Foreign Powers and the Syrian Calculus: a Conversation with Bente Scheller


Whoever thinks reconstruction could be used as an incentive for the regime to become less brutal or to allow for the return of refugees; whoever believes it would be possible to set conditions and expect the regime to deliver lives in a fantasy world,” Syria analyst Bente Scheller tells SyriaUntold.

16 August 2018

Photo of Bente Scheller (courtesy of The Heinrich Böll Foundation)
Gareth Chantler

Gareth Chantler is a freelance Canadian writer based in Gaziantep, Turkey. His website, www.storiesfromsyria.com, focuses on Syrians telling their own stories in their own words.

Bente Scheller, in writing The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game, authored one of the most coherent and clear-eyed foreign policy books in recent memory. It remains unappreciated by both lay audiences and pundits, despite its accessibility.

As Director of the Middle East office of the Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung Foundation Scheller continues to study the Syrian conflict closely, analysing the current re-lations between foreign states with respect to Syria.

In your book you quote Ha'aretz, with regards to Assad being "Israel's fa-vourite dictator." Do you see this as the case now, as ever? Was there any period from 2011-present that the calculation of Assad leaving might have been more favourable than him staying?

Despite Assad’s anti-Israel rhetoric, it is clear that he is aware that, in Israel, he has an adversary way stronger and more determined than he could have dealt with militarily in his best times. This is why he gave Israel little to worry about.
However, this equation changed with the rapid decay of the Syrian army in 2013, because it became more and more dependent on Iranian forces, Hizbol-lah, and other foreign militias recruited and trained by Iran. They tend to be more disciplined, strong, and strategic — and Iran is not too concerned about the repercussions of their actions as long as they happen on Syria’s soil. This is why I think Israel monitored the situation closely, being much less concerned with different rebel groups than with a potential presence of Iranian-sponsored forces.

Only now, when it turns out that neither the US nor Jordan seem to have an interest in supporting the rebels any longer, I have the impression Israel is moving towards accepting Assad’s forces there again, instead of heterogene-ous rebel forces who are under constant attack and pressure. The political and moral aspect of Assad’s atrocities against his own population, however, at no time played a crucial role in Israel’s consideration, which were shaped by the fear of Iranian infiltration and their use of Syria as a launching pad for military supplies and attacks.

How should we understand Israel's recent strikes inside Syria, then, with your analysis in mind?

They are a reminder that Israel will not hesitate to intervene when it sees core interests at stake—a reminder to Syria and Iran, and particularly stressing that, in this case, not even Russia will take action. Actually, the frequency and the scale of strikes seems to have intensified this year, along with the explicit threat given — that in February, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he would not hesitate to remove Assad. These strikes support Israel’s credibility in this regard. At the same time, their current tacit approval of Assad’s offensive in Daraa shows the limits Israel perceives for changing the course of events on the ground.

You took pains in your book to separate US interests from Israeli interests and to warn against the easy idea that the US simply dictates courses of ac-tion to Israel. How would you describe the alignment (or divergence) now of the two countries in terms of interests and policies with respect to Syria?

One problem that I see in the current US policy towards the Middle East is that it lacks consistency. When it comes to Syria, this started already with Presi-dent Obama who could never decide to what extent to go in the demand of Assad stepping down and supporting the rebels, for which the Southern Front of Syria’s rebels is an example; whenever they became too successful, the United States halted or slowed down their supplies. With regard to Syria, the nuclear deal with Iran reached in 2015 under President Obama was criticized by Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu who did not see it fit to curb the threat he saw in Iran. Some Syria pundits were also critical saying this would allow Iran to deploy more resources in order to embolden the Syrian regime’s war against its own population.

Now President Trump has pulled out of the Iran deal and it seems there is a shared interest with Israel to curb Iran’s influence in the region and roll it back. Yet at the same time, Trump seems not to be interested in removing Assad any longer. Pushing back Iran while keeping Assad is a difficult combination there, given that Assad is entirely dependent on foreign support militarily – and on the ground, these are Iranian-sponsored foreign forces. These are the ones that in Daraa have been crucial in the ground initiative, and given the weakness of the Syrian army, it is unlikely that they will be able to keep the control in the south on their own. Thus, it is not yet evident that Russia or the Syrian regime will be able or willing to comply with the Israeli demand to have Iranian forces removed from the south.

You often point out "the wisdom of Syria' waiting game"—has there not been a steady string of encouragements for the regime, since 2011, that they are playing the right strategy—that in terms of regime survival, this best-serves their goal?

Indeed, playing the ‘waiting game’ has once again worked out great for the regime. It is not without luck. If the Syrian regime would not have had the dip-lomatic support of Russia protecting it in the UN security council and the mas-sive direct military intervention of Russia, the regime would have been swept away a long time ago. Yet Assad could bank on Moscow’s support and could even afford provocations against its main ally – for example with continuing chemical weapons attacks even after having joined the CW convention the accession to which was negotiated by Russia. For the regime, it means an encouragement to follow this path. For the US and Europe, a lesson relevant for the future is that their unwillingness and inability to achieve Syrian compliance with its obligations has made the Syrian regime immune to any demands.

