The State Who Came in From the Cold
Damascus is on the Road to Regaining International Recognition
“Whenever many powerful men are united against another powerful man, even though all of them together are much more powerful than he is, one must, nevertheless, always expect more from that one man alone who is less bold than from those many men, no matter how bold they are. For leaving aside all those things in which a single person can prevail over many people, which are countless, this will always occur: the single person, with a bit of effort, can disunite the many and weaken the body that was so bold.” - Machiavelli [Discourses, III.11]
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On Wednesday, December 28, 2022 there was a trilateral meeting in Moscow between the defense ministers of Syria, Russia, and Turkiye, discussing the prospects for joint efforts to fight terrorism in Syria. This was the first official meeting between the Turkish and Syrian governments since Syria’s civil war began all the way back in 2011. Despite US opposition to rapprochement, the countries intend to meet again soon, with Turkiye even offering to host the talks in Ankara instead of a neutral third country [though Syria prefers to hold the talks in a third country], Turkish President Erdogan stated that he is considering meeting with Syrian President Assad directly. After years on unremitting hostility from the so-called “international community,” Turkiye, the Gulf states, and others are beginning to accept the reality of the situation: the US-protected terrorist haven in Idlib notwithstanding, the Syrian Arab Republic has won it’s civil war, and no one is seriously challenging its rule over the heart of the country. The international war on Syria has been a failure, leading to nothing but unnecessary suffering; it is time for the United States and Europe to embrace reality as well, and learn to live with another foreign policy failure. It has been a long journey, but through steely resolve and the blessings of fortune, Syria may finally be allowed to live as a normal nation.
I’ve been hesitant to write about Syria because I was obsessed with the Syrian Civil War for many years at a time that I was not writing, and thus it is a vast topic which I have a large amount of knowledge of and no work of my own to refer back to. This article will be confined to the current diplomatic situation to the greatest extent possible, but it is necessary give a brief summary of the war as well as my views on it. [Note: it is my habit when discussing the complicated war to refer to the Syrian government as “the SAR,” the acronym for the state’s official name, instead of the negatively prejudicial term “the Assad Regime;” however, with sovereignty no longer seriously challenged, I will simply be referring to the country and government as “Syria.”] In short, before the war, Syria was a stable, middle income country under the control of a political coalition lead by the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. The government of Syria is supported by the nation’s religious minorities [primarily Alawites and Christians,] secularists, and moderate Sunnis. Though much is made of the influence of Assad’s Alawite Islam sect, which constitutes 10% of Syria’s population, the ruling party has broad support from non-extremists of all faiths within the country. Syria is the sole remaining secular Arab state in the Middle East. The country has been a close ally of the Soviet Union and then Russia since the 1970s- in some ways Syria is a Russian client state, though Russia treats them with a great deal of respect. Syria does not have the civil rights of the [pre-covid] West, but has more freedom than places like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and had a reasonably good quality of life for citizens loyal to the government [and allowed relatively more internal dissent than the absolute monarchies in the region.]
The Syrian Civil War started as part of the “Arab Spring,” and spiraled out of control when the government used violence against protestors. Following the government firing on protestors, the Western powers, their Gulf state allies, and Turkiye developed a maniacal obsession with overthrowing the Ba’athist government for a variety of sketchy and unclear reasons, which I discussed in depth in my article about NATO’s grand strategy [though with “human rights” as the stated goal of their dirty war.] They also cut off all official contact with the Syrian government, and it was left with diplomatic relations only with neutral states and those hostile to NATO, such as Russia and Iran, though Oman bucked the trend and maintained limited relations with Syria throughout the war. The hostile powers began supporting a fictitious Syrian government in exile, and the country was rapidly flooded with foreign weapons, money, and most of all, radical Islamic terrorists. The entire population of military aged males from government-controlled areas were drafted into indefinite military service, and with the help of Hezbollah, Iran, and ultimately Russia, they painstakingly took back the great majority of their country inch by inch, from a variety of factions, the most powerful of which were Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Syria’s success was possible in large part due to the disunity and constant infighting of the “rebel” factions and their various sponsors. Currently, with the exception some Turkish controlled areas in the north, the US protectorate of Idlib in the northwest [where many surrendered jihadists were sent in population exchanges,] a small US occupied area in the south, Syrian Kurdish forces in the northeast, and the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, the Syrian government controls the whole country.
