Leadership: Never Go Full Assad

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April 13, 2022: Russia has appointed four- star general Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, a veteran of operations in Syria, as the first commander of all operations in Ukraine. Previously all Ukrainian operations were commanded by Stavka (the Russian General Staff) and civilian officials in Moscow. Dvornikov apparently is free to do whatever it takes to turn the defeats in Ukraine into a victory. To do that he is apparently using what he learned in Syria, where he commanded Russian forces from 2015, when Russia committed substantial ground and air forces to save Syrian dictator Basher Assad from a three-year old rebellion which, at that point, after three years of fighting, Basher Assad was losing but he was eager to use the Russian forces to employ tactics that his father Hafez Assad, had used after he gained power in 1971 and retained by emulating the first (in 1547) tsar of Russia, Ivan Grozny, known in the west as Ivan the Terrible. In Russian, "Grozny" means fearsome, menacing or, to many Russians, dreaded. Tsar Ivan spent most of his 37 years in power leading his armies against various enemies, as well as reforming the Russian government. He was largely successful against Turkic enemies that occupied what is now much of southern Russia and Ukraine. Ivan was ruthless and went full Grozny against his Turkic foes. Then he sought to take Livonia (Latvia and Estonia) to provide landlocked Russia with access to the Baltic Sea. At first Ivan was successful, but then Poland and Sweden intervened and turned Russia back into a landlocked empire until 1709 when tsar Peter the Great finally defeated the Swedes and made his new city on the Baltic, Saint Petersburg into the new Russian capital.

Hafez Assad was more an Ivan Grozny than a Peter the Great and maintained his rule of Syria by terrorizing and massacring his foes. That worked until Hafez died in 2000 and his son Basher took over. That was not supposed to happen because Basher was the younger son who graduated from medical school in 1988 and became an army doctor. His older brother Bassel was trained to take over from Hafez. Bassel died in an accident in 1994 leaving the 29-year-old doctor Basher the heir. Basher was quickly prepped as the heir and that appeared to work. At first Basher was successful after Hafez died in 2000.

Then came 2011 when Syria was one of several Arab countries to undergo uprisings against dictatorial rule. The uprising in Syria turned into a civil war and, because the Assads were a Shia minority in a country that was about 70-75 percent Sunni the situation looked grim. Most Syrian Sunnis were Arabs but over ten percent of the Sunnis were Kurdish, Turkomen and other minorities. The largely Sunni Kurds were about nine percent of the population. The Assad clan is Shia, a minority that comprised about 13 percent of the population. Various Christian groups totaled about ten percent of the population. Another religious minority were somewhat Islamic groups like Druze and Yazidis who are considered heretics by conservative Moslems but tolerated in many Moslem majority nations.

The Assads had long maintained power by turning the other minorities into loyal allies who could be relied on to serve in key government jobs. Some of the Sunni minorities were more reliable than others. The half million Palestinian refugees were well educated Sunni Arabs and willing to serve a Shia government. Some minorities didn’t want to be Syrians and the chief among these was the Kurds, who yearned to unite with Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian Kurds to create an independent Kurdistan. The four nations these Kurds lived in cooperated in blocking and suppressing these Kurdistan ambitions.

After a decade of fighting, the civil war changed the ethnic profile of Syria in a big way. Since 2011 about two percent of the population has died from the fighting while over six million Syrians have been forced to leave Syria because of the war. Nearly all of those who fled the country, and won’t be coming back, are Sunni. That means the Sunni majority of the Syrian population went from over 70 percent in 2011 to 58 percent in 2020. To make matters worse Assad ally Iran encouraged Shia from other countries (Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq) to settle in Syria and take over the homes and property of the departed Sunnis. Not many foreign Shia were willing to settle in a war zone. While the Assads deliberately attacked Sunni civilians and encouraged them to flee the country, an autonomy deal was possible with the Kurds. One reason for this is that the Kurds are almost all Sunni and, like their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraq, not fanatic about their religion. In 2020 Syria the Kurds comprise about 17 percent of the Sunni majority. But if the Kurds are allies of the Assads the remaining Sunni Arabs are no longer a majority. The Sunni Arabs also had factions and some were more inclined to work with and for the Assads than others. This is how the Assads have ruled Syria for two generations and they will have an easier time doing so because of the war.

