Dismay for Syrian rebels as Assad set for victory

Opposition feels 'abandoned' by international community after US pullout, Arab overtures

BEIRUT • Almost eight years into Syria's devastating war, opponents of the regime are watching in dismay as President Bashar al-Assad's government looks set to secure its comeback at home and abroad.

Holed up in the last major rebel stronghold or unable to return home after fleeing abroad, they are frustrated at being abandoned by the international community.

"Today, I'm looking for a homeland," activist Shady Matar said from exile in neighbouring Turkey.

"I can't go home while the regime is still in power," said the 27-year-old, whose hometown of Daraya near Damascus was retaken by the government in 2016.

"Most countries whose governments say they support the Syrian people have closed their borders" to them, he said.

Sparked by the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests in 2011, the conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad.

Sparked by the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests in 2011, the conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad.

But fighting has failed to topple Mr Assad. Endless diplomatic efforts have been unable to reach a peaceful transition and the regime now appears stronger than ever.

With backing from Russia and Iran, the government has expelled rebels and extremists from large parts of Syria, and now controls almost two-thirds of the country.


The government also looks set to increase its influence in large swathes of territory under Kurdish-led control after the shock announcement last month of a US military pullout.

On the diplomatic front, efforts seem under way to bring the Damascus regime back into the Arab fold after years of frosty relations.

The Arab League suspended Syria's membership in November 2011 as the death toll mounted and several regional powers bet on the demise of the Assad regime.

But Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir last month made the first visit by an Arab leader to Damascus since the start of the conflict.

Last week, the United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy in the Syrian capital, and Bahrain followed suit.

Mr Bilal Bayush, an activist in the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib, said he was not surprised.

"Their interests with the opposition have ended, and they now have interests with the Assad regime," he said.

The opposition's chief negotiator Nasr al-Hariri was outraged.

"While our people are dying of cold in refugee camps, drowning in cold winter rain, some of our Arab brothers are racing to open up to the criminal who is responsible," he said last week on Twitter.

"Yes, Bashar the criminal may win, he may triumph in the face of the colluding international community," he wrote. "But he has not and will not defeat the will of the free Syrian people."

He said a solution in Syria required "a real political transition and holding the criminals to account".

Endless rounds of United Nations-brokered peace talks have failed to stem the bloodshed.

The armed opposition is faring no better on the ground.

In Idlib, rebels and Islamists have been hemmed in by a buffer zone under a September deal between Russia and Turkey to avert a massive regime offensive there.

It was the latest agreement to be reached under the Russia-Iran-Turkey negotiations track.

Analyst Nawar Oliver said the opposition - both political and armed - was in dire straits. He added: "The military opposition has no choice except to follow what is decided on an international level."

Mr Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the National Liberation Front rebel group in Idlib, said the international community has abandoned the Syrian opposition.

"The revolution has been orphaned."

But in the town of Azaz, lawyer and activist Muthana Nasser was determined that years of death and destruction would not go to waste.

"The sacrifices and suffering of Syrians will not be in vain," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2019, with the headline 'Dismay for Syrian rebels as Assad set for victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe