Assad, a monster, has won. He has a firm grasp on all major cities and ports: Aleppo, Damascus, Hama, Homs, Tartus. He has enough control of even the most restive regions, the Daraa and Sweida Governates, to ensure his survival. His lack of control near the Turkish border is a mere annoyance.
No military force poses any threat to him, not least because no regional or international power has any desire to unseat him. He knows that he has nothing to fear from the US and its subservient ‘allies’. For one thing, they want him in power because they fear Islamists would replace him. For another, were there the will to unseat him, there isn’t the way. The West has the military means to crush him, but those means are unusable for domestic political reasons. To unseat him and destroy the régime would require a long-term commitment of hundreds of thousands of ground troops. No Western government would dare to propose any such thing to their electorates.
Assad and the whole world know this. They saw US ‘coalitions’ first effectively deliver Iraq to Iranian proxies, and then suffer humiliating expulsion from Afghanistan. Clawing back his territory inch by inch, Assad has never wavered in his determination to repel forces that once occupied districts of greater Damascus.
The few who predicted this, two or three years after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, were condemned as blinded by cynical prejudice. But they were right. The defeat is no less real for all the objections raised by those in denial. It does not matter that the country is in ruins: so were some victorious nations in 1918 or 1945. It does not matter if Assad exists at the good pleasure of Russia, Iran and, if the truth be told, the US and Israel. It does not matter that, given the support or connivance of these external powers, it was never a fair fight. It does not matter that, in the minds of some powerless expats, ‘the struggle continues’. The reality is that Assad has obtained his objectives, and the rebels have not, nor have they any prospect of attaining theirs. None of this is likely to change, unless it be in Assad's favour. This is apparent in the current push to normalize relations with his régime.
In this grim situation, some Assad opponents seem fully occupied with their outrage. They fail to address the most pressing question: what can be done for Syrians, not only those who live a miserable existence in fragile, imperfect refuge from Assad's operations, but also those who must live fully within his grasp.
For those fully outside Assad's reach, the answers are clear: they are refugees. The ways to help refugees are well-known. If there is a big gap between knowing what should be done and seeing it is done, at least there is no mystery about making progress towards the objectives. And some work tirelessly to achieve these goals.
But what of those who must live in areas under his control, or in areas where he still can inflict atrocities on those he detests? These amount to millions of innocent people. And once the realities of defeat are taken into account, their prospects are even worse, much worse, than normally supposed. That's because Assad and his régime will almost certainly continue to commit atrocities well into the foreseeable future. Since he has won, why wouldn’t he? There will be thousands more victims, perhaps some yet unborn.
Picture a determined opponent of the Syrian régime, looking for a course of action with some chance of putting an end to this catastrophe – to overthrow Assad. It is hard to imagine anyone coming up with a winning strategy today. Assad’s opponents must now operate from a position of weakness. Winning strategies would therefore have to come from a close watch on current realities, and a search for whatever opportunities the future may hold.
Unfortunately most of what we hear today about Syria has nothing to do with some future attempt to overthrow Assad. It isn’t even aimed at helping Syrians living under his rule. Instead of strategic thinking, we hear moralizing, dreams of vengeance and other varieties of wishful thinking, all wrapped up in talk of justice. But it is just talk. It has little to do with justice in any real-world sense. It has little to do with even an intention to alleviate the suffering or restore the rights of the Syrian people.
Western media have - The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Guardian, and more centrist outlets like CNN - have been sympathetic to the Syrian revolution since its outbreak in 2011. But this support has a particular slant. There have been admiring portrayals of the democratic Syrian opposition - the Westernized, secular or liberal Muslim activists and politicians, the artists, the writers, overwhelmingly non-military figures. There have been respectful accounts of brave journalists who bring back the news from these unthreatening sectors of the opposition. There is much investigative work, documenting Assad’s atrocities and arguing, at great length, with those seeking to deflect guilt from the régime. In defeat, these investigations tend to turn away from the present and towards the past. Opposition has become, more and more, a matter of analysis and indignant commentary.
These efforts must at some point have had a role in the condemnations issued by important Western institutions – in official government statements, legislated sanctions like the American Caesar act, international arrest warrants, and the degradation of diplomatic relations with the Syrian régime. These developments are sometimes described as victories, triumphs. Indeed you can find defenses of Assad only in the ever-insignificant American left.
Yet Assad is no less a victor for all these declarations, researches, loud condemnations and dramatic gestures. Not one of his captive subjects is any better off or more protected by this incessant outpouring of cruelly empty ‘support’. Not one of them is helped by elegant commentators offering acidic observations about Gulf State, Egyptian or Jordanian, even Turkish cynicism. This ‘support’ has indeed produced some results – the sanctions, the international indictments, the refusals to normalize. It’s just that the results are valueless, as is the entire effort that produced them.
This does not mean that trying to help the Syrian people is hopeless. It means that no one so much as contemplates the decisions that might offer some hope. Instead, we have moralizers pontificating as if they were victors. They pretend to mistake Assad, a victorious sovereign, for a hunted criminal. They scorn the prospect of allies who do not espouse their high principles or standards of behaviour. This refusal to back Assad’s most dangerous enemies helped him wreak his atrocities during his battles. It continues to do so.
It’s only when this moralistic fantasizing is thoroughly discredited that it will become possible even to think about stopping Assad. That means grasping the futility of attempts to bring him to justice, or to cement his isolation on the international stage. What follows describes the absurdity pursuing these goals from a position of defeat. Then it becomes clear that any chance to weaken the Syrian régime has to involve its strongest regional opponents – Turkey and the Islamist militias in Idlib – whatever their moral failings.
I will examine first the attempts to make the régime pay for its past atrocities, and then the measures designed to weaken Assad.
The current campaigns for justice aim address two horrors – Assad’s human rights violations and his war crimes. The prospects of success in these ventures are, at most, negligible.
Human rights violations
The nicely calibrated, meticulously implemented version of justice popular among Assad’s Western opponents is entirely incapable of making a dent in the criminality so deeply entrenched within the Assadist régime.
Yes, a handful of incautious régime emigrants and government officials are captured and and judged. This simply has no relationship to the scale or character of the injustices supposedly being addressed.
The official Syrian Security Services, responsible for most of the torture and murder, number around 120,000, not counting presumably thousands of informers, not counting the secretive and fearsome Air Force Branch. The unbridled viciousness of these forces is not some secret, recently revealed by plucky investigators. Indeed, Human Rights Watch issued a report decrying the situation the year before the start of the Syrian uprising. Syria's security services were notorious at least back to 1980, when Tadmor (Palmyra) prison became the scene of a well-known massacre. For those with even longer memories, there was the brutal terror of essentially the same régime in the mid-1950s.
This brutality bore no resemblance to the Nazis' intermittent efforts to conceal their crimes, much less with any "I was only following orders" protests of the Nazi torturers and their complicit bureaucrats. On the contrary, the security services were happy to make their cruelty known. So here is a state of affairs where the quasi-totality of 120,000 personnel were significantly involved, especially according to the current norms about complicity in such crimes.
This ongoing horror has all taken place within a régime that has beaten off the most determined revolutionaries, and which learned from Obama that it has nothing to fear from Western military intervention. Out of 120,000, a dozen or so security force criminals have been foolhardy enough to get themselves brought to trial in Western Europe. The idea that this constitutes even a hint of justice for the victims is absurd. The idea that these arrests might be some harbinger of a deterrent effect is, well, a descent into madness.
The same impunity that applies to Assad's torturers, also applies to his war crimes. It must not be thought that these were the top-down strategies of a sophisticated military power, like the gas warfare of World War I or the Allied bombings of Axis cities. The Syrian army is probably capable of sophistication, but the war crimes it committed beginning in 2012 did not, for the most part, have that character. In a brilliant piece by Kheder Khaddour, the Syrian army emerges as something like a corrupt bureaucracy, divided into localized fiefs that react to threats with considerable flexibility and autonomy. This has much to do with who is responsible for the crimes that some, dreaming about justice, imagine prosecuting.
The main crimes attributable to these Syrian armed forces are massacres, poison gas attacks, and barrel bombings.
The massacres have been carried out by thugs belonging to roaming militias. These shabiha are sometimes steroid-crazed monsters, slitting throats with huge garish knives or perpetrating other atrocities. They sometimes act in cooperation with Syrian army units, but not as Syrian army members.
