by Andrei for the Saker blog
A.B. Abrams has just released a new book entitled World War in Syria – Global Conflict on the Middle Eastern Battlefields. Here are two locations were you can order this most interesting volume:
For those who don’t remember who Abrams is, here are two of his previous contributions to the Saker blog:
The book got A LOT of praise already, so I posted a few endorsements at the end of this interview (see at the bottom)
Rather than offer my own endorsement or write a full review, I decided to interview Abrams about both his book and his views on the international aggression against Syria. I hope you enjoy it and, yes, get the book!
1)–Please introduce us to your new book! Tell us what was your main purpose in writing it and whom, what audience, did you want to reach?
I wrote this book to provide one of the first comprehensive histories of the Syrian War published to mark ten years after it began in 2011. The book places the war in the context of both the history of Syria’s decades long conflict with Western interests which began in the late 1940s, as well as broader Western geopolitical goals in the region and beyond. The title ‘World War in Syria’ reflects an assessment of the conflict primarily not through the paradigm of a civil war, as is more common in the West, but rather as a global conflict which has pitted the Western Bloc and its regional partners against Damascus and its allies – namely Russia, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah. The war has seen special forces and other assets from all these parties deployed to Syrian soil, with the West, Turkey, the Gulf States and Israel undertaking considerable military, economic and information warfare efforts to bring about the Syrian government’s overthrow.
The book shows the Syrian War as part of a broader trend towards countries outside the Western sphere of influence, namely the minority of countries without Western military presences on their soil, being targeted for destabilisation and overthrow. For targeting countries with significant Muslim populations, Western cooperation with radical Islamist elements to support such objectives has been common, as seen in Indonesia (1950s and early 60s), Chechnya, Afghanistan (1979-92), and Yugoslavia among others. These precedents are explored at the beginning of the book to provide context to Western efforts to employ similar means against Syria.
The book is not aimed at any specific audience, but at anyone with a general interest in the Syrian War, Western, Russian, Iranian or Turkish foreign policy, Middle Eastern politics, contemporary military affairs, insurgency or terrorism. It follows a previous book published in 2020 on the history of North Korea’s 70 year war with the United States, which similarly sought to provide a comprehensive analysis of a major conflict between the U.S.-led Western Bloc and a targeted country including the Western way of war and the use of both economic and information warfare.
2)–Do you believe that Putin is “allowing” (or even helping!) Israel to bomb Syria? Or maybe the Russian and Syrian air defenses are totally ineffective? How do you explain all the Israeli strikes?
Russia’s position on Israeli strikes has been interesting and caused a great deal of debate and in some cases controversy. I assess that Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015 had the limited goals of supporting counterinsurgency efforts and limiting Western and Turkish efforts to illegally occupy Syrian territory through the imposition of safe zones and no fly. The Russian presence has also served to deter Western and Turkish attacks, as evidenced by the vast discrepancy between the massive strikes planned under Obama to topple the government in 2013, and the very limited attacks carried out under Trump in 2017 and 2018. A longer term goal has more recently materialised with the entrenching of the Russian military presence in Latakia on Syria’s western coast, with Russia’s sole airbase in the region expanded and increasingly oriented away from counterinsurgency operations and towards providing a strategically located asset against NATO.
The expectation among many that Russia ought to prevent Israeli strikes on Syria may well be a result of the Soviet position in the 1980s, when the USSR threatened to intervene if Israel attacked Syria. This resulted in the confinement of Israeli-Syrian clashes that decade to within neighbouring Lebanon’s borders. A number of factors, however, mean that this is no longer feasible. Unlike in the 1980s, Israel is today far from the most pressing threat to Syrian security, while the discrepancy in military capabilities favours Israel much more strongly. Under the Netanyahu government, Russia also cultivated close ties with Israel as a valuable partner with a degree of policy independence from the Western world which could, for example, sell on sensitive Western technologies as it did with the Forpost drone to Russia or with American air defence technologies to China. Israel’s ability to act independently of Western hegemonic interests to some degree has been an asset to Moscow as well as Beijing to strengthen themselves against the West through cooperation. Thus the relationship between Moscow and Tel Aviv is very different from what it was in the 1980s, as is Moscow’s relationship with Damascus, meaning that Russia will be less inclined to take a hard line against Israeli strikes.
