Many observers might concur with the solemn declaration by former United States ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, last week that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has won and that he is staying in power, and that he may never be held accountable for crimes committed by his regime during the past seven years. While this conclusion is based on a close reading of the political and military developments of the past nine months, particularly the retaking of Aleppo after a brutal siege and bombardment in December, those celebrating Al Assad’s victory might want to pause and look ahead.
It is true that Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 was a major game changer; one that was met with deliberate recoil from the country’s civil war by the administration of former US president Barack Obama. A regime that was losing control over most of northern, eastern and southern Syria, was able to regroup and refocus its efforts — thanks to an overwhelming Russian air power and crucial intelligence capabilities. In addition, Iranian-backed militias, both homegrown and foreign, became the spearhead of the Al Assad regime’s military power.
While the US-led coalition concentrated its air strikes on Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) positions, Russian and Syrian government forces were focused on dislodging rebel enclaves in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib, the Damascus countryside and Darra. The US restricted its military support to Syrian Kurdish fighters, the SDF/YPG, and by the time US President Donald Trump took office, the CIA’s training and support programme for so-called moderate groups had come to a halt.
The sobering reality is that anti-Al Assad regional players, including Qatar and Turkey, were backing radical groups that had no interest in embracing the political opposition’s goals of building a free, secular and democratic Syria. The lofty objectives of the Syrian uprising had long been toppled; replaced by a common platform by militant groups to create an Islamic state in Syria.
With Moscow now the main power-broker in Syria, the political strategy it followed was simple and straightforward: To discredit a divided and ineffective political opposition in exile, while giving the world a stark choice between a secular regime, under Al Assad for now, or a fragmented Syria ruled by rival jihadist groups.
All other players, including Turkey and Iran, the US, Israel and Europe, had to concede that Russia held all the winning cards when it came to the future of Syria. With the regime making important breakthroughs on the ground, the question of AAl ssad’s fate quickly became sidelined; leaving the political opposition in disarray.
The de-escalation zones, backed by Russia, the US, Turkey and Iran—each for its own reasons—became the only realistic vehicle to putting an end to the fighting. Extremist groups were allowed to evacuate to Idlib while Daesh was now surrounded in Raqqa and Deir Al Zour. The Syrian government army was gaining ground in eastern Syria and extending its control to most of the country’s borders with Iraq.
In the south a trilateral — US, Russian and Jordanian — agreement to enforce a truce and allow the Syrian regime to take control of the borders with Jordan was still holding, paving the way for further implementation in other parts of the country.
What the world should admit is that Russia’s decisive intervention in Syria has almost certainly prevented the fragmentation of the country and the geopolitical chaos that it would have led to. After seven years of war resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions displaced and an unimaginable level of destruction, the Syrian crisis has reached a crucial point: The future of Syria as a country.
Still it would be naive to believe that the regime’s apparent victory will translate into going back to the political realities that preceded the March 2011 uprising. Even Moscow believes that the status quo ante is untenable anymore. The future of Al Assad will have to be decided by the Syrian people, following a transitional phase that should lead to the adoption of a new constitution that enshrines democratic principles. Al Assad will be persuaded to adopt such a process that may extend for years.
But there are hard questions that the world cannot ignore. What about all the evidence of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity that the regime and Al Assad have allegedly committed? Certainly, a political process that does not take these issues into consideration will be doomed to fail. In fact, international law itself will be compromised if the allegations of mass killings, torture, use of chemical weapons, summary justice, rape, ethnic and religious cleansing, among others, are not confronted at some stage.
Russia, which backs a political process and will have tremendous influence over its outcome, now shares moral responsibility in delivering justice to the Syrian people. So while those celebrating the potential triumph of the regime have good reasons to do so, they should take into consideration that the future of Syria will hardly resemble its past.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.