The gas attacks are carried out by Syrian army members, or possibly allied forces with access to Syrian army stockpiles. It is not clear how high in the army command chain the plans have been initiated. What is clear is that the attacks were not the project of a disciplined modern army. The delivery systems were extremely crude improvised munitions (IRAMs), rocket-assisted gas canisters, quite dangerous to the perpetrators. No modern army would use such weapons.
In terms of lives lost, air attacks on hospitals, residential areas and breadlines were the worst. The breadlines, crucial to Syrians, were hit with double-tap attacks, where a second munition was dropped once rescuers showed up. Here again, most of the attacks were nothing like the work of a modern army. They involved barrel bombs, improvised munitions not much above the level of a pipe bomb, un-aimable and typically dropped from helicopters. Once more, the atrocities have the earmarks of disjointed, loosely directed, unsophisticated military forces.
For the purposes of justice, what matters here is that responsibility spreads throughout the Assadist forces to an unusual extent. The issue is not whether Assad himself is responsible. If he had only %1 responsibility in all the slaughter and torture, it would more than enough to merit the most severe punishments justice could impose. But the ragged, diffuse nature of the atrocities means that, again to an unusual extent, a heavy burden of responsibility is diffused throughout the hundreds of thousands that formed the military resources of the Syrian régime.
Could Assadist outrages ever meet with just retribution? The verdicts of the Nuremberg trials, followed by decades of lesser prosecutions, imposed penalties on only a fraction of those responsible for Nazi war crimes. But compared to what international tribunals can deliver to Assadist criminals, the Nazi war crimes prosecutions would count as a stunning success. The decentralized, anarchic, undisciplined bunch - one could say, a population of war criminals in Syria - will never show up before tribunals hundreds or thousands of miles away. They will all get away with it. Only a prolonged and very determined military occupation would change that, and the prospect of such an occupation simply doesn’t exist today.
In short, criminal investigation and prosecution will do absolutely nothing to restore the rights of the Syrian people - much less offer protection from brutal murder. The prosecutions of Assadist criminals will reach a vanishingly small proportion of the culprits. And that means a level of justice approaching zero. Though much is made of 'holding Assad accountable', or anyone else accountable, this is an equivocation. It only means identifying a very, very few of the culprits, who will go on to lead untroubled lives. It does not mean imposing appropriate punishment on them. Talk of accountability offers only the most fragile illusion of justice, not the reality.
The whole enterprise of research, documentation, investigation, analysis and prosecution of Assadist crimes will, in short, do nothing at all for the Syrian people. It will not do anything to restore their rights. It will not deter future atrocities. It will not even bring some vastly inadequate consolation to the tiny proportion of families who see their persecutors condemned. But will anything else help those suffering under the régime? What about sanctions? What about normalisation?
The appeal to sanctions must be that, somehow, they will make things better for Syrians: sure, there will be some negative consequences, but overall, the régime will bend, and comply with something resembling minimal standards of decency. Anyone believing this could hardly venture further into the depths of denial.
Assad won his war under sanctions, and Syria has been under sanctions since 1979. Some argue that sanctioning Syria “hurts the people much more than the regime.”
It's hard to see how this could be false, but suppose it is. Even so, sanctions have failed to bring any substantial change anywhere, it seems. No doubt the régime is hurt in the sense that it doesn't get the latest and greatest technology, and its backers have trouble getting desirable consumer goods, or doing business. But the régime doesn't need any of this to continue its oppression or cement its rule. No doubt sanctions give the régime less power to resist Western military action, but it's precisely this action which Western nations are steadfastly resolved to avoid.
This has been the net result of sanctions everywhere. Here is a specialist commenting on the evasion of current sanctions against Russia.
“I don’t think there’s any secret what’s going on,” said Gary Stanley, a trade compliance expert who advises businesses in aerospace and other industries. “How long have we had Cuban sanctions? How long have we had North Korean sanctions? How long have we had Iranian sanctions? It never seems to put these folks out of business.”
It seems that demand for sanctions, and the sanctions themselves, are best understood as an expression of outrage. Promoting sanctions seems unrelated to any expectations about making anything better for Syrians, or indeed to any concern about making things worse. It complements the futile reliance on internationally imposed justice.
