Last week, his forces declared that the capital, Damascus, and its populous suburbs had been liberated from “terrorists” and are fully under regime control. That marked the culmination of a systematic, brutal offensive against rebel positions surrounding the capital, including the enclave of Eastern Ghouta, which had held out for half a decade until it succumbed earlier this year.
The armed opposition's strongholds, as my colleagues reported, are now limited to Idlib province in the north, bordering Turkey, and Daraa on the Jordanian border. The Syrian regime is moving to squeeze these areas as well, with analysts warning of the potential of further hideous civilian suffering. Last week, government aircraft dropped leaflets on Daraa reportedly warning militants to surrender. “The men of the Syrian army are coming,” the leaflets read. “Take your decision before it is too late.”
Assad is in complete command of the country's three major metropolitan centers — Damascus and its environs, Homs and Aleppo. “The highway linking them is being rebuilt and will provide a secure route for government soldiers heading to the remaining front lines,” wrote my colleague Louisa Loveluck. The stage is set for a final quashing of the rebellion.
“The regime is not strong, but there can be no question that it is now going to take over remaining areas of Syria until it reaches the front line of zones controlled by others,” Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told my colleagues.
That reality flies in the face of Western insistence that a true peace treaty is necessary to end the war. “It does rather make a mockery of the idea, pushed by people working towards peace talks, that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict,” said Emma Beals, an independent analyst covering Syria, to Loveluck. “While it may be true that there is no lasting peace to be found in a military strategy, there is certainly, as we are seeing, a way for them to achieve their objective: control.”
No one should be surprised by Assad's bloody-minded determination to stay in power. “The regime has kept its nerve throughout the civil war, even when the opposition wiped out almost the entire Syrian war cabinet in 2012 with a cleverly placed bomb and when in the spring of 2015 Palmyra and Jisr al-Shughour fell to rebels who were simultaneously laying siege to western Aleppo,” wrote Steven Simon, a former Obama administration official. The Syrian ruler has also stared down the threats and posturing of both the Obama and Trump administrations, outlasted a covert CIA program to arm “moderate” rebels and weathered a number of U.S. missile barrages on Syrian airfields.
Regional politics have largely played into Assad's hands. The complexity of the war has thinned Western appetite for regime change in Damascus. Even though large chunks of the country are still out of Assad's control — Turkey still commands a small enclave in Syria's north, while American forces, with the aid of Kurdish-led proxies on the ground, hold sway over much of eastern and northeastern Syria — these occupations don't seem to threaten his rule.
The deliberations surrounding Russia are worth watching. The Kremlin's entry into the war decisively tilted it in Assad's favor, with Russian air power turning the tide of battle across the country. Now, Russia may be moving to both consolidate its own stake in the Syrian endgame and gain the upper hand on Iran, Assad's vital ally on the ground.
Such a withdrawal would suit the Syrian regime. “Assad needs to conserve his military power to retake territory in the east, reestablish control over Syria’s oil fields, and eventually reconquer Idlib in the northwest,” Simon wrote. “He would compromise his goal of reconsolidating the Syrian state under his rule if he gets entangled in a conflict with the U.S. and Israel.”
Assad doesn't seem too concerned for now. As he tightens his grip over the core of the country, he's also thwarting new international attempts to broker a political settlement. As the staggering task of reconstruction lurches into motions, analysts fear that the regime will make it much harder for many returning refugees to reclaim their property and assets, which may be confiscated by the state and transferred over to loyalists. Even in a phantom peace, new divisions and injustices may fester.
Last week, the regime rejected a Russian proposal that would dilute Assad's presidential powers, partially decentralize governance and set a maximum of two consecutive seven-year terms for the presidency. An opposition spokesman suggested his unwillingness to accept even these terms shows Assad “does not want a political solution.”