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The West Asia program provides original research on developments in the Middle East and Central and Southwest Asia, including as they impact on Australia. Central research issues include relations between West Asia and East Asia, the Arab uprisings and geo-political change in the Middle East and Australia’s relations with the Gulf.

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The media battle for Syria heats up as Assad government counterattacks

The social media campaign run by ISIS and various other Islamists has been both voluminous and highly sophisticated. Part of its strength lies in its depiction of victorious Islamist fighters slaying Syrian soldiers, Western hostages and apostates in a particularly brutal fashion. Such images serve several strategic aims, including installing fear in the enemy and creating a publicly mediated image of invulnerability. In recent months, the intervention by Russian forces and Iranian advisers along with various Shi'a militias has upped the ante but it has also given the pro-regime forces some social media material to work with.

The breaking by Syrian forces of the ISIS-laid siege of the Kwereis Airbase earlier this month is not strategically decisive by any means, but it has both political and military significance. One the 10 principles of war I was taught decades ago and which hold true today is the maintenance of morale. The successful breaking of an ISIS siege to free trapped Syrian soldiers is both a PR coup for the Assad regime and a boost to pro-government morale.

At the national level the media plays a key role in maintaining morale. Compared to ISIS, the Syrian government's use of social media has been poor but it is now using the battlefield victory at Kwereis to differentiate its current military capabilities from dark episodes in the recent past.

The fall of Tabqa airbase in August 2014 was both a military and domestic political failure. The video of more than 100 Syrian soldiers stripped to their underwear being marched through the desert to their execution was an advertisement for both the proficiency and cruelty of ISIS. It also reinforced the image of a Syrian regime incapable of supporting its own troops. By contrast, Syrian news reports (watch from 3:46 to 5:10 to avoid graphic footage) of the lifting of the Kwereis siege shows both the Syrian military and ISIS in a different light. The Syrians are on the offensive, aggressive and well supported while the bearded jihadists are dead. 

The government is keen to show a population that has seen government forces under pressure for much of the past year, alert to personnel shortages, and used to battlefield reverses, that the tide has turned. That's not to say that it has, but the use of such imagery is an important tool for maintaining morale. It may convince some that the additional support provided by Russia and Iran has meant government forces are more capable than people think. The more recent images of the relieved Syrian garrison being welcomed by family and friends further reinforces the narrative of a Syrian government with its tail up and able to support a military that it had been incapable of supporting even a few weeks previously.

It is early days yet, and Russian and Iranian strategic motives are not completely in sympathy with those of the Assad regime, but the more images of battlefield victories from pro-government forces that populate the airwaves, the easier it is to maintain support amongst pro-government elements of the Syrian population, or at least call into question the efficacy of the armed opposition. Morale and momentum are changeable commodities, and media can influence both. The Syrian government is trying to use recent battlefield advances to create a narrative of regime strength and, while it may not necessarily reflect the truth on the ground. this is certainly a stronger narrative than that of a few months ago. 

The media battle of Syria is becoming increasingly contested.

Photo courtesy of imgur user 45chris2

Turkey has got Syria wrong — again

The shooting down of the Russian aircraft by the Turks and the subsequent death of two Russian servicemen briefly got the tabloids talking about World War III but in reality this was never going to blow up into a direct military confrontation between Moscow and Ankara. What it did demonstrate, once again, is how focused on the short-term Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in his Syria policy.

No one will know who gave the order to shoot down the Russian aircraft, but it nearly certainly wasn't the Turkish pilot. Russia has been provocative with its airspace violations, but there is always a graduated response to these types of incidents; from verbal warnings, to visual warnings, to escorts out of the area, to shooting down. Ankara appears to have jumped from the least aggressive to the most aggressive option at lightning speed.

And now Turkey is paying for it. When taking on an adversary there are two golden rules: first, make sure you can hurt them more than they can hurt you; and second, make sure you have friends who have got your back. On the second of these points, to describe Erdogan's relationship with his NATO allies as 'good' would be overstating the case. Of course after the plane went down NATO constituted its crisis mechanisms and issued a statement publicly supportive of Turkey. But when NATO condemned airspace violations by Russia a month earlier, it noted Turkish aircraft had 'in accordance with NATO practice…closing to identify the intruder, after which the Russian planes departed Turkish airspace.' The apparent failure to follow these procedures in the latest incident is likely to be exercising the minds of some of Ankara's NATO allies.

