Bashar al-Assad is on a high. He is winning on the ground and his regime is more secure than at any time since the protests of 2011. The enemies of the Syrian government have been falling like dominos and those that don’t want to surrender have been carted off to Idlib province in the north. Damascus and its suburbs have been taken back from the opposition, and whatever their stripe, be they moderate, Islamist or jihadist, they have all fallen. The importance of securing the capital cannot be understated as it means that the opposition can no longer threaten the centre of the government’s power. Assad has gone as far to say that the war will be won within a year, an announcement that he has made previously and got wrong. It is not unusual for leaders to promise imminent victory in wartime, but they are more often wrong than right, and in this instance, the leader is wrong. A more accurate assessment is that he is currently winning the battle against the rebel groups but is yet to actually win back control of Syria.
So why be so negative? Not for a lack of want for the war to end, or because of which side is winning, but because of the situation on the ground and because winning the war is about more than defeating a fractured and fratricidal opposition. The Syrian War stopped being a straight fight between the government and the moderate opposition when the jihadists began to assert their dominance and also became one in which Syria’s neighbours and the international powers took an interest in the outcome. The best example is Turkey, which has invaded the north and taken control of the Kurdish town of Afrin, is opposed to the Assad regime and is able to provide support for the opposition in Idlib should the regime make its predicted move northwards. Turkey is not the only country that has a vested interest in the outcome of what has become an internationalised conflict, a shortened list of which includes Iran, Russia, Israel, Iraq and the United States. While foreign governments wax lyrical about the plight of the Syria people and the need for peace, they have their own ideas about what that peace will look like.
Another problem is the reliance on foreign militias to bolster the Syrian Arab Army, which Syrian’s are reluctant to join, whether because they don’t want to fight for the regime or because they don’t want to find themselves up against Islamist or jihadist fighters. This makes the government dependent on the support of its allies but also promotes sectarianism, bolstering resistance when the people fighting have their families behind them. If the foreign Shiite militias stay there is a risk that the various opposition groups will regroup away from the cities, if they go the government forces will be left undermanned and overstretched. The strategy of the regime has been one of siege and surrender, crushing any opposition, and co-opting willing rebels to join local defence forces, while dragging of malcontents to its notorious prisons. This is a strategy reliant on power and impunity, not one that provides for reconciliation, which is essential in the long run for bringing the war between the government and opposition to an end.
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator