The Pyrrhic Victories of the Mamlūk in Damascus


“Sic Semper Tyrannis”

On the fields of Heraclea and Asculum, Pyrrhus of Epirus and his Italian-Greco allies faced off against the Roman army during the Pyrrhic War during his campaign in Italy. The Roman military had never confronted the Hellenistic states and while they suffered defeats and lost 21,000 men in both battles, they exacted such a toll on the Greek King's victorious forces (it is estimated Pyrrhus lost 6,500 men, just under a third of his army) that he was forced to back down due to the Roman military's ability to replenish their forces "as if from a fountain gushing forth indoors." After the battle of Asculum and Heraclea, Pyrrhus' army left the Italian peninsula to wage war in Sicily, the Roman historian Plutarch writing that when the Roman and Hellenistic armies detached King Pyrrhus remarked grimly "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined." 

For Rome, Asculum was a watershed moment for their civilisation as they consolidated the Italian peninsula and drew the eyes from various city states and rivals across the Mediterranean, their first steps on the road to becoming an ancient superpower and empire. Pyrrhus, the mercurial military talent, arguably the greatest military commander of his generation, was decapitated seven years later during the Siege of Sparta and his army was destroyed by the Sparta-Macedonian alliance, forever destroying the ambitions of the Epirorate city state to dominate the rest of the Greek city-states/polis. His impressive tactical military victories came at the expense of overarching strategic victories and securing long-term power.

In 2017, Syria is a battleground of multiple rivalries and conflicts, one of eight wars being fought in Muslim countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2003, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarek, Ben Ali, Osama Bin Laden, Ahmad Fadil al Khalayilah,  Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat have disappeared from the Middle Eastern political landscape.

Presidents Ali, Mubarek and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen were dislodged from power by the first wave of revolutions to sweep the region in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Muammar Qaddafi's rule was brought to a grisly end by NATO-supported rebel forces. The former dictator, intercepted by units of the National Liberation Army in Sirte after NATO airstrikes bombarded his convoy, was humiliated, beaten, mutilated and executed by a mob of jubilant NLA soldiers. His son, Mutassim Qaddafi, who was captured in the same attack did not last the night. Pictures later emerged from Saudi TV channel Al Arabiya of Mutassim's body; he had been stabbed in the stomach and throat while his arm had been dislocated. War crimes were committed as between 500 - 900 pro-Qaddafi soldiers were executed and buried in mass-graves across Sirte by the NLA and its affiliated militias. 

In Baghdad, amidst bombs and sectarian cleansing, Saddam was hung for crimes against humanity on 30 December, 2006 after a shambolic trial. Under Saddam, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were slaughtered by his clique including thousands of Kurds targeted by the regime's chemical weapons programme under the supervision of Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid during Al-Anfal. “O God bless Muhammad and the family of Muhammad," "Muqtada, Muqtada, Muqtada," "Long live Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr!" were the cries minutes before the trapdoor opened.  His death 'cemented his status as a Sunni and Arab nationalist martyr. Nine years later, he remains an important symbol for many within Iraq’s disillusioned Sunni Arab minority.'

After Saddam's execution, the Iraqi Civil War initiated by Khalayilah's jihādist sub-cell ushered in a wildfire, one which Saddam's methodical and violent mukhābarāt had scarcely controlled, veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn mused in his diary over the tragedy unfolding in the capital: "Life in Baghdad has become far more dangerous than it was under Saddam...Unseen by the outside world...districts where Sunni and Shiite lived together for decades, if not centuries are being torn apart in a few days." Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Al-Qa'ida in Iraq) which was to be the prototype for Islamic State. Ahmad Fadil al Khalayilah, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the ideology of Zarqawism left a violent mark on Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He neither lived to see the second coming of his caliphate nor the death of Saddam. He died thirty miles north-east of Baghdad, his lungs filling with blood after being located by Jordanian intelligence and his safe-house levelled by a targeted U.S airstrike. 

Even some of the new leaders have not lasted. In Iraq, Nouri al-Malaki's rule - successor of Ibrahim al-Jaafari's transitional government - was swiftly brought to an end after Islamic State's humiliating rout of U.S-trained and armed government forces in Falluja, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Mosul. In Egypt, the military removed President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after its short-lived tenure in power after the collapse of its socio-economic blueprint in Cairo. In Yemen, the country has slid into war and is tottering on the brink of famine as the Houthis, led by the Revolutionary Committee and Supreme Political Council headed by Saleh Ali al-Sammad and Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, battle with Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi sponsored by the Gulf States. Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qa'ida who had conducted vicious attacks on American soil, was assassinated in Pakistan by U.S Special Forces.

As leaders and regimes have risen and fallen, many of which were deposed by direct or covert Western military action, Bashar Asad has managed to not only survive the Arab Revolutions but remain at the heart of unfolding events. President Asad, who succeeded his father, Hafez Asad on 17 July, 2000, has proved to be the antithesis of the Arab Revolutions, the last of a string of nationalist regimes which over the decades devolved into family dynasties whose iron-grip on power were sustained by the formation of pitiless Mukhābarāt states. President al-Asad's capacity to navigate the multiple threats since the fateful protests spread across Syria in 2011 has defied expectations in the international community. That being said, President Asad's survival of the Syrian revolt, its subsequent violence and six years of civil war with no end in sight has come at a spectacular cost.

