As I was preparing for a duty as an unarmed U.N. observer in Lebanon in 1986, the Marine Corps officer I was replacing gave me some good advice. “There are no good guys up there. Don’t take sides — even mentally. None of them has our country’s interests or yours in mind.” The multi-sided Lebanese civil war was incredibly complex and vicious, but it was small potatoes compared with today’s civil war in Syria. My friend’s advice would have been very appropriate to the leaders of Iran, Russia, Turkey and Hezbollah. Each has blundered into a war that won’t end happily or profitably for them.
Iran’s support for Syria’s Alawite regime is probably understandable in the context that the Alawite sect is an offshoot of the Shia brand of Islam and that Iran needs all the friends it can get in a region where the vast majority of the populations are Sunni. It also made some sense when the Iranians had the oil money to allow the late, unlamented — at least by us — Gen. Soleimani to undertake foreign adventures. U.S. sanctions and Iranian governmental incompetence have drained the Iranian treasury to a point where the Syrian enterprise is an unneeded extravagance.
Hezbollah began life as a Lebanese Shiite militia resisting the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and received much of the credit for the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. Eventually, it became a recognized Lebanese political party when the civil war ended. But the bill for three decades of Iranian military support came due when Soleimani “requested” Hezbollah military support for the Syrian regime. Hezbollah provided the Shiite assault forces in the war and bore a disproportionate percentage of casualties. Hezbollah’s reward has been diminished political support from the largely Sunni Lebanese population and waning financial assistance from a cash-strapped Iran.
Early in the last decade, Vladimir Putin probably saw propping up the Syrian regime as a good opportunity to enhance his “make Russia great again” campaign. In return for its support for the Assad regime, Russia got a naval port on the Mediterranean and the ability to show that Moscow could once again project power overseas. Nearly a decade later, Russia is propping up what has become a liability. Bashar Assad’s forces may be again in control of what is left most of the country, but Mr. Assad will increasingly be asking Russian money to prop him up. Meanwhile Mr. Putin has gained the enmity of Syria’s Sunni neighbors. There hasn’t been much glory in the Syrian endeavor for the new and improved Russian Empire.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fast becoming another casualty of the Syrian war. The Turkish leader’s vision of returning to Ottoman greatness via its Syrian incursion is fading fast. His troops have performed poorly and the intervention is fast becoming a quagmire with many thousands of new refugees to deal with. In the past year, he has angered the United States by buying arms from Russia and provoked the Russians by interfering in Syria. He has probably worn out his welcome from President Trump by demanding American acquiescence for his Syrian adventure.
Perhaps the greatest Syrian loser is the erstwhile winner. President Assad began the war by a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters requesting reasonable reforms because he feared the fate of other dictatorships in Libya and Egypt during the Arab Spring. The civil war has eliminated Syria as a major Arab power and reduced Mr. Assad to being a puppet ruler beholden to both Iraq and Russia. He now presides over an empire of rubble.
Ironically, the big winners in the Syrian war are those who have largely stayed out of it. Those include Israel, the neighboring Sunni Arab states, and Donald Trump. Minus Syrian meddling, Israel has been able to quietly improve relations with most of the Sunni neighbors giving it a freer hand to deal with the Palestinian issue. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have seen a potential regional rival diminished to impotence.
President Trump has managed to walk a fine line in Syria. He continued the American war on ISIS in both Syria and Lebanon and has been largely successful in eliminating the Islamic State as an existential regional threat. His other Syrian action was to punish the Assad regime for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention by gassing his own people. Mr. Trump probably missed a chance to resolve Turk-Kurd problems in Syria by diplomacy, but that is water under the bridge. Like a bad Christmas fruitcake, Syria remains an unwanted gift that keeps on giving.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
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