Perhaps most importantly, the fact that Russia has not taken a harder line in protecting Syria from Israeli attacks reflects Russia’s much diminished power to influence events beyond its borders compared to the Soviet era. The Russian military intervention in Syria was its first major military action outside the former USSR since the 1980s, and was a major feat considering the poor state of the military just seven years prior in its war with Georgia. The Russian military is nevertheless already stretched protecting its own forces in Syria and deterring Western or Turkish escalation, which is far from easy considering how far these operations are from Russian soil. Unlike in the late Soviet era, Russia no longer has the world’s second largest economy, a large sphere of influence of developed allied economies for support, a blue water navy, 55,000 tanks or 7000 fighters/interceptors. Its military is capable, but if it took on Israel directly as well as Turkey, the West, and the jihadist insurgency at the same time for all attacking Syria, the risk of escalation would be significant and would force it to divert considerable resources away from its own defence – resources which are far more scarce than those the USSR had 40 years ago.
Russia has nevertheless deployed its top fighters the Su-35s, and on at least one occasion Su-34s, to intercept Israeli F-16s before they could attack Syria, which alongside the strengthening of Syrian air defences has made it more difficult for Israel to strike. Russia does not condone Israeli strikes, but they have not been an immediate priority. Although they are damaging particularly to Iranian interests, such strikes do not seriously threaten Syria’s stability and have generally pursued limited goals. While Israel has called for greater Western intervention against Syria in the past, Tel Aviv’s own limitations mean it is not looking to overthrow the Syrian government singlehandedly. This contrasts to Turkey, whose president has stated multiple times and recently in 2020 that the intention is to maintain an occupation and hostile relations until the Damascus government is overthrown. This also remains a long term objective for the West currently through economic warfare, theft of Syrian oil and targeting of crops.
Israeli aircraft have since February 2018 relied in the large majority of attacks on launching standoff weapons from a safe distance outside Syrian airspace, meaning for Syrian ground based air defences to engage them and they must instead intercept the missiles as they approach and cannot target the aircraft themselves. Syria is itself aware of its limitations, and against both Israeli and Turkish strikes it has refrained from escalating by deploying its own fighters/interceptors to attack the enemy aircraft. Syrian aircraft optimised for air to air combat have instead been held in reserve to respond to more serious full scale attacks like the kind the U.S. and is allies were planning in September 2013. As Syrian defences improve with the delivery of the first new fighters as aid from Russia in 2020, the refocusing of resources away from counterinsurgency, and the possible placing of new S-300 systems under Syrian control, the country’s airspace may again begin to be respected as it largely was before the war began. If Syria does begin to deploy fighter units for air defence duties it will reflect a renewed sense of faith in the country’s security, although Turkey rather than Israel is likely to be the first target due to the heated nature of conflict over the Turkish occupation of Idlib and the much weaker state of Turkey’s air force.
3)–I have always suspected that the former Syrian regime (of Assad Sr.) was full of Israeli agents. My evidence? The impossible to organize without top complicity murder of Imad Mughniyeh (his widows also believes that, by the way, she is in Iran now) or the huge list of defectors/traitors and other officials/officers who quickly took their money and joined the international war in Syria. Has that now changed, do you feel that the government is stable and in control?
Based on my knowledge of Syria and Arab nationalist republics more generally, while strong fifth columns have almost certainly been prevalent they are unlikely to be predominantly pro-Israeli and much more likely pro-Western. Although Syria’s Ba’athist government aligned itself very closely with the USSR particularly from 1982, much of the elite and the population maintained strongly pro-Western sentiments. This included the current president in his initial years who, according to Western sources cited in the book, was looking to pivot the country towards closer alignment with the West while sidelining Russia, Iran and the Ba’ath Party. Many in the Arab world even in states which are formally aligned against Western interests aspire to integration and a degree of Westernisation, which has long been a leading weakness in Arab nationalist states’ efforts to establish themselves as independent powers.