The destruction of Syria and Iraq has smashed the traditional Middle Eastern order. Half a million Syrians have perished, over one million are estimated to have been wounded, and nearly five million men, women and children have been ejected from Syria by military conflict. The invisible casualties are harrowing as a mental health epidemic grips Syria. According to International Medical Corps, '31 percent have severe emotional disorders. Within this categorisation, 20 percent have depressive disorders like anxiety and 6 percent suffer from bipolar disorders.' “Those in serious need [of mental health care]… run in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands.” stated Curt Goering, executive director of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture based in Jordan. Goering is not incorrect, the stories of children committing suicide in besieged and starving cities such as Madaya, and the toxic toll displacement and conflict have taken on Syria's children are supported by the tragic statistics produced by Save The Children: one in four children, around 2.5 million, are on the brink of developing a mental health disorder. The physical and psychological savaging of Syria's future generations has encapsulated the tragedy of the Syrian War. 

The roots of the Asad dynasty, much like Saddam's, go deeper than anticipated or respected by Western commentators who gleefully predicted the regime's "inevitable" demise in the early stages of the Syrian intifada (uprising). Looking back, historians will judge Western politicians and policymakers who rode the initial wave of euphoria of the Arab Revolutions as extraordinarily naive in their approach to the reality of Syrian politics and history. Bashar is not the murderous madman presented in Western media and is certainly not a second Saddam. The classic Adolf Hitler comparisons, used by successive U.S administrations to condemn Saddam has, unsurprisingly, been replicated by the Trump administration with Press Secretary Sean Spicer claiming that even Hitler did not sink low enough to the use of chemical weapons. There were many issues raised by this statement let alone determining the debate about who really used the chemical weapons in Ghouta and Khan Shaykhun. Such simple analogies undermine the complexities of the Asad family. 

To understand Bashar, one must understand his father - Hafez Asad -  and the Syria he inherited when the latter died in 2000. The Asad and  family has shaped Syrian politics - indeed regional politics - for decades. Rising to power and influence through the emergence and collapse of pan-Arabism and the bitter feud between Nasserists and Ba'athists, Hafez Asad lived through major geo-political and historical events which were to shape the modern Middle East and the turmoil today. Throughout his formative years, his opposition to the military policies of Israel and the military coups and counter coups that dominated Syrian politics were to have particularly impact on his regime's attitudes and policies across the region. 

The 1967 War or Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and 1982 invasion of Lebanon profoundly effected Hafez. He served as Defence Minister during the 1967 War where the Golan Heights were occupied by the Israeli military on 9-10 June, 1967 and the Syrian Air Force, which he initially commanded and served in was destroyed. This personal and humiliating blow was cemented by what he saw as a betrayal by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after he halted the Egyptian Army's advance into the Israeli-occupied Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, left Asad's men to face the Israeli military alone, and subsequently signed the Camp David Accords with President Jimmy Carter and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. 

These developments deeply wounded Hafez Asad as he became increasingly sceptical of U.S policy in the region and staunchly condemned the White House's staunch support for the Israelis militarily and politically, a matter of practice he believed impeded a fair peace process between the Arabs, the Palestinians and Israel. 

This, in fairness, is not without reason. The United States' has consistently given deference to Israel either through the lens of Cold War politics to contain the Soviet Union or during subsequent peace-talks between the Arabs and Israelis. From Asad's perspective, the partisan nature of U.S policy was not conducive to peace in the region. In return the U.S - who wooed Egypt into the American camp during the Yom Kippur War - found Asad at a personal level and Syria at a regional level, immensely frustrating to deal with, particularly when successive Israeli governments have preferred negotiating on a one-to-one basis during peace talks with each Arab state. 

However it must be noted, in terms of real politik, the Palestinians may have had Asad's sympathies but like many Arab states, Asad found the uprooted nation and its people to be a practical nuisance to Syrian interests. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation and Yasser Arafat were repeatedly in the sights of the Jordanian, Syrian and Lebanese forces and al-Assad rarely saw eye to eye with Arafat. Asad feared that Arafat and the PLO would bring retaliation from the Israelis in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon where Palestinian refugee camps, guerrillas and terrorists operated. In the 2010s, the Palestinians predicament with the Syrian government remains bleak whether they are shelled by Syrian warplanes in Yarmouk or shelled and suffocated by the Egyptian-Israeli military blockade in Gaza. 


 Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra ( Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah)  province.

Matthew Williams/The Conflict Archives: The Occupied Golan Heights overlooking the Quneitra (Muḥāfaẓat Al-Qunayṭrah) province.


Missed opportunities have defined negotiations between the Israelis and Syrians over the critical issue of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The missed chance for peace in Geneva in 2000 was the closest President Bill Clinton came to reconciling the two nations, however the talks between Ehud Barak and al-Asad were brought to a sharp halt by Barak's hesitancy and al-Asad's steadfastness on the Sea of Galilee. With war raging in Syria, the June 1967 line remain unresolved and peace between Israel and Syria remains elusive. 

Outside his confrontation with Israel, other events now seem to have been chilling precursors to greater tragedies to come. The micro-civil war in Hama in 1982 where al-Asad crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and the Lebanese Civil War in which Syria intervened shook the al-Asad regime and its relationship with the region and the Syrian people. The Hama revolt was a watershed moment for Hafez, where 'the regime was brutalised and habit of arbitrary rule acquired in the struggle for survival proved addictive,' particular after the coups and counter coups which dominated Syrian politics for years on end during the turbulent 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. 'al-Asad's nature became tougher, harder, more suspicious about scheming enemies at home and abroad' as Ba'athist Iraq's support (and even U.S weapons) for the insurgency and the role of Syrian exiles in planning the Hama uprising, became apparent. 

