Argument

Assad Hasn’t Won Anything

After years of bloody warfare, it’s time to recognize what the Syrian dictator rules over: a chronically violent and chaotic failed state.

Syrian youths walk past a billboard showing a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses while dressed in a Field Marshal's camouflage fatigues, on display in the centre of the capital Damascus on July 9, 2018, with a caption below reading in Arabic: "If the country's dust speaks, it will say Bashar al-Assad."
Syrian youths walk past a billboard showing a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses while dressed in a Field Marshal's camouflage fatigues, on display in the centre of the capital Damascus on July 9, 2018, with a caption below reading in Arabic: "If the country's dust speaks, it will say Bashar al-Assad." LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

When Syria is discussed these days, it is increasingly common to hear the phrase “Assad won,” or “the war is coming to an end.” Understandably so. Nearly two-thirds of Syria now lies under regime control. Since Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015, the opposition has not won a single major victory and lost the vast majority of its territorial holdings. In eastern Syria, meanwhile, the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate was dealt its final defeat in the village of Baghouz in late March. To a large degree, the subject of Syria today has become one defined predominantly by debates over issues such as refugee return, reconstruction, whether to provide sanctions relief, and the question of whether to reengage with the regime.

For the regime’s longtime defenders, this has been a moment to celebrate, to breathe a sigh of relief, and to intensify calls for the world to accept this new reality, end sanctions, and help Syria rebuild and restore sovereignty in all corners of the country. These calls are not new, but they are quietly garnering some traction among some influential observers and policymakers. For example, the Carter Center—founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter—co-hosted a meeting in April in London that discussed issues like “restoring territorial sovereignty” and “how to secure the removal of armed forces operating in Syria without the Syrian government’s consent.” That event’s co-host was the British Syrian Society, a pro-regime group founded by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s father-in-law, Fawaz Akhras, a man who in 2012 was advising Assad on how to counter evidence of civilians being tortured. The society’s current executive director also happens to be the brother of Syria’s alleged chemical weapons chief.

There’s just one problem: The Assad regime has not “won” anything. It has merely survived at the cost of Syrians’ blood and fear; stability remains far out of reach. The last holdouts of opposition in the country’s northwest seem intractable. Elsewhere in the country, there are plentiful signs of future instability. Syria is no longer in open civil war, but the country’s political crisis is intensifying. The root causes that gave way to the uprising in 2011 remain in place—most are now even worse. Even in territories always held by the regime and populated by its most ardent defenders, life today presents more challenges than it did during the conflict’s most intense days.

An honest discussion of Syria needs to acknowledge just how unstable the situation there remains—and how the regime’s very survival guarantees chaos, instability, and conflict for many years to come.

Idlib: A struggle without Iran

The last remaining opposition zone in Syria lies in the northwest, where approximately 4 percent of the country’s territory is home to 3 million civilians, roughly half of whom have been displaced from their homes. Within this greater Idlib region, according to my estimates, approximately 60,000 armed fighters are determined to continue their fight against the regime and its backers. About half of that number owe their allegiance to factions from the broad-spectrum opposition mainstream, and the other half belong to jihadi groups, some loyal to al Qaeda.

For nearly two months now, this small pocket of territory has been the target of a full-scale assault by pro-regime ground and air forces. A punishing air and artillery campaign has paved the way for ground offensives by Syria’s most loyalist and elite units, including the notorious Tiger Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 4th Division. And yet, after more than 10 weeks, the regime has only recaptured approximately 1 percent of the territory, at the cost of hundreds of soldiers, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, and several aircraft. Meanwhile, 400 civilians have been killed and 330,000 displaced. Camps for internally displaced persons are full, and olive groves have become the homes of droves of families fleeing indiscriminate air and artillery bombardment.

There is no better evidence that Syria’s regime lacks the manpower to regain control and hold the rest of country than recent events in Idlib. The key here has been Iran’s refusal to deploy its militia proxies into the Idlib battle, arguing since a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, in February that the northwest was of little strategic significance to its interests in Syria. Never has Iran’s value to Assad—and Russia—been more clearly revealed. That by itself should raise serious questions about the credibility of any demand for a departure of all Iranian and Iran-linked forces from Syria, as the Trump administration continues to put forth, potentially as a precondition for serious talks.

