The victory of the Assad regime in eastern Aleppo in December has been often considered a game changer in the Syrian war. This article lists some reasons why Assad cannot remain in power even after Aleppo. At the same time, it demonstrates why Syria is not fit for the solution claimed by the Geneva Communiqué of June 30th 2012 and the UN SC Resolution 2254 of December 18th 2015 based on principles of territorial integrity, a single inclusive transitional government, and multiparty elections.
No dictatorships in history has lasted forever. This also applies to the Baath regime in Syria. The trenches of sectarian hatred digged by the war are so deep that the Assad regime will not be able to build on other forces beyond a coalition of the Alawite, Christian, and Druze segments of Syrian society.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, we learned that no inclusive transitional government can guarantee access to power for a previously ruling minority. This applies to the Sunni Arabs in Iraq as well as to the Alawite-led coalition in Syria.
Any time a minority regime falls or an inclusive transitional government ends its term, there is a threat of revanchism. Indeed, the majority Sunni Arab population may use this opportunity to exact revenge on the past Alawite-led minority coalition. Even minorities not participating on power such as the Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians will be threatened by a possible Sunni Arab campaign for domination. Therefore, any post-war architecture must secure the Alawites and other minorities against such a scenario.
The Arab Spring was an irreversible process of mass mobilization, radically changing primarily the Sunni Arab societies in multiple Arab states. It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be an nonviable solution for the region. Even its main financial sponsor Qatar eventually stopped supporting it.
However, it is important to mention that the main political sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s AKP and its leader Erdogan, significantly consolidated their power in Turkey after the coup attempt in summer 2016. Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood is still the most influential Muslim grouping within the European Muslim immigrant community. These two factors are still sufficient for a great comeback of the Muslim Brotherhood on the scene in some Arab states.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the main sponsor of the Salafist groupings worldwide, became one of the two great winners of the Arab counterrevolution since 2013. Salafism has probably became the most influential Islamist sect among the Egyptian and Syrian Sunni Muslims.
Any of the two options, the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafism, are bad news for anybody expecting social reconciliation with Shi’a Arabs in the following decades. Any political solution based on a united Syria will intensify the Sunni-Shi’a political competition. It will generate further inter-communal strife just because the Sunni Arab population is not ready for secular solutions anymore. Unless a Sunni Arab regime imposes it like it did in Algeria in the 90s or like the Sisi regime is trying to do it these days. In any case, the Alawite-led regime or an inclusive government are incapable of that.
Iran is the other great winner of the Arab counterrevolution. Of course, controlling a continuous strip of land from its western borders, via pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and Syria, down to the Hezbollah-Aounist coalition in Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast is almost an irresistible temptation for Iran.
On the other hand, Iran may wish to improve its relations with global powers including the U.S. and regional powers such as Turkey and Egypt. It needs to strengthen its influence in Shi’a regions of Yemen and Afghanistan or in Sunni Persian-speaking countries like Tajikistan and Pakistan as well as to join global institutions like the G20. In order to secure these goals, Iran must be ready to make concessions that may substantially change the current status quo in Syria and Iraq.
For Iran, Assad’s monopoly over Syria and a Shi’a majority government in Iraq are definitely attractive but not the only possible solutions. Finally, Iran, with its outstanding standard of education (in comparison to other Arab states or Pakistan), is not fated to be a Russian puppet and has very good prospects to be an equal partner of the U.S., EU and Turkey.
The burden borne by Turkey, Germany and other European countries as a consequence of the refugee wave caused by Assad’s targeted ethnic cleansing in Sunni Arab areas is so heavy that the current status quo is unacceptable for these powers. This is supported by the attempts to get the atrocities committed by the Assad-Putin coalition in Aleppo in late 2016 before international justice.
The inflow of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the EU has caused an unprecedented spike in xenophobia that has the potential to destroy the very foundations of European democracy. The inflow has also triggered Turkey’s hysterical behavior towards the EU. The imperative of return of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey, Germany and other European countries is a strong factor for why Syria cannot be ruled solely by the Assad regime even if the latter eventually wins the war.
In other words, if European governments accept a united Syria under Assad’s rule without creating conditions for return of the vast majority of the Sunni Arab refugees, the EU may be destabilized by the rise to power of mainstream Islamophobic voters. The influence of the anti-European forces in France, Netherlands and Austria and the anti-EU sentiment in Italy are alarming.
al-Sisi’s Egypt is another close ally of Russia in the Middle East. Egypt has always had strong interests in Syria and was its closest partner in the modern history of Pan-Arabism: both states were parts of the Nasserist United Arab Republic (1958-61) as well as Sadat’s attempts for the Federation of Arab Republics (1972-77).