Inevitably this outlook and these events, what al-Asad saw as 'a long string of Western conspiracies, dating back to the First World War, to divide the Arabs,' sharply moulded the regime's development into a fearsome mukhābarāt state where family and patronage dominated. He was also unafraid to utilise terrorism to accomplish his goals and throw his support behind ideologically opposed allies such as Hizbullah and Iran. As Patrick Seale explains: 

"The harsher and more redoubtable Asad of the 1980s was, it could be said, the creation of Henry Kissenger and the Israelis. It was Kissinger's manipulation of the Middle East in Israel's interest which destroyed Asad's hope of the possibility of an honourable settlement and brought out the Saladin in him." 

Bashar path to power started with the death of his brother, Bassel  who was killed in a car accident on the way to Damascus airport in the early hours of the morning. Bashar studying ophthalmology in London hardly seemed to fit the mould, however fate propelled Asad into power and he undertook military training and was thrust into the Lebanon file in the late 1990 where he helped oversee Syria's occupation of Lebanon (1976 - 2005). Three weeks after peace-talks with Israel collapsed, terminally ill Hafez Asad died on June 10, 2000 and Bashar took over the mantle of President on 10th July, 2000. 

No introduction to Arab politics is smooth. The 9/11 Wars began after the World Trade Centre was destroyed as Bin Laden and Al-Qa'ida carried out the most devastating suicide bombings in history. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 shook the Greater Middle East as the Bush administration initiated the Global War on Terror, a mainstay in U.S policy which has been passed from Barack Obama to Donald Trump and gradually expanded America's costly and bloody transnational war. 

In 2005, in the aftermath of the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon brought an end to the Syrian occupation. Under Bashar, foreign policy remained the same and has not changed despite close cooperation with the Bush administrations in the 1991 Gulf War and initial aftermath of 9/11. The regime, ideologically and geo-politically, remained at odds with the Western powers. 'The ethos of the Asad family was rather self-consciously puritanical. The children were intensely loyal to their father. The Asad children aware of their duty to set a good example, worked hard, wore the prescribed military-style uniform and were noted for their good manners.' This loyalty is apparent in his interviews and his opinion steadfast that the Arabs have faced many injustices, that their support for Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah in Lebanon are based on unaddressed grievances and the historical belligerence of Israeli policy, a complex debate not addressed here. President Asad vehemently opposed the occupation of Iraq even though his father and Saddam were bitter enemies, the former supporting the First Gulf War to push Iraq out of Kuwait. This opposition became militant as Asad, fearful that the neoconservatives in Washington would seek regime change in Tehran and Damascus, began to funnel foreign fighters and jihādists into Iraq to fuel the insurgency.

 These outspoken critics and actions against the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, made Asad enemies while internally, Syria's socio-economic woes intensified as Juan Cole analysis shows: 

"Syria, like many other Arab countries, has difficulty growing its economy faster than its population. Its population growth rate remains relatively high, at 2.4 percent per annum, which will lead, if it remains unchanged, to a doubling of the national population in roughly 30 years, from 22 million to 42 million....The new private sector was not enough, however, to create even a fraction of the new jobs demanded by Syria’s Millennials, or to jumpstart the economy, and cronyism ensured that it functioned mainly to make wealth “trickle up” to the small elite."

The wealth accumulated by the Asad and Makhlouf families as detailed in the Panama Papers and beyond is vast. The Makhlouf family, President Asad's mothers side of the family, reportedly controlled 60% of the Syrian economy before 2011 predominantly through duty free, retail, banking and Syria’s largest mobile phone network, Syriatel. Rami Makhlouf (first counsin of Bashar) was worth $5 billion while the president himself is estimated to have a net worth of between $550 million and $1.5 billion. In Spain, police seized properties from Bashar's uncle, Rifaat Asad and his relatives valued at £590 million, $50 million alone on the “La Máquina” estate, a spread of more than 3,300 hectares just outside Marbella. 

In Syria, the ties with criminal networks were apparent. 'Members of the extended Assad family historically led the shabiha (ghost) militias (who) the regime tolerated and even profited from...smuggling' operations in coastal cities which were interwoven with gangs, smugglers and criminals. While Fawaz and Mudhir Asad, two of Hafez Asad’s nephews were major leaders of the shabiha, even Hafez 'never fully controlled these mafia-like organisations.' In Syria, since these militia units (including the Popular Committee paramilitary) assembled behind Bashar, open warlordism has seeped across the country riding the lawlessness gripping entire areas and districts of the country.  The shabiha were financially supported by the Makhlouf family and are led by the Asad family. The militias - efficient fighters and loyal to the regime and Alawite sect - were unleashed on Sunni heartlands after 2011's uprising. 

"It's not a question right now of Alawites versus Sunnis. It is a question of the Assad-Makhlouf mafia which has basically hijacked the entire state of Syria for four decades in order to enrich itself and protect itself against the Syrian people." asserted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman in 2012. a family alliance which has used nationalism as a veil for cronyism. For many, many Syrians for decades, silenced and tormented by the mukhābarāt and intelligence agencies of Asad, it is little surprise that they found cause for revolt. The Syrian revolution began as spontaneous protest catalysed by class divisions, years of failed reforms, the hatred of the mukhābarāt (secret police), dire unemployment, a burgeoning under-25 population with limited prospects, food insecurity and years of sanctions. 

