How Assad Defied the Odds, Won in Syria and Pushed the U.S. Out

Eight years into Syria's Civil War, Russia is the big victor in Syria and will remain for a long time to come

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, January 6, 2018
A Syria Civil Defence member carries a wounded child in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria, January 6, 2018Credit: REUTERS/ Bassam Khabieh
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

What a difference can 50 fighter jets make. In the summer of 2015 Syrian President Bashar Assad thought his regime was facing collapse. Four-and-a-half years into the Syrian civil war, the Syrian dictator’s army was exhausted; his soldiers were in retreat on nearly every front under pressure from the rebels. At that time, he barely controlled one quarter of the area of the country.

The only way out that he could think of was to turn to his old friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin acceded to his request, sending two squadrons of Russian fighter planes to the Khmeimim air force base in northwestern Syria in September. The change in fortune brought about by these bombers reversed the course of the war and saved Assad’s regime.

The Russian intervention came at a stage when the two sides were already completely exhausted. Therefore, a relatively small number of planes sufficed to tip the scales. Russia began to utilize its planes systematically in indiscriminate attacks, carpet bombing rebel-controlled areas. Putin’s pilots were heedless of any legal or human rights concerns. In the words once used by Yitzhak Rabin to describe what Palestinians security forces would do after Oslo, they'd be unchecked by “the High Court of Justice and B’Tselem” (the Israeli human rights organization.)

Russian Air Force bombings in Syria, November 2015

Read more: Assad Won Syria's Civil War. Can he Now Survive an Israeli Attack? | Doctor, 'Butcher,' President: The Journey of Syria's Infamous Leader

The Russians weren't bothered by the Geneva Conventions or by the protest tweets of the international community. They destroyed everything that stood in the way of the regime and gradually restored Assad’s control of the country, at the price of the lives hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians. In December of 2016, the second largest city in Syria, Aleppo, fell under the pressure of the bombings. In the summer of 2018, the rebel organizations on the Syrian side of the border with Israel in the Golan Heights also surrendered.

Assad now effectively controls about 70 percent of the territory of Syria, in an area that includes most of the large population centers. The rebels have one key stronghold remaining, an enclave in the Idlib area in the north of the country, between Aleppo and the Turkish border. Northeastern Syria is controlled by Kurdish forces but their presence bothers Assad less.

Two other developments played into Assad’s hands. One of them was the campaign conducted by the United States, led by President Barack Obama, against ISIS. America announced the establishment of an international coalition to fight ISIS in the summer of 2014, after a series of shocking executions of foreign hostages by fighters of that organization.

Areas of control in Syria as of January 29, 2019Credit: Reuters

The Americans, in their typical systematic way, smashed ISIS to bits by means of tens of thousands of aerial strikes. The gradual disappearance of ISIS and organizations connected to Al Qaeda enabled the regime to recover. The Russians, meanwhile, focused most of its aerial attacks on areas controlled by other rebel groups, declaring they were thereby making their contribution to the international fight against terror.

The second development had to do with the Iranian intervention. Iran put boots on the ground at Assad’s disposal: Tens of thousands of Shi’ite militia fighters – Hezbollah from Lebanon and militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the Syrian army was having a hard time providing trained soldiers, the Shi’ite fighters, sponsored by Iran, served as the spearhead of the moves on the ground, complementing the Russian pressure on the rebels from the air.

At the beginning of 2019, after eight years of the murderous civil war, Assad can more or less stretch out and get comfy again. The war is not entirely over but it looks as though the immediate threat to the regime has lessened considerably. The situation vis-à-vis the Idlib enclave is relatively static and there is presently no continuous and direct military friction with the Kurds. Various rebel groups, including some associated with ISIS, are still carrying out terror attacks in areas controlled by the regime, but to a far lesser extent than during the war's peak.

Damascus is relatively secure. Arab regimes – including the UAE – are renewing their diplomatic relations with Syria and opening embassies in Damascus. Representatives of the Syrian government are again being welcomed rather warmly in various capitals, among them Tehran, Moscow and Ankara. The biggest mass murderer of the 21st century (so far) has evaded punishment. Not only that – he has remained in power and looks to stick around for a long time.

The outcome elicits mixed feelings in Israel. Though Israel paid lip service to the distress of Syrian civilians during the course of the war (and even gave extensive humanitarian aid to inhabitants of villages in the Syrian Golan), it actually benefitted from the fact that two camps, both mightily hateful of Israel, were beating each other to death for many years. It took advantage of this period to curtail weapons smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon and later to thwart Iranian attempts to establish itself militarily on Syrian soil.

Men inspect the damage after an airstrike on the rebel held al-Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria September 25, 2016Credit: ABDALRHMAN ISMAIL/ REUTERS

The victory of the Shi’ite axis doesn't do Israel much good. Rather, it has established Iran’s status in the Middle East and enables it to demand from Assad direct help in the fight against Israel. Looking back, some of the Israeli top brass regret that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government decided not to take a risk and not to hit Assad and his regime directly during the war. This could have been, they say, an expression of a moral position against mass murder of civilians. At the same time, it would have been possible to strike a blow against Iran and its efforts to achieve regional dominance.

Hezbollah has emerged from the war in Syria battered but toughened. Israeli intelligence estimates that the militants lost about 2,000 fighters in combat and that another 6,000 were wounded. However, it accumulated a great deal of battlefield experience there. Commanders who survived the battles learned to operate in difficult conditions and garnered a great deal of professional savvy from fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Russian advisers.

A rebel fighter gestures as he shoots his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on the frontline of Aleppo's Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood May 23, 2015Credit: REUTERS/Hosam Katan

At least half the Hezbollah force that fought in Syria has returned home, some of whom have been redeployed in southern Lebanon, facing the Israeli border. Israeli intelligence believes Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is not eager for a new war against Israel. Nasrallah, somewhat paradoxically, is currently perceived as the responsible adult in the northern arena – the man who has already been burnt in wars and is not interested in repeating the experience.

As for the struggle between the powers, it is clear Russia is the big winner in Syria. Putin proved he knows how to stand by friends, regardless of the international criticism. Russia, despite its promises, will remain in Syria for a long time to come to protect its interests there (the air and naval bases), stabilize the Assad regime and benefit economically from signing contracts to rebuild the country.

The United States, however, is on the way out. President Donald Trump announced in December his intention to withdraw troops from Syria within a few months. Israel is now striving to persuade him to postpone the withdrawal or at least to keep American hands in control of Al-Tanf airbase near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan. For Israel, this is a critical issue because the base is located on the main road leading from Iran via Iraq to Damascus and Beirut. As long as an American presence remains there, Iran will have difficulty moving convoys of fighters and weaponry along this road unimpeded.

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