David Gardner writes: The expression “you break it, you own it” became a geopolitical jingle after the US in 2003 used a bull to liberate the china shop of Iraq, where their soldiers still find themselves, hundreds of billions of dollars later, fighting the most virulent jihadis yet. But translated into Russian for Syria, the meaning would appear to be: “we break it, you pay for it, but we and our friends own it”.
No doubt the Kremlin sees signs the US under President Donald Trump has ditched any idea of toppling President Assad. In Europe, moreover, political panic about any further surge of migrants and refugees from the region seems paramount.
Yet the confidence of Moscow — and Tehran — should not hide the fact that they have a real and costly dilemma on their hands in Syria.
First, the extent to which the Assad government controls the roughly 35 per cent of Syrian territory it holds is moot. The manpower shortages of a minority regime have made it dependent on Russia, Iran and powerful paramilitaries such as Lebanon’s Hizbollah. Damascus has had to subcontract local control to a mosaic of warlords and militias, private armies and racketeers — all invested in the lucrative distortions of a war economy characterised by penury for the mass of Syrians, roughly half of whom have been uprooted. There is nothing stable about that.
Second, to what extent are Russia and Iran willing to assist the Assads in breaking out of their mini-state and reconquering the rest of Syria?
The Syrian state almost certainly does not have the numbers to retake and garrison eastern Syria. Look at how Palmyra in central Syria keeps changing hands — the regime has only just recaptured this Graeco-Roman jewel after it fell to Isis for a second time in December while the focus was on Aleppo. Palmyra, moreover, was taken back after US air strikes on Isis there. The Syrian conflict is protean and shape-changing, but President Assad would be unwise to bet the palace on the recurrence of such a weird coalition.
Third, ostensible control of “useful Syria” is false comfort. Aside from the security fact that much of the rest is jihadi-infested, this implies the east is almost all “useless” desert. It is not. The resilience of the almost 50-year-old Assad regime required the energy resources and crops of the east. Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir Ezzor provinces produced 60 per cent of the country’s cereals, 75 per cent of its cotton, and all its oil and gas in 2010, before the rebellion. Far from useless, the east is essential to a regime recovering minimal self-sufficiency. Syria’s power-generating capacity, dependent on gasfields in the east, is about a quarter of what it was before the war. [Continue reading…]