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The Future of Syria: We Talk, While Others Think

The Future of Syria: We Talk, While Others Think

Monday, 17 February, 2020 - 03:15

Late last month the INSS (Institute for National Security Studies), which is a research institute affiliated with the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, hosted a panel discussion about the future of Syria.

Those present were Israeli expert Dr. Carmit Valensi, Turkish academic Dr. Can Kasapoglu whose field of interest is security and military matters, the British-Israeli Middle East expert, Dr. Jonathan Spyer, and Jennifer Cafarella, the Research Director at the Institute the Study of War (ISW).

The four panelists touched on various interesting issues expected in Syria during the next ten years.

Valensi said, among other things, that while the Syrian civil war has ended, the country faces another kind of war. She said that Assad will reclaim 90% of Syrian territories but he will not be able to truly govern; adding that he will control the major cities but not the peripheries, which is why he has to negotiate with other foreign and local players.

The Israeli expert, expected that Assad’s ‘saviors’ may also become his problems; Although he will retain power during the next decades, and officially return to the Arab ‘family’, his behavior is not going to change as he will continue his suppression, violence, and persecution, with even more dependence on the intelligence apparatus.

Demographically, Valensi said the war brought down Syria’s population from 21 million inhabitants to 17 million; and although during the next decade the population will creep up again to around 25 million, such increase is not going to be as a result of the return of the displaced. Only 1% of the 6.5 million of the displaced will return because the Assad regime does not want the return of ‘disloyal Sunnis’ anyway.

As for the economy, Valensi expects Syria to suffer badly from acute economic crises, poverty and brain drain; noting that rebuilding Syria would require between 250 and 300 billion dollars, which is a huge sum that is not going to come.

Kasapoglu discussed the military dimension in detail. He said that there are two plans for Syria; one Russian the other Iranian. The Russians want the reconstruction of the Syrian state, including its armed forces ‘along Russian lines’ and Russian political-military doctrine; however, the Russian plans face many problems including paramilitary groups (and their economies), ‘military districts’, and the privileged Alawite-led units.

The Iranian plan, on the other hand, is totally different. Tehran’s strategy seeks to make Syria a ‘geographic expression’ with demographic dimensions. The Iranians desire to change Syria’s fabric, its environment, ‘ecosystem’ and demographics; which is much more ambitious than the military and political arrangements that rank high in Moscow’s considerations.

Detailing Iran’s priorities, Spyer said that Iran’s involvement in Syria is deep, serious, ambitious and multi-faceted, and has to be seen in terms of “five dimensions of Iranian penetration”.

1- Direct Iranian presence and construction of infrastructure in Syria.

2- The presence of IRGC (The Revolutionary Guards) proxies.

3- Iranian military and built-in structures within the Syrian army.

4- Iran’s formation of local militias such as Hezbollah-Syria.

5- Iran’s efforts to change Syria itself ideologically and demographically.

Indeed, Tehran is applying in Syria the model of the IRGC within Iran; i.e. changing the whole society. The Iranians, according to Spyer want to stay in Syria, and are in ‘considerable’ control of its whole southeast; i.e. Al Mayadin and Albu Kamal districts in Deir Ezzor Province.

The expert then turns to the question as for who would be interested in getting the Iranians out of Syria, Here, he says that that there are intersecting interests, and despite having different strategies, the Russians, at least now, have no interest in pushing the Iranians out. As for Israel, according to Spyer, it will never be able, through the might of its airforce alone, to destroy the ‘five dimensions’ of Iranian penetration. He, then rounded up by saying that Russia was now the ‘key arbiter’ in every issue connected to Syria, and its strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean will keep it so; while the Assad regime remains and will continue to be weak and hostage to its protectors.

The final speaker, Cafarella, disagreed strongly with the notion that ‘Assad has won the war’, and anticipated that Syria will be a war zone throughout the next decade. She claimed that the Damascus regime control on the map hides its actual ‘fragility’, and that the regime does not have enough resources to defend its apparent control of the territories it has won. Cafarella, also expected things to get much worse militarily and economically, pointing out to how bad the Lebanese economic and financial crisis affected Syria.

As for the Russian role, the American expert argued that the Russians have limited capabilities in trying to solve Assad’s political and military problems; claiming that although the Russian airforce has been devastating in destroying and killing, but Moscow will be ‘limited in its ability’ to help the regime militarily or financially. Reiterating that the Damascus regime’s control is weak, Cafarella said that there are ‘other’ players who were capable of preventing the regime’s hegemony, including ISIS ‘which is down but not out’, other Islamist groups despite their differences, and Kurdish militias; before saying that despite the fact that American presence is ‘not sufficient’ to help US interests, the Damascus regime is in a very bad shape.

Perhaps, the best part in the sum up was what the Israeli expert, Dr. Valensi, said about how Israel views the Assad regime. She said that Israel decided against intervening in the early phases of the Syrian war in 2011 – indeed, with an interest in him to remain in power – for several considerations, including: 1-The devil you know, 2-The Assad regime kept the borders quiet, 3-That Assad will have enough problems to think of threatening Israel.

I believe it is of utmost importance that we get to understand how serious political analysts deal with Middle East politics, regardless of their national identities or political views.

What is at hand is far greater slogans, wishes or pointless arguments, and more important than being fascinated by stances that we convince ourselves that others expect us to applaud and support.

I hope we show more awareness and less fascination.

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