On January 26, 2011, around the same time the protests against Mubarak in Egypt began, the Arab Spring spread to Syria, with protests against Bashar Assad. Assad’s regime is brutal. It spies on its people, uses torture, and in 1982 Bashar’s father Hafez responded to protests by essentially destroying part of a city, the so-called Hama massacre. At least 10,000 people were killed, but the Syrian government effectively kept any image or reporting of the incident silent. You could do that in 1982.
By the end of 2011 the protests spread and Syria became enmeshed in a civil war. The government had lashed out at the protests with what one analyst has called a “whack a mole” strategy, hoping to prevent the spread of dissent. It didn’t work. Instead, organized units of rebel forces emerged, and soon were confronting the Syrian government. Believing that Assad would suffer the same fate as Qaddafi and Mubarak, the US lead an international call for Assad to step down. It was only a matter of time, they believed.
Now it is 2017. Assad is still in power, and his forces resurgent in the long civil war, thanks to Russian help. Syria has become the scene of a human rights tragedy. Should President Trump forget Assad’s brutality and past US support for the rebels, and work with Putin to at least bring stability?
If Assad stays, the Iranian-Syrian alliance will be strengthened, Iranian influence in the region will grow, and Iraq will be pushed into an even tighter alliance with Iran. Russia will also have proven itself a regional power, while US influence will wane. The Kurds will find their effort to expand Kurdistan from its base in Iraq stymied (for all practical purposes the Kurdish areas of Iraq have been self-ruled since 1994), and the Saudis will work with other gulf states to balance Iranian influence.
At the same time, ISIS will certainly be weakened, if not defeated, as Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq oppose ISIS. Perhaps there could be a modicum of regional stability if Assad could reach some deal with the non-ISIS rebels that allows the bloodshed to end without reprisals.
That certainly looks better than what we see now on the ground. A tenuous cease fire, along with aid being bottled up. Assad surviving, Russia and Iran resurgent, and the US losing clout would be yet the latest consequence of decisions made 15 years ago to go to war in Iraq and reshape the region in order to promote US interests and leadership. That policy remains a complete and utter failure. Ultimately, though, regimes like Assad’s are anachronisms, they are out of place in the 21st Century and cannot last. The transformation of the Arab world will take decades, not years.