On 1 January Saudi Arabia put to death Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and leader of reformist opposition. 46 other prisoners were killed on the same day.
Saudi Arabia carried out a total of 157 death sentences in 2015, putting it third in the world behind Iran (more than 289 judicial killings in 2014) and China (figures secret, but Amnesty’s last estimate was 1718-plus in 2008).
Saudi authorities said that most of the 46 were Al Qaeda or other Sunni dissidents. But some were Shia. The executions have further sharpened Shia-Sunni polarisation in the whole region.
Iran may now pull out of the UN-sponsored peace talks due to start on 25 January. If the talks go ahead, Iran’s and Assad’s hand is strengthened. Saudi Arabia has taken the role of coordinating the “moderate opposition” to Assad in the peace talks with US and UN agreement. Its execution of its leading Shia reformist cleric makes it easy for Assad to mobilise international resistance to concessions to Saudi-sponsored forces in Syria.
None of the parties who may gather round the negotiating table on 25 January aim for a democratic, pluralist, non-sectarian, multi-ethnic Syria where democratic rights are protected. All of them have disgraceful records in working with religious-sectarian forces and supporting brutal authoritarian governments in the area — or are those governments themselves.
If any “peace deal” is negotiated, and that is doubtful, it will probably be through a partition of Syria — initially by freezing many of the present military front-lines between the competing forces.
The Syrian Army and its allies have been responsible for most of the over 250,000 civilian deaths in Syria. At the outbreak of the civil war, the army was about 220-280,000 strong.
It is reported to have lost over 50,000 dead. Many others have deserted. Something like 40 or 50,000, mainly Sunni Muslims who refuse to take part in the army’s attacks on civilian Sunni communities, have defected to opposition militias.
In April 2015 the army’s strength was estimated at about 110,000. Iranian and Hezbollah forces have increasingly carried out operations alongside the army, or even taken charge of them.
The most notorious of Assad’s auxiliary militias are the shabiha, organisations of thugs set up by Bashar Assad’s uncle Rifaat al-Assad in the 70s and 80s to do dirty work for the regime. In 2011 the shabiha made brutal attacks on the initially broadly democratic and secular protest movement and deliberately provoked sectarian reactions by targeting Sunni communities.
Jaysh al-Sha’bi, another unofficial Alawite force, was reorganised in 2011. It is reported to be 100,000 strong but ineffective as a military force.
Since the Iranians moved in, Jaysh al-Sha’bi has been effectively replaced by the National Defence Force (NDF), built under the direction of the Iranian Hossein Hamadani, and modelled on the Iranian Basij.
The NDF has been more explicitly recruited as a religious anti-Sunni sectarian force. In a collapsing economy, with huge employment, whole villages of Alawite men have been recruited to the NDF for reasons both mercenary and sectarian.
Iran probably calculates that the NDF will, like Hezbollah, have an ideological loyalty to Iran even if Assad is removed.
Russia has had influence with the Assad regime for decades. Putin may have saved the day for Assad when he began his aerial bombardment of Assad’s opponents in September 2015. However Russia has avoided sending troops to reinforce Assad, beyond a few “specialists”.
That leaves most of the work on the ground to Iran. Iran had troops operating on Assad’s side officially from 2013 and in reality from 2012. Over the last four years it has granted Syria billions of dollars of military aid. Its casualties have been increasing — well over a hundred in the last few months of 2015 — but low enough to be sustainable for its authoritarian regime.
In October Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denied rumours that Russia would be able to muscle in on — or transform — the Axis of Resistance that has united Assad’s Shia allies. The Axis is an informal international military alliance. Since it was first mentioned in 2006, it has not been much more than a declaration of a shared anti-Israel, anti-US position. But now it has evolved into an international political Shia-Islamist movement, a counterpoint to Saudi Arabia’s international Sunni coalition.
Before 2012 Hamas was a part of the Axis, despite also being linked to the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, but it has withdrawn because of the Syrian civil war.
The Lebanese Shia-Islamist movement Hezbollah became dependent on Assad after 1979 for training facilities and for military equipment sent from Iran. For Assad it provided an armed force, experienced especially in small scale guerrilla-type warfare.
Two years ago it was estimated that Hezbollah numbered only about 5,000 regulars and 15,000 reservists, and out of that number about 5,000 were committed at any one time to Assad’s war. That is a small number in comparison with the other militias, but Hezbollah are important because of their military experience, their commitment, and their capacity to draw in Shia foreign fighters to come and fight for Assad, such as the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade (AFAB) of primarily Iraqi Shia volunteers.
Hezbollah, unlike the Iranians, do not appear to Syrians as foreign intruders and have been widely distributed among Syrian and Iranian forces, often as officers.
