Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

Al Assad's Syria is beholden to outsiders

Even if the Syrian president regains full control of the nation, he cannot run the nation without foreign meddling

A member of the Syrian civil defence team, known as the White Helmets, carries the body of one of several children, killed in an air strike in Idlib. AFP
A member of the Syrian civil defence team, known as the White Helmets, carries the body of one of several children, killed in an air strike in Idlib. AFP

This March will mark the ninth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, and still not a week goes by without news of tragedy in the conflict-ridden country. A few years ago, the Syrian regime was losing the war it had started against its own people for speaking up against decades of injustice. Today, the government in Damascus controls 70 per cent of all Syria. An ongoing assault on Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold, has brought Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad, closer than ever before to reasserting his totalitarian rule. But at what cost?

On Sunday, regime shelling killed 14 civilians in Idlib, including a nine-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother. Their family had been planning to flee the province the next day. “This is a disaster” their weeping father told The National. In truth, disasters have become a fact of life in Idlib, where 388,000 people have fled increased violence since December – more than 150,000 in January alone – according to the UN. These silent victims have been forgotten by the world, but talented Syrians such as filmmaker Waad Al Kateab, whose film For Sama won Best Documentary at the prestigious Baftas, are working hard to make their voices heard. In her acceptance speech Al Kateab said she would like to dedicate her prize “to the great Syrian people who are still suffering today.”

Idlib’s tragedies underline the regime’s cruelty, but also its dependence on foreign intervention to survive. There is a significant international presence in Syria, much of which is aimed at supporting Mr Al Assad and re-consolidating his grip on power. Russian war planes, for example, have been giving Mr Al Assad significant air support since 2015. Paired with Iranian training and boots on the ground, these additional resources have effectively reversed the regime’s territorial losses. Lebanon’s Hezbollah – a political party and militia that serves as a regional proxy for Iran – has also aided Mr Al Assad in his quest for control. It has besieged whole cities on the pretext of protecting Shia shrines. Iran’s Iraq-based proxies, as well as Afghan mercenaries – many of whom are drawn from refugee camps and slums in Iran – have also been in the fray. This leaves Mr Al Assad dependent on – and deeply indebted to – two countries and several foreign non-state actors for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Syria is facing a difficult test along its northern border with Turkey. Last October, Ankara launched an all-out assault to secure a “safe zone” free of Syrian Kurdish militants, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists. Not only has this encroachment on Syrian territory caused increased fighting in a region previously considered to be relatively stable, it has also marked the first time in this conflict that Syria is engaged in direct warfare against one of its immediate neighbours. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday that his forces killed up to 35 Syrian soldiers in retaliation for an incident in which four Turkish soldiers were killed by the Syrian army.

Syria is a beleaguered nation, and now a permanent hostage to foreign powers

There are other challenges to Damascus’s power that do not involve weapons and war planes. Since November, an economic crisis has hit Lebanon with effects rippling over the Syrian border, as the Syrian pound has lost half of its value against the dollar on the black market. Deteriorating living standards and a failing economy have also sparked demonstrations in Syria’s Druze heartland of Suweida last month.

Mr Al Assad’s attempt to reassert his control across Syria may be successful, but it will prove to be a pyrrhic victory. Syria is a beleaguered nation, and now a permanent hostage to foreign powers. When this war ends – and it is difficult to say when that might occur – there will be considerable effort to rebuild Syria’s infrastructure and its markets. But whether it can rebuild its sovereignty is a different question altogether.

Updated: February 3, 2020 09:10 PM

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