By Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
15 January 2018
The Syrian Civil War is won. The Damascus government has reasserted control over the majority of Syria’s territory and President Bashar al-Assad is secure in his position.
Despite the endless list of humanitarian abuses he has presided over since 2011, the international community is no longer calling on his removal and prosecution in international courts, and no internal Syrian faction looks likely to be able to challenge his government much longer.
But though the war is won that does not mean it is over. Or that the Assad regime will be magnanimous in victory. The regime is currently carrying out operations in Idlib, the last province still controlled by the rebels, and eastern Gouta. And the tactics they are using are familiar in their brutality.
The first targets have been the hospitals. Just as they were in Aleppo. From here, we can expect the same pattern of systematic attacks on civilian targets, and starvation sieges, until the local population is beaten into submission.
Already, in just the last few days 100,000 people have been pushed out their homes – in the middle of winter. And what makes the situation in Idlib particularly precarious is that the province has become host to over 1.1 million internal refugees from other parts of Syria previously brutalised by the regime.
With such a large number of people in such a precarious situation, with the winter raging on, with medical facilities destroyed and with the expected food shortages, this latest assault by the regime has every chance of being the worst humanitarian disaster in the conflict yet.
And it is not beyond reason to expect that it will trigger another regional refugee crisis, which will further destabilized an already fragile and degrading order.
But now Assad can rest on the assumption that he has full impunity. His allies, Russia and Iran, will see this to the end. And they shield him from Western censure – weak as it has been in recent years.
The Idlib assault attests to this: the region was supposed to be a “de-escalation” zone agreed with Russia, Iran but also Turkey, who maintains peace-keeping forces in the region. The attacks are ongoing despite the presence of the Turkish forces.
Meaningful International Response
Is there at this point in time any atrocity Assad can commit that would garner a meaningful international response? As everyone is looking forward to the conflict being resolved, the tolerance for the methods of the regime in their final offensives seems boundless. And for a regime with their proven track record, this is a recipe for disaster.
The calculation in much of the international community, especially it seems in Western capitals, is that letting the Assad regime get on with it and re-establishing authority in the entire country is, at this point, probably going to cause the least amount of human suffering. But there are two reasons to be weary of this.
Firstly, the regime has shown itself to be punitive and to continue to be punitive against civilian populations which resisted it even in regions where it has already re-established itself. The end of the war will not be the end of the suffering for the majority of the Syrian people.
And this should come as no surprise given the ways in which the regime treated the people even before the Civil War. Regime brutality was indeed one of the main reasons why the Civil War started.
Secondly, if the regime does not even attempt to rebuild legitimacy in the closing days of this conflict, and continue to brutalise civilian populations needlessly, its victory is likely to be a short-lived one. The people will have been beaten into submission, but they will be still alive, bitter and angry. That is not a sound basis for any political order.
In either case, the suffering in Syria still has no end in sight. And our resignation at Assad’s ongoing humanitarian abuses makes us complicit in them.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.