After years of bloody warfare, it’s time to recognize what the Syrian dictator rules over: a chronically violent and chaotic failed state.
| JULY 11, 2019, 1:43 PM
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 thephrase “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 strikeagainst 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.