In a more concentrated form and in the turbulent political landscape of the Middle East, the Syrian intifada was a response to the corruption of the traditional establishment and the monopolisation of Syria's wealth by the select few. To protect its ties, patronage,  power and wealth the entrenched elite had accumulated, the regime cracked down hard on the activists and protesters who threatened its interests. With the exception of the descent into civil war and brutal violence, the parallels (which should not be overdrawn) with the rejection of neo-liberalism and anti-establishment politics sweeping Europe and the United States cannot be ignored. 

Far from being a step into "deep-seated tribal hatreds" or just looking through the lens of a sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni, the Syrian intifada and the Arab Revolutions in some form are a microcosm through which the future world-order can be viewed. By deposing and challenging the traditional autocrats and the modern mamlūks, many of which were tolerated, armed and placed in power by outside powers, the Arab Revolutions are a rejection of the current international order. The chaotic reassembling of international and regional order has and will inevitably lead to further upheaval and change. 



After six years of violence and a war with no end in sight, al-Asad will have similar views of the Middle East to that of his father during the 1980s and will have been considerably hardened by the violence. The reasons for Syria's descent will echo those of his father in a region where he is surrounded by enemies. Evident though is that the questions as to why Syria's internal conflict, alongside the Iraq War and Arab Revolutions, are occurring are not as black and white as the Western media outlets describe. 

President Asad, militarily, is no Pyrrhus, however his string of victories to crush the extreme and moderate elements of the Syrian intifada to consolidate his dynasty are his pyrrhic victory. The Syrian Army has shrunk by 30-50 percent though desertion, defection and combat deaths, an estimated 90,000 - 150,000 toll not including the tens of thousands of militiamen and paramilitary fighters who have also perished. The Syrian military, equally, have demonstrated a tenacity the Roman army would have admired both in its ability to replenish itself and the brutality it is shown itself capable of inflicting on dissident population centres. 

Undoubtedly, the intervention of Iranian Qud forces wedded to logistical and military support provided by Qasem Soleimani, the supply of Iraqi Shiite militia groups such as Harakat al-Nujab, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizbullah and the deployment of thousand of Lebanese Hizbullah fighters have been crucial to sustaining President Asad's overstretched forces. 

For the Iranians, the Syrian corridor to the Mediterranean is critical to maintaining support for Hizbullah's military wing (Jihad Council) and its intelligence apparatus. A regime hostile to Iran's interests and one subverted to Western, Israeli, and Saudi interests would be a geo-strategic blow to Tehran's ambitions in the Middle East. In Moscow and Vladimir Putin, the Iranian regime have found common ground. The Russian military campaign in Syria has turned the tide of the conflict. The deployment of thousands of Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces), the Russian Air Force and the boost of new fighter jets, military advisers and advanced weapons into President Asad's arsenal being crucial to turning the war in the favour of the loyalists. The recapture of Aleppo in December 2016 by the combined might of the Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces epitomised Russia's decisive influence in the Syrian War.   

To the Russians, Asad is important for multiple reasons. Russian officials were cited as saying that, apart from fighting terrorist organisations such as IS, Russia′s goals included helping the Syrian government retake territory from various anti-government groups that are labelled by the U.S. and its coalition as ″moderate opposition". For Vladimir Putin, ideologically, Asad's war has allowed President Putin to "execute his war on revolutions both on a practical level and as a battle of ideas," and curb Western political and military influence in the Middle East. President Putin was furious with the results of the NATO's intervention in Libya and the way in which Qaddafi was lynched. Syria, in-part, represents his determination to ensure there is no such repeat with President Asad and bolster his popularity at home and abroad. For Putin, a staunch nationalist, reviving Russia as great European power and tough proposition for the West is of the utmost importance. 


This intervention has not been without cost. Russians, military and civilian, are in the crosshairs of global jihādist groups. As argued by Shiraz Maher, 'Russian involvement in Syria has strengthened the idea that those who join jihadist groups "are defending the entire umma (world Islamic community). Not only are the Russians "ultra-crusaders" fighting with the blessing of the Orthodox Church, they are also allying with' Salafi-jihādists arch enemy; Shiite Iran, who many Islamist radicals consider to be a heretical entity. Al-Qa'ida struck on April 3 through 22-year old Akbarzhon Jalilov who killed over a dozen people in the metro bombing in St.Petersburg, the jihādist group issuing a statement

"Following the instructions of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri ... the lion Akbarzhon Jalilov, one of the knights of Islam in the Imam Shamil Battalion, carried out a heroic operation ... in the city of St. Petersburg, concurrent with the visit to it by the criminal (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. To the Russian government, which apparently has not taken a lesson from its defeat in Afghanistan, we say: This operation is only the beginning, and what is to come will make you forget it, Allah permitting," 

In 2015, a week before the second round of IS attacks in Paris, IS destroyed a Kogalymavia airliner over the Sinai killing 219 Russians. Russian and Western military intervention, partly a solution to resolving the conflict (if regional and local powers choose to cooperate), has radicalised many within the Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria which has, in-turn, been exploited by extremist factions who dominate anti-regime factions fighting Damascus and Baghdad. At the same time, as The Economist emphasised in July, 2015 'while the chances of ISIS recruits from Dagestan and Chechyna returning are slim,' government lawlessness combined with inadequate de-radicalisation programs for young men who manage to slip past Russia's tightly governed borders present a major future problem to Russian security in the Caucasian province.  