There is no doubt that the Syrian Civil War was brutal from all sides and the government did what was necessary to win. However, one’s opinion of Assad and the government he leads is irrelevant in the face of three facts:
No one has credibly claimed before or since the war began that the Syrian government poses a threat to any outside country [and in fact, its only international territorial dispute it has is with Israel which, Trump’s recognition notwithstanding, has illegally occupied the Golan Heights for decades.]
The Syrian government has already won the civil war, and will not be overthrown absent a full-scale Iraq-type invasion.
Idlib continuing to function as “the capital of global terrorism” is a threat to the outside world.
These three things being true, the only logical option is to face reality and accept that Assad is the President of Syria, instead of pursuing a dead-end policies of seeking to overthrow him and protecting terrorists. There is no point getting into the staged atrocity accusations, which are false anyhow, given that the above things are true. Further, though the population was conscripted, no government could possibly have survived this war without a huge amount of popular support. To quote Cornelius Nepos, “No realm is safe unless it is supported by goodwill" [Dion, 5.] The truth is that the Syrian Arab Army is the Syrian people, and they successfully defended their country against a mass of hostile foreign powers and crazed terrorists. The general population of Syria recognizes the legitimacy of the government.
As to my own opinion on the matter, at the start of the war I took it for granted that there were no good sides in the war. I came to learn that the Syrian government was the much less bad side for a variety of reasons; Syria was never going to be one of those vaunted “Jeffersonian Republics” you hear about but it provides citizens with much better lives than living under Western stooges, or worse, radical Islamic terrorists. Further, the Syrian government was the only option for protecting Syria’s many religious minorities, including a Christian community which dates to before the death of Christ. As to Assad himself, it is difficult to not admire his steady perseverance in the face of incredible adversity- he has overcame more than any leader I can name in the modern era. Not only did he hold his country together, but he saved his Alawite sect from slaughter and exile, and having no other homeland than western Syria, they otherwise would have been fated to a slow death in diaspora. The Alawites follow a secretive, syncretic faith, and are considered to be a sort of heretics by most of Islam; they can only survive in a country which values religious toleration. For better and for worse, Assad is the sort of man Plutarch would have written a “Life” about: talented, determined, flawed, brutal, and the only one who could save his people. He has now famously outlasted everyone who tried to remove him.
So, this had all been going on for over a decade, with Syrians in government controlled areas living remarkably normal lives despite great hardship. No matter what the Syrian government did, the states that had plotted its overthrow would not let it rejoin the community of nations or recognize that the Ba’ath government continued to be the real government of Syria [“legitimacy” is a complex matter of political theory, but they clearly have physical control over a defined area and the obedience of the public from a seat of power, which is what a government is.] It appeared Syria might exist in a sort of blackhole forever, as a pariah which had not recently threatened or harmed any of its neighbors. And then a dam broke: in March of 2022 President Assad traveled to the United Arab Emirates and met with the Sheikhs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
This was Assad’s first trip to an Arab state since the civil war began. In fact, he hadn’t been pictured with the leader of any country that wasn’t already a target of the NATO cartel in all that time [though Russia was able to organize a phone call between Assad and the King of Jordan in October of 2021.] The UAE had re-opened its embassy in Damascus in 2018 and had held multiple lower level meetings with the Syrian government. However, it wasn’t until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shattered the post-World War 2 “peace" and the United States was thus distracted by other things that the UAE was willing to risk going “all the way,” to a top level meeting. The United States said it was “profoundly disappointed” that diplomacy which could lead to peace and stability was happening, but took no further action. I knew as soon as I heard of the meeting that the wall of isolation against Assad had been irreparably punctured. At the meeting the leaders had wide-ranging discussions about all the various things countries discuss, most importantly cooperation, stability, and removing foreign forces from Syria. At the time, Al Jazeera reported,
“The visit sends the clearest signal yet that some countries in the Arab world are willing to re-engage with Syria’s once widely shunned president. Several Arab countries are reviving ties with Assad, including Jordan and Lebanon, which have urged the US to ease sanctions on Damascus in order to bolster trade.”
Syria had one of the more developed and diversified economies in the region, and is a major wheat producer in a region with little arable land [though due to drought the 2022 wheat harvest was abysmal.] To the United States, avoiding trade with Syria is nothing, but for nations in the region, refusing commerce with a major economy in the center of the Middle East is at best an enormous inconvenience. It is no surprise they grew tired of a policy of isolating Syria that only bore bitter fruit.
Following Assad’s visit to the United Arab Emirates, Syria began to make steady progress in the normalization of relations with the other Arab states. By June of 2022 it was already the policy of both Egypt and the UAE for Syria to be re-admitted to the Arab League. Oman had increased ties over time as it became clear that the Syrian government would win the war. Other states began to make steps towards rapprochement. in mid-June Bahrain sent an ambassador for the first time since the war began, receiving credentials in a ceremony with Assad. Hamas announced it would restore ties at the same time. At the beginning of the month a flight from Kuwait had arrived at the airport of Syria’s second city Aleppo, and later a flight from the UAE arrived in the coastal city of Latakia. In July, Turkiye’s Foreign Minister said they would be willing to ally with Syria in operations against the Kurdish SDF, a mutual enemy. In August, Erdogan announced that Turkiye had no intention of overthrowing Assad, he also said he intended to have a phone call with him soon. Further, Erdogan accused the US of fostering terrorism in Syria, in another blow to US Syria policy. In September Bahrain announced its support for Syria’s sovereignty, saying it wanted to “build bridges with friends.” In early October, Erdogan said he would meet with Assad when “the time was right.” Later that month, Assad hosted a representative of Hamas in Damascus. By this point it was clear that though there would be much work going forward, against all US objections, the policy of isolating Syria within the Middle East was dying. The US announced at the end of October it had no plans to end sanctions or withdraw from Syria. They were of course not swayed by a UN Rapporteur asking them to end unilateral sanctions on humanitarian grounds shortly after that announcement was made.
The largest and most powerful nation in the region is Turkiye, with Erdogan working tirelessly to make his country again the undisputed leader of the Middle East. Turkiye’s position for many years was unremitting hostility to the Syrian government, as Turkiye funded and protected extremist proxy armies, generally under the guise of preventing Kurdish aggression. At the same time, the large volume of Syrian refugees in Turkiye became ever more unpopular with the Turkish public as the years went by. I covered Turkiye’s increasingly independent foreign policy in May, including Erdogan’s Syrian ambitions. However, for a variety of reasons, it appears that Erdogan has given up on his Syria policy that was failing to make progress, and now sees that Assad is his best option as a partner for regional stability, especially given their mutual interest in a calm and controlled Kurdistan. Still, despite growing diplomatic contact, Turkiye is yet to stop increasingly aggressive military action in northern Syria, regardless of the fact that it seems to have given up on any identifiable policy goals in the region. One “insider” went as far to say, “Erdogan has already abandoned his dream of ‘praying in the Umayyad Mosque’ in Damascus.” I’m skeptical Erdogan ever had the conquest of Damascus as a goal, and further don’t see why during peace he couldn’t just go there on a state visit, as Putin visited the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch with Assad in 2020, but regardless whatever goals of conquering land in Syria Erdogan may have once had have seemingly been put to rest.
Then, on December 28th there was the big meeting between high-level Turkish and Syrian officials in Moscow. This shows that if both sides bother to try, diplomacy is always possible despite what conflicts may exist between you and another nation. It is interesting that as Erdogan has tried to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and has maintained good relations with both sides, Putin has also tried to help Syria and Turkiye resolve their disputes, and is seen as a fair arbiter despite Russia’s longstanding alliance with Syria. Topics discussed at the meeting were described as, “ways to resolve the Syrian crisis, the problem of refugees, and joint efforts to combat extremist groups in Syria.” They also discussed re-opening the M4 highway, the main east-west highway in northern Syria, which is the primary passage for accessing multiple Turkish border crossing points.
The Turkish Defense Ministry referred to the meeting as a “constructive atmosphere” while the Syrian Defense Ministry referred to the meeting as “positive.” Still, no deals were made at the meeting. Given the complex nature of the problems faced and the long term damage and animosity, it is no surprise that they did not come to any agreements during a first meeting. However, speaking is the only way to properly understand the concerns and demands of the other side, so at any future meetings they will have a much better idea of what solutions to this long-running problem are viable. Turkiye affirmed it’s support for Syria’s territorial integrity, something which has long been in question, with one source stating, “We never said that we would annex the Syrian territories. We always said we would withdraw once a political solution has been reached there.” Of course, that’s exactly what someone intending to annex territories would likely have been saying, but it suddenly seems more believable despite Turkiye’s long occupation of parts of northern Syria. Some claim that Erdogan is simply making these moves because hosting Syrian refugees is so unpopular in Turkiye and there is an election in June. Perhaps that is true, but one of the benefits of democracy is meant to be that it encourages rulers to care about public sentiment, so there is nothing wrong with that causing him to bow to public pressure and abandon years of failed policy. [For all the talk about democratic backslide in Turkiye, there appears to be a consensus that Erdogan has to win his election in the conventional sense.]
