By David W. Lesch and James Gelvin
January 11, 2017
Now that forces supporting the Syrian government have completed the takeover of Aleppo, and Russia, Turkey and Iran have negotiated a tenuous cease-fire, it is more than likely that President Bashar al-Assad and the regime he oversees will continue to govern Syria, in one form or another. In an interview with French media published last week, Mr. Assad stated that Aleppo signaled a “tipping point in the course of the war” and that the government is “on the way to victory.”
But if that is the case, what will Mr. Assad actually win?
Let’s take a look at the numbers. (While the following statistics are estimates, they will, if anything, get worse with the continuing matrix of wars in Syria.) More than 80 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line. Nearly 70 percent of Syrians live in extreme poverty, meaning they cannot secure basic needs, according to a 2016 report. That number has most likely grown since then. The unemployment rate is close to 58 percent, with a significant number of those employed working as smugglers, fighters or elsewhere in the war economy. Life expectancy has dropped by 20 years since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. About half of children no longer attend school — a lost generation. The country has become a public health disaster. Diseases formerly under control, like typhoid, tuberculosis, Hepatitis A and cholera, are once again endemic. And polio — previously eradicated in Syria — has been reintroduced, probably by fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Upward of 500,000 are dead from the war, and an untold number of Syrians have died indirectly from the conflict (the price for destroying hospitals, targeting health care professionals and using starvation as a weapon). With more than two million injured, about 11.5 percent of the prewar population have become casualties. And close to half the population of Syria is either internally or externally displaced. A 2015 survey conducted by the United Nations refugee agency looking at Syrian refugees in Greece found that a large number of adults — 86 percent — had secondary or university education. Most of them were under 35. If true, this indicates that Syria is losing the very people it will most need if there is to be any hope of rebuilding in the future.
In order to survive, the Syrian regime has had to rely to an extraordinary degree on Russian and Iranian forces, and their proxies, like Hezbollah. It really wasn’t the Syrian Arab Army that retook Aleppo. Indeed, the Syrian military is stretched so thin by geography and attrition that last month it lost most of the city of Palmyra (again) to the Islamic State while pro-government forces were shifted to the north. And although Mr. Assad still maintains some independence, Moscow and Tehran, and even Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, will have much to say in Damascus moving forward. Not only will Mr. Assad have to listen, he will probably have to withstand the pressure of his patrons’ urging him to step down at the end of his presidential term in 2021.
Finally, the battle is, in reality, far from over. Neither Mr. Assad’s government nor the rebels he is fighting have achieved their goals. The opposition can no longer overthrow the regime, but an active insurgency by armed opposition elements is all but assured, backed by regional patrons, such as Saudi Arabia, which in no way wants to see its rival, Iran, sail toward complete victory. And by their very nature, insurgencies require much less state support than opposition forces trying to hold and govern territory. Mr. Assad would then see what the former United Nations Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has called the “Somalization” of Syria. Mr. Assad would oversee a government that, like Somalia’s, will reign, but not rule, over the entire country. Instead, a number of forces — the government, opposition militias, Kurdish militias, pockets of the Islamic State — will control sections of territory.
And how would Mr. Assad rule the rump state? Pre-existing patronage networks have been shattered and replaced by semi-independent warlords, militias or local governing bodies. This is even the case in government-controlled areas, where pro-regime militias and gangs who remained loyal would expect rewards. Indeed, the Syrian leadership grossly underestimates how far the Syrian population as a whole has moved away from it. Syrians by and large have for years now been empowered by living, surviving and governing on their own. It is an utter delusion if the regime thinks it can return to anything close to the status quo ante.
The Syrian government may have a representative to the United Nations, have embassies in some countries, stamp passports and print currency, but it is hardly a state. Mr. Assad’s control, power and legitimacy have been severely circumscribed, whether he and his supporters know it or not. He will have to depend on continuing large-scale assistance from outside if he wants to restore even a portion of what Syria was. But it is a new Syria. He is the one who will have to reshape his political system to fit this new reality, rather than the other way around.
David W. Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and the author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” James Gelvin is a professor of Middle East history at U.C.L.A. and the author of “The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know.”