Defeat in Syria

War is a horrendous thing, as events in Ukraine (among other places) constantly remind us. But it’s a mistake to assume that therefore it always pointless, that it never changes anything. Quite the contrary: wars are often major turning points in history, not just resolving the immediate issues that provoked them but having repercussions far afield that would not have been produced by peaceful means.

As I said back in 2014, citing Bismarck but referring to the war in eastern Ukraine:

Wars are sometimes ended by negotiation and compromise. But more often they are ended by victory: by one side gaining the upper hand in purely military terms and either destroying the forces arrayed against it or forcing its opponents to sue for peace.

With that in mind, it’s time to note the fall of the curtain on the Syrian civil war. The victory of president Bashar al-Assad was made official on Sunday when ministers from the Arab League, meeting in Cairo, resolved to lift its suspension of Syria and readmit Assad’s regime to full participation, ahead of a League summit at the end of this month.

Syria had been suspended in November 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring, when rebels controlled much of the country and Assad’s brutality had alienated world opinion. But his opponents were never able to deliver a knockout blow, and gradually Russian intervention – aided by dissension among his opponents and by the collapse of the Arab reform movement more generally – turned the tide in Assad’s favor.

His control is still not complete, but his victory is beyond any serious dispute. The Arab League has simply recognised the reality on the ground: the war is over and the good guys lost.

Sunday’s decision is also part of a general shift in the region, which we noted a few weeks ago. Détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, achieved partly through Chinese mediation, has reshuffled Saudi priorities; Assad’s alliance with Iran is no longer seen as so much of a threat. Progress has also been made towards a settlement in Yemen’s civil war, in which the Saudis and Iranians had also backed opposite sides.

The United States, which had supported the anti-Assad forces but never with decisive strength, protested against the decision, although it had no obvious alternative to offer. It may also be that the recent drift of its client state, Israel, towards open fascism has reduced America’s credibility in the region. Israel, for its part, had never been enthusiastic about the Syrian rebels; it tends to see Arab democracy as a threat, and it was used to Assad as a dictator that it could deal with.

Could it have been different? If the west had not connived at the extinction of Egyptian democracy; if Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea had not estranged Russia from the west at a crucial moment; if Assad’s generals had not been so carefully selected for personal loyalty; and so on. Dictators often fall because they lose their nerve in a crisis: Assad kept his, and made it clear that he was willing to spill as much blood as necessary in order to remain in power.

No-one came to the conflict with clean hands; America had a long and inglorious record of propping up regional autocrats, and the idea of a democracy movement backed by the Saudi monarchy was the stuff of black comedy. Islamic fundamentalists soon vied for influence over the Syrian rebels, including the fanatics of Da’esh or Islamic State. The United Nations and other international actors made well-intentioned efforts, but shrank from the magnitude of the task of imposing a settlement.

Yet unless, somehow, democracy, human rights and self-determination are imposed upon unwilling regimes, there will be no end to war until the whole planet is consumed.

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has the best analysis of the Arab League decision, including the grim conclusion that “Al-Assad’s fragile victory has left the country a basket case.” For more of the background you can read some of my own previous thoughts on the civil war here, here, here and here – but be warned that, like the whole tale, they make for some depressing reading.


3 thoughts on “Defeat in Syria

  1. Peace and diplomacy don’t achieve much at all without the threat of sending in the Marines as leaving locals to their own devices while waving placards at outdated 1970s-style demos while wagging the proverbial finger at the evil regime doesn’t actually work. Especially for regimes like Burma’s which have Beijing backing them. Senator Jordon is also a nitwit with his anti-nuke stance – nuclear disarmament would lead to many new conventional wars and a lot of people will die.


    1. I think nuclear disarmament would be great if it really was universal; I’d happily trade a small increase in the risk of conventional war for the removal of the threat of annihilation. But I can’t see any way that could happen.


    2. It is difficult to judge how much international sanctions against South Africa contributed to bringing about the end of apartheid, but it’s not obviously nonsensical to suggest that they had some role, even though they were never backed up by any threats of the use of military force. Clearly those sanctions went a long way beyond people waving placards at demonstrations, but again it is not obviously nonsensical to suggest that people waving placards at demonstrations made some contribution to the decisions that were made to impose sanctions.

      Most countries in the world don’t have nuclear weapons, so it’s not obviously ridiculous to suggest that a country which has none (such as Australia) should continue to have none, nor to suggest that a country which has them might disarm. There have been lots of conventional wars (that is, wars in which nuclear weapons were not used) since nuclear weapons were invented, including ones in which nuclear-armed states fought without using their nuclear weapons, and although it’s possible that the existence of nuclear weapons has reduced their frequency, it’s not automatically obvious.

      Liked by 1 person

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