BEIRUT — Six years after the eruption of the armed rebellion aimed at toppling President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian war is limping toward a conclusion — one that leaves many questions unanswered and many battles still to be fought, but a resolution of sorts nonetheless.
That Assad would prevail on the battlefield has been evident for years — since at least 2015, when Russia intervened to prop up his flagging army, and probably well before that, after the rebels failed to capitalize on their early momentum.
The absence of resolve on the part of the international community to prevent an Assad victory has also been clear for some time, perhaps as early as the first failed Geneva peace talks in 2014 and certainly since the government’s recapture of Aleppo in December heralded the collapse of the Obama administration’s diplomacy.
Those realities are now in the process of being cemented, bringing the blurred outlines of an endgame into view.
“The war as we knew it is over. What’s left now is dividing the cake,” said Joe Macaron, an analyst at the Arab Policy Center in Washington.
Under the scenario that is emerging, Assad remains in power indefinitely, there is no meaningful political settlement to remove or redeem him, and the war grinds on.
It is a bleak outlook, foreshadowing an unstable Syria mired in at least low-level conflict for years to come, its towns and cities in ruins, its people impoverished, and its economy starved of the funding it needs to rebuild the country.
It does, however, bring some clarity to the fate of the regime, now under less pressure than ever to make concessions or implement new policies and — for the first time since 2012 — in control of more of the country than any of the other factions competing for territory.
The Trump administration’s decision to cut off aid to the Syrian rebels, signals from the international community that it is dropping its insistence on a transition that leads to Assad’s departure, and the relative success of a Russian cease-fire initiative have all contributed to the sense that the war, if not over, is at least entering a phase in which Assad’s survival is no longer in question.
Some of the remaining battles could yet spin Syria off into unexpected directions. What began as a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters and then mutated into a raging war has now morphed again — into an international scramble for influence over the corners of the country still outside government control.
The fate of the Kurdish-controlled northeast, where the U.S. military has deployed troops and built bases for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State, is perhaps the biggest uncertainty. The United States has not committed to staying in Syria to protect the expanding Kurdish region after the defeat of the Islamic State. But the Assad regime has pledged to bring the area back under government control, by going to war if necessary with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States.
Escalating tensions between the U.S.-backed SDF and its local allies and the Russian- and Iranian-backed government troops in the eastern desert province of Deir al-Zour could also spark a wider confrontation if U.S.-Russian talks to divide up the battlefield fail.
Israel's intentions are unclear as it eyes the likelihood of an indefinite Iranian presence on its northern border with Syria, in the form of the Iranian advisers and Iran-allied militias brought to the area to quell the rebellion. Israel has been stepping up airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria in recent weeks, and although the government has refrained from responding, that could change as Assad grows more confident.
The presence of thousands of al-Qaeda fighters in the northwestern province of Idlib makes that the likely venue of at least one more major round of fighting. There are still pockets of rebel-held territory dotted around Syria, in the suburbs of Damascus and along the Jordanian border that will have to be conquered or forced into a settlement.
But it is hard to envision any of these battles directly challenging Assad’s hold on Damascus, analysts say. The map tells the story of a government increasingly dominating the country, now in control of all the major cities and 70 percent of the population and secure in its alliance with Russia and Iran.
“For the regime, this has always been about survival, and it’s done everything it had to do to ensure its survival,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center. “We’re left with a few bits of tidying up, in Idlib and in the east, and these are still unknowns, but I don’t believe they will change the overall trend.”
Assad has been careful not to declare victory. In recent speeches, he has emphasized the continued threat posed by Syria’s Western enemies and their “terrorist” allies and the need to keep fighting until all of Syria is reclaimed.
“Talking about foiling the Western project in the region doesn’t mean we are victorious. They have failed, but the battle is still going on,” he told a gathering of friendly foreign diplomats in Damascus last month. “The signs of victory are there, but signs are something and victory itself is another thing.”
Peace would bring new pressures on Assad to deliver dividends to his supporters in the form of reconstruction and a revival of the economy, said Jihad Yazigi, a Syrian economist and editor of the Syria Report. That could prove a tougher challenge than winning the war. Unforeseen developments, such as dissent among his supporters, may yet propel a different trajectory.
“As he wins and his constituents are sure the war is over, there will be new expectations he is unable to meet,” he said. “We’re not going to have anything close to reconciliation, and there is no money.”
But in the absence of any meaningful international peace process, there is little reason to believe Assad will feel compelled to deliver political concessions likely to erode his hold on power. The Geneva peace process, initiated by the United States in 2012 when it looked as though the rebels were winning, has sputtered into oblivion.
The vacuum is being filled by a Russian-led initiative unfolding thousands of miles away in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Those talks have already produced a set of de-escalation agreements that have somewhat reduced the violence.
Moscow is also pressing a package of measures that would bring opposition members into the government, freeze the front lines, give rebels a degree of autonomy in the areas they control and eventually bring them back under the auspices of the central government through a process of reconciliation. Under the Russian plan, Assad would run for a third seven-year term of office when elections are next due, in 2021.
Russia is keen to see a political settlement that would win broad consensus, open up access to international funding for reconstruction and legitimize Assad’s status and Russia’s role in Syria, according to Western diplomats who visit Damascus and meet with Russian officials.
“The legitimization of the regime is something really quite important for the Russians, and that’s not going to happen with the current regime,” said a senior Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects. “The legitimization of the regime is necessary for Russia to have a politically secure environment for its presence.”
The United States and its allies continue to insist on a substantive political process that at least dilutes Assad’s power, endorsed by the United Nations and the international community, as a precondition for contributing to the massive reconstruction effort that Syria badly needs.
“Recovery and reconstruction support for Syria hinges on a credible political process leading to a genuine political transition that can be supported by a majority of the Syrian people,” said a statement issued by the foreign ministers of 16 mostly Western and Arab nations, including the United States, at the conclusion of a meeting on Syria in New York last week.
In his August speech, however, the ever-defiant Assad made it clear that he does not expect or want aid from the countries that assisted the rebellion. Syria, he said, will rely on its existing friends and look east, to Asia, for reconstruction funding.
“We will not allow enemies and rivals to achieve through politics what they failed to achieve through terrorism,” he said.
There is therefore little reason to believe Assad will consent to anything more than cosmetic changes that will not infringe on his power, said Aron Lund of the Century Foundation.
“Assad lost half of the country, half of Aleppo and parts of Damascus, and he wouldn’t budge,” he said. “Now that he’s taken most of that back, it’s ridiculous to think he’ll budge now.”