The West’s colonial legacy provided a strong basis since the middle of the last century to cultivate considerable soft power in the Arab World. This was perhaps most clearly alluded to by Mohamed Heikal, a leading intellectual of the non-aligned movement and Minister of Information for the United Arab Republic, who noted regarding the political and military elites of Arab republics in the 1950s, 60s and 70s: “All the formative influences in the new leaders’ lives- the books they had read, the history they had learned, the films they had seen- had come from the West. The languages they knew in addition to their own were English or French – Russian was, and remained, a mystery to them. It was impossible for them to remain unaffected by all that they had heard about the communist world- the closed society, the suppression of thought, the ‘Stalinist terror’… they wanted to keep their distance.” Heikal stressed that many of these leaders would turn to the West for assistance “almost automatically,” as the psychology of colonialism persisted. Many of those who turned to a partnership with the Soviets did so only because they were given no other choice, having been refused by the West.
This remains largely true until today at many levels of Syrian society. Perhaps one of the most striking examples was documented by a journalist accompanying the Syrian Arab Army to the frontlines engaging Western-backed insurgents. While the West made war on Syria, it was clear that strongly Western supremacist sentiments persisted throughout the population as a result of Western soft power, with Syrian soldiers on the frontlines reported to exclaim regarding their country: “Look how beautiful this land is! It is almost as beautiful as Europe!” Such sentiments were common even in wartime. The idea of Western primacy and supremacy, long engrained across much of the world through colonial rule, remained a key weakness which made it far from difficult for the Western world to cultivate westphilian fifth columns. According to multiple sources, including British journalist Patrick Seale, this included the President Hafez Al Assad’s brother who had a love for all things American and for parties with Western belly dancers. In this way Syria and Arab nationalist states bear a strong contrast to Western adversaries such as North Korea, which placed a strong emphasis on political education and on ensuring new generations did not grow up seeing the world through paradigms that promote Western supremacy (see Chapters 18 and 19 of my prior book that cover that topic.)
Regarding Israel, while there are strongly pro-Western sentiments within Syria and the Arab world, there are also strong anti-Israeli sentiments which, combined with Israel’s lack of any comparable soft power, makes pro-Israeli fifth columns much more difficult to cultivate. It is highly possible, however, that pro-Western elements in Syria could be led to pursue actions which, while furthering Western interests, also benefit Israel as you mentioned.
4)— How did the war in Syria really start? Can you give us a summary of the true story (the full story is in your book) of how what began with some local protests (almost) ended with the Takfiris in control of Damascus?
It is difficult to do this question justice with a summary answer as there are so many factors at play. One could trace the origin back to 2007, when following Hezbollah’s unexpected military successes against Israel the previous year the Bush administration began to perceive Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, rather than Al Qaeda, as its primary adversaries. This also led to the first mentions of the possibility of manipulating Al Qaeda-type jihadist groups with the help of regional allies (Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia in particular) to focus on attacking Syria and other Iranian partners. By 2009 militants were receiving Western training for operations in Syria. Pro-Western activists in Syria and other Arab countries were also receiving training in the U.S. supported by the State Department, Google, Facebook and others on how to stir unrest using tools such as social media. Media networks and most notably Al Jazeera, which had a long history of being heavily influenced by Western intelligence, began in 2011 to be put to use to vilify the Syrian government, and the Qatari monarchy soon after would lead calls for a Libya-style Western assault.
On the ground in the war’s initial weeks the Syrian government faced large scale incursions by well armed and trained militants from across the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and simultaneously a number of largely peaceful protests against living conditions in some cities. Confusion was sown and the situation quickly escalated out of control. Mass privatisation of public property, years of crop failures, and disparity between the conservative Muslim rural population and the much more liberal lifestyle in major cities, were among a multitude of factors detailed which fuelled unrest and provided foreign powers with an opening to destabilise the country. These details are all fully referenced in the book itself as well as a much more elaborate explanation of the multitude of preparations and incidents which paved the way to war.
5)–Could you please compare and contrast, HOW the Russian and Iranian interventions happened, WHAT these forces did to turn the tide and then tell us WHAT the Russian and Iranian PLANS were and are for Syria – do these two actors more or less agree, or do they have different visions for the future of Syria?