US Ambassador Ned Price was apoplectic about Turkiye’s diplomatic approach, because the United States seems to have developed an ideological opposition to diplomacy being practiced anywhere it is genuinely needed. Price stated, “We do not support countries upgrading their relations or expressing support to rehabilitate the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. We urge states to carefully consider the Assad regime’s atrocious human rights record.” Their alleged concern about human rights is of course brazen hypocrisy, and in Ankara’s defense that is not something Turkiye usually talks about, though it was the basic justification for all the states breaking ties with Syria in the first place. Still, contrast this to everyone loving Azerbaijani ruler Aliyev, a man with as bad of a human rights record as anyone, who has been waging war on Armenia and is currently blockading Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan provides a large amount of support to Azerbaijan’s regime, whereas Turkiye is simply pursuing normal neighborly relations with Syria; this entire situation shows how arbitrary and self-interested it is in which places the foreign policy blob claims we must care about “human rights.”
Objections from the United States are not stopping the diplomatic process from moving forward. On January 4th the Foreign Minister of the UAE traveled to Damascus to meet with Assad, their second meeting [they had met once prior to Assad’s visit to the UAE.] By now it is becoming normal for Assad to meet with foreign dignitaries from a variety of countries. The momentum seems unstoppable. UAE state news agency WAM reported,
“Sheikh Abdullah affirmed the commitment and keenness of the UAE to support the efforts made to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis that restores the security, stability and unity of Syria and meets the aspirations of the brotherly Syrian people for development and prosperity.”
This is everything that the Syrian government does and always has wanted for itself. It’s probable that the UAE’s Prime Minister Maktoum, one of the wealthiest real estate developers in the world, sees great profit in rebuilding destroyed Syria, but Syria needs the investment. Either way, this is not a situation where they are having tough negotiations and making concessions to find a common ground- the sides are wholly on the same page and the UAE is ready for a peaceful and unified Syria under the rule of the current government.
Due to Syria’s ongoing diplomatic recovery, the United States’ plan to carve Syria into some sort of “confederation” is dead. This was explained in an excellent article for The Cradle, which was the inspiration for this piece, titled, “A Moscow meeting shatters fantasies of a Syrian ‘confederation.’” Journalist Malek al-Khoury writes,
“There will be no “federalism” or “confederation” – western codewords for the break up of the Syrian state – at these talks, but rather a “Turkish-Russian” acceptance of Damascus’ conditions.
…an understanding between Damascus and Ankara, will essentially close the door on any opposition fantasies of breaking Syria into statelets, and will undermine the “Kurdish-American divisive ambition.”
It is not for nothing that Washington has sought to thwart communications between Ankara and Damascus. Under the guise of “fighting ISIS,” the US invested heavily in Syrian separatism, replacing the terror group with “Kurdish local forces” and reaped the rewards in barrels of stolen Syrian oil to help mitigate the global energy crisis.
Now Turkiye has closed the door to that ‘federalization’ plan.”
Abstractly, especially to someone from a large country such as the United States, decentralization sounds like a good thing. However, Syria is roughly the size and population of Florida. Further, the majority of the land that is now Syria has been under vast empires with little self-rule for 3500 or more years [though the ancestors of the Kurds, always hard to govern, appear to have been free amidst the Persian Empire in Xenophon’s Anabasis.] In fact, the modern country of Syria is smaller than the administrative divisions within the empires which have historically governed this region. In short, the idea that Syria needs to be decentralized is absurd on its face, and serves no purpose but to keep the country weak and unstable, as outside powers continue to try to use Kurdish aspirations for independence as a hedge against everyone.