Although Assad maintains his goal of recapturing every inch of Syria, this 4 percent alone looks like a challenge beyond the regime’s grasp. In fact, after a shock offensive into Latakia in recent days, signs have begun to emerge that suggest the regime may be backing off, reducing front-line deployments. If Turkey continues to back its proxies with heavy weaponry, we may also witness the so-called Gazafication of Idlib, whereby the region exists under a de facto siege and submits itself to extremist rule. In fact, the former al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is pitching just that: It has proposed that its so-called Salvation Government become the area’s de facto governing authority. That scenario is far from being in anyone else’s best interests, least of all the area’s 3 million civilians.

If the region’s chaotic and violent status quo continues, other factions of al Qaeda will also benefit: those factions like Tanzim Huras al-Din that have returned to Osama bin Laden’s military vanguard model of jihad. Although these groups claim to be focused on the military fight in northwestern Syria, I’m told by reliable sources that they are also turning an eye back to the “far enemy,” the West. Three separate Islamist figures based in Idlib have informed me separately since mid-2018 of public discussions taking place in informal gatherings of Islamist and jihadi circles in which al Qaeda loyalists have stressed the importance of using Idlib as a staging ground for external operations. Such discussions, I’m told, have never been had in public settings in all eight years of conflict in Syria. That al Qaeda’s hard-liner loyalists feel confident enough to talk this way now should be a source of deep concern. But the solution to such a threat is not Assad’s carpet bombing. If anything, that may worsen the threat and make it even harder to detect. The fact that, on June 30, the United States conducted its first strike against an al Qaeda target in northwestern Syria in over two years—despite a Russian-imposed ban on access to the area’s airspace—underlines the seriousness of the developing terror threat there.

The Islamic State: Remaining, but not expanding—yet

Though the Islamic State has indeed lost its territorial base—once the size of the United Kingdom, stretching contiguously across parts of Syria and Iraq—it has sustained a worryingly high rate of operations in eastern Syria in recent months. Open-source reporting suggests more than 370 attacks have taken place in eastern Syria since March, most attributed to the Islamic State and its sleeper cells.

Though the Trump administration now insists the United States is also remaining in Syria, despite President Donald Trump’s initial announcement of a complete withdrawal last December, it will be doing so with a dwindling force. According to reported plans, U.S. troop levels should stand at approximately 1,000 today and 400 by the fall of 2020. The United Kingdom and France have agreed to marginal troop increases (roughly 10 to 15 percent each), and a number of Balkan and Baltic states have each pledged handfuls of soldiers. That might present a total non-U.S. troop contribution of about 600.

Though that is more than the 400 U.S. troops slated to stay by next fall, it doesn’t appear anywhere near what would be required to help keep the Islamic State at bay; to train the expanding Western-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); to ward off threats from Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey; and to persuade skittish Arab tribes to remain loyal to the Kurdish-led SDF. Worse still, it is hard to imagine such a number will be enough to assuage Trump’s deep skepticism with regards to sustaining the mission. It’s therefore hard to see current U.S. strategy in the Islamic State’s former stronghold east of the Euphrates River as sustainable.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State doesn’t only operate east of the Euphrates. The group retains an even more potent fighting force west of the river, in regime-held territories—an area the regime has actually deprioritized in security terms since launching operations in Idlib two months ago. In fact, shortly before the Idlib offensive was launched, two entire battalions of the Syrian army were freed from a days-long siege by Islamic State militants in the Badiya desert region. The Islamic State had been terrorizing Syrian military and allied militia units throughout the desert for weeks, and after the siege incident, a crisis meeting was reportedly held in the region to discuss the Islamic State threat. Reports indicate they decided not to attack but to try instead to monitor and contain the group—a damning indictment of Assad’s counterterrorism priorities.

Having refused to support Idlib operations, Iran and Hezbollah appear to have expanded their presence in this central desert region. But those Iranian military operations bring with them nonmilitary objectives too, including the propagation of Shiite Islamic teaching, recruitment drives for Shiite militias, and Iranian religious and cultural institutions and charities. In a conservative region of Syria, it’s hard not to see such Iranian activities as a potential opportunity for the Islamic State to counter-recruit.

