Clocks Never Turn Back
By Rania Kisar and Joel Rayburn
March 15th marked twelve years since the beginning of the popular uprising against the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. Twelve years later, what is remarkable about the Syrian conflict is not that Assad has managed to hold onto power in Damascus but rather that a majority of Syrians inside and outside Syria still reject and resist his rule. With vast Russian and Iranian help, Assad has waged more than a decade of war against millions of Syrians–without subduing them. What does it mean that the world’s most brutal regime, backed up by a superpower willing to use the most destructive weapons of war, has not managed to snuff out the Syrian revolution, despite the regime’s many advantages?
In the aftermath of the February 6th earthquake that devastated Turkey and northwest Syria, Arab countries, UN agencies, and other international actors have rushed to embrace Assad, using the disaster as a rationale for restoring normal relations with him. To explain their lifting of Assad’s isolation, those actors have tended to argue that re-engaging Assad is mere realism. “He’s not going to fall from power”, they say, and so the realistic course is to deal with Assad and help Syria begin to stabilize after 12 years of war.
To Syrians, this swelling tide of normalization and the assumptions on which it is based don’t look realistic at all, and in their view, some of the regional and Arab countries are drawing the wrong conclusions about the Syrian conflict. Syria’s clock can never be turned back to the country that existed before March 15, 2011 and Syria’s Assad is gone and will never return.
What Syrians see in Damascus is a failed state whose institutions and economy are in free fall, as well as a society where order has broken down. The real Syria now is not a state where Assad still supposedly governs and hosts visiting dignitaries. In regime territories, average Syrians have become prey to be extorted by top regime protected criminals. Ordinary families face starvation while a kleptocratic elite lives in conspicuous luxury. In other words, they confirm the collapse of the entire Assad state to have become unsustainable.
To Syrians, normalization approaches that assume Assad has a guaranteed future or the ability to stabilize the entire country are both preposterous and irrelevant to the situation on the ground.
Foreign governments can restore their recognition of Assad, but this has no bearing whatsoever on Assad’s credibility with many millions of Syrians, which is gone forever.
The simple facts are that Syrians who have rejected Assad’s legitimacy for a dozen years will continue to do so ad infinitum, while Assad’s own state is a mere shell that cannot be restored. And to Syrian eyes, these facts warrant the world powers relooking their Syria policies and arriving at an approach that might actually work.
A Resilient Revolution
Since 2011, after the Assad regime began reacting to peaceful protesters with savage violence, Syrians’ response to Assad’s heavy hand has been steady. Funerals of young men shot dead turned into spontaneous waves of peaceful rallies where everyone chanted and rejoiced.
The destruction of cities that began in 2012, the chemical attacks that began in 2013 and lasted till 2018, the forced displacement of entire towns or districts, and the unceasing criminal brutality of the regime’s security state up to the time of writing of this article–none of this has deterred Syrians from pursuing a more just life in their homeland.
The massive protests held in Syria on March 15, 2023, calling for the same exact demand as in 2011 (“The people want the fall of the regime”) not only demonstrate that Assad hasn’t won, but also demonstrate an astonishing degree of human determination. There is simply no way that when Assad began his violent crackdown in 2011, he or any of his loyalists dreamed that twelve years later they would still be trying violently to suppress the revolution, having lost so much in the meantime.
Syria as a Study in Geopolitical Cause & Effect
Beyond the reality of indefinite popular resistance to Assad’s rule, it’s clear that Syria has been a launchpad for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Iranian regime and Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the main revisionist forces now wreaking havoc on the international order far beyond Syria.
The Iranian regime intervened in Syria first. The now-dead Qasim Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, became a participant in the Syrian conflict almost from its start. By the early months of 2011, Soleimani was already organizing ground and air attacks on the rebel populations of Syria and helping Assad launch Syria’s own military forces against fellow Syrians.
Despite deploying the entire strength of Iran’s IRGC, Lebanon’s Hizballah, and numerous other mercenaries, Soleimani was forced in mid-2015 to enlist Vladimir Putin in the effort to rescue Assad. On an emergency mission to Moscow, Soleimani told Putin that without Russia’s direct military intervention, Assad’s days in power would be numbered. When Putin deployed his army, air force, and Wagner mercenaries to Syria in late 2015, the conflict quickly became a testing ground not just for Putin’s military power and weapon systems but also for the international community, which effectively mounted no response–military, economic, or otherwise–to Putin’s military invasion of Syria. This had far-reaching consequences: when Putin was able to destroy Aleppo in 2016 with impunity and no international response, he must have concluded he could simply do the same with Kyiv.
Putin and Khamenei’s Syria-based threats to the international order have not been limited to military means and terrorism. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, has also developed illicit methods of making its terrorism enterprise financially sustainable through narcotrafficking. Even before 2011, the Iranians began to develop the drug trade in Syria in cooperation with Bashar and Maher Al Assad. By 2019, that Iranian-Assad drug trade was dominated by Captagon, a party drug that generates many billions of dollars in revenue each year. These revenues come mainly from smuggling Captagon into the Arab countries of the Gulf region–some of which have bent over backwards to embrace Assad even as he dumped narcotics into their cities.
Since 2021, the United States has done no better in responding to the threats Putin and Khamenei pose. Upon taking office, the Biden administration shocked the Gulf countries by lifting the terrorism designation the Trump administration had placed on the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. They then dismayed Israelis and Arab countries alike by relaxing enforcement of sanctions against Iran and trumpeting their earnest wish to return to the Iranian nuclear agreement, all while signaling that under their leadership, the U.S. government had every intention of withdrawing from the Middle East. This last signal of abandoning the region was taken deadly seriously following the Biden administration’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of the same year, to which U.S. allies around the globe responded by starting to look for new friends, allies, and patrons. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s easing of sanctions pressure on Assad and inaction concerning Arab normalization with Damascus showed that Syria was no longer a priority for the United States.
What is to be Done?
It appears that where the United States is concerned, Congress is preparing to take the lead in Syria-related matters. America’s Congressional representatives have been the only true friends to the Syrian people lately, maintaining a longstanding approach of dealing with the Assad problem by applying American moral standards, including against war crimes. Congressional foreign policy leaders have repeatedly staked out a tough position on deterring Assad’s crimes and have even deemed his Captagon trade an American national security risk. We may be about to see a string of Syria-related legislation that will force the U.S. administration to formulate and reveal plans to restore Assad’s international isolation and hold his regime accountable for its behavior, which would bring an end to the growing international perception that the Biden administration, for whatever reason, secretly desires the rehabilitation of Assad in the international sphere.
Restoring pressure on Assad and returning to a clear, assertive approach to resolving the conflict could yield significant dividends in a Middle Eastern region where America’s traditional allies have, at least for now, lost faith in the U.S. as an ally and begun casting about for other security umbrellas, even the dubious one offered by Xi Jinping. Syria was the first place where the United States failed to put out a fire that the entire surrounding region believed posed an existential threat to themselves–and sometimes even failed to acknowledge that there was a fire at all. America’s four major allies, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, all look into the Syrian conflict and see major threats to themselves, for which America provides no help. Compelling Assad to stop waging war on the Syrian people would be a restorative step for the United States in the region, especially if coupled with a clear policy focused on eliminating the regional risks posed by the Khamenei regime. Addressing Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt’s common concerns about Iran would go a long way toward restoring the U.S. leadership role in the Middle East–the leadership role that Xi Jinping is explicitly trying to usurp now.
This approach toward Syria and Iran need not require the United States to expend more military power. The United States has plenty of underutilized non-military tools that could degrade the Iranian regime without putting U.S. boots on the ground. The protests of the past half year have shown that the Iranian regime’s hold over the Iranian people is feeble, matching the feeble condition of the regime’s 84-year-old Supreme Leader. This is not a system that can withstand concerted economic and political pressure if mobilized properly by the United States and its global allies. The hype surrounding China’s latest attempt to become the region’s guarantor would evaporate if U.S. regional partners were to see an assertive American policy along these lines. Meanwhile, stabilizing the Middle East and regaining American superiority should be a top priority for those employed by the American people to safeguard American interests and values abroad.
As for Syrians, it is beyond doubt that they have made the solemn decision to continue in their revolution, regardless of what America does, and with or without international support. Syrians can see a future in which Putin is defeated in Ukraine, Khamenei is toppled or neutralized by the Iranian people, and Iranian proxies across the Middle East become orphans, including Assad himself. They believe that if Assad has to face his people alone, without his patrons Putin and Khamenei, he would not last a week before he finds himself in the hands of just and transparent accountability mechanisms. The future they are preparing for now will make every minute of their last twelve years worth it.