Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of retaking Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. But that will not end the chaos he has wrought at home and abroad
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of a hollow victory. He has displaced half the population. Eight years of civil war have destroyed the economy and cost 500,000 lives. Assad has nothing good to offer his people. His country will be wretched and divided. The consequences will be felt far beyond its borders.
The precise moment of Assad’s triumph will be determined in Idlib, in Syria’s northwest. About three million people live there, many of whom fled fighting elsewhere. The area is held by the hardest-core rebels, al-Qa’ida-linked jihadists who won’t go quietly.
That, too, is a legacy of Assad’s ruthlessness. He released hundreds of jihadists from prison in 2011, hoping they would taint the once-peaceful uprising. Now the regime is bombing them, along with civilians and hospitals. The offensive will take time — and it will be bloody.
When the fighting stops, the tensions that originally threatened the regime will remain — but they will be worse than ever. Start with religion. Assad’s father, Hafez, a member of the Alawite minority, clung to power partly by holding the line between the country’s faiths.
His son, though, painted his Sunni opponents as fundamentalists as a way of rallying Christians, Druze and secular-minded Syrians to his side. Millions of Sunnis have fled the country, but millions remain, their homes looted, property confiscated and districts overrun by Assad supporters. Resentful, fearful and oppressed, they will be a source of opposition to the regime.
Next are Syrians’ grievances. In 2011, corruption, poverty and social inequality united the uprising. Things have only got worse. Syria’s GDP is one-third of what it was before the war. More than eight in 10 people are poor. Much of the country lies in ruins. But the government’s plans to rebuild Syria risk tearing it further apart.
Reconstruction will cost between $US250bn and $US400bn ($367bn-$587bn), but Assad has neither the money nor the manpower to carry it out. So he has focused resources on areas that remained loyal. The Sunni slums that did not are being demolished and redeveloped for his bourgeois supporters. The nation’s class and religious faultlines grow wider.
Then there is Assad’s cruelty. Hafez kept Syria in check with a brutal secret police and occasional campaigns of murderous violence. His son, in danger of losing power, has tortured and killed at least 14,000 people in the regime’s sprawling network of clandestine prisons. Even as the war nears its end, the pace of executions is increasing.
Almost every Syrian has lost someone close to them in the war. Psychologists speak ominously of a breakdown in society.
Last is Assad’s debt to Iran and Russia. He owes his victory to their supply of firepower, advice and money, and their willingness to back a pariah. They will expect to be paid, with interest.
For Syrians, therefore, Assad’s victory is a catastrophe. But his opponents are exhausted so, in spite of his weaknesses, he could cling to power for years. For as long as he is in charge, Syria’s misery will spread across the region.
The war has already drawn in a handful of outside powers, but the chaos could grow. Iran treats Syria as a second front against Israel to complement Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon. Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes on Iranian positions during the war. Turkey, which has troops in the north, is threatening to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces, who it considers terrorists, near its border. That could lead to a face-off with the US, which supports the Kurds and had been trying to calm the Turks.
Refugees will destabilise Syria’s neighbours, too. Those who have fled Assad do not want to go home — indeed, their numbers will grow because of the offensive in Idlib. The longer they stay in camps, the greater the danger that they become a permanent, festering diaspora.
And that could spill over into the wider world. Dispossessed at home and unwanted abroad, refugees are at risk of radicalisation. Assad’s ruthless tactics have left large parts of his population bitter and alienated. What better breeding ground for al-Qa’ida and Islamic State, which the US says is already “resurging in Syria”?
Having failed to act in the war’s early days, when they might have pushed the dictator out, Western countries can do little now to change Syria’s course. Some European leaders think it is time to engage with Assad, participate in reconstruction and send the refugees home.
This is misguided. The refugees will not return willingly. Reconstruction will only benefit the regime and the warlords and foreigners who backed it. Better to let Russia and Iran pay.
Instead, the West should try to spare Syria’s suffering by offering strictly humanitarian assistance and threatening retribution for heinous acts, such as the use of chemical weapons. The US should stay to keep ISIS and al-Qa’ida in check. But for as long as Assad is allowed to misrule Syria, most aid money would be better spent helping its neighbours. Syrians have suffered terribly. With Assad’s victory, their misery will go on.