However, while President Asad's traditional power and influence has been eroded and his inner clique is heavily reliant on external support, the regime remains a potent actor in the region's conflict and future. True, while it appears unlikely that the regime will control the entirety of Syria in the near future in some ways, given the circumstances, this will suit Damascus. The continued presence of Al-Qa'ida's Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, al-Jabhat al-Islāmiyyah, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the vast network of Sunni and Salafi extremist cells now existing within north, southern and eastern Syria are the perfect pretext for Asad to continue his twin-push to destroy rebels, moderate and extremist, opposed to his rule. The Gulf-sponsored rebels, including these jihādists fighters, have been useful to Asad in liquidating moderate opposition and activists across much of Syria. 


Alongside the resurgence of Al-Qa'ida is the threat of Islamic State, whose advocates have been in Syrian territory long before its creation of its territorial caliphate in June, 2014. An ever more convenient proxy for a multiplicity of factions seeking to justify external intervention in Syria, the Syrian regime is just one of the actors who have benefited from the emergence of Islamic State (IS). IS control of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour, and its fierce fight for Palmyra overlooks that the terrorist cell has lost considerable territory, most of which was less populated and impoverished than the priority areas held by the Asad regime.  

This does not suggest IS no longer a formidable proposition or a significant player in the Middle East. Driving IS from Mosul and Raqqa will not destroy the organisation, its strength lies in conducting guerrilla warfare and terrorist operations in urban districts and vulnerable rural areas. The Syrian Civil War will devolve into a ferocious counterinsurgency campaign to root out the jihādists, some of whom the Asad regime released from Syrian jails to poison and disenfranchise the Syrian intifada.  At great cost to his own forces, he succeeded. 

Asad's military, while considerably weakened, will fight on. They have good reasons. The Islamist coalition, spearheaded by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and extremist cells, have committed its own atrocities. They have mercilessly executed Syrian soldiers and civilians. Human Rights WatchAmnesty InternationalAl-Jazeera,  ReutersAl-MonitorThe Huffington Post and Al-Masdar News and The Guardian have all reported incidents of rebel forces executing POWs and/or committing war crimes against civilians. The mass execution of fifty-one POWs and civilians in Khan al-Assal, fourteen kilometres from Aleppo in 2013, bears mentioning as an example of the ruthless nature of the "moderate" rebels. In 2016, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham's affiliate Nour al-Din al-Zenki sliced off the head of a twelve year old Palestinian boy in an ISIS-style execution video in Aleppo.  

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"To Obama, the dog of Rome. Today we are slaughtering the soldiers of Bashar, and tomorrow we will be slaughtering your soldiers. And with Allah's permission, we will break this final and last Crusade. And Islamic State will soon begin to slaughter your people on your streets." were the words of Mohammed Emwazi as he and IS volunteers decapitated 21 Syrian soldiers in a grotesque snuff-video. In another video, Syrian soldiers were beheaded and their heads were stuck on pikes while another video purportedly shows IS fighters marching more than 200 soldiers across the desert and executing them after the capture of Tabqa air base. In Palmyra, IS fighters rounded up and killed over 300 soldiers and 25 more were executed in the ancient city's Roman amphitheatre. In 2017, IS uploaded a video of one its fighters blowing apart a Syrian soldiers head with a shotgun. 

The Syrian soldiers, like the rebels, know that capture means likely torture and execution. The Syrian War is a fight to death for many factions or the alternative is flight and the permanent exile (a long-standing tradition for dissidents and activists in Syrian politics). The counterinsurgency and strategy of the Syrian army, a blueprint designed by Hafez al-Asad, is draconian. Its sustained application by his son has turned the rebels crueler by the day and fuelled the ultra-violence of the conflict.

The regime of Asad has horrified politicians, the international community, human rights organisations and humanitarian organisations dealing with the appalling refugee crisis in the Middle East. The Syrian army has deployed artillery, air power, barrel bombs, bulldozers, sectarian massacres, and ballistic missiles to drive Syrian populations out of rebel held areas. Early 'clear and hold' operations in Daraa, Damascus, Hama and Idlib killed hundreds of protestors and swiftly escalated counterinsurgency operations and crackdowns into a full-blown civil war.  Aleppo and Homs were besieged for several years and civilians were reported to be starving in these cities and the towns of Madaya, al-Fu'ah and Kefriya. 

From the outset, the mukhābarāt have been indiscriminate in their treatment of Syrian activists, protestors and fighters. General Jamil Hassan, head of Syrian Air Force Intelligence asserted in an interview with Robert Fisk that: "If the tactics used at Hama in 1982 had been used, we would have ended this war...The present strategy is a decision of our present leadership. I have a different opinion."

Such is the brutality of Syria's torture chambers that the United States outsourced their torture to the Syrian mukhābarāt in their “extraordinary rendition” program developed in the wake of 9/11 as a means of transferring terrorism suspects from one foreign state to another for interrogation and prosecution. The mukhābarāt's more venomous techniques were experienced first-hand in the opening years of the 9/11 wars by Maher Arar. Maher, a Canadian engineer who was born in Syria was apprehended in New York and sent back to Syria. Maher described how interrogators  “just began beating on me.” They whipped his hands repeatedly with two-inch-thick electrical cables, and incarcerated him in a dank underground cell “Not even animals could withstand it,” he said. 'Although he initially tried to assert his innocence, he eventually confessed any information his tormentors wanted him to say. “You just give up,” he said. “You become like an animal.”' In October, 2003, Maher was released without charge. 

Little has changed since the Syrian intifada began. Thousands are believed to have died in Syrian government jails and prisons and thousands more have been tortured and brutalised by the regime. 17,723 people have been killed in government custody between March 2011 and December 2015, an average of 300 deaths each month according to Amnesty International. At Saydnaya military prison, the prisoners within its walls have endured horrific treatment.

