Mission accomplished. So says Vladimir Putin. Less than six months after embarking on his adventure in Syria to bolster his ally, President Bashar al-Assad, most of his forces are on their way home.
“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” Putin said.
Oh, there’s a cease-fire in place, but there is virtually no chance it’s going to hold. Sporadic fighting persists, and it’s only a matter of time before it mushrooms again.
In the meantime, negotiators are supposed to meet in Switzerland under the auspices of the United Nations to hammer out an agreement for “a credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance in Syria.”
Again, yeah right.
The government is controlled by secular non-Muslim Alawites who make up only 12 percent of Syria’s population. They’ve been in power since Hafez al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party mounted a coup in 1970, and they’re spectacularly unlikely to give it up. They’ll never get it back if they do. (Imagine if Coptic Christians took over in Egypt. Think they could pull that off and get away with it twice?)
Minorities in the Middle East get eaten alive, especially when the majority is represented, if that’s the right word, by armed Sunni Islamists.
A “peace process” in Switzerland sounds noble and makes a lot of people feel better, apparently, but it’s a roadmap to nowhere. We’re not talking about Northern Ireland here. The Syrian war is a Thunderdome, where two men enter, one man leaves. Only unlike the original Thunderdome in the third Mad Max movie, this one’s a three-way between Assad, the rebels and ISIS. You might as well have a peace process between Siamese fighting fish in a cramped aquarium.
“We will not negotiate with anyone on the presidency,” Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said. Assad, he insists, is a “red line and belongs to the Syrian people.”
So good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with Assad in the saddle. And if he falls, good luck creating an inclusive non-sectarian government with armed Sunni Islamists in power. That’s about as likely as dope-smoking Deadheads sharing a hippie commune with the Taliban.
This conflict resembles no other as much as the Lebanese civil war. Syria’s war has lasted five years now, but Lebanon’s lasted fifteen. Roughly three times as many people have been killed in Syria in only one-third the time, though, which makes it almost ten times deadlier.
The Lebanese civil war wasn’t really even one war. It was more like a series of wars punctuated by false endings and failed cease-fires. It began with the initial clashes between Palestinian and Christian militias and morphed into a war between the Israelis and Palestinians—which wasn’t a civil war at all, but a foreign war hosted on Lebanese soil. After the Iranians got involved, another war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah, and between Hezbollah and the secular Shias of Amal. Late in the civil war, Christian factions slugged it out with each other up north. The Syrian army fought pretty much everybody in Lebanon at one point or another, including the Israelis.
It was a bewildering conflict that confounded almost everybody who tried to make sense of it at the time, but its basic outline was simple: Lebanon’s multitude of sects went for each other’s throats, and all enlisted the help of foreign interventionists against their internal enemies. Israel and the West backed the Christians, Iran backed the Shias, and the Arab world backed the Sunnis and the Palestinians. At one time or another, Syria’s Assad regime backed everyone and opposed everyone.
Observers all over the world thought the Lebanese civil war was finally over during one botched cease-fire after another, but it never truly ended until the Assad regime conquered the entire country and forced everyone to disarm.
Don’t expect anything different in Syria. The same basic dynamic is at work there. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are backing the Alawites, Sunni Arab regimes are on side with the rebels, the West is half-assedly supporting the Kurds, and the creepiest elements in the Muslim world are throwing their weight behind ISIS.
Like the Lebanese civil war, there are wars within the larger war. Unlike the Lebanon war, which mostly turned out to be pointless, the Syrian war is truly a death struggle. Each side poses an existential threat to the other. Whoever loses will almost certainly be massacred. Wars of that nature are never settled in the lobbies of hotel rooms in Europe.
Leaving at a time of relative quiet is a wise decision on Putin’s part. Syria is a smoldering crater right now, but it’s calmer than usual, and his ally Assad is safe for the moment. Withdrawing today doesn’t look like a defeat. On the contrary, he’s made everybody opposed to him look like a chump. No one beat his forces or his proxies on the battlefield. He can plausibly say that the next round of chaos isn’t his fault, that Syria was more stable when he left then when he arrived.
But a peace process? Get real. We won’t be seeing any of that until either Assad or the rebels are defeated definitively and ISIS is obliterated from the face of the earth.