Syria’s civil war is 10 years old—but still Bashar al-Assad survives

Assad can claim victory over a shattered nation. But for how long?

April 11, 2021
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The Syrian leader has for all intents and purposes won the civil war. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confounded the early commentators on his country’s now decade-long civil war by simply surviving. And not only has he survived, but he and his government for all intents and purposes have won. The Syrian opposition only holds the province of Idlib, and is only doing so by the grace of Turkish support. The northeast, a mostly Kurdish portion of the country, is still largely under the control of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), supported by the United States. But with Russian mediation it is likely that the SDF will soon come to an accommodation with Assad, thereby submitting to at least nominal control from the government in Damascus.

But what has Assad won? More than 80 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, 70 per cent in extreme poverty—and this number is only growing. The unemployment rate is well over 60 per cent, with a significant number of those who are employed working in the war economy. The financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon has only exacerbated the dire economic situation in Syria. Over half of all children, many of whom only know war and deprivation, no longer attend school—a generation lost. The country had become a public health nightmare long before the Covid pandemic—and this is not even to speak of the 500,000 dead and the half of the population who are either internal or external refugees. This goes alongside the estimated $200bn cost of reconstruction just to bring Syria back to its pre-civil war state—when it was a lower-middle income country with a high level of poverty and grossly unequal distribution of income, all of which generated the extreme dissatisfaction that fuelled the 2011 uprising.

In such a dilapidated state, can Assad continue to survive? The answer is yes. Although the current international sanctions regime is the harshest ever applied against Syria, officials and businesses have been accustomed to operating under such restrictions ever since the US State Department placed the country on its 1979 list of countries that sponsor terrorism. They know how to navigate the ebbs and flows of the international black market. While the US will maintain its minimal presence in Syria, to the new Biden administration Syria does not appear to be a priority, as other domestic and international circumstances demand its attention. For Assad, this is no bad thing.

Not wanting to see Syria collapse, and seeking to minimise the influence of both Iran and Turkey, several Arab countries have already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus—and publicly endorsed Syria’s re-admission into the Arab League. Many believe it is inevitable that Syria and Turkey will come to some sort of a modus vivendi with regard to Idlib, perhaps accompanied by the restoration of political and economic relations. While this will not get Syria out of its predicament, it could start to erode its region-wide isolation enough to keep Assad and his cohorts afloat—and the country from totally imploding. And with wider acceptance at the regional level over time, and especially if the US and Iran re-activate the nuclear deal, it may become easier for Europe and the US to waive significant portions of the sanctions to allow for humanitarian and reconstruction aid to finally get into the country in significant amounts.

It seems like a race against time. Will a regional acceptance of Assad create enough space for the Syrian government to survive long enough to start the process of reconstruction? Or will the current situation continue to deteriorate, turning Syria into a failed state beyond resuscitation—in which case the regional and international objective would be to make sure the chaos does not generate instability beyond its borders? Western governments are internally divided, but the distaste of doing anything that might help Assad outweighs other factors—for now.

But Assad is patient. He waited out the diplomatic pressure following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, which Syria was accused of plotting; indeed, being welcomed back in from the cold then gave him a sense of triumphalism that helped carry him through the civil war. However, it is difficult to see the Syrian government adjusting to a new reality, as its carefully manicured patronage system has been shattered. What sort of social contract can the Syrian government provide beyond being the least-worst alternative? How long are the Syrian people going to wait before more assertively demanding change? Can Syria not only physically reconstruct but also emotionally rebuild? Can the Syrian government find the right formula to spread out national political power?

Early in the civil war, I asked a rebel fighter the following question: Why are you taking such a risk in fighting Assad? His answer was as profound as it was simple: “Because I have heard my voice for the first time.” Most Syrians have been empowered by living beyond the control of a repressive state and hearing their own voices. Perhaps what will determine whether or not Assad survives in the long term will be if he has also heard their voices.