Barack Obama’s change of attitude and his adoption of a more aggressive policy in Syria has taken us all unawares. Although the opposition says his decision came late, being late is better than not coming at all.
Following the White House’s admission that the Assad regime has overstepped the red line by using chemical weapons and that it will be punished for this, now we have become more distant from Geneva II and are moving closer to Libya II. The endeavor now will be towards toppling the regime through a blend of foreign intervention and support to the Syrian rebels on the ground.
To know how Bashar ended up gaining control over the situation, we must consider the different stages of the Syrian crisis. A year ago, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was facing defeat as a result of the strikes launched by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that took control of over half of Syria’s border crossings, and so everyone held the belief that President Bashar was going to fall in a few months. Bashar convinced the Russians and the Iranians to increase their aid to him. As a result, the situation turned upside-down and the FSA’s feebleness was made clear to everyone, as it lost battles in Homs and even in Damascus in December 2012. Then, the FSA received huge support from several states, most prominently Saudi Arabia. The Jordanian front was also opened to offer important humanitarian and logistic aid as well as large cargoes of weaponry. The result came fast and the FSA notched up notable victories. Al-Assad’s allies realized that his troops were bombarding cities heavily, yet they failed to win and were losing battles one after another. Those allies found out that it would not be beneficial for Assad’s troops to have better capabilities and, nevertheless, be defeated spiritually and on the ground. Therefore, they decided to engage in the fight themselves.
It was a bold decision by the Iranians, who probably felt that the Americans did not have an appetite for fighting. In the past two months, according to successive eyewitness accounts, Iranian troops, along with militias from Hezbollah and Iraq, have joined in the fighting. Qusayr was a truly decisive battle. It was not a strategic one, but rather it was a symbolic struggle for both sides. It was incontestably proved that Hezbollah troops were engaged in the fight and took control of Qusayr and its environs. Now the war is not confined to the Syrians alone—Assad’s army and the FSA—because Iran and its allies are directly engaged in the fight against the FSA, which is smaller and less well-armed. With this development, the equation has changed and a victory for Assad has became possible for the first time since the outbreak of the revolution twenty-seven months ago.
Qusayr was an important battle that awakened everyone: the Gulf, Britain and France have offered support and now Washington is tolling the bell to warn of Iranian interference in Syria, something that would change the entire regional equation. The Geneva conference, which was originally an Iranian idea that was adopted by Russia over a year ago, aims to create a new reality in the already–tense Middle East whereby Tehran becomes a key player. The inevitable question to be raised here is how could the same Iran that is under stringent international sanctions be allowed to expand to become a force in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon?
Despite significant indicators of change in Washington, it would be unwise to say that the battle has been decided, for it is complicated and will produce more surprises. The battle may be decided next August, and it could take two more years. Yet, what is certain is that the shift in the stances of international players is a significant political and military development that will be reflected on the ground in the next few days. It is likely that such a shift in will eventually lead to an internationally protected area, one that is protected by NATO in cooperation with the Gulf states. The FSA will be overtly provided with sophisticated arms and information that will help it finish the battle on the ground.
Should the Syrian regime fail to implement any political reforms on the ground, and should Iran fail to withdraw its troops from Syria, which is unlikely, then the Libyan solution would be highly probable; as happened when NATO forces overthrew the Gadhafi regime after the rebels were unable to end the battle by themselves.