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Strategic Expert: Assad, Backed by Russia & Iran, Making Gains Due to U.S. Betrayal of Rebels

2016 will be a year when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad “will lock in significant political and military gains” due to the U.S.’s betrayal of anti-Assad rebels, Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote Friday in Foreign Policy.

Rebels in western Syria made significant advances last year that weakened Assad, but ever since Russia and its air power joined the fight in September, the regime has been turning the tide, and is now on the verge of encircling Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city. “Should the rebel-held parts of the city ultimately fall, it will be a dramatic victory for Assad and the greatest setback to the rebellion since the start of the uprising in 2011,” Hokayem observed. The “overwhelming majority” of Russia’s air strikes have targeted non-ISIS anti-Assad rebels, leaving the fight against ISIS up to the United States, with Russia and Syria’s ultimate goal being “to force the world to make an unconscionable choice” between the Assad regime and ISIS.

A Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad victory in Aleppo could the collapse of the non-ISIS rebel force, not to mention a siege of Aleppo that would “eclipse the horrific sieges of Madaya and other stricken regions that have received the world’s (short-lived) attention.” Rebels who escape could very well join up with ISIS or the al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra. Russia’s success in helping Assad has shattered an illusion held by the Obama administration that “Russia’s intervention was doomed to failure,” which had served to justify American inaction. In order to keep the hope of a peace process alive, Hokayem wrote, the administration has not challenged Russia’s intervention, which had the effect of “strengthening of [ISIS] in central Syria in the short term. This is a price Washington seems willing to pay for the sake of keeping the Geneva process alive.”

Even worse, the United States “has already conceded key points about Assad’s future” without getting any Russian or Iranian concessions in return. And as Russia has escalated its involvement in Syria, the United States has decreased its involvement, even reducing the supply of weapons to rebels it claims to be supporting. Unsurprisingly, the administration’s actions have led to an “understandable feeling of betrayal in the rebellion,” which could further splinter the anti-Assad Syrian coalition.

“It’s understandable for the United States to bank on a political process and urge the Syrian opposition to join this dialogue in good faith,” Hokayem wrote. “But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious.”

Jonathan Spyer, the director of the Rubin Center, observed on Saturday that Assad appears to be set on crushing the rebellion in the southern province of Deraa, where it began four years ago. This, Spyer wrote, “would bring Hezbollah and Iran to the area east of Quneitra crossing, facing the Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights.”

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained last week that President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from action in Syria was part of a larger decision “to extricate the United States from the region,” because Obama “has no interest in maintaining the old American order, and is therefore willing to recognize Iran’s position at the head of the regional table.”

In Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran’s history of Obama’s outreach to Iran, which he wrote for Mosaic last year, he observed that the administration believed that the common interests of the United States and Iran “would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.” The New York Times reported in August that members of the administration harbored “grander ambitions for a deal they hope could open up relations with Tehran and be part of a transformation in the Middle East.”

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