Maybe the idea about sanctions is not so much that they work, but that lifting them would be a sign that we weren't outraged any more. Much the same might hold with other aspects of normalisation.
Many reports have focused, not on Westerners' outrage, but on the pain which many Syrians experience to see Assad rehabilitated in the region. This focus gets us nowhere, because nothing can be done to alleviate their pain. Indeed much of the commentary from anti-Assad sources stresses the callousness of, for example, the Gulf State rulers, who obviously care nothing for the suffering of the Syrian people.
This isn’t news. No one, in the entire course of the Syrian revolution, has ever suggested that those who came to promote normalisation were anything but callous in the face of Syrians' agony. Where Syrian rights and Syrian well-being are concerned, nothing has changed.
The only other question has to do with the effects of normalisation. One aggrieved party says that "This weekend’s Arab League summit will embolden the regime to continue its crimes, including the forced disappearances of hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians." The sentiments behind the claim deserve respect, but the claim itself isn't plausible.
The Syrian régime has never, at any point in seven decades, showed any hesitation to engage in its atrocious practices. It has never shown the slightest sensitivity to international indignation, or any response to stigmatization. It has at most offered some paper-thin imitation of human decency when playing on the international stage. Nothing suggests even a remote chance that external pressure would bring change for the better. Nothing suggests that normalisation will make things worse, because the régime in its isolation already allowed itself the full measure of horror.
Normalisation may bring some changes. Perhaps it will expand imports of Western consumer products. It might boost the economy. It might mean that some humanitarian aid gets though - to the Syrian government, which will know how to turn that aid to its own advantage. Syria might be stronger; this might help the Syrian people, or it might make things even worse for those exposed to Assad's vengeance. Most likely, it is as with sanctions: on balance lifting them will do no good, and not lifting them will do no good. Normalisation won't help, and withholding it won't help either.
Hopeless, but for whom?
In summary, for those who demand nothing less than justice, there is no hope at all. And this would mean there is no hope at all for the Syrian people. They will continue to suffer at Assad’s good pleasure. This could go on for years, even decades.
When the lives of so many Syrians are under such atrocious and open-ended attack, it seems natural, reasonable to suppose that what matters most are Syrian lives: saving them, perhaps improving them, should count most in decisions affecting them. But for many Westerners, and some Westernized Syrians, saving Syrian lives is by no means what matters most. What matters most is to make choices that affirm various high principles, and reject choices that don’t. It is the mentality of someone who sees an apartment block set ablaze by arsonists, hears the screams of the occupants, but won’t call in the police and fire, because they’re dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters. Thus even the most vocal refugee advocates didn’t offer so much as a murmur in support of Erdogan, whose continued rule shields the lives of many Syrians outside Assad’s grasp.
This perverse fastidiousness is most apparent in decisions about Syria itself. If the terrible state of Syrians represents the problem, no one now can suppose that prosecutions or sanctions constitute the solution. A solution, then, would have to involve a full-scale, long-term military intervention, one that ends the régime once and for all. But then the problem becomes: who’s going to intervene? Here is where every public analysis of Syria’s agony simply freezes up, and has done so ever since it became apparent that the pro-democracy, Westernized Syrian factions were not going to enter Damascus in triumph.
Yet the prospects for military intervention, were Western countries to support it, have got better, not worse. Russia will certainly emerge weaker from the Ukraine conflict, not stronger. Just two years ago, the prospect of serious confrontation with Russia made military action in Syria a non-starter, because it posed a tiny but still unacceptable prospect of all-out world war. Today, that prospect is tinier still, and seems acceptable to many political actors - as the Ukraine conflict, again, has shown.
The trouble is that Western reluctance to intervene in Syria has increased at a rate that far outpaces the increasing ease of intervention. There are several reasons for this. The West’s humiliation in Afghanistan makes another mission supremely unattractive to Western publics. The discovery of vast natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean makes Syria irrelevant to Western concerns about energy supplies. And the need to replenish Western armaments sent to Ukraine, combined with concerns about China, make Western militaries ever more reluctant to take on another large-scale burden.
