A Bloody Endgame in Syria
By Nayyer Ali MD
The anguish of Syria has persisted for over five years of a brutal and bloody civil war. A war that has been complicated by many different parties, among the Syrians and among outsiders, all jockeying for advantage.
For several years it looked like a slow but steady decline for Bashar Assad’s government, as it was literally running out of troops to fight with. The Assad regime is narrowly based among the minority Alawite community in Syria, and most Sunnis sided with the rebels. As such, the Syrian Army dwindled in size and effectiveness, essentially giving up control of much of the nation but holding on to the key region stretching north from Damascus and then west to coastal Alawite region. This strategy preserved the regime’s control over the bulk of the population, though ceding control of most of the land.
The Syrian rebels always remained a fractured bunch of militias, which limited their ability to confront the Syrian Army. In the east of the country, ISIS seized control of Raqaa and much of the land stretching to Iraq and the Sunni regions of northeastern Iraq. The Kurds gradually seized most of the land along the Syrian-Turkish border, but have not directly fought the Assad regime, aiming most of their efforts against ISIS.
The main Syrian rebel groups concentrated on northern Syria, particularly the province of Idlib, and the hugely important city of Aleppo, which was Syria’s economic heart before the civil war. The rebels were able to quickly grab about half of Aleppo, but Assad was able to hold the other half. An Al-Qaeda associated faction known as JN also was active in the Idlib region during the last five years.
For the rebels, the strategy was to gain the support of outside powers, perhaps even American airstrikes, and gradually wear down Assad’s outnumbered forces till they were defeated. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have been the main suppliers of weapons to these groups.
By 2014, it looked like this strategy might be working. The Assad regime was suffering losses, and the rebels were pushing forward. But then outside forces intervened to save Assad, namely Iran and Hezbollah. Both sent combat forces to Syria, and bolstered the depleted Syrian army. But even that was not enough to turn the tide of the war. In September 2015 the decisive event occurred, when Putin deployed Russian warplanes to Syria to provide critical air support to the ground forces. Since that time, the rebels have been in retreat.
Now the critical rebel bastion in Aleppo is in jeopardy. Over 60% of the rebel-held portion of the city has been retaken by Assad, and the rebels are surrounded and low on supplies. It appears to be a matter of time before Assad retakes Aleppo entirely. With that victory he will be able to redeploy the units involved to take on the rebels in Idlib, which would mean the total defeat of the rebels and an end to the civil war.
At this point what should outsiders do? For the US to dramatically increase military supplies to the remaining rebels would not accomplish anything permanent but just make the fighting go on longer. Negotiating a political end to the conflict is the best course, but it will have to be on Assad’s terms, as he is winning on the battlefield. This will mean that Assad stays in power. The best that can be gained is an amnesty for the rebels, and safe passage out of the war zones.
ISIS will still need to be defeated but that is just a matter of time. ISIS is almost finished in Iraq, and the same will be the case in Syria.
For the people of Syria, this war has been a total calamity. Several hundred thousand are dead, and 10 million or so displaced. Three million are refugees outside of Syria, mostly in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. All of these people will need assistance to return home and rebuild their shattered towns and villages. Schools, roads, hospitals, and farms will need to be put back into working order. Billions will be needed to fund reconstruction and neither the Gulf Arabs or the West will want to foot that bill. Will Iran and Russia pay for that? Low oil prices argue against that.
Assad’s victory will be a bitter pill for the Sunnis of Syria to accept. Will they in fact be willing to submit to that regime and its secret police as if it was 2010 again? Will Assad be able to reunify Syria under a strong central government, or will he have to accept a federal state with more local control? The Kurds in the north, like the Kurds in Iraq, will be in a position to defy Assad.
Should Obama have done more in the last five years to help the rebels? He was extraordinarily cautious, even when his own CIA and State Department were recommending an ambitious program of arming the rebels. Obama correctly judged that there was no reliable partner for the US in this fight. The Syrian rebels were too fractured and localized, and too easily coopted by more radical elements, to be relied on to create a post-Assad Syria that would be a good outcome. The chaos that has engulfed Libya since the ouster of Gaddafi has been a cautionary tale for Obama. Once Russia sent in its planes on the side of Assad that made things even more complex. Who rules in Damascus is of some concern to the US, but it has never been a major foreign policy concern. On the other hand, for Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, keeping Assad in power was extremely vital. This disparity of importance limited how much Obama was willing to challenge Russia over Assad. Given that Russia has a massive nuclear arsenal, getting into a war with Russia over Syria, or just having planes shot down by one side or the other, was simply too risky to contemplate.
The Assad victory that is unfolding is a sad coda to all the hopes of the Arab Spring as it unfolded in March of 2011. Back then it seemed that that Arab world was rising out of its state of ossification, and young people were going to lead its countries into building functioning societies with human rights and democracy. In the end, this really happened only where it started: in Tunisia. Elsewhere, the dream has become a nightmare.