Two weeks ago I published a controversial statement that the Lebanese-Syrian hostage exchange signaled the end of the Syrian civil war. As of last week, the devastating terrorist attack on Southern Beirut became a significant development that supports this claim. The last modicum of rebel resistance is quickly being eradicated out of Damascus. However, they are being replaced with hard line terrorist organizations, many of which are directly linked or sponsored by Al-Qaida. This will lead to a conflict mired in fundamentalism rather than the goal of better governance for the Syrian people.
The vicious attack on the Iranian embassy in Southern Beirut by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB), a Sunni terrorist organization connected to al-Qaida, was a display of weakness and desperation. At least 23 civilians and an Iranian diplomat were killed, with over a hundred people wounded. Their “message” was directed at the Shi’a-centered Hezbollah, warning that the AAB will wage further attacks in Lebanon if Hezbollah forces do not leave Syria. Although the attack serves as a message, it is also a very good indicator of the current political situation in Syria. On the surface, it appears as a direct signal that if anti-Assad terrorist forces are losing ground in Syria, the next immediate target from militant organizations like the AAB is Lebanon. However, what these terrorist attacks truly reveal is a distinct lack of coordination in these organizations. The initial, visceral emotional response that brought foreign fighters into Syria (mostly from the Gulf states and Northern Africa) has died through years of conflict with no success in sight, leaving their forces struggling to find a new cause.
The Arab Spring fervor initially so vibrant in Syria has decayed into a dying dream. If the rebel forces were to have defeated Assad’s rule, it would have occurred six months ago. Many of the secular nationalist rebel groups understand this, and post potential US intervention, many have given up hope. However, the fundamentalist side of the fighting —namely the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), as well as al-Nusra Front is doing whatever it can to make a semblance of a difference in the ultimate outcome. This negative energy translates vicious attacks such as the Beirut bombing. Similarly, the attacks in Damascus are only increasing in their severity and violence, but clearly fading in their tactical coordination, and thus future advantage, as a result.
An alarming development further underscoring the situation is the AAB’s ties to al-Qaida. This is an immediate red flag that the rebel groups are increasingly becoming a mix of terrorist groups; radical fragments of al-Qaida’s massive, yet vague, umbrella organization. Even the groups that do not explicitly identify themselves as al-Qaida, such as Ahrar al-Sham, Ansar al-Sham, and Jaysh al-Islam follow similar agendas of establishing an Islamic state through violent means. The Syria conflict has now been co-opted by recently united foreign terrorist fighters, focused not on freedom or equity for the Syrian people but defeating the “infidel” regime at any cost. These groups did not exist before the Syrian conflict began.
All are grassroots extremist groups operating on different rationales, varying from establishing a Caliphate to removing Assad from power. However, it is now clear that what began as a war against Assad has transformed into a regional religious battle. This is the rationale cited by the Iranians to send Shiite fighters into Syria to support Assad, believing that the war will move to Lebanon if it is not finished in Syria. Hezbollah is also deeply vested in protecting Shiite shrines in Syria, which have been constantly attacked by the more Wahhabi-ist Sunni Islamists who believe that such shrines are akin to human deification. While there is no doubt that the conflict is largely geopolitical rather than religious, these conflicts provide a critical perspective into understanding the nuances of the Syrian war.
The extremist and violent acts on the rise in the regions incredibly dangerous for the stability of Syria. While Assad may be considered a repressive dictator, but tyranny by a secular leader is easier for many – especially international leaders – to swallow than the tyranny of chaos, violence, and lack of civil order that would be caused by fundamentalist leaders in government. Other regions that have been destabilized, such as Afghanistan, Libya, and parts of Pakistan, have proven to be be breeding grounds for extremism and the resulting social oppression that follows it. This occurs even in North Africa, post-Arab Revolution “successes”, and cannot be allowed to happen in Syria if the country is to stabilize.
Fortunately, United States foreign policy has sobered up and realized the danger. Lack of US support for the now co-opted opposition has been recently shown in enforcing the Geneva II conference under Assad’s terms; terms which rule out him abdicating power. Essentially, they have flipped the script after the last minute Russian peace deal a few months back. Rather than the usual narrative of the United States rooting for the underdogs, the center of the debate is now centered on US worries about developing terrorism in the region.
This rewriting of diplomatic and material support is reflective of Washington’s dominant attitude towards the Middle East. It is a more cynical approach, which after ten years of interference in the region understands that the further destabilization of such a tumultuous area will lead to two serious and potentially irreversible problems. The first is that discord in impoverished regions of the Middle East will create breeding ground for violent Islamist groups, potentially posing a threat to US security, both domestically and abroad. The second is that these groups are too close to US energy concerns, which will increase the price of oil and put further strain on international markets. The latest developments with Syria, and the more recent interactions with Iran show that the United States is very vested in containing Middle East terrorism, by sponsoring states likely to maintain order. If one follows the latest testimony submitted to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, by the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade — it is clear that this new US focus on containing terrorism, as opposed to toppling Assad, is the new approach to a volatile but long-term situation.
Additionally, the United States, as any other politically versed state actor, will not bet on a losing horse. It is quickly becoming clear that Assad will be the victor in this war. The rebels are in constant struggle with each other, with reports of ISIS members executing rebel commanders, in order to gain more control of the rebellion. Morale has declined, especially considering the lack of US support the alliance had hoped would allow them to take Damascus. On the flip side, the Shiite fighters supplied to the regime by Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran have only increased the government’s influence and capacity. Additionally, neither the US nor Russia want Assad gone at this point, eliminating the potential of foreign intervention. On almost all fronts, Assad and his forces have the upper hand. The reality that they now face is not stopping popular Syrian rebels, but in defeating ideologically extremist factions which locals now largely resent. The initial era of the Syrian conflict, where peaceful protestors tried to stop the rule of Al-Assad, has progressed through an armed movement of Syrian rebels to an influx of foreign Islamist fighters, the intrusion of Hezbollah supporting the regime, and now a sectarian battle between Shiite and fundamentalist Sunni denominations in the region. However, as this latest conflict is being played out, many – including those opposed to the Syrian regime – are beginning to see the dooming faults of having extremist Salafist groups in the once secular country.
The latest developments, like the Beirut bombings, clearly indicate that the Syrian civil war is nearly over. It has now transformed into an “Assad vs. Terrorism” narrative, and Assad now has the proper footing to do what he sees as necessary to maintain his rule. It appears, as his father before him, Assad will win out in the end. The extremist forces will be difficult to remove at first, but as time passes, it is likely that the international community will not condemn vicious and violent regime tactics, as they will be directed at politically acceptable targets – terrorist forces. The US may even eventually help Assad, and supply him with weapons to regain complete control, all under the banner of fighting terrorism. Assad may even attempt to run for reelection, and his rule will be, without a doubt, more popular than ever when compared to the potential terror of extremist groups. Whatever that means for the future of Syria is unclear, but for now “stability” is the key word necessary for the region.