"The majority of prisoners detained in the red building at Saydnaya were members or alleged members of Islamist groups. According to former guards and officials at Saydnaya, these detainees were either released or transferred to civilian prisons at the beginning of the crisis."

The methods used were designed to humiliate, degrade, sicken, starve the people within the new detainees in the prison. Beatings, mass-hangings, extreme sexual violence, degradation, deprivation of food and water, denial of medical care, dismal conditions of sanitation and shelter were all detailed by eyewitnesses, former jailers and former prisoners targeted by the security apparatus. 

The systematic brutality, and the hatred and fear of the mukhābarāt which accompanied them in the years preceding the intifada demonstrate that Syria was a tinderbox decades before the war began. The extreme checks which Hafez Asad has put in place to secure his family's legacy have exploded into extreme violence. This has been demonstrated by the violence conducted against the opposition and the regime's soldiers. Shiraz Maher is certainly correct: "After six years of war, Syria’s moderate rebels are broken and marginalised. And now, as Bashar al-Assad has wished for so long, al-Qaeda extremists are leading the insurgency." Civilians are now sandwiched between the twin-barbarisms of the Asad regime and Al-Qa'ida, however this was likely to be the case from the beginning, not 2017. 

The relationship between the Syrian regime, Salafi-jihādists and the fundamentalist opposition is complex. The conflict between the Ba'athist and Muslim opposition has existed since the 1940s according to Seale, with Hama being the 'stronghold of landed and Sunni conservatism and of the Muslim Brothers.' 

In 1964, Hama was a hotspot in Syria as riots gripped the city which drew a fierce response from the Ba'athists, natural foes of Islamists ideology and politics. If the riots of 1964 in Hama against the Ba'athists were not forgotten, both sides certainly did not forget the violence of 1982. The Muslim Brother's terror campaign between 1977-1982 killed over 300 people and assassinated party workers, leaders, Alawis and Islamic clergy who denounced the terror tactics.

Hafez Asad responded with brute force. He crushed the rebels at Hama, utilising torture and assassinations (which targeted individuals as far as Aachen, Germany) to uproot the internal and external actors who had armed the insurgents. Between 20,000 - 30,000 people were killed and entire areas of Hama were levelled. 

The numbers of those killed by insurgents and loyalists during the 1970s and 1980s pale in comparison to the brutality the Salafi-jihādists and Syrian Arab Army now inflict upon each other in 2017. The conflict sweeping across Syria, cannot be understood without taking into account the 1982 conflict and 'the complex triangular relationship between the Syrian intelligence services, the jihad support networks in Iraq, and the main representative of jihādism in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and then his successor Abu Hamza al-Muhajir' with Bashar's government. The detailed point on the triangular relationship during the Iraq War analysed by Bernard Rougier is critical.

'Saydnaya prison which housed hardened militants from Afghanistan and Iraq alongside detainees whose "Wahabbi" Islamic leanings alone had raised regime suspicions showed how important the prison was for extremist networks formulation....Syria served as a support base for the anti-American insurrection in Iraq. Large-scale hostage taking and ransoming in Iraq allowed a variety of group to fund themselves. The money raised would be sent back to Syria to purchase weapons from the black market. Smugglers then moved arms and munitions back into Iraq and distributed them to the different jihādi cells.'

According to interviews with Subhi Ghanam and other Islamist prisoners from Saydanaya prison, the feedback 'indicates various stages of the process were, if not controlled by Syrian intelligence, then at least known to them...The regime's regional interests would determine what was done at any given time, as would, most directly, the state of its relationship with the United States...To achieve this end, its actions had to be based on highly specific and detailed knowledge of the network's channels, leaders and internal hierarchies. Also required was a tacit arrangement by which Syrian authorities would give jihādi militants sanctuary and, in return, the militants would not attack Syrian territory. This risky arrangement did not prevent Syrian intelligence from intervening against the militants if if they planned any operations against Europe or the United States from Syrian territory. This allowed Syria to maintain credibility vis-à-vis Western governments, and, in turn, give them a hint of the consequences that might follow any attempt to cut Syria out their regional and international strategies.'  

Like Byzantine Greek fire, the consequences the Syrian regime spoke of setting off have swept across the Middle East and the liquid fire has incinerated large parts of it. The Syrian mukhābarāt and intelligence services decisions to play with a jihādist time-bomb and subsequently unleash the threat on the wider region has been a disaster. If Iraq and Syria were at the epicentre of this catastrophe, Europe is feeling the shockwaves one deadly wave at a time. 


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The covert relationship of Syrian intelligence with jihādists in the 2000s have fused catastrophically with the consequences of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, an occupation which acted as a convergence point for Salafi-jihādi thought and initiated a revolution in Iraqi politics. To historian Sean McMeekin, author of The Ottoman Endgame, "Iraq has arguably become an even greater geopolitical sore point than Israel/Palestine...owing to the close proximity of the Sunni triangle near Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf." This has produced a "Sunni-Shiite divide more volatile than anywhere else in the Islamic world." This potent synergy of Syria and Iraq's cross-border violence and the arming and funding of the regimes and the insurgents fighting by outside powers has backfired horrendously across the globe. 

