'Assad Must Go' Rhetoric Is Disconnected from Reality
Last Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that “there would be no role” for Bashar al-Assad “to govern the Syrian people,” and that steps are underway to assemble an international coalition to remove him from power.
Five days and one cruise-missile strike later, he remarked in Moscow, “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”
These statements marked an abrupt about-face in more ways than one. Washington had just a week earlier signaled it would accept Assad’s rule over Syria. During his election campaign, President Trump had argued that the United States needed Middle East autocrats to keep order in the Middle East and shouldn’t allow human-rights considerations to influence foreign policy. However, the apparent use of sarin gas by government forces against an opposition-held town on April 4 led to a change of heart—especially given that Syria was supposed to have handed over all of its chemical-weapon stocks for destruction in accordance with an agreement brokered by Russia in 2013.
However, just as surprising was the blithe assertion that a regime that recently won a major military victory and seems to be reconsolidating its power would somehow be easily subject to Washington’s changing whims. Was the Syrian dictator truly just a few steps away from being removed from power? Did the new administration have some subtle grasp of Middle East politics, some secret diplomatic weapon that could swiftly accomplish what six years of anti-Assad policy under Obama could not?
Of course not. These remarks are at best bluster. At worst, they reflect the mistaken belief that the administration’s self-professed deal-making ability and warm regard for Putin (at least formerly!) will somehow persuade Moscow to abandon a foreign-policy project it is deeply committed to.
Assad Is Winning the Syrian Civil War
Since the Russian intervention began in September 2015, Assad’s forces have slowly, though not steadily, gained ground. Government troops suffered setbacks when faced with a rebel counterattack in Aleppo the summer of 2016 and an ISIS counteroffensive in Palmyra. However, the recent fall of the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo marked a decisive victory for the regime. Assad’s troops have also consolidated their supply lines, leaving fewer isolated outposts ripe for plucking than there were a few years back.
Pointing out the facts on the ground is no excuse for Assad’s murderous acts. His forces, and those of his allies, have relied on indiscriminate use of heavy artillery and aerial bombardment directed as much on the civilian population as enemy fighters. However, this does not change the reality that he has bludgeoned most of the major cities in Syria back under his control.
Assad’s waning fortunes may be less immediately apparent because his forces are in poor shape after six years of constant fighting, with the Syrian Arab Army reduced to a skeleton of its former strength. He now heavily relies on a motley patchwork of National Defense Forces (pro-government militias), Hezbollah fighters, private armies financed by business associates, Iraqi Shia volunteers, and Iranian and Russian troops. Were the fighting to magically end tomorrow, the Syrian state would struggle to govern the battered remnants of the nation and rebuild national unity. Assad is prevailing because his opponents are either faltering or preoccupied with other adversaries.
The War against ISIS Has Covered Assad’s Flanks
ISIS controls much of eastern Syria, although a lot of that territory is made of up of sparsely populated desert. Nonetheless, ISIS forces centered around their de-facto capital in Raqqa pose yet another threat to the Assad regime. In the last year of fighting, a fractious coalition of Turkish troops, Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces benefiting from heavy U.S. air support has managed to drive ISIS away from the Turkish border. Kurdish and allied Arab forces are now moving into position to surround and besieged Raqqa, although it may be a while before those forces are strong enough to capture the city.
U.S. pressure on ISIS has allowed Assad and his Russian fire support to concentrate their efforts against the other rebel factions, all the while boasting that they are taking on ISIS. In the world sketched out by the propagandists in Damascus and Moscow, all of the Syrian rebels might as well belong to ISIS, and criticism of the Syrian regime is equated with support for terrorism.
The Moderate Opposition Is in Bad Shape and Becoming Less and Less Moderate
The non-ISIS opposition in Syria has suffered several major defeats. The rebels in Aleppo have fallen back into a large pocket centered on Idlib Province, which remains under constant government bombardment. In December 2015, the last defenders of the rebel stronghold in Homs were also allowed to withdraw under a truce. Besides Idlib, there remain significant pockets of opposition-held territory north of Homs, the southern border and along Ghouta Road in eastern Damascus.