They are largely located in the areas near the Lebanon border and may be most interested in consolidating their hold there.
Daesh tried to undercut Hezbollah with the Beirut bombing of August 2015. That did not succeed in triggering wider communal disorder in Lebanon. There are some recent reports of demoralisation in the Hezbollah forces after three years with nothing to show for it but a stalemate.
Iran’s primary concern is to expand its influence and power across the region. Assad’s regime has mutated considerably during the civil war, accommodating to Iranian influence and increasingly relying on brutal religious sectarianism to consolidate its rule. Iran will want to consolidate that change and impose its own political model on whatever territory Assad or his successors hold. Iran has mobilised its regular Revolutionary Guards into Syria and probably intended them to stay.
Russia will have links with former Ba’athists in the regime who are nervous of Iranian domination, but it does not have forces on ground to stop Iran’s project, and is will likely to accommodate to it.
The moves for peace talks are overwhelmingly driven by outside interests and not by any internal force in Syria. The outside powers may have a limited joint interest in beating back Daesh, but they have nothing like a joint project to replace it.
Saudi Arabia looks on Daesh as a troublesome competitor for the allegiance of Sunni Wahhabists and Islamists throughout the world.
Daesh, by actually building a quasi-state power with many similarities to Saudi Arabia, has created huge embarrassment for the Saudi tyrants and their allies.
Turkey’s president Erdogan pursues a different model of authoritarian Islamism, and has had a useful modus vivendi with Daesh. Erdogan allowed and encouraged Daesh’s war on the Rojavan Kurds. In return Daesh did little that might destabilise Erdogan’s rule.
Al Qaeda and Daesh have built their organisations with anti-Shia atrocities, particularly in Iraq. But Daesh has not targeted Turkey’s 25% Shia minority, the Alevi.
Erdogan was a close ally of Morsi in Egypt. Morsi’s removal from power and the outlawing of his Muslim Brotherhood by the new military-dominated regime in Egypt were strongly supported by Saudi Arabia.
Audacious international action against Daesh would create considerable problems for Erdogan. Like the Saudis, but for different reasons, he will want to allow Daesh supporters to be reorganised under the leadership of the safer Wahhabism of the Saudi regime.
The US is unwilling to repeat an Iraq-style occupation in Syria.
It has instead invested in attempts to organise pro-US militias in Syria. Those attempts have been spectacular failures, with those US-trained groups being gobbled up by Islamist militias. For now, the US and its allies are allowing the Saudis to become the paymasters for most of the militias and to shape them politically. This could become a major cause of embarrassment to them.
On top of all the political complications, there are economic ones.
Syria is both a source of hydrocarbon fuels and a potential route for gas and oil pipelines. There are two rival pipeline plans: Iran-Iraq-Syria-Turkey, and Qatar-Saudi-Jordan-Syria-Turkey. Some analysts have argued that Qatar’s involvement in Syria stems from Assad blocking the Qatar-Turkey line.
If contiguous Iranian-dominated and Shia-dominated territory can be consolidated across Syria-Iraq-Iran, that gets in the way of Sunni co-operation between the Gulf states and Turkey. With Iran coming out of the cold of US sanctions, Iran may want to position itself as a big supplier to Turkey and beyond that to Europe.
The external powers want peace in Syria — at least, enough of it to allow stability for business — but they have competing interests to be served by that peace.
And the continuing war feeds profits in the arms industry. The US arms industry currently sells Saudi and the UAE $8 billion per year in equipment alone. Britain and France are not far behind. There will be strong business pressures to allow Saudi Arabia to continue to invest in arming forces in Syria.
In 2014 $92.7 million of arms were bought from Bulgaria alone to be supplied to Syrian militias by Saudi Arabia. Without such arms supplies and subsidies, the militias and armies in Syria could not continue their war.
Syria is separating out along sectarian lines.
UN-negotiated evacuations have taken 126 Sunni rebel fighters and civilians from Zabadani, north west of Damascus, an enclave surrounded and bombarded by government forces and their Hezbollah allies.
Simultaneously 336 injured defenders were evacuated from two northern Shia villages, al-Foua and Kefraya, besieged by Jaysh el Fateh, a collective of opposition groups that includes Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. The Shia will go to Turkey and then be relocated to government-held areas in Syria.
On 26 December an agreement broke down to evacuate 2000 Islamist fighters and residents from the Palestinian camp in Yarmouk and south Damascus. 200 al-Nusra Front fighters were able to move from Deraa in the south to Idlib province in the north east, in exchange for Iranian officers captured by rebels.
Similar deals have seen fighters move from rebel areas of Homs.