Victory - but no joy - in sight for Syria's Assad

Syrian pro-government forces walking in a heavily destroyed Aleppo neighbourhood on Monday. The city, which was once Syria's largest and an industrial hub, is a key battleground in the country's civil war.
Syrian pro-government forces walking in a heavily destroyed Aleppo neighbourhood on Monday. The city, which was once Syria's largest and an industrial hub, is a key battleground in the country's civil war.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The economy is in tatters; he'll face low-level insurgency and is indebted to Russia and Iran

BEIRUT • With the Syrian government making large territorial gains in Aleppo, routing rebel fighters and sending thousands of people fleeing for their lives, President Bashar al-Assad is starting to look as if he may survive the uprising, even in the estimation of some of his staunchest opponents.

Yet, Mr Assad's victory, if he should achieve it, may well be pyrrhic: He would rule over an economic wasteland hampered by a low-level insurgency with no end in sight, diplomats and experts in the Middle East and elsewhere said.

As rebel forces in Aleppo absorbed the harshest blow since they seized more than half the city four years ago, residents reported seeing people cut down in the streets as they searched frantically for shelter.

The assault punctuated months of grinding battle that has destroyed entire neighbourhoods of the city, once Syria's largest and an industrial hub.

If Aleppo falls, the Syrian government would control the country's five largest cities and most of its more populous west.

That would leave the rebels fighting Mr Assad with only the northern province of Idlib and a few isolated pockets of territory in Aleppo and Homs provinces and around the capital, Damascus.

YEARS OF SUFFERING

The Lebanon civil war is a comparison worth looking at... It was long, hot and mean, and it took 15 years to end, and it only ended because the Syrians moved into Lebanon and stopped it.

MR RYAN CROCKER, a veteran diplomat in the Middle East, on how the Syrian civil war could drag on, like the one in Lebanon.

But analysts doubted that would put an end to five years of war that have driven five million Syrians into exile and killed at least a quarter of a million people.

Mr Ryan Crocker, a veteran diplomat in the Middle East, including in Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Iraq, where he served as a United States ambassador, said he believed that the fighting in Syria would go on for years, because once the Assad government has taken the cities, the insurgents would hide in the countryside.

"The Lebanon civil war is a comparison worth looking at," he said. "It was long, hot and mean, and it took 15 years to end, and it only ended because the Syrians moved into Lebanon and stopped it."

He added: "With Syria, we're just five years into it, and there's no Syria to come in and end it."

A little over a year ago, such an outcome was virtually unthinkable. Even if Mr Assad ultimately prevailed, the thinking went, he had crossed so many red lines that he would be too toxic to remain in power.

From using so-called barrel bombs to deploying chemical wea- pons in civilian areas to doing business with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from time to time by buying its oil, Mr Assad had breached so many international norms that it was expected he would be forced out under international pressure, making way for a new government that would have slightly less blood on its hands.

But buttressed by Russian air power, Iranian expertise and recruits that include Iran-trained Iraqi and Afghan militias and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, the Assad government has reversed the tide, steadily regaining ground that it lost earlier in the war.

"The Russian and Iranian intervention has completely changed the dynamic for Assad," said Mr Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

"Look at the fighting in Aleppo," he added. "There are at least as many Lebanese Hizbollah and Iraqi-Iranian militia fighters as there are soldiers born in Syria, so the war of attrition that was going against Assad is no longer doing that because of Iranian manpower."

But the darker side is what kind of country would be left.

"So Assad stays there and the Russians and Iranians prevail, but they govern over a half-dead corpse, and Syria is just this gaping wound that stretches as far as the eye can see," Mr Ford said.

Mr Assad would also be beholden to his two sponsors, Russia and Iran, reviled by many of his own citizens in the Sunni-majority country and rejected by some of the main Sunni powers in the Middle East.

That could mean he would face efforts from Iran to solidify its regional reach by expanding Shi'ite influence in Syria and demanding a role in conquered areas such as Aleppo, perhaps even assigning Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias there, some experts said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Victory - but no joy - in sight for Syria's Assad'. Print Edition | Subscribe