Syria: When a ‘victory’ isn’t one, what are the costs?

Syria: When a ‘victory’ isn’t one, what are the costs?

Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets/AP

Syrian Civil Defense workers known as the White Helmets extinguish burning oil tanker trucks after a suspected missile strike near the border with Turkey, in western Aleppo province, Syria, March 6, 2021. Opposition groups and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed Russia for the attack.

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March 10, 2021

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In securing what pro-regime media are calling “victory” in Syria’s brutal 10-year war, President Bashar al-Assad made no compromise with internal opponents calling for more inclusive, democratic rule. Instead, to avoid defeat, he churned out a death toll of several hundred thousand Syrian citizens and turned whole cities to rubble.

“Victory for Assad was first and foremost survival,” says Syria expert Julien Barnes-Dacey. “From the outset, Assad and his supporters made clear it was, ‘Assad or the country burns,’ and he delivered.”

Why We Wrote This

If there’s a lesson from Syria’s 10-year war, it might be: Winning at all costs can exact a terrible price. The burden of Assad’s victory falls on the regime and other forces, but on the people most of all.

Today, there is little sense of victory. That has consequences not only for Mr. Assad and the Syrian people, but for the outside forces still deployed across the Syrian landscape. “The regime is starting to feel that burden of the win: You have survived, but you control almost nothing,” says Abdulrahman al-Masri at the Atlantic Council.

“The government lost 80% of [its] natural resources, and they’re going to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future,” says Dareen Khalifa, analyst for the International Crisis Group. She offers a telling detail on how the regime is now “losing the economic war.” Teachers and technocrats are leaving government positions for better salaries in territory occupied by U.S.-backed Kurds.

LONDON

“Victory” is the word used by Syria’s pro-regime media to mark President Bashar al-Assad’s survival of the most brutal war of the 21st century, which on March 11 will have blazed for a decade.

President Assad made no compromise with internal opponents calling for more inclusive, democratic rule, nor with the Islamic State jihadis who tried and failed to turn Syria into their caliphate.

Instead, Mr. Assad avoided defeat by using chemical weapons, systematic torture, and no-holds-barred tactics that turned whole cities to rubble and left several hundred thousand Syrians dead.

Why We Wrote This

If there’s a lesson from Syria’s 10-year war, it might be: Winning at all costs can exact a terrible price. The burden of Assad’s victory falls on the regime and other forces, but on the people most of all.

But his victory is pyrrhic, analysts say.

“Victory for Assad was first and foremost survival,” says Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Syria expert and director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

“From the outset, Assad and his supporters made clear it was, ‘Assad or the country burns,’ and he delivered on that in his fight against the opposition,” Mr. Barnes-Dacey says.

“So he is now king of a devastated country whose outlook is one of utter despair and intensifying collapse,” he says. “If the price to be paid for survival is ongoing implosion, I think the regime is perfectly prepared to pay that price.”


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Yet the continued cost to his people is incalculable.

Children have frozen to death in refugee camps, among more than half the prewar population displaced from their homes. Foreign forces or their proxies occupy large chunks of territory and control the bulk of Syria’s resources.

Chronic food scarcity stalks 60% of Syrians and is still soaring – along with food prices – as the economy collapses, according to the United Nations.

And fear of Mr. Assad’s rule is as pervasive as ever, with no end in sight.

Survey of young Syrians

The scale of the damage to Syria’s social fabric is clear in a survey of 1,400 young Syrians – 800 of them inside the country – released Wednesday by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

It found a generation scarred. In Syria, nearly half of young people knew a close relative or friend killed in the conflict.

“This has been a decade of savage loss for all Syrians,” marked by the “loss of loved ones, loss of opportunities, and loss of control over their future,” said ICRC director Robert Mardini.

Indeed, even as the war grinds into a stalemate on the battlefield – with comparatively little fighting in the last year – food scarcity “has never been worse,” according to the U.N.’s World Food Program. It reports a record 12.4 million Syrians are “food insecure,” with severe cases doubling in the past year alone.

Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters/File

Tents of internally displaced Syrians in the Northern Aleppo countryside, Dec. 19, 2020.

Despite the regime claims of victory there is little sense of one. 

“Internally, the regime is starting to feel that burden of the win: You have survived, but you control almost nothing,” says Abdulrahman al-Masri, a Syria analyst with the Atlantic Council.

“The future is definitely dim for all Syrians, for Assad, for all those actors on the opposition side. There are no hopeful prospects for anything moving forward.”