Whoever thinks “reconstruction” could be used as an incentive for the regime to become less brutal or to allow for the return of refugees; whoever believes it would be possible to set conditions and expect the regime to deliver lives in a fantasy world.

How should we understand Turkey's interests in this moment? Ever since they put up a Turkish PTT (Post Office) inside Syria, some suggest that they may seek to hold territory, as a buffer zone, for the long-term.

Turkey’s intervention started in order to prevent an establishment of Kurd-ish/PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] rule over the entire Turkish-Syrian border area. Since 2015, another aim has been to prevent Syrian refugees from crossing into Turkey because with the tide shifting inside Syria to Assad re-maining in power, the return of refugees seemed more unlikely.
Now the latest development is, as you describe, the opening of PTT [Turkish postal] offices, of banks, universities, that local policemen and others are re-ceiving their salaries in Turkish lira – as well as other infrastructure like watch-towers built along the unofficial borders of the Turkish-controlled part of northern Syria.

Possibly this would not only be a buffer zone but—since it is in agreement with Russia and Iran—prevent an all-out military offensive against Idlib of the intensity that we’ve seen in Aleppo, Ghouta or Daraa. If the regime and its al-lies would try and retake Idlib with massive aerial bombardments that would mean another wave of mass displacement from Idlib towards the Turkish border. Turkey has no intention of taking in further Syrian refugees in. On the contrary, it rather aims to send them back. Any escalation in Idlib will pose particularly Turkey with a problem.

So how are Moscow and Washington's interests converging or clashing, now, in Syria?

Washington from the very beginning has made clear it does not want to be dragged into the conflict. The United States has been supporting different re-bel groups over time but they never supported them strongly enough, or equipped them with the means, that would have given them a chance against the regime’s military superiority.

For the civilians on the ground, and for the rebels, it would have made a major difference if a No-Fly-Zone [NFZ] would have been established, because it is mainly the use of the air force that gave the regime an advantage over its adversaries and caused the vast destruction of Syrian cities and villages. The United States always shied away from this and in 2015, when Russia decided to intervene directly, they argued that it was way too risky then to establish a NFZ—since that would have meant a direct confrontation with Russia.

Russia played it much smarter than the United States, which was something the US was not happy with but at the same time—the main priority was not to get involved, and therefore the diplomatic efforts remained benign. Instead of trying to find solutions, exert greater pressure on Assad’s backers, the American demand for Assad to step down, the same as the European ones, became much less vocal.

It seems as if particularly President Trump is willing to accept Assad remaining in power. Trump does not seem to have a strategy; he is fine with leaving it to Russia—even though Assad remaining in power also means an enhancement of Iran’s regional capabilities and weight.

We’ve witnessed quite a lot of volte-faces during the past seven years, so possibly Trump and Putin could in the end even agree that curbing Iranian in-fluence would be a topic of mutual interest.

However, as Trump’s repeated announcements of a US-withdrawal from northeastern Syria show, even his declared aim to curb Iranian influence is motivated mostly domestically, since a withdrawal from the area that the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and US forces conquered, would be the greatest favor Washington could do to Iran’s agenda in Syria.
Iran and Russia are both determined to save the Syrian regime and help it sur-vive, but apart from that each has their own interests.

Is Russia satisfied with the re-investment they've made in the Assad regime?

When it comes to the direct interest of saving Assad, yes. Russia has accomplished that. Further benefits for Russia are that it has re-established itself as a world power to be taken seriously, a factor that cannot be circumvented. And Syria has also been a weapon’s test ground for Russia; it is taking videos from Syria to arms trade fairs to advertise for its material.

However, I think that Moscow did not calculate that it would need to invest that much in Syria. I think they overestimated the strength and abilities of As-sad’s forces and were negatively surprised by their poor performance, both in fighting to re-conquer areas which in the end was mainly possible because of regime-affiliated militias and a significant backup through foreign fighters; as well as in re-asserting control. In a number of places, the Syrian regime is not capable of establishing a minimal level of security that would prevent the conflict from once again escalating locally.

This is because there is no pragmatism in them taking back a place: even after the forced surrender of an area, looting by regime forces is a severe problem and the raids and searches for those formerly affiliated with the opposition continue. There is no serious effort to reconcile. The Syrian militias are part and parcel of mafia-like structures. This is why the Russian military police is so present on the ground.

But apart from these short-term goals, the more interesting question is: what is Russia going to do with its newly boosted leverage? What kind of return on its investment is it expecting on the international level? Without knowing their future plans, it difficult to know for certain whether their considerable in-vestment in Syria is living up to Russia’s expectations.

This work is under a Creative Commons license. Attribution: Non commercial - ShareAlike 4.0. International license

Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad

Supported by