There's not much more that NATO can do to help Turkey, or that it would really want to do. There is a widely held belief that Erdogan was complicit by commission or omission in the rise of ISIS and other violent jihadi groups by allowing the free flow of fighters and weapons across Turkey's borders in the belief that Assad could be defeated militarily and Turkey could control the rise of any Islamist groups. Turkey was also quite restrictive in how it allowed the US to use its Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against ISIS in Syria; hardly the actions of a committed NATO ally.

Russia has already demonstrated its intent to retaliate against Turkey and Turkish interests. Moscow appears to have shifted some of the weight of its air campaign to attack towns and border crossings abutting the Turkish border, as well as Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria, a group that had already come under Russian attack prior to the shooting down. Moscow has also adopted a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey and, given Russia is Turkey's second-largest trading partner, there is plenty of scope for additional pain to be inflicted.

Erdogan has tried to contact Putin personally but has been rebuffed to date, while Russia has demanded an apology from Turkey, which is unlikely to eventuate. Erdogan has gone so far as to say he was 'saddened' by the loss of the aircraft, but that is likely to be as far as he will go. The return of the deceased pilot's body could provide a circuit breaker, and there is little doubt back door discussions are underway to achieve this

Erdogan has proven himself to be an adept domestic politician, but on the international stage his Islamo-nationalist outlook and short-termism has resulted in Ankara becoming increasingly isolated from states that had been its close partners. The West believes it to be duplicitous when it comes to Syrian Islamists, the Arab regimes (with the exception of Qatar) believe it to be in bed with their natural enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and it has now picked a fight with its second-largest trading partner in Russia. None of this augurs well for the future.

Photo: Mehmet Ali Ozcan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Syria: The ugly truth behind those calls for 'pragmatism'

In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:

...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.

It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week. 

There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:

Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.

But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.

The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.

Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'

In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?

Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently. 

It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.

I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers. 

It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.

Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.

In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative. 

But they are wrong. 

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.

How Iran became the first beneficiary of Russia's Syria Intervention

 

 

The first tactical victory emerging from Russia’s intervention in Syria came not on the al-Ghab plain in Syria’s Hama province or around Syria’s divided commercial capital of Aleppo. Rather it came at the end of last month in the peaceful surrounds of Vienna. It was there the US and its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, finally had to acknowledge what had been obvious from the start of the civil war. There can be no negotiated outcome to the Syrian crisis without Iran having a seat at the table.

So bloody-minded have the Saudis, Turks and Qataris been, and so sure they'd be able to find the right jihadist coalition with which to dislodge Syria from Tehran’s orbit, that they refused to countenance Tehran’s attendance at any of the previous conferences held to chart a way forward in the conflict.

Other than a statement of intent and a promise to meet again in a few weeks’ time, nothing concrete came from the Vienna meeting; its significance lay in the list of participants.

Russia’s air campaign in support of Assad’s Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed Shi‘a militia groups has always had a relatively limited strategic aim; to allow Damascus to win the peace. Syria’s allies know that Damascus can’t generate enough combat power to reconquer all of its territory, and neither Moscow nor Tehran are willing to do it for them. Russia has only deployed enough ground forces to protect its main airbase and a small number of forward operating bases, and possibly to provide some enabling functions to allied ground forces. If reports are true that Iranian-backed groups number around 2,000, then this also represents something far short of a game-changer.

Knowing that the only solution to the Syrian morass is a negotiated one, the Russian and Iranian intervention is designed to strengthen Damascus’ hand.

This entails firming up the security of core government-held areas, pressuring jihadi supply lines, and weakening the strengths of the various militia groups that serve as proxy forces for regional interests. This is one reason why the Russians don’t really care which opposition group they target — all of them are antithetical to Moscow’s strategic aim. Weakening any puts the Assad regime’s backers in a stronger position during negotiations.

That is not to say that Russia has no interest in targeting Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra, it’s just not Russia's primary aim. It never was. The fact that the US-led air campaign is putting pressure on ISIS in the east of the country and Kurdish groups are doing the same on the ground means the Russian air campaign can support the ground manoeuvre force and treat any rebel group as the enemy and a legitimate target.

Regional states can (and allegedly have) provided rebel groups with weapons to exact a toll on Syrian and Iranian-supported ground forces, however Russia is likely betting that this largesse won’t extend to surface to air missiles. Washington is concerned (with good reason) that providing such weapons to rebel groups, without being able to account for them once they cross the border, risks creating a much bigger problem than the one it seeks to solve. The alleged bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai would make the provision of surface to air missiles to any group in Syria even more unlikely.

Iranian military casualties have been growing since it has increased its forward-deployed Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. This is indicative of the degree to which Tehran seeks an outcome in the Syrian negotiations in line with its regional strategic interests. Iran has every intention of maintaining Syria within its regional orbit, and it is investing heavily in blood and treasure to do so. It was never going to agree to any negotiated outcome at which it was not present, and the Vienna talks were a simple recognition of this.

