As­sad still far from re­gain­ing his state

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad turns from the wreckage of Aleppo to as­sert his au­thor­ity across a frac­tured Syria, it will be as a fig­ure who is vir­tu­ally unas­sail­able by rebels, but still faces great chal­lenges in restor­ing the power of his state. The ex­pected fall of Aleppo would mean rebels have al­most no chance of oust­ing As­sad, but their re­volt has left him in hock to foreign al­lies, re­signed to the loss of swathes of his coun­try for the time be­ing and with tough pock­ets of re­sis­tance still to crush. “Cer­tainly it is not the end of the war ... But when you take Aleppo, you con­trol 90 per­cent of the fer­tile ar­eas of Syria, the re­gions that hold the cities and mar­kets, the pop­u­lated re­gions,” said a se­nior pro-Da­m­as­cus of­fi­cial in the re­gion.

How­ever, the bat­tle­field vic­to­ries that seem - for now - to have se­cured As­sad’s rule have been won in large part not by his own de­pleted mil­i­tary, but by Rus­sian war­planes and a shock force of foreign Shi­ite mili­tias backed by Iran. As­sad will rely on Moscow and Tehran to take back more ter­ri­tory, and to hold and se­cure it, mean­ing he will have to bal­ance his own am­bi­tions with theirs. At the same time, as the in­sur­gents lose ground and as the ji­hadists among them grow more dom­i­nant, con­ven­tional war­fare may give way to an era of guer­rilla attacks and sui­cide bomb­ings within ar­eas held by the govern­ment.

Ag­gra­vat­ing this, the war has taken on sec­tar­ian di­men­sions that will res­onate for gen­er­a­tions; the up­ris­ing iden­ti­fies it­self with the Sunni Mus­lim ma­jor­ity, and the state led by a mi­nor­ity Alaw­ite draws on the backing of Shi­ite Is­lamists. Worst of all, nearly six years of war have killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans, dis­placed around 11 mil­lion, of whom nearly half have fled the coun­try, and laid waste to much of the in­fra­struc­ture needed to res­ur­rect a shat­tered econ­omy.

In re­build­ing, As­sad will also have to con­tend with Western sanc­tions on much of his govern­ment and with iso­la­tion from some of his main pre­vi­ous trad­ing part­ners - the Euro­pean Union, Turkey, Gulf monar­chies and Jor­dan. The Gulf states in par­tic­u­lar may also con­tinue to fund in­sur­gents. “Syria has suf­fered such wounds that there will al­ways be, in my ex­pec­ta­tion, a day of reck­on­ing,” said Niko­laos Van Dam, a for­mer Dutch diplo­mat and au­thor of a book about Syr­ian his­tory and pol­i­tics, speak­ing about the fu­ture of As­sad’s state.

In­dis­pens­able

To his sup­port­ers, As­sad is the one, in­dis­pens­able fig­ure stand­ing be­tween his coun­try and ab­so­lute chaos, the res­o­lute leader of a war against foreign-backed ji­hadists who wish to slaugh­ter mi­nori­ties and launch attacks on other states. With­out him, they say, what re­mains of the Syr­ian armed forces and se­cu­rity ser­vices will crum­ble, ren­der­ing the coun­try a failed state and a danger to the world for decades to come. Con­vinc­ing enough al­lies - in­clud­ing Moscow and Tehran - to see him in that light has been As­sad’s “po­lit­i­cal mas­ter­piece”, said Rolf Holm­boe, re­search fel­low at the Cana­dian Global Af­fairs In­sti­tute and a for­mer Dan­ish am­bas­sador to Syria.

But to his de­trac­tors, As­sad is the man who burned Syria rather than al­low­ing power to slip from his grasp, a dic­ta­tor whose pris­ons are wal­low­ing in the blood of his op­po­nents and whose cities lie ru­ined by the bombs of his mil­i­tary. In As­sad’s swift use of force against pro­test­ers in 2011 and his de­ploy­ment of ar­tillery and air power against Syr­ian towns and cities, crit­ics see his re­liance on the ex­am­ple of his father, Hafez al-As­sad, who ruled from 1970-2000.

Hafez’s crush­ing of an Is­lamist in­sur­gency that be­gan in 1976, cul­mi­nat­ing with the mas­sacre of thou­sands in the city of Hama in 1982, set the tem­plate for his son’s re­sponse to the Arab Spring protests in 2011 and the sub­se­quent war. “They have no other so­lu­tions and that’s it. They im­ple­mented the same man­ual. They took it from the drawer and im­ple­mented it,” said Ay­man Ab­del Nour, a for­mer friend and pro-re­form po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee of As­sad who left Syria in 2007.

For Ab­del Nour, As­sad at war was a far cry from the man he first knew at Da­m­as­cus Univer­sity in the early 1980s, long be­fore the death of an elder brother put him in line to suc­ceed his father as pres­i­dent. “He was like any other per­son: Very hum­ble, very nice, very modest be­cause he was not sup­posed to be pres­i­dent,” he said. As­sad’s early years as pres­i­dent af­ter suc­ceed­ing his father in 2000 raised hopes of po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic re­forms, but they mostly fal­tered, some­thing that was blamed at the time on an old guard of se­cu­rity chiefs.

Raqqa writ­ten off for now

The pres­i­dent and his al­lies have fo­cused their cam­paign on the pop­u­lous, fer­tile, west of his coun­try and few peo­ple ex­pect him to lav­ish lim­ited mil­i­tary re­sources on quickly re­tak­ing the eastern deserts or Euphrates val­ley area from Is­lamic State. The se­nior pro-Da­m­as­cus of­fi­cial said that As­sad had for now writ­ten off Raqqa, which has be­come the de facto Syr­ian cap­i­tal of Is­lamic State, of­ten re­ferred to by the Ara­bic term Daesh, re­gard­ing the ji­hadist group as Wash­ing­ton’s prob­lem to fix. “The regime for­got about Raqqa a long time ago and made it the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Amer­i­cans. Let those alarmed by Daesh go and re­move it,” the of­fi­cial said. Still, As­sad him­self sig­nalled in a De­cem­ber tele­vi­sion in­ter­view that in the end he in­tended to re­store Da­m­as­cus’ sway across the coun­try. —Reuters

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