That has consequences not only for Mr. Assad and the Syrian people, but for the outside forces still deployed across the Syrian landscape, some of whom are assessing the costs of their own engagements.

A country divided

Pro-government forces have advanced to the limits of territory regained in the fighting. 

One quarter of the country, to the northeast, is controlled by the American-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which for years played a crucial role in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).

This is the breadbasket of Syria, and home to its oil resources, now under ethnic Kurdish administration, supported by a residual force of several hundred U.S. troops.

In the northwest, some 12,000 Turkish troops are in the country, to protect the Idlib enclave and a border buffer zone, as well as prevent the creation of an ethnic Kurdish statelet that might help Turkey’s own Kurdish militants wage their war against Ankara.

Adding to the weakness of “victory” for Damascus is a resurgence of ISIS jihadists, whose guerrilla tactics on Syrian government forces – still backed by Russia and Iran – have surged in the past year. Multiple ISIS attacks in the central desert in February, for example, killed more than 50 pro-regime soldiers.

“Today if you look at the military landscape in Syria, the government lost 80% of the natural resources and they’re going to remain out of reach for the foreseeable future,” says Dareen Khalifa, the senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“Everyone might get dragged into mission creep. Trump tried to pull out of Syria three times and couldn’t,” she says. “And that’s not because it was Trump, but because it’s really, really difficult.

“There was never a viable exit strategy in place,” Ms. Khalifa says. “The whole rationale behind the war against ISIS was based on defying the local demography and geopolitics around it, and supporting a minority group [the Kurds] that is de facto at war with a neighboring country [Turkey]. It makes it really hard for the Americans to pull out without a catastrophe happening there again.”

“The economic war”

Compounding Mr. Assad’s loss of territory and resources are tightening sanctions, which mean the regime is also “losing the economic war,” she says. Even teachers and technocrats are leaving their government positions for better salaries in the SDF zone.

“They have American protection, they’re sitting on oil, so it’s a better deal,” says Ms. Khalifa.

That result also highlights the growing challenge of providing even basic services, much less food. Syrians increasingly rely on government-subsidized bread, as supplies dwindle and their currency collapses.

Even Russia has started interactions with the Kurdish leadership, and recently began recruiting local militiamen in Kurdish areas under regime control, “though nothing major will happen until the Americans are clearly on their way out,” says Mr. Masri.

Russia wields influence as a broker of cease-fires across multiple frontlines, he says, “but they are really in a trap. They have to manage this constantly and give deep attention to it until actually it can sustain itself.”

SANA/Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, plant trees in the city of Draykish, near Tartous, Syria, Dec. 30, 2020. Despite regime claims of victory there is little sense of one.

Along the way, Mr. Assad has shown there are no limits to regime savagery.

The U.N.’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria last week released findings based on a “staggering” wealth of evidence – and 2,500 interviews conducted over 10 years – that the fate of tens of thousands of detained and imprisoned civilians remains unclear, and that thousands more have been subject to “unimaginable suffering” of torture, sexual violence, and death in captivity.

Haunting photographs

There could be no more graphic display than the tens of thousands of photographs smuggled out of Syria in 2013 by a military defector known as “Caesar,” whose job for the regime had been to document deaths in custody. Most of the 6,786 separate victims identified in the images by Human Rights Watch were emaciated and showed horrific signs of torture.

The images still haunt Syrians, according to one man standing in a bread line in the Damascus countryside, who is quoted in detailed research for the Newlines Institute for Strategy & Policy in Washington.

“The moment I start thinking [about revolting], the images of Caesar appear before me,” the man says, according to writers Elizabeth Tsurkov and a Syrian analyst. “It’s as if each photo is etched in my memory, how frail their bodies looked, where they were wounded. I imagine what would happen if I screamed, cursed the regime, and revolted.”

That is one result, after 10 years of a war in which the U.N.’s last estimated death toll was 400,000 – way back in 2016.

“Perceptions about the extent of regime brutality are so well entrenched now in society that even if the economic and security situation deteriorate rapidly, I think people are just too drained to try to mobilize against the regime,” says Ms. Khalifa of ICG. “They now know where the balance of power lies.”

And that power does not lie with Syria’s embattled citizens, the U.N., or any outside actor.

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“Assad’s strategy was, at its very essence, one of coercively imposing of his rule on the country, much of which rejected him,” says Mr. Barnes-Dacey of ECFR, who before the war lived in Syria for more than three years.

“We continue to see that calculation given that the regime won’t cede an inch on any kind of reform, which I think reflects a belief that, once they open the door an inch, everything will give way.”

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