The Obama administration and its faithful media spokesmen are writing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s obituary. They point to the Syrian army’s loss last month of two strategic towns in the northwest, Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib, as well as to its recent retreat from the ancient desert city of Palmyra. These setbacks must mean that Assad’s regime is finished. Yet the war goes on.
Assad’s military setbacks in the past month have been significant but they may be less than decisive. They result in part from an escalation in the delivery of arms, including sophisticated anti-tank weapons, from Saudi Arabia and Qatar through Turkey, as Martin Chulov reported in last Sunday’s Observer. While the Islamic fanatic groups receive recruits from around the world, including those trained as “moderate” rebels by American advisors in Turkey, the regime loses men every day that can be replaced only from within Syria’s declining population or from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that the Islamic State (IS) controlled half of Syria.
On the other hand, most of the population, at least those who have not sought refuge outside Syria, lives in regime areas. The army controls the capital, Damascus, and the country’s other largest cities. The Mediterranean coast north of Lebanon remains in government hands, and it is reasonable to assume that Assad’s key allies, Iran and Russia, will seek to match whatever the Saudis and Qataris send to the Islamists.
Back in 2012, the White House spokesman assured reporters, “Assad’s fall is inevitable… The regime has lost control of the country.” Three years later, Washington is using the same formula as if constant repetition can create reality.
Obama says the opposite about the regime in Baghdad. Iraq’s military performance has been far worse than Syria’s, which has succeeded in holding back an Islamist onslaught from its major population centres for three years while the Iraqi arm abandoned Mosul last year and Ramadi eight days ago without a fight. Ramadi is 80 miles from Baghdad, yet no one in Washington says Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al- Abedi, is likely to go.
As Ramadi collapsed, Obama told the Atlantic Monthly, “No, I don’t think we’re losing, although Ramadi had been vulnerable for a long time… We’re eight months into what we’ve always anticipated to be a multi-year campaign.”
While there is little appetite in the US for another American invasion of the Middle East, particularly in a “multi-year campaign”, Obama neglected in his recent meeting at Camp David with Saudi, Qatari and other Gulf states to demand that they stop arming the Islamists. And he has not ordered his Nato ally, Turkey, to close its border to them.
The tragedy in Syria and Iraq is that arms are pouring into the hands of rebel jihadists who slaughter or kidnap and enslave non-Sunni Muslims and punish fellow Sunnis who do not share their obscurantist interpretation of Islam. In Syria as in Iraq, neither side has the strength to defeat the other. But the Obama administration believes it can win a war in Iraq while allowing its enemies to win in Syria. And they said the neo-cons were fantasists.