On April 14, 2014, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion with Joseph Bahout, Professor at Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris; Abdulrazzaq Jedi, Professor at the University of Baghdad; and Charles Lister, Visiting Fellow at the BDC. Salman Shaikh, Director of the BDC, moderated and members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business, and media communities attended. Each speaker reflected on the current state of the conflict in Syria, as well as the regional impact of the conflict, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. After three years, 140,000 Syrians dead, and millions more displaced, the fighting in Syria shows no sign of abating. Along with the Syrian death toll, Sunni-Shia tensions in Lebanon and extremism in Iraq rise as the conflict continues.
Professor Joseph Bahout opened with his assessment of the critical factors that have deepened the cleavages of crisis within Lebanon. Although Lebanon was in crisis before the Syrian civil war, as evidenced by the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the events in Syria have further weakened Lebanon. Bahout noted that the bidirectional flows of finance, refugees, and armed groups—particularly Hizballah —contribute to instability. While the refugee crisis clearly represents a humanitarian problem, it also threatens to upset sensitive equilibriums within Lebanon. In his view, Hizballah has enigmatically taken an existential stake in the survival of the Syrian regime. Lebanon’s political vacuum, Bahout added, exacerbates these problems. Bahout closed his opening remarks by detailing the erosion of Lebanon’s traditional safety nets which have historically brought Lebanon back from the brink: an apolitical Lebanese Army and the regional umbrella. In his view, June and July will be critical, with presidential elections and the end of the chemical weapons agreement in Syria; presidential elections in Lebanon; and the final stage of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West, which will affect Hizballah.
Later in the discussion, Bahout argued that, given its manpower limitations, the Assad regime will need to confine itself to securing “useful Syria [defined as] central Syria around Damascus, the M5 highway, the Homs area, Hama, and the Alawite hinterland… the regime will have to accept, for a while at least, to go without what it considers useless Syria, everything that is east of Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.” Bahout suggested that the international community focus on this area, as it remains unseen whether it will succumb to opposition infighting or be unified as a liberated area.
Professor Abdulrazzaq Jedi followed, providing an evaluation of the Syrian spillover in Iraq, particularly in Anbar province that borders Syria and has faced a recent spike in violence. In his view, the Iraqi army operates in Anbar province to target Sunni civilians, not the terrorists that they claim to be fighting. Jedi fears that the Iraqi military stokes instability to discourage Sunni participation in the upcoming elections. While he admits that the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS) operates in Anbar province, he believes the presence of the Iraqi army increases its strength and numbers there; absent the Iraqi army, Jedi believes ISIS would shrink to a size manageable for the people of Anbar province. “The people of Anbar can fight ISIS because ISIS is all about its incubator…If [the Iraqi government] really wants to fight ISIS, you have to strengthen the people. You should stop bombing civilians in Anbar…. When [Sunnis] feel that their rights are promoted, fostered, and strengthened and do not feel oppressed, then ISIS will no longer exist. They will never be an incubator for such an extremist group.” He pointed to the stability from 2007-2012, during which the people of Anbar confronted terrorism that the American and Iraqi militaries could not eliminate.
Subsequently, Charles Lister provided insights on the current state of the conflict within Syria, which he described as a “total stalemate.” He said this state may be explained by the development of a war economy in Syria. Lister asserted that actors on both sides benefit from ongoing hostilities and thus have a vested interest in prolonging the conflict. For example, opposition groups profit from crudely refining oil, controlling flourmills, and charging for passage at checkpoints. Lister noted instances in which opposition groups have prolonged a given battle to obtain more funding and weapons from their outside supporters. On the regime side, individuals involved in corruption, kidnapping, looting, and black market trading similarly benefit from the continuation of conflict.
Lister then detailed the current structure of the regime and opposition. He noted the militia-ization of the regime and explained its ability to coordinate with sub-state actors, such as Hizballah. With this structure, the Syrian army has made substantial gains, including control of the highway that connects Damascus, Aleppo, and key Alawite areas such as Tartus and Lattakia. He pointed to the fall of al-Qusayr in June 2013 as a turning point and perfect example of this new structure. The regime does, however, suffer from a manpower problem, as well as infighting and insubordination within its new militia-based structure. Lister then said that on the opposition side, ISIS has a significant foothold, but is isolated from other groups; Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, enjoys a surprising level of popular support, particularly given its significant links to al-Qaeda central. Due to such disunity, Lister concluded the opposition is unable to sustain the type of gains it was making in 2012-13.
When asked about possible game changers in Syria, Lister discussed shifting internal dynamics, such as the introduction of U.S.-manufactured anti-tank guided missiles and shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, which could target the regime’s ruthlessly effective barrel bombing campaign and air power advantage. These weapons, he cautioned, will change hands and end up outside of Syria eventually. He also noted the possibility of fractures in regime command, as evidenced by rumors that a direct relative of Assad was killed by his own men or a competitor. Bahout also discussed rumors of insubordination within the regime’s ranks. Bahout then proposed some regional shifts that might alter the Syrian situation, such as rapprochement between Iran and the Gulf states on the nuclear issue. He admitted, however, that such a shift appears unlikely.
Now in its fourth year, the Syrian conflict continues to destabilize an already volatile region. The war rages on, as the international community hesitates to intervene and a war economy becomes further entrenched in Syria. Even potential tipping points, such as the introduction of more advanced weapons, threaten to spill over into neighboring states and undermine regional stability.