The Russian and Iranian stances towards Syria have contrasted from the war’s outset, with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev administration in particular being openly resigned to seeing the Syrian state toppled and offering Damascus little in the way of support in the conflict’s critical early stages. Although Russian support increased from 2012 almost as soon as a new administration came to power, namely with arms sales and a blocking of Western efforts to target Syria through the United Nations, it would be three more years before Russia felt the need to deploy its forces. Iranian efforts to make a case for Russian intervention to Moscow, namely through Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani who met with President Putin in 2015, was an important factor.
Iran by contrast, alongside Hezbollah and North Korea, had boots on the ground from 2012-13 and were all committed to supporting counterinsurgency efforts and preserving the Syrian state. For Iran the fall of Syria to Western-backed jihadists as Afghanistan had fallen in 1992 was seen as unacceptable. As senior Iranian cleric Mehdi Taeb famously said: “If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or [the outlying Iranian province of] Khuzestan, the priority is to keep Syria… If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.” Iran has thus been much more heavily invested in supporting Damascus throughout the war than Russia has.
There have been similarities between Russian and Iranian support for Syria. Both have sought to support the Syrian economy with Iran emerging as the country’s largest trading partner shortly after the war began, although it has since been displaced by China, while Russia has shown a strong interest in post war investment. Both sought to avoid relying too heavily on deployment of their own manpower on the frontlines as the Soviets had in Afghanistan, and instead focused on arming and training auxiliary forces. Russia, for example, oversaw the creation and arming of the Syrian 5th Corps and provided T-62M and T-72B3 tanks from its own reserves, while Iran facilitated the deployment of allied paramilitaries such as the Afghan Hazara Fatemiyoun. Russia’s military intervention was aimed largely at demonstrating new capabilities to NATO, with many of its strikes meant more than anything as shows of force. An example was in November 2015 when its air force flew Tu-160 supersonic bombers from the Arctic around Ireland and through the Straits of Gibraltar to fire cruise missiles over the Mediterranean at insurgents in Syria before returning to Russia – which was initially widely dismissed by Western officials as phantastic before being confirmed several hours later. Iran’s intervention was significantly quieter and received less fanfare in local media, but was more persistent and tenacious due to the much higher stakes the conflict represented for Tehran. The Iranian and Hezbollah campaigns have also involved much more significant clashes with Israel, as well as with Turkey in Hezbollah’s case, while Russian units have seldom fired on or been fired on by forces from state actors. A significant number of other major contrasts between Iranian and Russian interventions exist, but for the sake of brevity I will restrict the examples to those above.
Although both share the goal of restoring Syrian territorial integrity and bolstering Damascus, Russia and Iran certainly have different visions in accordance with their very different ideological positions, which themselves contrast with Syria’s Ba’athist socialist party-state that is much closer to the USSR, China or North Korea than to either of them. Iran’s influence has led to the growth of Shiite paramilitary groups in Syria which have been major supporters of the Syrian Arab Army on the ground, but their presence contrasts with Syria’s long history of secularism and separation of religion from the state and the security apparatus. This influence may well have an impact on Syrian political culture and policies as it did in neighbouring Iraq. Russia under the current liberal democratic capitalist system, or ‘Western liberalism with Russian characteristics’ as some have referred to it, also has a much greater ideological gap with Damascus than it did in the Soviet era. Russia has been known to try to influence states to move in this direction with reform, most notably Belarus, and could well seek to have a similar influence in Syria. Syria’s ruling party, for its part, is likely to resist both influences but accommodate Russian and Iranian interests on its soil in exchange for their continued economic and military support.
6)–How do you see the future of Syria, Israel and the future of the Middle East? What has that war changed?
The Syrian War, and the NATO assault on Libya which began almost simultaneously in March 2011, have reshaped the Arab world and Middle East profoundly by in one case removing, and in the other seriously weakening the two Arab states which had longest and most persistently opposed Western hegemony. From the late 1970s and early 1980s, as Iraq and Egypt pivoted to align themselves with the West, Syria and Libya alongside South Yemen and Algeria remained the only countries which had not been absorbed into the Western sphere of influence.