In other words, Iran is not the only regional protégé of Putin’s Russia (who is the real winner of the Battle of Aleppo). In turn, Assad is not the only possible option for Russia in Syria. Moscow can also promote the interests of its other regional allies such as Egypt.
The recent rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. is also a potential threat for Russia. Putin cannot bet on a single card and needs to secure Russian interests in the Middle East in case of a future Iranian-U.S. alliance. In addition, Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, is a threat to a close alliance between Putin and the Netanyahu-Lieberman tandem in Israel.
Therefore, Egypt is an ideal Middle Eastern partner for Russia to diversify risk. Being a partner of the U.S. and China (as well as Saudi Arabia and Israel), Egypt with its historical interests in Syria and a secularist military dictatorship is a good compromise solution for power-sharing in Syria.
Finally, Egypt rules most of the Libyan Cyrenaica and Fezzan via its Libyan proxy, general Haftar. This provides additional compensation potential for Russia on the global scene instead of a full domination of Syria.
The Arab Spring and the following years radically changed the Sunni Arab societies, leaving a very limited space for non-Arabic or non-Sunni minorities including the Kurds.
Kurds were already deceived by the West several times: in the Treaty of Ankara splitting Kurdistan between Turkey and France in October 1921, in the Treaty of Lausanne officially annexing large portions of Kurdistan to Turkey in July 1923, in defeating and ending the Barzanji’s Kingdom of Kurdistan in July 1924, in League of Nations Council decision in December 1925 annexing the Vilayet of Mosul to Iraq, by the hostile attitude in spring 1946 resulting in the reincorporation of the Mahabad Republic to Iran and in the betrayal of the Kurdish revolution in March 1991.
Russians also deceived the Kurds several times: in the March 1921 Treaty of Moscow recognizing the Turkish claims on current Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan , in the liquidation of the Kurdistan okrug in August 1930, in the Kurdish deportation from Transcaucasia in 1937, in the termination of support for the Mahabad Republic in June 1946 and in termination of support for the Kurds in Turkey after the coup attempt in July 2016.
Concerns that Kurdish independence would destabilize Turkey and Iran are just a buck passing attitude not reflecting the reality. Iranian Kurdistan is not destabilized at all. The ceasefire between the Turkish government and the Kurds between March 2013 and July 2015 proved that the Kurdish question in Turkey can be solved under Turkish sovereignty.
The only issue is Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan due to the new Arab Sunni Islamism. The alliance between the Turkish and Kurdish leaders, Erdogan and Barzani, proved that Kurdistan outside the Turkish borders (i.e. in contemporary Iraq) is not a destabilizing factor for Turkey. If the so-called Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) gets under the rule of the Iraqi Kurdistan with friendly relationship to Turkey, there is no reason for Turkish security concerns.
Iraqi and Syrian Kurds are the only reliable allies in the war against the Islamic State. Kurds proved that they could organize a country based on national instead of Islamist ideas. Neither Westerners nor Russians should deceive Kurds anymore and should grant them their right to self-determination on the territories of Iraq and Syria without jeopardizing the security of Turkey or Iran.
Today, Kurds are the closest to achieving their century old goal of nationhood. If they fail to achieve it this time, they can lose their confidence in global powers and in their nationalist leaders and, as Palestinians did a decade ago, start supporting political Islamism and the global Caliphate. This is another reason why Syria cannot stay a unified country.
All the aforementioned arguments rule out an option of a united Syria (and Iraq) after the war, even in case of a Russian, Iranian, and Assad victory. The fear of future Sunni Arab reprisals can only be prevented by establishing a separate country for the Syrian Alawites and their allies. Political Islamism of any color, either Salafism or Muslim Brotherhood, can only be moderated or countered in Syria with a foreign occupation by Sunni powers.
Iran, in order to be accepted as a regional power by the West, can grant some concessions in Syria and Iraq while getting others in Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Ethnic cleansing by the Assad regime in Sunni Arab areas of Syria must be reverted and return of the refugees from the EU and Turkey must be granted.
Finally, an eventual Russian victory in Syria does not necessarily mean a political monopoly of the Assad regime after the war, but possibly the participation of other Russian allies such as Egypt or Turkey.
A lot of blood has been shed in the name of a chimeric political stability and immutability of the borders since the Sykes-Picot agreement a century ago. This blood has proved that boundaries need to be altered in Syria and Iraq in order to get real political stability. This can be achieved if five new nations emerge in Syria and Iraq: a Shi’a Arab state in Iraq, an Alawi Arab state in Syria, two Sunni Arab states in Syria and Iraq, respectively, and a single Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria while Druzes of Syria join Lebanon.