Belgium has lost thirty nine civilians in IS attacks in Brussels airport, the Jewish Museum of Belgium, and Maalbeek Metro station. In one coordinated attack in May in the Syrian towns of Jableh and Tartous, IS murdered one-hundred and seventy nine people. In 2016 alone, major suicide bombings killed over nine-hundred civilians and security personnel in Iraq, the most horrific of which, conducted on 2 July, killed over three-hundred and cemented itself as Iraq's second worst terrorist attack in history. Twelve days after the destruction of a jet which killed two-hundred and twenty four on a Russian airliner and one day before the November Paris attacks, a series of coordinated attacks in Beirut killed forty-three. In 2015, the beaches of Sousee in Tunisia, Seifeddine Rezgui Yacoubi gunned down thirty-nine British tourists while Khalid Masood killed six and wounded forty-nine outside Westminster in 2017. In 2016 Omar Mateen slaughtered forty-nine party-goers in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in the coastal town of Nice a Tunisian, Mohamed Salmene Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran down eighty-six people on Bastille Day and in April, 2017, fourteen were killed in the bombing of the metro station in St. Petersburg by an Al-Qa'ida affiliate. 

The growing list of  countries' citizens who have been targeted by IS and Al-Qa'ida extends into Yemen, Afghanistan, the wider Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya, Kuwait and Turkey. These attacks have been supported by smaller acts of terrorism in Ottawa, Lyon, Copenhagen, San Bernandino, Berlin, Jakarta, Dakha, Sydney and beyond. 

The string of attacks on European, Russian and American cities and civilians by IS and Al-Qa'ida, a phenomenon which has sharply increased since the Iraq War and the Syrian War, has convinced many policymakers that Islamic State, not the Syrian regime, is the main threat to international security in the region as U.S and UK policymakers struggle to grapple with an imploding region and the ghosts of Iraq.  Who is the greater threat? Ultimately that is not a straight-forward answer, as their no singular cause for a conflict. The jihādists and the Asad regime are threats in different ways to international security and are multi-layered complexities not easily understood and problems less easily solved. The former is ideologically entrenched and its tentacles are spreading across the region, the latter is politically and geo-strategically rooted. 

The Idlib chemical attack in April reopened the door for calls for regime change and the strikes against Asad were roundly applauded across the West. Whether or not the Asad regime actually conducted the attack has been fiercely debated, but the missile strikes were symbolic and designed to shore up political support for President Donald Trump at home and abroad, to restore the confidence of those who thought U.S policy had weakened under the Obama administration. President Trump's ties to Russia have been scrutinised and he has openly praised President Asad and Saddam Hussein. By striking at Asad early in his presidency, the administration in the White House has delivered a message: 'This was a one-off strike designed to send a clear message to U.S rivals, that the US is able and willing to deploy military power without fear of consequences.'  This is Henry Kissenger's fabled 'Madman Theory', which as explained by Nafeez Ahmed argues that by 'behaving erratically, and even seemingly “irrationally”, the US leaders can outmanoeuvre their opponents and rivals, and put them permanently on the back-foot in fear of the dangerous volatility of American power.'


The United States has succeeded in accomplishing its secondary objective established in 2006 (according to Wikileaks); destabilising the Syrian government and what it considered to be a sponsor of terrorism. However the West and its allies drive to oust Asad has contributed to turning Syria into a permanent war-zone catalysing the dire consequences already being felt by the United States' own regional allies, Europe and the wider region. It has also strengthened Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf and turned Syria into a transnational jihādist haven and volatile weapons stockpile.

The analyses of the missile strikes by Donald Trump's administration overlook that the U.S has already conducted around 8,000 strikes inside Syria since 2014 killing hundreds of civilians and thousands of militants (which undoubtedly include Syrians, not just foreign fighters) under President Barack Obama. No such authorisation had come from the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus and opponents questioned the legality of NATO's intervention in Syria. The U.S and Royal Air Force, it is frequently forgotten, struck at the Syrian regime directly before in April, 2017 when they 'accidentally' killed 62 Syrian government troops south of Deir ez-Zour in September, 2016 on top of the 9 civilians and 7 soldiers killed by President Trump's 59 cruise missiles launched at Shayrat airbase in April, 2017. 

The damage done to the Syrian war effort at Shayrat was poultry (the air base struck was back in use within the day) and despite the bullish rhetoric, President Trump like his predecessor will know that 'a wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake' would be a considerable risk. Crippling the Asad regime, a long-standing foe of the Israelis and ally to Iran and Hizbullah will remain a consistent objective, outright removal would bring anarchy and damage U.S security.

The Institute for the Study of War predicted in an extensive 2013 report that 'the devolution of Asad’s security institutions would mean that the remnants of the Syrian military and the powerful pro-regime militias are likely to wage a fierce insurgency against any opposition-led Sunni government in Syria which might emerge after Asad.' The Syrian Army now has six years of experience fighting insurgents in asymmetrical warfare and in the words of a Lebanese politician in September 2014 "can fight for the coming 10 years.” Equally, while Asad's military has lost power in a classical sense...it has made gains in guerrilla warfare through the formation of smaller groups which have a greater capacity to confront the opposition groups and the way they fight,” said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to Damascus. President Asad will be unable to reoccupy Lebanon or wage a conventional war with Israel to recapture the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights belonging to Syria.

Again, these developments demonstrate that regime change would be disastrous for the Western states looking to install a pro-Western regime and it equally unlikely that this new government in Damascus, given the regional disorder, would be an advocate for human rights, democracy and liberalism. Such a proposition to the monarchies in the Gulf and Jordan, the dictatorship in Egypt and President Erdogan in Turkey would be intolerable. This was similar situation for the U.S - led coalition when it invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. Syria has, clearly, followed the road of Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq where boots-on-ground would now only further aggravate the situation. 