Fraying reconciliation 

In addition to Idlib, Syria’s opposition used to control three other territorial areas: in Syria’s south and southwest, in Damascus’s Eastern Ghouta region, and in rural Homs. All four areas had been designated as de-escalation zones by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in Astana in mid-2017, in theory to reduce conflict across Syria. In reality though, the de-escalation design was a malign Russian initiative to resolve the Assad regime’s manpower shortages, allowing him to pick off one zone at a time, beginning with Eastern Ghouta between February and April 2018, then in rural Homs between April and May, and finally southern Syria between June and July. All three zones ultimately fell under the auspices of so-called reconciliation agreements, whereby people were offered the opportunity to remain in place, provided they reconcile with and submit to the regime. Reconciled armed groups were merged into structures nominally within the Syrian military but would remain within their local areas and under Russian guardianship.

Ultimately, the return of the regime has brought increased state repression, forced conscription, and reduced services, and, in some cases, it has stranded locals in the middle of rivalries between Russian- and Iranian-backed local security actors. Eastern Ghouta, for example, has become a “black hole,” riddled with security checkpoints, secret Russian-linked prisons, and Iranian militia facilities. More and more reconciled opposition fighters have found themselves deployed to fight their former comrades, including in Idlib, where numerous southern fighters have died in recent weeks. Nobody has truly been reconciled to the central government, only forced into submission.

As a result, instability is rising, particularly in southern Syria, where regime security officials recently declared a state of crisis, according to an insider who spoke to me. Dozens of insurgent attacks have taken place in Daraa in recent months by underground resistance networks and allegedly also by reconciled fighters now classified on paper as regime forces. As but one example, the reconciled former rebel leader in Daraa, Adham Alkarad, threatened on June 23 to support a campaign of “civil disobedience” should the regime continue to send southern reconciled fighters to fight in Idlib. Central Damascus has also witnessed a series of targeted bomb attacks and drive-by shootings, as have areas in the regime-controlled Deir Ezzor governorate. Almost all such attacks bear links to the earliest roots of the anti-regime insurgency of 2011 and 2012, underlining how well established the revolutionary fervor remains, even if now for a smaller minority and with lesser means. Until now, neither the regime nor its Russian or Iranian backers have demonstrated a strategy for dealing with these fledgling signs of armed resistance in areas supposedly reconciled. Left to fester, it is hard to imagine any other scenario than worsening instability.

Foreign occupiers and geopolitical hostilities

 While almost 62 percent of Syria is now under Syrian regime control, 38 percent is not. All of that 38 percent is, to varying degrees, controlled by Syrian actors who themselves are heavily influenced and dependent on foreign governments. In eastern and northeastern Syria, the United States and its anti-Islamic State coalition allies control 28 percent of Syria, while Turkey exerts dominant control over 10 percent of Syrian territory, concentrated in northern Aleppo and northwestern Syria. The involvement of Turkey and the United States has created multiple lines of potential inter-state and sub-state conflict, whether between Kurds and Arabs; the opposition versus the SDF; the U.S. versus Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, and possibly Turkey; and the regime versus everyone else.

In this post-Islamic State phase in which all state actors are seeking to expand, strengthen, or consolidate their holdings inside Syria, new lines are being drawn and the prospects for some of these tensions to be resolved are uncertain at best. Turkey is extremely unlikely to depart the areas where it’s currently present, despite facing a resilient Kurdish insurgency across northern Aleppo and Afrin. Meanwhile, the United States will also be around, at least for the immediate future. Some peace talks (for example, those between the SDF and Damascus) are on pause, while others (like those between the United States and Turkey) are frozen. None has demonstrated meaningful progress.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to view Iran’s presence near its borders as a threat and has launched attacks in Syrian territory as a result. Russia’s delivery of S-300 missile defense systems to Syria, their deployment to the Masyaf Air Base, and their apparent switch to being operational in February do not appear to have deterred Israeli military action, which has continued since. In fact, a series of strikes against as many as a dozen Iran and Hezbollah-linked targets in Homs and Damascus late on June 30 appears to have been Israel’s most significant operation in Syria since May 2018.

The potential for unintended escalation between Israel and Iran is higher amid widespread allegations of Iran attacking shipping tankers, downing U.S. unmanned aircraft, encouraging Iraqi militias to shell U.S.-linked facilities in Iraq, and facilitating complex Houthi attacks on Saudi targets. Should U.S.-Iran tensions and hostilities escalate, Iran may also see U.S. troops in Syria as low-hanging fruit—raising the risk of very deadly consequences.

