniting the country. The general, seated behind a picture of his younger self with Rifaat Assad, and puffing on an enormous cigar, responded that “No conclusion of the war can come without the decision of ‘official Syria’.” This vague reply was revealing of the large gap between the regime’s proud rhetoric, and the diminished extent of its power.
I received similar replies to the same question from ministers in Bashar Assad’s government with whom we met in the course of our time in Damascus. Mohammed Tourjman, information minister, said that the “reconciliation” process and the “liberation” of occupied areas would continue. Only “ISIS and Nusra,” in his telling, refuse to be part of the reconciliation, and these are regarded internationally as terrorist organizations (with the implication that they could be dealt with by purely military means). And with regard to the de facto division of Syria, “We have absolute faith that this is a temporary situation.” All this after an introduction in which the minister too spoke of “a plan to divide Syria into cantons, and keep us weak, to the benefit of the Zionist entity.” Again, this is a clear declaration of intent, but the reconciliation process at least as of now is mainly trimming the edges of the regime-controlled zone, not fundamentally altering the balance of forces between the sides.
Ali Haidar, Minister of Reconciliation Affairs, who handles much of the practical aspect covering the transport of rebels from “reconciled” towns was equally vague in response to this question. Reunification will only come, he suggested, when “foreign powers stop supporting the Syrian organizations.” No plan for how to achieve this. Haidar, incidentally, is not a Ba’athist. He is the leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). This party, founded in 1932, is a fascist-style group, even down to its swastika-style emblem, which he was wearing in his lapel during our meeting. The party’s literature refers to Syrian rebels as “internal Jews.”
It is tempting but probably superfluous to dwell on these grotesque aspects of the Syrian government. The regime in its self-presentation openly resembles the European totalitarian governments of mid-20th century Europe. This holds an ugly fascination for some Europeans and other Westerners. But the posturing and the rhetoric is mostly without weight, like a cheap tin pendant that only from a distance resembles solid metal. Holding up this fragile structure are a variety of other forces more deserving of attention.
On our last night in the city, a member of the delegation was threatened at gunpoint by a drunken Russian journalist. The authorities in the area said they could do nothing, because the man was Russian. This small episode says more about the true state of affairs in government-controlled Syria than all the regime’s verbiage. The Assad regime’s servants do not enjoy unquestioned sovereignty even in their own capital. The regime is today largely a hollow structure. The vigorous regional ambitions of Iran and Russia, and the smaller but no less notable intentions of a vast variety of pro-regime militia commanders must be factored into any assessment of regime capabilities and intentions.
The closeness of the Sunni Arab rebels to the regime’s urban centers, and the absence of Assad’s power from almost the entirety of the country’s east are further testimony to the erosion of the regime. It is a very long way from the days when Hafez Assad ran Syria as his “private farm,” as a Syrian Kurdish friend of mine once put it. The Assad regime cannot be destroyed for as long as Moscow and Teheran find a reason to underwrite its existence. But the mortar shells landing in Damascus in close succession are an unmistakable testimony to its reduced and truncated state. The anachronistic rhetoric of its officials and its supporters does not succeed in disguising this reality. Assad is wearing a hollow crown.
Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs and author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).