The world can no longer publicly deal Tehran out of the Syrian solution; at the same time dealing it in is unlikely to alter Iran’s Syrian policy. Tehran has always held a strong hand in Syria; the Russian intervention and regional acknowledgment of Iranian interests in Syria have both made it stronger. 

The Lowy Institute Analysis Looking for leadership in the Arab Middle East by Rodger Shanahan was published 30 October.

 

Looking for leadership in the Arab Middle East

In this Lowy Institute Analysis, Research Fellow Associate Professor Rodger Shanahan examines how Arab Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, are responding to the Obama administration’s less interventionist approach to the Middle East by adopting a more assertive regional policy aimed at containing Iran diplomatically and militarily.

Obama's Syria critics ignore inconvenient facts

It is fashionable to criticise Washington's approach to the Syrian civil war. In his memoir, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described President Obama's approach to Syria and Iraq as flawed. Obama has been roundly criticised for his 'tentative' approach to Syria. A piece on this site last week referred to the bankruptcy of US policy in the region. Even Australian pundits such as Greg Sheridan have said that 'for the last few years nothing has been all that Obama has offered.'

Now the Russians' apparent decisiveness in deploying a modest strike force to its decades-old ally Syria has led people to claim Obama has been outmanoeuvred by Putin. But this same argument was leveled against Obama more than two years ago. It also ignores the fact that the Syria problem has always been more straightforward for Moscow than for Washington. For Russia there is simply the Assad regime and those opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow's only real question has been the degree and timing of its support to Assad.

Critiques of Obama's Syria policy ignore two inconvenient facts. Firstly, the critics have offered no credible alternative policy. Indeed, Obama was recently moved to highlight the intellectual vacuity of many of his critics when he stated:

I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in the situation. What I'd like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it? And typically, what you get is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

Panetta offered the fact that Washington should have armed 'moderate' rebels, without going into any detail regarding what he meant by 'moderate' or how the use of these weapons would be accounted for once they crossed the border. Outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner has even spoken of the need for US 'boots on the ground' without ever going into specifics.

For those who have cared to listen, the US Commander-in-Chief has highlighted the intractability of the situation in Syria before, along with the dearth of good options.

In a long interview with President Obama published in 2014, David Remnick from The New Yorker asked him whether he was haunted by the situation in Syria, and his reply says all that one needs to know about how he sees Washington's role:

I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we'd have a peaceful transition, it's magical thinking. 

Added to that is the plethora of state and non-state actors with their fingers in the Syrian pie, and over whom Washington has little if any influence. And as for those who see arming the various opposition forces as some sort of panacea to Syria's troubles, Obama had this to say:

Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn't come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions...And, in that environment, our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition to make sure that they're not creating the kind of extremist force that we saw emerge out of Afghanistan when we were financing the mujahideen.

This is not to say Obama has gotten everything right. Indeed, it's probably accurate to say that his strategy is correct but some of the tactical execution has been poor. The major error was his use of the term 'red line' in setting the trigger for (limited) US air strikes in response to the use of chemical weapons. Although the Russians came up with a diplomatic outcome that was a net gain for regional security, Washington's lack of follow-through on the threat eroded its credibility in the region. Israel has shown the effectiveness of limited air strikes in sending a message to Damascus without becoming decisively committed.

Another tactical error has been to dally in the rebel-arming business, even though Obama himself pointed out the futility of it. There is evidence that the US-supplied weapons and some training to rebel groups in Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and there has been an ill-fated push by the US to create a secular anti-ISIS militia. Obama's misstep could be explained by his need to assuage the concerns of regional states and to dissuade them from creating their own proxies (to a greater extent than they already did). Unfortunately, Obama's concerns have been borne out by the results, as 'moderate' groups supplied by Washington have allegedly been overrun by Islamists and have had their weapons taken. The idea of creating a secular anti-ISIS rebel group has also proved to be a chimera; their small numbers barely survived first contact in Syria. 

Obama has been under enormous pressure to do something in Syria, however he rightly believes that it would take an enormous commitment of blood and treasure to even begin to restore order in that blighted country. Even then, there would be no guarantee that it could resolve the underlying causes of the civil war.

When you don't control all the levers you shouldn't expect to control the outcome. So, while Washington has made some tactical errors, Obama's strategy of avoiding a decisive commitment is the right one. While it may appear a modest strategy for a superpower, none of his critics have been able to come up with anything that resembles a coherent alternative. That says much of what you need to know about Syria.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.

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