Economy, sanctions, and reconstruction

Beyond military and security matters, Syria also looks set to suffer the economic consequences of eight years of brutal conflict, in which state-led violence has destroyed the country and much of its critical infrastructure, fractured any semblance of a state and nation, and invited a campaign of international isolation through sanctions. Moreover, much of Syria’s energy resources, and agriculture lie under the control of the SDF and the U.S.-backed coalition, and oil sanctions, international interdictions, and attacks on Syrian underwater pipelines have threatened the shipments of Iranian oil that the Assad regime depends on. Damascus was struck by a paralyzing fuel crisis in April, after a five-month period in which Iran had been unable to ship any oil to Syria.

Regime corruption and mismanagement have arguably been the greatest source of economic discontent. Popular frustration and anger have risen noticeably within loyalist communities in Syria, as so-called postwar life has actually seen personal economic situations worsen, rather than improve. People were willing to forgo certain things amid the intensity of civil conflict, but the reality of life in 2019 appears increasingly unacceptable to the regime’s supporters and acceptors. While that’s unlikely to spark anything close to a second revolution, it poses potentially existential dilemmas to a regime with few resources and a huge list of demands from its support base.

Worse still for Syria’s prospects for stabilization is the scale of the reconstruction challenge, which the World Bank estimated in 2016 would cost $450 billion, provided the conflict ended by 2017, or $780 billion if conflict continued until 2021. If Syria were to equal Afghanistan in receiving the world’s highest level of reconstruction assistance, it would take more than 50 years to rebuild the country, according to an estimate published by Germany’s Qantara website. And that’s assuming no corruption and highly efficient spending—two conditions certain not to be met. Even if perfect conditions were guaranteed, the scale of the challenge is momentous. Take for example the task of rebuilding 2 million residential homes. To do this at a reasonable rate, Syria would need to import 25 million tons of cement and 5 million tons of iron every year for 10 years, which it has neither the money nor infrastructure (roads, ports, transfer facilities) to do. To mix the cement alone would necessitate a gargantuan import of water.

Given the regime’s countless war crimes and atrocities since 2011, and its continued opposition to any international mediation efforts, there is no reason to presume the international community will loosen its economic straitjacket on Syria anytime soon. Total stagnation, widespread destruction, economic crisis, government incompetence, and worsening instability are the sorts of conditions that allow malign actors to thrive—something we should be assuming from the get-go. Whether through criminality, warlordism, local insurgency, or more expansive terrorist action, insecurity and violence are likely to be the primary consequences of the status quo—a situation still largely contingent on decisions made in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran, not Washington.

Policy implications

 The United State and its allies have interests in Syria, whether they want to admit so or not. Neither the territorial defeat of the Islamic State nor the slowdown and evolution of Syria’s civil conflict is a reason to withdraw attention, investment, troops, or diplomatic energies from the country. In fact, the sheer number and scale of threats and challenges emanating from within Syria make it more necessary than ever for the United States and its allies to double down on their commitments. The immediate focus should be on exploiting existing leverage to set conditions for meaningful negotiations. The so-called Geneva process may be effectively dead, but the concept of a negotiated settlement is not, and it should not be given up. Recent meetings between Russia and the United States in Sochi, New York, and Jerusalem have set the scene for a potentially fateful diplomatic process. There is no doubt that Russia wants, and needs, to conclude some form of grand political settlement that has the backing of the United States.

Washington will not give its stamp of approval for free. The Trump administration’s current demands on Syria—especially regarding Iran—are wildly unrealistic, but one assumes they are designed to be starting points to kick off negotiations with Moscow. That strategy is not necessarily unwise, but it will certainly be fruitless unless the United States can offer more specifics about what it would like to accomplish in Syria and what it can contribute to that end. Since Trump’s shock withdrawal announcement in December 2018, U.S. officials have been worryingly hesitant to discuss any details at all about its Syria strategy—for fear of awakening the president’s worryingly simplistic gut instincts.

One thing is clear: If the United States ends up leaving Syria behind in its current state of disorder, the resulting chaos will come back to haunt everyone. And next time, there may not be anything anyone can do about it.

Charles Lister is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Dialogue Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at: @Charles_Lister.

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