From the perspective of September 2017, it seems that all the wrong people are celebrating the state of affairs in Syria: Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ali Khamenei top the list. The first has inflicted mass homicide on defenseless civilians for years without shame or remorse. The second intervened decisively two years ago, to save a politically useful mass murderer from military defeat. The third complemented the second by introducing more than a hundred-thousand foreign fighters to prop up a client willing to subordinate Syria to Iran and Hezbollah. All three celebrate the fact that they now dominate militarily some 85 percent of Syria.
Although Assad, Putin, and Khamenei know all too well that their way forward in Syria will be far from easy, each has reason to feel good.
Ridiculed down through the years as the political equivalence of The Godfather’s hapless Fredo Corleone, Bashar al-Assad in 2011 calmly took the measure of an American president and told his security forces that they had nothing to worry about from the United States. How could he have known (in effect) in 2011 that Barack Obama would later draw a red line, erase it, and then declare the erasure to be a source of pride? This writer—a State Department official at the time—assumed with full confidence that President Obama’s “step aside” statement of August 2011 would ultimately drive a strategy to make it happen. It took him a year to realize there was nothing behind the Dutch Uncle advice for Assad to step aside. Assad knew from the outset that he was dealing with an empty shell. Perhaps it was a lucky guess. But he was right and others—this American and countless Syrians—were wrong.
It took Vladimir Putin another two years to conclude on his own that American rhetoric on Syria was unaccompanied by substance. The red line fiasco of August-September 2013 schooled Putin in ways far transcending Syria. He learned he could dismember Ukraine and menace NATO with no regard at all for Washington, and when he intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015 he did so with an absolute sense of impunity, one replicated when he later tried to destabilize the American electoral process. Earnest assurances from his American counterpart in 2015 that there would be no “proxy war” in Syria were hardly necessary. Putin knew that a sermonette about waltzing into a quagmire would be the limit of the American response.
For Iran’s Supreme Leader, Syria was and is a pleasant surprise. As this writer was told by an Iranian counterpart during a “track II” meeting of former officials in a Scandinavian capital, “We had no idea that there would be no effective push-back in Syria from our permanent enemies: you [the United States] and Israel.”
What ultimately dawned on Iran was that the United States was willing to pay a high Syrian price for a nuclear agreement whose promised benefits appealed greatly to Tehran. Indeed, assurances to the Supreme Leader in 2014 that American military strikes in Syria would be restricted to ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) and would exempt Assad convinced Iran and Russia alike that their client could continue to terrorize civilians in opposition-held areas without any fear of superpower-induced consequences. Misplaced American concerns that frustrating Assad’s mass homicide would drive Iran away from a nuclear deal helped enable the bloody work of the regime and its foreign supporters.
Notwithstanding the failure of the West to protect a single Syrian from Assad’s mass murder, and despite Iranian and Russian regime-saving heavy lifting, a post-mortem for the Syrian revolution would be premature. Over the past six years, millions of Syrians have experienced self-government and civil society for the first time. Yes, this novel (for Syria) exercise of basic human rights has been seasoned with barrel bombs, sarin gas, starvation sieges, illegal detention, torture, and rape. Yes, millions of Syrians trying to remove a regime’s hands from their pockets and throats found themselves doubly victimized by Islamist extremists: the Assad-enabled primitives who, in turn, enabled Assad to claim—without a trace of irony—that he was fighting terrorists. Yet these millions—while living daily with regime terror supplemented by ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran, and Russia—also broke the bonds of fear so patiently and expertly woven during forty-five years of family rule.
If Tehran and Moscow wish to restore Assad to what he was in March 2011, their work has barely begun. Six years of war on the Syrian people have left the regime exhausted and disorganized. If, in the fullness of time, Bashar al-Assad faces trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity, no doubt a major part of his defense will be to claim that the worst of the abuses were committed by regime elements acting on their own, without orders from on-high. It will not be a winning defense. And yet, for a regime whose army has become a sectarian militia, whose intelligence agencies are criminal bands, and whose police seek and take bribes for everything under the sun, there are basic questions of stamina, coherence, and endurance.
Indeed, Russia and Iran—neither of which has any illusions about the governance skills of Assad and his entourage—may soon discover the consequences of catastrophic victory. For the West, whose failure to protect human beings has had enormously negative and painfully practical policy consequences, enabling Moscow and Tehran to feel those consequences should be a high priority. If Iran and Russia are to dominate Syria militarily, they should own that which they have broken.
Humanitarian assistance to Syrians in need—whether in regime-controlled areas, opposition-dominated districts, or outside the country altogether, is an international responsibility. As for physical reconstruction, however, to the victors belong that which they have spoiled. Creative thinking about conditioning reconstruction assistance to the onset of empowered local governance is to be encouraged: this would advance the revolution and prevent the Assad entourage from stealing everything. But there should be no illusions about the willingness of that entourage to share power with anyone at any level. If Tehran and Moscow want the West to participate in the rebuilding of Syria, they must force their client to perform an unnatural act: leave Syrians free to manage their own lives in their own localities.
The departure of the entourage from Syria was never a precondition for transition negotiations. Indeed, it was never—in a literal sense—a pre-ordained outcome of political transition. Now, however, Russia and Iran have succeeded in preventing the departure of a regime whose behavior replicates the worst aspects of feudalism and writes new chapters in the history of political criminality. The armed uprising—forced upon the opposition by a regime for which peaceful protest was the greatest threat—is now all but over. But the revolution will continue. Assad and his enablers can delay the onset of self-rule and self-determination inside Syria. But they cannot stop it. Perhaps the only positive aspect of the West’s convincing and destructive impersonation of Fredo Corleone is that Syrians will owe nothing to anyone once they claim the victory to which they are entitled.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.