A major obstacle to continued Assad rule is the destruction of the Syrian economy and the lack of economic assistance for rebuilding. GDP is less than half of what it was in 2011. Over half the pre-war population of 23 million are refugees. Half are displaced inside Syria and half outside the country. While most of the country is now controlled by the Assad government, most of that territory is shared with foreign troops; Iranian, Turkish, Russian and American, in that order. Syrian forces have to be wary of these allies, as well as the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is particularly active in attacking Syrian troops.

The damage done to Syria by ten years of war is worse than realized when you take into account expected (normal) growth in the economy (GDP) and the population if the war had not happened. This data assumes a decade of some post-war reconstruction for the real Syria. In contrast, Syria without the war would have a population of 32 million by 2030. Because so many (over six million) Syrians fled the country and fewer were born and more died, the most likely population of war-ravaged by 2030 is 22 million. Most of the refugees (Sunni Arabs) do not want to return to a homeland dominated by a Shia government and occupied by Iranian (and Shia) forces. In these “war/no-war” comparisons the economic projections show the country even worse off. Currently GDP is less than half, perhaps just a third of what it was in 2011. No one is sure because the economic damage is so extensive. Even with a decade of post-war reconstruction 2030 GDP would only be about 74 percent of what it was in 2011 and about 35 percent of what it would have been in 2030 without a war. Without the war GDP would have doubled by 2030. It is possible that Syria will grow (in terms of GDP and population) at a faster rate but that is unlikely since not a lot of nations are lining up to donate to or invest in reconstruction. In part that is due to the expected long-term presence of Iran or, even without that, the Assads would probably remain in power and still be accused of war crimes during the war. There is no statute of limitations on that sort of thing. Meanwhile the years of war have destroyed structures, infrastructure and businesses that would cost several hundred billion dollars to replace. That will be hard to do for a nation that had a 2011 GDP of about $60 billion and not a lot of natural resources other than its people and their many skills.

The Russians were a major help in carrying out the Assad plan to drive hostile Sunnis out of Syria. General Dvornikov, the new commander of Russian forces in Ukraine was also commander of Russian forces for the first year Russian forces were in Syria and his operations there were so successful that he was promoted and marked as a commander who could get things done in desperate circumstances. Dvornikov quickly noted that the traditional Assad tactics worked in Syria only if the Syrians had enough firepower to drive Sunnis out of their homes and preferably out of Syria. In 2015 Russia quickly supplied the air strikes and artillery firepower to do that. Dvornikov also provided technical and material aid in rebuilding the Syrian artillery and air forces, which had lost most of their equipment by 2015. Later Russian commanders continued this support and helped Assad stay in power. Dvornikov appears to be adopting a similar strategy in Ukraine as Russian firepower is now directed at civilian targets while the Russians seek out and arrest or murder local Ukrainian officials and find pro-Russian Ukrainians to take their place. The Ukrainian government realizes this and is advising civilians in the way of new Russian attacks in Donbas and along the Black Sea coast to flee the area if they can because Dvornikov going full Assad will try to kill lots of civilians to intimidate the rest.

Dvornikov is not expected to conquer all of Ukraine this way, just areas where the Russians already have a toehold, like Donbas and Crimea as well as the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. If Dvornikov can turn Ukraine into a landlocked country Russia can declare victory and blame the Ukrainians and their Western allies (including Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Sweden) for continuing the war. Dvornikov plans to win by combining the tactics of Tsars Ivan Grozny and Perter the Great while using what he learned from the Assads. Victory is not assured but because Dvornikov is going full Assad it will be bloody.

 


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