Who is really winning the Syrian war? Is it Iran (or derivatively its client Hezbollah)? Certainly both stand to gain greatly should Assad survive. While historically being an Iranian ally, Assad has always wanted to keep some distance between his secular regime and Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”. Indeed this was the appeal of being Assad: Syria was always sufficiently anti-Western to play a prestigious regional role arming resistance movements, but at the same time sufficiently modern and secular to hold out the tantalizing promise of reconciliation and inclusion into the Western strategic fold. This was part of the game both the younger end elder Assads played with constantly ending and restarting peace negotiations with Israel. Today Assad’s strategic ambivalence has been shattered: if he survives, Bashar owes Iran and Hezbollah– big time.
But Iran and Hezbollah are not the war’s greatest winners. Both have also lost in the Syrian conflict, and risk losing much more still. Both Hezbollah and Iran have been exposed regionally as ultra-sectarian and oppressive powers, so it’s hard to imagine any Jordanians or Egyptians waving Nasrallah flags any time soon again (the way they did after the Hezbollah-Israel conflict of 2006). Similarly, it’s not clear as yet that Assad will survive. In case he doesn’t, of course Iran and Hezbollah lose their strategic partner and geographical connection in the ways typically described.
The winners of today’s Syrian conflict are also not in the West or among its Middle Eastern allies. Whether or not it constitutes wise policy, the U.S. is looking weaker and more isolated by the day as it juggles its pro-democratic agenda and the errors of its recent past. Further, Europe is looking like weak American client as always, while Israel seems in an uncertain holding pattern, and Jordan should be happy if it avoids collapse. Turkey meanwhile is caught in a bind trying to live up to its regional aspirations on the one hand, and having seen its ‘no problems’ policy with neighbors completely fall apart on the other. Currently Erdogan is being driven back into the arms he so long sought to avoid: those of the US and Israel.
So who’s winning? The answer is Russia. What we’re witnessing today is Russia retaking its position as one of the two dominant powers in the Middle East. Here’s how.
First, of course, Russia pretty much has the capacity to single-handedly keep Assad in power. That is, if Russia genuinely makes clear that it will support Assad at any cost (by stationing ships on the Syrian coast or providing Syria its most sophisticated air defenses), it’ll be exceedingly hard for the West to press ahead with any offensive action. Today it’s beginning to more and more seem the case that indeed Russia is willing to take this bold position. (Which also explains the following. I have long wondered why Iran and Hezbollah were going all in for Assad. How is this not too risky? Given recent events, a plausible explanation is that the Iranian axis has ascertained itself of Russia’s ironclad commitment, and therefore knows it essentially cannot fail.)
For Russia the benefits of this firm stance are manifold. Of course if Assad does indeed survive Russia has preserved an important ally. More importantly, however, by preserving Assad Russia has staked out an important and strategically valuable position in events around the world. Remember how miffed Russia was when the West took the ‘protect civilians’ resolution over Libya as a license to depose Ghaddafi? Well, it’s payback time. In supporting Assad Russia is effectively stemming the tide of authoritarian governments of all stripes being pushed over by popular sentiment coupled with Western support. In Syria, Russia is saying: no more.
This is a stance that is bound to win Russia very significant allies and influence over the coming years, and constitutes the core of its comeback into Middle Eastern politics. No matter how cruel and oppressive Assad has been, Russia has stuck with him. And as Russia knows, there are many more authoritarian parties besides Assad who have felt pressured by recent Western democracy-advocacy. From now on, these parties know they can count on their Russian friends in executing oppressive counter-insurgencies. Furthermore, Russia has timed its authoritarian revolution perfectly. It’s not just dictators themselves who have come to fear democratic movements and uprisings: even their supporters in the West have tired of the anarchy and violence that typically accompanies them, just as huge swaths of the world population are also longing for nothing more than stability and prosperity. Finally Russia can of course count on China to appreciate its stance as well, which will allow for closer cooperation between the ascendant authoritarian axis parties in the future, isolating the West.
In other words: well-played Mr. Putin. (And looking to the future, we might yet see the need for a new ‘Nixon-goes-to-China’ moment in order to pry apart Russia and China’s newfound ideological synchronism).