As the Syrian civil war tips irreversibly in favour of President Bashar al-Assad’s Russia and Iran-backed regime, the western and regional powers that have intervened in the conflict over the past seven years continue to underestimate its lethal ability to contribute to the new world disorder.
From US president Barack Obama’s decision not to carry out his threat to punish the Assads for attacking civilians with nerve gas, to the ragged columns of Syrian refugees trudging towards Europe in 2015 and 2016, the war has helped feed corrosive forces of nativist populism and isolationism in the west.
Russia and Iran are the beneficiaries in Syria — at least for now. When President Assad’s forces came close to collapse in 2012, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Shia paramilitary allies kept them alive; and Russia’s air force salvaged the regime from September 2015. Their campaign is now reaching its end.
The terror of Isis is also near its conclusion. The jihadi group was defeated in Syria mainly by Kurdish fighters with US air support and, in neighbouring Iraq, in large part by Iran-backed Shia militia in alignment with the US. But America and its western allies — always hesitant to intervene in Syria while they egged on a rebellion they were reluctant to equip for victory — now want out. In the past week the US and the UK have said they are curtailing their commitments. France is switching to supplying humanitarian aid ferried into Syria by Russia.
The trend seems to be towards a “normalisation” of relations with the Assad regime. Turkey, whose opposition to the Assads was once so virulent that it allowed its territory to become a pipeline for jihadis, now operates as the third leg of a new tripod of power in Syria, with Iran and Russia.
Moscow, the senior partner in this new balance of regional power, has launched a diplomatic offensive based on two fragile premises: a new Assad-led climate of stability to permit the return of almost 6m refugees from outside Syria, which should in turn unlock an EU-led financing of Syrian reconstruction.
Russian president Vladimir Putin pushed this thesis at his recent meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose coalition government was rocked by her migrant policy and who is anxious to see the repatriation of Syrian refugees in Germany. The Kremlin wants to create a new diplomatic vehicle for Syria, grouped around Russia and Turkey, Germany and France. How real is this?
First, it is unwise to assume the Assad regime will be an anchor of stability. It has waged total war against its own, majority Sunni, population that has cost half a million lives and uprooted half the population. The regime’s policies manufacture extremists, which it then often manipulates — whether by funnelling jihadis into Iraq after the US invasion of 2003, or releasing from jail hundreds of jihadist cadres early on in this rebellion in the cynical calculation they would hijack its leadership from mainstream rebels.
As for Syria’s alliance with Iran, which the west fondly hopes Russia will unpick, that goes back four decades. Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitary group, which serves as Tehran’s spearhead in the Levant, was born in 1982 in the Iranian embassy in Damascus.
But second, and crucially for those hoping Syrian refugees will start heading home, Mr Assad does not seem to be on board with his allies. He seems anxious to prevent the revival of the Sunni-dominated demography that nearly toppled his minority regime.
Earlier this summer, for example, 3,000 Syrians were due to be repatriated from Lebanon, struggling under the burden of more than 1m refugees — more than one-quarter of the population. The Syrian authorities, however, accepted only 400 people, of which a mere 200 eventually returned. The rest refused to break up their families after the regime weeded out fighting-age men and boys.
Russia’s claims that it can facilitate repatriation have to be measured against this reality — as does its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s complaint in Beirut this week that “fabricated” reasons prevent Syrians returning, and obstruct the reconstruction Moscow wants the EU and US to pay for.
A third, and worrying, consideration is that Assad forces, with Russia’s air force, are poised to launch a military offensive to capture the last opposition redoubt of Idlib in north-west Syria. There are tens of thousands of jihadis in Idlib — dominated by an al Qaeda-linked faction— and it is bursting with refugees from vanquished rebel areas, about half of the roughly 3m population. Both groups could flee to the border with Turkey, which already hosts 3.5m Syrian refugees — a new security and refugee challenge that would collide with Turkey’s present currency crisis and its stand-off with the US.
Current US and EU policy sometimes seems based on the hope Syria (and Syrians) will go away. It will not — and it is not clear that they can.
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