Shills of the neo-imperialists and Western financial interests such as Dutch writer Rena Netjes are getting out there with cursed takes such as claiming that peace will increase refugees [and seriously, look at the funding sources of the institute she works for, scroll to the bottom for top donors.] Expect the scribbling class sycophants to be out in full force against peace in Syria, but with the world’s eyes on Ukraine, the Syrian Civil War being 10 years in, and US leadership being more feckless than ever, there is simply no way opposition to Assad can gain momentum to fight back against the direction history is going on this issue. Whether or not accusations of Syria using chemical or other banned weapons are accurate [it should be noted, war crime laws don’t apply to domestic conflicts anyway,] the US’s “concern” about “normalizing the brutal regime” are on their face absurd. Firstly, Syria has already “gotten away with it” so to speak, and there is no viable way to punish them on the scale that would be appropriate for the gravity Western governments have given the accusations. Secondly, it has always been the case that the winners of wars get away with things they wouldn’t if they had lost. For one notable example, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who helped plan the US firebombing of Japan, said in the documentary Fog of War that they were all aware they would be tried and found guilty as war criminals for that bombing campaign if the US lost. It is a fantasy to imagine an order where winning a war doesn’t generally cause one to get away with the things one did to win that war. Further, the sort of people who reach positions where they run wars all know this, and it does not send a “bad message” to accept reality. The ship of “US credibility” sailed years ago when Obama declared a “red line,” claimed it had been crossed, and then didn’t take decisive action. Quite simply, it’s over, though that is unlikely to stop the US and allies from pursuing a dead-end Cuba-style policy for perhaps decades to come.
Meanwhile, the reconciliation process moves forward without Western powers at the table. Syria and Turkiye are currently negotiating where to hold their next negotiation. In the past, most of the peace talks have been held in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana. As of early December, Assad was unwilling to meet with Erdogan directly, with sources saying his view was that it would help Erdogan’s electoral prospects but yield little for Syria. Erdogan has stated that he could ultimately meet directly with Assad as a result of the process started in Moscow. Notably, Ankara is requesting to host the next meeting instead of holding them in a third country, though Damascus prefers the meetings continue to be held in a third country. Historically there are multiple reasons such meetings are usually hosted by a neutral third party, most of all the risk of being detained or assassinated if you enter territory your enemy controls. However, in this instance the bigger issue is how “toxic” Assad has been in the “international community” and the concern about alienating allies, something which Turkiye currently does not seem so concerned about. Hosting Assad at the Turkish Presidential palace would show the world that Turkiye has a truly independent foreign policy. From Syria’s perspective, the concern remains the “win” that would give Assad domestically, as the Turkish public wants to see the end of this war, and that if he easily wins re-election he will no longer feel compelled to make peace.
There are many issues to work through, and international politics are unpredictable, but all the inertia is in the direction of Erdogan and Assad “burying the hatchet.” Restored relations with Turkiye would represent the total end of Syria’s regional isolation, and on Syria’s terms. Of course, it’s possible negotiations go so drastically wrong that it leads to outright war between Syria and Turkiye. However, that seems unlikely as Syria does not want to fight Turkiye’s massive military, and Turkiye surely does not want to fight the Syrian Arab Army, which at this point is the most experienced and battle-hardened major fighting force on Earth, bar none. I believe cooler heads are finally prevailing, though Assad maintained a remarkably cool head the entire time.
The Syrian Civil War has been long, brutal, and unnecessary. Like some sort of geopolitical version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a bunch of political powers with different secret motives set upon a destructive odyssey while cloaking themselves in selfless benevolence. The results have been death, suffering for the Syrian people, and humiliation for the outside powers who sought to tear Syria apart for their own nefarious ends. One wonders how the Western policy class doesn’t grow too wise or at least too weary to keep ginning up problems only to drastically fail at solving them. There is much we can learn from the conflict, though most of all the simple lesson that unity beats disunity and as Machiavelli said one man can beat many opponents if he survives the first onslaught; once Assad survived long enough for Russia decide it was worth it to intervene it was over for the so-called “opposition.” Sadly it does not appear any of the Western powers learned to mind their own business. In most ways it was the Spanish Civil War of our era, except through competent and steady leadership and an incredibly determined and brave population the antebellum government survived. The Syrian Arab Republic, as a secular socialist republic, will remain an odd man out in a neighborhood where government is generally based on monarchy, religious sectarianism, or both. But Assad and the Syrian people, against all odds, won the right to continue to live as they wish in that neighborhood, while a refusal to accept that reality will leave the United States and its Western partners ever more estranged from the Middle East.
Hopefully the forces of man and history allow the Syrian people to enjoy the peace they’ve won at such precious expense.
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Weird flex not to mention the summary executions of unarmed civilians by the Assad regime/junta/legitimate government, of which footage recently emerged, but ok