But this does not mean that there can be no hope for Syrians. It only means that hope cannot rest on Western military intervention. It does raise the possibility that the West would finally back a regional power, Turkey, in such a venture. This would mean military assistance to Turkey, in quantity and quality, orders of magnitude greater than today. So armed, Turkey would be in a position to end Assad's rule. To be clear, this would require cooperation with some sector of the Syrian revolt. That means Syrian Islamists because, in the words of one specialist,
As it stands, the most capable and powerful factions which are able to launch an offensive against the Assad regime are the Islamist rebel groups in north-western Syria.
For the West, backing Turkey to the hilt is far, far cheaper than any of America’s recent wars. Turkey already has a large and capable army. It would be happy to get the F-35s it was promised, and could therefore achieve air superiority: the sticking point was supposed to be its S-400 anti-aircraft system, yet there was no fuss about Greece’s S-300. Strengthening Turkey, which controls all access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, would also strengthen an important counterweight to Russia in the region.
Even better, Turkish intervention would allow the US to withdraw from Syria altogether. This might be a good idea, especially for those appalled by Assad. In the Northeast, the US backs the SDF, a front for the PKK. The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by both the US and the EU. Much more important, the PKK/SDF and its political counterpart the YPG are intermittent, discreet and fractious but crucial allies of Assad: They have played an important role in his victories ever since 2012. They are also proponents of the normalisation so deplored when Arabs propose it. There is strong pro-Kurdish sentiment in Europe, but there are other ways of satisfying it, for example by backing the PKK rival, the KDP. Yet Western nations affect bemusement when Turkey seems to object to NATO powers sheltering a PKK-dominated force in northwest Syria, a branch of an organisation conducting military operations within Turkey.
At the moment, this possibility is not a live option. Perhaps it will never be. The main obstacle is that no one so much as suggests it. The reason is unclear.
What’s clear is that, in Western eyes, Turkey, in the person of Erdogan, represents a kind of regional Donald Trump. He is a ‘conservative’ Muslim, anything but LGBTQ-friendly. Even after winning a “highly competitive and consequential” election, he is a dictator. He consorts with Islamists, who fulfil the role of something like the Proud Boys in the US. He is considered financially reckless and given to grandiose projects. His wife is veiled, perhaps submissive? In short, his brand is terrible.
In contrast, his enemy the PKK has a wonderful brand: the PKK is secular, a brave underdog, and features strong, attractive female leaders and fighters. This is not sarcasm: branding really seems to be at the root of many commentators’ political choices, who after all have no skin in the game. But why the partisanship? No social or sexual minorities will be better off because Western decision-makers dislike Erdogan and Turkey. While deploring Trump might have some effect on what actually happens in the US and even Europe, deploring Erdogan will change nothing for Turkey’s minorities. Its only effect is to make the most plausible route to helping Syrians unthinkable. It is as if the value-based decisions affecting Syria are divorced from any consideration of cause and effect.
For there to be hope for Syrians, there must at least be people whose desire to end Assad’s atrocities outweighs their branding preferences and their pet causes. They would recognize that if there are no good options, that’s not a cue to shake one’s head and walk out on Syrians’ agony. This shouldn’t even look like a hard choice. Leaving the Syrians to their awful fate is not going to produce some democratic, LGBTQ-friendly, feminist, journalist-respecting state in either Turkey or Syria. Indeed it is hard to understand how hatred of Erdogan and the Islamists must somehow transmute into useless indignation that might as well be cruel indifference.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that Turkish-Islamist intervention has no real drawbacks. It certainly would not satisfy all legitimate Kurdish demands. There are impressive analysts and commentators who would agree with my pessimistic arguments but just shake their heads at the very idea of supporting an Erdogan initiative linked to his most likely potential ally, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the increasingly powerful Islamist leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). But what could these knowledgeable writers suggest?
They could not, with a straight face, pretend to expect Western powers to intervene, after all this time and in this very tense world situation. They would have to weigh misery under Assad against the possibility of something better under a Turkish-Islamist administration. Jolani and Erdogan have both taken pains to give the impression of moderation. Are they sincere? Even if they are, could they keep the situation in hand? Would the Western or regional powers cooperate in their efforts? Could some solution placate the Russians and Iran? The answers are simple: we can’t possibly know. The choice is between the absolute certainty of unending disaster, for millions, and the distinct but lesser possibility of some other type of disaster. It would be irrational to prefer the former.