The attempted Syrian revolution is over save for the shouting, and the winner is the corrupt and authoritarian Assad family, a dynasty that has ruled the country with a titanium fist since 1970. This outcome is largely owing to the intervention in that country since 2015 by Russia’s air force. Last week a Russian lawmaker declared that ISIS (aka ISIL or the Islamic State) will be completely defeated by the end of the year. The Syrian intervention of President Vladimir Putin gives clues about how he sees the world and how his post-Soviet crony-capitalist state is attempting to shape it to Moscow’s liking.
Given that Soviet Communism virtually outlawed ethnic chauvinism in favor of justice on the basis of economic class, it is highly ironic that the successor state to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, has become a world-class instigator of ethnic bigotry for political gain. The Putin intervention in Syria depended heavily on a strategy of picking a side and crushing the other, eliding the ethnic overtones of doing so. In October Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, who also oversees the defense ministry, affirmed at a summit in Moscow with Iraqi officials that he sees Damascus as fully committed to the war on terrorism and was sure the defeat of the terrorists in Syria would have a positive impact on Iraq. This identification of the largely Sunni Syrian opposition as terrorists tout court has been typical of Russian discourse on the war.
The Syrian opposition reflected a broad spectrum of Syrian society. In 2011, even old strongholds of the ruling Baath Party such as Deraa went into revolt. Some Christians and members of the Alawi sect, from which many high-ranking Baathists were drawn, joined the uprising. Admittedly, the big, ethnically diverse metropolitan populations largely remained with the regime, considering that they depended on it for their livelihoods and security. Most of Damascus proper, the major Mediterranean port of Latakia, and tony West Aleppo never joined in. The fiercest discontent was in the medium-sized cities of the center of the country and in the countryside, predominantly Sunni Arab. The Muslim Brotherhood and some hard-line Salafis, supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United States, among others, played an outsized role in the growing guerrilla movement. Still, prominent liberal oppositionists anticipated democratic elections in the aftermath of the overthrow of Assad, as happened in Tunisia when its dictator fled. The rise of ISIS after its split with Al Qaeda in 2013 cast an undeserved shadow over the entire opposition.
Assad appears to have deliberately pushed the opposition to militarize by attacking peaceful demonstrations with sniping and artillery barrages, and then declared them terrorists when they responded by picking up the gun. As the revolution became a war, the advantage went to the best-equipped and most dedicated fighters, many of whom went over to Sunni Muslim extremism in search of Saudi and other Gulf patronage and of the street cred that would attract volunteers and money from abroad.