Assad In The Footsteps Of The French: Only The Removal Of The Original Cause Of The Syrian War Could Bring It To An End
03 June 2014
By Amir Taheri
Has the faction led by President Bashar Al-Assad
already won the three-year long civil war in Syria?
The tendency in the Western commentariat is to answer
the question with a qualified yes. A similar tune is
whistled by some in Tehran and Moscow, Assad's
principal backers in this tragic war.
Gen. Qassem Suleimani, regarded by some as the true
ruler of Syria, claims that his Quds Force has already
tipped the balance in favor of Assad. Russia Today,
President Vladimir Putin's global media network, has
also decided that Assad has won and that Syria is
heading for normalization.
Does that analysis reflect the real situation in
Syria? We are not so sure.
In fact, we believe that the struggle for Syria is
just completing its second act. No one knows for sure
what might happen in the third act.
Even in Tehran, not everybody is as sanguine as
General Suleimani. In a meeting with visiting
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the Islamic
Republic's former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani,
whistled a different tune.
"Intervention in Syria is costly, leads to divisions
in the Muslim world and claims innocent lives, but
will have no benefits for anyone," he told the
The event that triggered the "Assad-has-won" theory
was the recent evacuation of anti-Assad forces from
Homs, which was once dubbed the "capital of the
revolution." However, taking into account the bigger
picture, though the evacuation is tactically important
for Assad's faction, it may be of little or no
strategic significance. A civil war is not about
In a civil war, the faction challenging the
established order would put itself at a disadvantage
by committing its forces and necessarily meager
resources to holding territory. The challenger depends
on mobility and surprise, striking where it can and
withdrawing where it feels vulnerable. During the
Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong established his
reputation as a guerrilla leader more through
judicious retreats than the holding of territory. In
fact, the nationalist camp, led by Gen. Chiang
Kai-shek, had nominal control of much of the Chinese
landmass until the final phase of the war.
In a civil war, territory is controlled in a variety
of ways. Sometimes, one faction exercises control
during the day while another is in control at night.
This was what happened in large parts of Algeria
during its war of independence against France. South
Vietnam was in a similar situation with regards to the
"balance of power" to the end of the US military
In other cases, one faction controls the principal
roads while a rival faction holds the hinterland. This
is what happened in the 11-year-long war in Malaya
that involved the British on the Malay side, against
Communist insurgents on the other. A similar situation
was seen in Afghanistan in the final years of the
Communist regime in Kabul, with the Soviet army
controlling the main roads while the Mujahideen roamed
In some cases, such as in the Spanish Civil War, rival
factions exercise different degrees of effective
presence in different parts of the same country: The
nationalist side quickly won control in Galicia but
did not impose itself in Catalonia until the final
phases of the struggle.
The Assad faction's current strategy is partly copied
from a security plan drafted and implemented in parts
by the French in Syria during the revolt led by the
Druze leader Sultan Al-Atrash in the 1920s. The plan
divided Syria into three zones. The first was called
"useful Syria"—which included Damascus and a few other
cities where the colonial power had to fly its flag,
as well as communication lines needed for logistical
purposes such as bringing in fresh forces from the
outside. The second zone was effectively written off
as areas controlled by the rebels. The third zone was
a grey area in which the colonial army fought the
rebels for control. There, the two sides would
frequently change position, one becoming the fixed
target while the other acted as the mobile attackers
and vice versa.
France's "useful Syria" strategy failed, and I believe
that Assad's modified version of it is also doomed.
The reason is that, during the mandate, a majority of
Syrians did not want foreign rule, and today a similar
majority rejects domination by the Assad clan.
More than any other form of warfare, a civil war is
about hearts and minds, rather than territory. By that
yardstick, Assad's position today must be weaker than
at the start of the conflict. At that time, many
Syrians were still prepared to give him the benefit of
the doubt or, at least, did not blame him for the
atrocities committed under his father. Now, however,
he has presided over atrocities greater than anything
Hafez Al-Assad could have imagined.
Three years ago, Bashar didn't have much of a record.
Today, he has one—a bloody one.
No civil war can end unless and until the challenger
admits defeat. That could happen without either side
winning a convincing victory in military terms. It is
enough for one side to throw in the towel as a result
of demoralization, rather than actual setbacks on the
battlefield. I doubt that the bulk of the Syrians who
rose against Assad are demoralized enough to call it a
day. They could easily regroup and continue
low-intensity warfare against a regime that is
certainly more unpopular today than it was three years
A civil war is not subject to the traditional term
limits of conventional wars imposed by authorities of
nations involved. A civil war could go on for decades.
The civil war between the optimates and the populares
in ancient Rome lasted 40 years. The civil war in the
Democratic Republic of the Congo is now in its third
Only the removal of the original cause of the Syrian
war could bring it to an end. That original cause is
despotism. The symbol of despotism is Bashar Al-Assad.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz,
southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and
Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily
Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle
East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he
served as member of the Executive Board of the
International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and
2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald
Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal,
the New York Post, the New York Times, the London
Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale,
and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt.
Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been
translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist
for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book
"The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in
London and New York.