MICHAEL BURLEIGH: Bashar Al Assad – the tyrant who drowned his nation in blood – is the real winner in Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria
Back in the summer of 2012, Barack Obama was unequivocal. He warned that if Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in Syria’s brutal civil war, which had started the previous year, there would be untold consequences – it was a red line.
Twelve months on, Assad launched a sarin gas attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. Up to 300 people, many of them children, died in agony, gagging and suffocating as the gas caused muscle spasms that made breathing impossible.
Obama’s red line had been crossed in the most devastating manner. Yet he failed to send in US troops or warplanes – and the shocking atrocities, the use of chemical weapons in Assad’s war of suppression, carried on regardless.
In 2012, Barack Obama warned that if Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons on his own people there would be untold consequences
Six years on, nearly 600,000 people have been killed in Syria, with 12million displaced. A £47billion pre-war Syrian economy has collapsed to one of £12billion, dominated by black marketeers exploiting chronic shortages, with the Assad clan as the biggest profiteers.
There is no doubt that the Syrian dictator was the victor in the civil war. His allies – Russia, which took command of Syrian airspace, and Iran, which directed hard-fighting Shia ground troops – ruthlessly made sure of that.
Yet until recent days one thing still eluded him. The country’s northern territories, occupied by Kurds as a semi-autonomous homeland, were effectively beyond his grasp. Not any more.
Twelve months on, Assad launched a sarin gas attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. Up to 300 people, many of them children, died in agony. Pictured are destroyed buildings in Aleppo
Donald Trump’s unpardonable withdrawal of troops from Syria changed things completely. It was an act of betrayal against the Syrian Kurds – perhaps our most important ally in the fight against Islamic State. It has enabled Turkey to unleash a firestorm against them of cataclysmic proportions.
Not only was it a betrayal, it was a strategic blunder that will weaken American credibility, reverse gains against IS, make it harder to build alliances in the Middle East and boost Russia and Iran.
In desperation, the Kurds turned to Assad for help. In a deal reportedly brokered by Russia, they agreed to allow Syrian troops into Kurdish-controlled areas to counter Turkey’s brutal offensive laughingly called Operation Peace Spring. For the Kurds, 11,000 of whom were killed in the fight against IS, it means the end of their dream of a Syrian homeland – the Syrian army are now taking over key Kurdish towns and villages.
For Assad, as Syria’s red, white and black tricolour is hoisted in areas where his regime has had no presence for years, it represents a final victory that even he must have thought fanciful at times.
The 54-year-old dictator has turned out to be the great survivor, despite his fine doctor’s hands being drenched in blood, despite worldwide condemnation as a war criminal who indiscriminately slaughtered his own people. He has outsmarted the US at every turn, and regained his territory first from rebels and now from the Kurds who helped destroy IS for him and for the West.
Six years on, nearly 600,000 people have been killed in Syria, with 12million displaced. Pictured is the Syrian border town Ras-al-Ain during ongoing fighting from a Turkish offensive
The irony is that Assad was never destined to rule Syria – his older brother Bassel was the chosen successor of their brutal Soviet-trained father Hafez and he was allowed to study as an ophthalmologist in London. But Bassel died in a car accident and Bashar was groomed as the heir apparent. The KGB-trained thugs who ran Syria needed persuading that the tall, thin, young man with a weak chin was tough enough for them – but he was ruthless enough all right.
When his dynastic regime was threatened by peaceful demonstrations in 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, his violent crackdown provoked an armed uprising and led to the worst and most protracted civil war of modern times.
Amid the chaos, IS took hold in the country and, from 2014 on, the Kurds became the main ground force fighting them. Following the fall of the IS capital of Raqqa, they also became the custodians of tens of thousands of captured IS fighters. Many of these terrorists are now on the run as their guards rush to fight the Turks.
Ankara saw this as a chance to obliterate the Syrian Kurdish defence force, which was trying to establish its Kurdish statelet along the border with Turkey.
In President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s eyes the Syrian Kurds are as bad as the PKK terrorists against whom Turkey has fought a counter-insurgency war for four decades. The prospect of being wiped out by the Turks gave the Syrian Kurds no choice but to seek help from Assad. Throughout the civil war, they have been neutral toward his regime, which lacked the capacity to retake the far north when it had more urgent targets.
Now, however, Assad can restore his control over the one major part of Syria he has been unable to get his hands on. Better to allow this, so Kurdish thinking goes, than to risk being ethnically cleansed by Turks. So Assad, who drowned his country in blood, is once more than all-conquering ruler of Syria.
Michael Burleigh is Engelsberg Chair of History and Global Affairs at LSE Ideas.
The insanity of Trump’s surrender in Syria as Russia gleefully moves in with Assad’s forces to defend the Kurds
With the Stars and Stripes flying from the turrets of their armoured lorries, US troops performed a humiliating retreat from a key Syrian base yesterday.
Just after midnight, 15 vehicles pulled out of the facility built three years ago when the city of Manbij was cleared of Islamic State forces. As the US convoy headed one way Syrian fighters headed in the opposite direction – intent on occupying their abandoned positions.
