Syria’s Assad struggles to reap spoils after military gains

“We must not wrongly think, as happened in the last year, that the war is over. I say this not just to citizens but also to officials,” Assad told supporters in February.
Friday 15/03/2019
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with heads of local councils, in Damascus, Syria, February 17. (Reuters)
Facing four wars. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a meeting with heads of local councils, in Damascus, Syria, February 17. (Reuters)

Eight years since Syria began its descent into war, many of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s enemies have been defeated and the bulk of the country is back under his control. He isn’t celebrating, however.

“We must not wrongly think, as happened in the last year, that the war is over. I say this not just to citizens but also to officials,” Assad told supporters in February.

“We have this romantic view sometimes that we are victorious. No. The war is not over.”

He said there was more fighting to be done before turning to his main point, the “siege” imposed by foreign states. “The siege is a battle in itself,” he said. “It is intensifying compared to previous years.”

The comments reflect an uncomfortable winter in Damascus, the eighth since the conflict began after protests on March 15, 2011. It is nearly a year since any mortar bomb hit Damascus but Syrians in government-held areas have been complaining of severe fuel shortages blamed by the government on Western sanctions.

Queues for state-subsidised bottles of cooking gas have pointed to wider economic difficulties the Syrian government faces despite military victories won with help from Iran and Russia.

While those allies supplied critical firepower, they have offered little in the way of aid to rebuild cities devastated by a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.

The West will not help before a political settlement is reached but Assad is in no mood to make concessions, having beaten his enemies into a corner of north-western Syria, which is in the sights of government forces.

Assad took back large areas in 2018, including Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in Russian-backed advances, but there have been no significant gains since the recovery of Quneitra at the boundary with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in July. The presence of hostile foreign powers on Syrian soil — Turkey in the north-west and the United States in the north-east and east — has obstructed further advances.

US President Donald Trump’s decision in December to withdraw all US forces raised the possibility of Damascus recovering the Kurdish-led region where those forces are deployed but that prospect has faded with some US troops now expected to stay.

Though it looked like some of his Arab foes were ready to break the diplomatic ice with Assad a few months ago, US pressure put the brakes on further rapprochement. Momentum to get Syria back into the Arab League has ebbed.

“I agree with Assad — the war is not over. The regime is not in any imminent danger of falling but the challenges are immense, politically, economically,” said David Lesch, author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.”

On its current course, he said Syria may become like crisis-hit Sudan, where the state exercises limited control and autonomous regions are beyond its grip.

“The question is: Does Bashar Assad — and the people around him — realise this is their future?” he said.

In his speech, Assad said Syria faced four wars: the military conflict, economic “siege,” a struggle against corruption and what he described as a battle on social media in which he said Syria’s enemies waged a propaganda campaign.

Addressing shortages of gas and other supplies, he acknowledged “the choking crisis” of late and likened economic sanctions to a war in which battles were lost and won.

“Mostly we succeed but sometimes we stumble because there are new methods by the hostile states,” he said.

The United States said its sanctions aim to isolate Syria’s leadership and its supporters from the global financial and trade systems in response to atrocities, including use of chemical weapons. The government denies using such weapons.

The United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria said government forces had perpetrated 32 of 37 chemical attacks, including the use of chlorine and sarin, it had reported during the war.

In November, Washington warned of significant risks for parties involved in petroleum shipments to Syria and published a list of vessels that had delivered oil to the country since 2016. It warned against “deceptive shipping practices.”

US sanctions would be tightened further with the enacting of the Caesar Act, which is being considered in the US Congress.

It is named after a Syrian defector who smuggled out tens of thousands of photos taken between May 2011 and August 2013 which, Human Rights Watch said, show at least 6,786 individuals who died in government custody.

Assad previously dismissed the photos as “allegations without evidence” and as part of a Qatar-funded plot against his government.

The European Union has widened its Syria-targeted sanctions, adding 11 businessmen and five companies involved in luxury real estate development and other government-backed projects in January.

The Syrian government is no stranger to pariah status: Damascus has been proscribed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States since 1979. Iran’s deepening role in Syria complicates any prospect of Washington normalising ties.

For the United Arab Emirates, a US-allied Arab state that once backed rebels, countering Iranian influence was reason enough to reopen its Damascus embassy in December — a huge political boost to Assad.

However, others, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, share US opposition to such moves.

“Ultimately, Damascus thinks it won the war after the fall of Eastern Ghouta, so after the military victory they need a political victory, which would include foreign recognition,” a diplomat who follows Syria said, “but Saudi Arabia definitely will not open its embassy, Qatar will not, major Western powers won’t.

“The big challenge is the economy. They have to say ‘We’re on our way to reconstruction’ but there is no money coming in.”

The United Nations was seeking aid for war victims in Syria and refugees in the region at an annual donor conference but the United States and the European Union say they cannot provide assistance for reconstruction unless there is a political transition in Syria. The Russian military has provided some help with reconstruction projects but lobbying by Moscow has failed to persuade the international community to pay for long-term reconstruction.