The Syrian conflict marked a turning point in several trends in regional affairs. The U.S.’ refusal to invest heavily in the conflict, particularly in 2013 when a full scale assault had been expected, marked an important step in the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia initiative. This has since been carried forward by Trump and Biden to focus resources on countering China and North Korea specifically and reduce commitments in the Middle East. The Syrian War set an important precedent for how the Western Bloc could seriously erode an adversary at a very low cost. The campaign avoided the need for tens of thousands of Western boots on the ground as in Iraq and instead relied on jihadist militant groups, with much of the funding to support them coming from the Gulf States and Turkey. While the CIA was responsible for organisation and logistics and for coordinating between the insurgency’s Western-aligned sponsors, the Pentagon budget was not seriously affected by the war. A similar mode of attack was seen in Libya, although jihadists there were less effective and had a much smaller support base and Western air power was applied much more to compensate. Attempts to replicate this low cost means of neutralising Western adversaries are likely.
Other major turning points were seen in Turkey, where its attempt to play a leading role in forcing the overthrow of the Syrian government marked the beginning of a more assertive and interventionist foreign policy stance which recently materialised in its intervention against Armenia in 2020. In Egypt Western support for jihadists in Libya and Syria, and ties between these jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood domestically, contributed to alienating the Egyptian Military from the West after it took power in 2013. The region also saw Russia remerge as a major player with its first significant combat operations since the early 1970s. Moscow sought to use the strong impression its intervention had made to capitalise on discontent among traditional Western clients such as the Gulf States and Egypt and form new partnerships of its own.
For Syria itself, as the war largely comes to an end, the world in the 2020s is one very different from when the war begun with China having since emerged as the world’s leading economy and Russia having seemingly abandoned its hopes for integration into the West to pursue a more independent foreign policy. This shift has seriously dampened the impacts of Western sanctions on Damascus, with Huawei rebuilding its telecoms networks and China providing everything from busses to power generators as aid which make it far easier Syria and other Western targets in similar positions to survive. Nevertheless, the continued occupation in the north by Western powers led by the U.S., and in Idlib by Turkey, will continue to pose a serious threat until restored to Syrian government control. Occupied areas reportedly hold 90% of Syria’s oil output, which will continue to be illegally expropriated to undermine Damascus’ reconstruction efforts. Idlib meanwhile, as the largest Al Qaeda safe haven the world has seen since September 2001, continues to be a launching pad for jihadist attacks into Syria. Both Idlib and the northern regions could form the bases for Kosovo-style partitioning of Syria enforced by NATO, and for Damascus it will thus be a leading priority to prevent this and impose continued costs on Western and Turkish forces. An example of how this could be done was the Syrian government ballistic missile strike on an oil facility run by militants under Turkish protection in March 2021.
7)– Last, but not least, what is, in your opinion, the US end goal for Syria (and Lebanon)?
The primary goal is the removal of the Ba’ath Party and Syrian military establishment as organisations which can arrange their domestic and foreign policies and their security with a great deal of independence from the West, and are thus able to oppose Western hegemony in the region. Their continued existence has for decades been a thorn in the side of Western efforts to shape the Middle East in line with its interests. In Lebanon the same applies for Hezbollah. This is hardly a U.S. goal exclusively, but is shared by the major NATO members such as Britain, Germany, France and Turkey and is in the common interests of furthering Western global hegemony.
Should the West achieve its objective, what follows could be a civil war as seen in Libya after Gaddafi’s death, in which NATO powers support both sides to ensure any outcome is favourable to Western interests, or the establishment of a client government as the West recently achieved in Sudan with a coup April 2019. While five major motivations for making war on Syria are explored in detail in the book, at the heart of all of them is that the Syrian government was not part of the Western-led order, did not align itself with Western policy objectives against Iran, China and others, and did not house Western soldiers on its soil. This made the state’s existence unacceptable to the West, as did its close security cooperation with Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah. Whether the outcome of Western intervention is a partitioning, a unified Syria remade as a client state, or an indefinite civil war, the primary goal of neutralising Syria as an independent actor would be achieved. Once the goal of destroying the party, state and military was thwarted, and it became clear from 2016 that the Syrian government would retain power, the Western and Turkish goal changed to prolonging the conflict, creating Kosovo-type enclaves under NATO control, and placing downward pressure on Syrian living standards and the economy. They could thereby impede post-war recovery and a return to normality and ensure that Syria would remain weakened and a burden to its allies.