 A Western-installed government would be opposed - to put it frankly - by everyone. Syria is flooded with jihādists and foreign fighters. A Western-led drive for regime change, covert or overt, would be caught between multiple anti-Western insurgencies dominated by Al-Qa'ida, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and IS and the potential insurgency of loyalists to Asad's regime who have been hostile to Western interests for the majority of the 20th and 21st century. This scenario excludes facing the wrath of the Kremlin and Tehran if the West attempted to force Asad from power militarily. A government installed by the coalition of Sunni powers would inevitably be targeted by the Shiite states and non-state actors, Hezbollah, Iran and undermined by Russia.

It is frequently forgotten that Asad retains strong support among significant sections of the Syrian population including many Alawites, non-Islamist Sunnis, Christians and Druze who would oppose the ascension of an Islamist regime. Frequently excluded from Western media, the majority of the Syrian military are also Sunni, even if most of the military leadership is dominated by Alawites. 

Crisis Group published several reports demonstrating that fundamentalists and radical Islamist groups were beginning to slowly dominate the opposition politically and militarily in 2012. The return of Al-Qa'ida and the rise of IS have worsened these fears as the threat of ethnic cleansing and genocide looms over many of these communities. The fate of minorities such as the Yezidis and Shiites caught in IS's advance into northern Iraq in 2014 was an example which Asad could point to as to what could happen if he were to be forced from power by the rebels. However the regime's calculations to weaken, split and militarise the nationalist movement has not been without considerable risk. 

Not all Alawites, Christians and Druze (as with the narrative that all Sunnis oppose the regime) support the regime as demonstrated by the release of a document by the Alawite sect. The document "implies a dissociation from Iran and the regime there, but also...to disconnenct the Alawite community from the Assad family" and that there is only so much time that the Alawites and other minorities will be held hostage to the narrative which perpetuates the slaughter of minorities by Syrian Sunnis and extremists such as Islamic State. While the authenticity of the document has come into question, it remains important. The statement was issued in April 2016,  a time when the regime was operating from a position of strength following Russian and Iranian coordinated intervention in autumn 2015 following the fall of Idlib in March 2015.

The statement came from a position of relative strength and this should exclude the conduct of the regime before the release of this document; the regime has frequently used coercion, threat of execution, torture, intimidation, and short-term threats to recruit unwilling members of the populace to strength its drive to crush the revolt including members of the Alawite community. Many within Syria have been desperate to remain neutral throughout the violence despite the ruthlessness of the regime. However vicious control of the cities, it ruthless transition from counterinsurgency to scorched earth has alienated and turned communities against Asad. While the regime has used the narrative of sectarian cleansing as political and military leverage amongst minorities to help enable its survival, it remains a short-term check against internal and external threats. 

The Asad dynasty has survived, but its counter-revolution has ended in abject failure. In Rojova, Syria, the Kurdish movement have been experimenting in democratic confederalism, an idea spearheaded by the concept of communally organised democracy, indisputable women's equality and radically progressive society. At the other end of the spectrum, Islamic State were audacious, establishing a Salafi principality across an geographical area the size of the United Kingdom and declared a caliphate. Revolutions, historically, rarely end with those who started the spontaneous uprisings which initially toppled the tyrants in power. Those who fill the vacuum of power have usually mastered their ideology and efficiently manage their political savagery. Unfettered from the shadow of the Syrian mukhābarāt, the local organisations are determined to takfiri (apostate) government with the support of well-trained foreign fighters. 

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of Islamic State and Abu Mohammad al-Julani of Jabhat al-Nusra were the standard bearers for "one of the most significant movements in politics today," and hijacked the Iraqi and Syrian revolutions. They have made their influence on its potential outcome. The experiments, polar opposites ideologically and politically, are the clearest indicators alone that the Asad regime's short-term political gambles and military successes were pyrrhic victories. 

Bashar Asad clambered to the top of this murderous class of tyrants, exiled half of his people and tortured and killed with impunity. He has set a horrifying precedent, one that other Arab autocrats are sure to follow his example, unable to quench their thirst for absolute power and stomach turning greed. 

The Asad-Makhlouf dynasty and its addiction to this absolute power has suffocated and destroyed Syria. Government authority over its territories has diminished and the regime resembles a shadow state. As Charles Tripp argues 'Saddam and his dictatorship were the manifestation of a potent narrative...one in which exclusivity, communal mistrust, patronage and the...use of violence were the main elements woven into a system of dependence and conformity' (Tripp, A History of Iraq, 186-187). This blueprint for maintaining power throughout Saddam's tenure was pushed to its extreme in the twilight years of his reign as the Ba'athist's decentralised the Iraqi state, but maintained a strong grip on the monopoly of violence and the country's wealth.  

The Syrian government has replicated this blueprint as it struggles for survival. The use of violence to suppress revolt in response to demands for reform and liberalisation which threatened the wealthy elite and military loyalists as well as their entrenched interests Damascus's response to the revolution is forcing Syria along a similar path as it combines radical policies with systematic repression to drive a wedge between the opposition and the public seeking political change. Asad and Saddam are no different in demonstrating a capacity to survive at any price, even when the ultimate price is paid by destroying their own state, dividing its communities and creating the conditions for extremism to emerge. The Syrian people have become caught between the various warring factions and are growing weary and angry with rebel and government forces while feeling betrayed by outside powers. 

Bashar, the Mamlūk of Damascus, endures, yet he rules a crippled land, a country torn down and a regime and shattered army with a reputation so sullied that it will remain a cruel scar on Syria's history for generations to come.


Matthew C.K Williams