On the orders of Donald Trump, the US Army is abandoning its protection of the Syrian Kurds who led the war against the jihadis. The Kurds have now had to turn to the Syrian regime and its Russian allies in their desperate bid to avoid being over-run by Turkish forces exploiting the American withdrawal.
On the orders of Donald Trump, the US Army is abandoning its protection of the Syrian Kurds who led the war against the jihadis
The Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary outfit waging secret wars on the Kremlin’s behalf, immediately moved into the former US base. At the same time, Syrian government forces took full control of Manbij.
An official from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said: ‘The Russians are in the American base in Manbij now, they helped escort the Americans out of the area and got their base in return.’
Now in its seventh day, Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish fighters is redrawing the map of northern Syria once again in a civil war that has lasted eight years.
On Sunday the SDF was forced to cut a deal with Russian-backed President Bashar Al Assad to stave off potential genocide.
The Kurds have now had to turn to the Syrian regime and its Russian allies in their desperate bid to avoid being over-run by Turkish forces exploiting the American withdrawal. Pictured is a Syrian soldier
Russia announced yesterday that its units were deploying to keep apart the advancing Syrian and Turkish forces. It is a clear sign that Moscow is filling the security vacuum left by Donald Trump’s withdrawal of US soldiers last week.
Moscow’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said fighting between the Turks and Syrians was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘therefore we will not allow it, of course’.
The US President’s unexpected and widely-condemned decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish opposite number Recep Tayyip Erdogan overturned five years of US policy in the Middle East.
Republicans have largely remained loyal to Mr Trump but appear to be losing patience. Defence chiefs and White House advisers all warned him against his Syrian move and Congressional leaders said last night that they wanted to pass a bipartisan motion to overturn Mr Trump’s decision. US news shows have carried alarming reports from Syria highlighting the civilian casualties.
The pressure seemed to be telling last night when Mr Trump phoned Mr Erdogan to demand an immediate ceasefire.
The arrival of the Wagner Group is a dangerous development. In February last year 600 of its mercenaries, armed with tanks and artillery, launched an assault on the SDF only to find US advisers were embedded with them.
Russia announced yesterday that its units were deploying to keep apart the advancing Syrian and Turkish forces. Pictured are Syrian soldiers
Moscow’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said fighting between the Turks and Syrians was ‘unacceptable’ and ‘therefore we will not allow it, of course’
The Wagner forces maintained the assault for four hours despite being hammered by US airstrikes. An estimated 300 Russians were killed or wounded.
Western intelligence agencies believe Russia also sent Wagner mercenaries into Libya earlier this year to help General Khalifa Haftar overthrow the UN-backed government. It was suspected that Moscow wanted to exploit the instability to launch a formal intervention.
Footage posted online yesterday showed Russian war correspondent Oleg Blokhin, known to be following the Wagner group, smirking as he looked around the abandoned US base. He boasted: ‘Yesterday it was them and today it is us here.’
A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that US personnel have ‘been assisting the Russian forces to navigate through previously unsafe areas quickly’.
A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek that US personnel have ‘been assisting the Russian forces to navigate through previously unsafe areas quickly’. Pictured are Turkey’s forces advancing towards Manbij, Syria
The official said: ‘It is essentially a handover. However, it’s a quick out, not something that will include walk-throughs, etc. Everything is about making out with as much as possible of our things while destroying any sensitive equipment that cannot be moved.’
A TV crew understood to be from Russia Today filmed the base, showing what the US forces had left behind, including a television, sofas and bunks with bed linen.
Clashes between the SDF and Turkey continued yesterday, with Ankara saying two of its soldiers were killed by shelling in the Manbij region. It claimed 15 ‘terrorists’ were killed when the Turkish army returned fire.
From Manbij, Saddam Al Hasan, 28, said: ‘No one wants the people to be homeless and killed. I am happy to allow Russia to enter if they provide security and safety, and stop the ongoing war. I am happy that they will protect the borders of my city from the barbaric attacks of the armed factions and I hope that the crisis will end after uniting with the SDF.’
Pictured is the Syrian Army driving one way towards Kobane, and Americans driving the other
President Erdogan has vowed to ignore growing condemnation of the invasion from the West. Turkey is a Nato member and the alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, met Boris Johnson yesterday for talks.
Britain and France have accused Turkey and the US of undoing five years of work in fighting IS, whose fighters and families are plotting escape from detention facilities.
French prime minister Edouard Philippe said: ‘This intervention is devastating for our collective security with the inevitable resurgence of Islamic State in northern Syria and also probably northwest Iraq.’
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab yesterday suggested three British orphans whose parents were killed in Syria after joining Islamic State could be allowed to return to the UK.
Mr Raab told MPs the Government did not want to see British foreign fighters return to the UK but, given the ‘fluid situation’, this might change. His comments were rebuffed by Home Office sources.
Additional reporting by Bedir Ahmed in Syria and Tom Leonard in New York
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