Syria's war has produced no victory, only victims

Syria's war has produced no victory, only victims
Comment: Bashar al-Assad may have emerged from Syria's war 'victorious', but the country he controls is not the one it once was, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
02 Nov, 2017
At least 500,000 people have been killed since Syria's conflict began [AFP]
It's very easy to look at the current military situation in Syria and conclude that Assad has won, but such a denouement of the war is simplistic. Assad has not won, but rather, if "victory" can be claimed at all, Iran and Russia are winning on Assad's behalf.  

This distinction has importance much beyond sloganeering.  The material dynamics that underlie it - the imperialist domination of Syria by Iran and Russia - determine the very quality of the "victory" of the counter-revolution in Syria.  

To get the obvious but crucial point out of the way, the Syria of Assad's rump state is not the Syria that existed before 2011. Vast swathes of the country remain outside of regime control.

Firstly, you have the areas of the country controlled by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), who act as proxies of the US with an endgame of ensuring their one-party rule of Rojava.  

Secondly, there's the territory occupied by the Islamic State group. While it might be rapidly losing its state form due to gains made by the US-led coalition and YPG and its informal allies Russia, Iran and Assad, the brutal manner of the war being waged against it, as well as the nature of the forces fighting it on the ground, can only ensure that its logics remain strong.  

Thirdly, you have territory controlled by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and other Syrian rebel forces. Most of this territory was retaken by these forces in a threefold effort by Turkey to rid its borders of IS, prevent the YPG from uniting the cantons of Rojava, and allow Syrian rebel forces to take back Arab-majority areas occupied and grabbed by IS and the YPG.  

Finally, you have the land occupied by the anti-Assad forces. This is split between an array of groups, most of whom, despite ideological differences, want to unite and pool their resources to fight the regime - but some of which, notably Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the informal al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, attempt to consolidate their own power against other rebel forces, as is the case in Idlib. 

Moreover, there are rebel forces, such as the US-backed Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, who control much of Daraa, but who are permitted to only fight IS and HTS.  
At this moment, at least 800,000 Syrians are living under siege conditions, the most brutal of which is the regime's current siege of the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus

In addition to this veritable carve-up, you have the grim reality of at least six million Syrians having fled the country to live brutally precarious lives as refugees, with millions more internally displaced. 

Many of these Syrians were effectively cleansed from the land by regime forces in a deliberate attempt to destroy areas held by rebels or which were supportive of the rebellion - with many of these places reduced to rubble and dust.  

Then there's the sheer extent of death that has swept over the country, with at least 500,000 killed since the conflict began. In addition to the documented deaths of civilians, most of whom have been killed by Assad and Russia's air forces, or Iranian-led sectarian death squads, there have been at least 13,000 people exterminated by Assad in his dungeons. 

Millions of Syrian lives have now been shaped by war and brutality - the sheer amount of known and unknown realities of the raped, the violated and the traumatised, those who have witnessed and survived barrel-bombings, napalm attacks, starvation sieges and death gas.  

At this moment, at least 800,000 Syrians are living under siege conditions, the most brutal of which is the regime's current siege of the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus collectively known as Eastern Ghouta.  

The idea that Assad, who is responsible for every single aspect of this death and destruction, as well as the consequent psychological trauma, could return Syria to the status quo ante bellum either territorially or in terms of "stability" ought to be treated as absurd and with contempt.

Bashar al-Assad's 'victory' has come at a huge cost to Syria and its people [AFP]

The regime that allegedly mobilised to defend "secularism" from "takfiris" and "jihadis", has allowed the Iranian theocracy to hegemonise and stir up sectarian tensions that allowed IS to prosper. The regime that boasted of what were always rather dubious "anti-imperialist" credentials now only survives due to Iranian and Russian imperialism.  

And the designation of Russia and Iran's modus operandi as "imperialism" is no mere rhetoric. After significant defections from Assad's Syrian Arab Army, Iran at first rearranged the sectarian Shabiha militias into the super-militia known as the National Defence Forces (NDF). Then it simply imported its own forces, in the form of the IRGC, and its proxy militias from Iraq and Lebanon to lead most of the regime's military operations.  

In addition, while the extent of the destruction wrought by the regime in Aleppo shocked most of the world, the Iranian firms were importing power plants into the devastated city.  Its intervention in Syria has brought with it the potential for military and naval bases, as well as extremely lucrative oil and gas contracts for Iranian and Russian corporations. 

The price of this is Syrian blood.  

Both Iran and Russia wield more power in Syria than any Syrian, including Assad - they control the forces that keep him and his cronies in power, while without Russia's air force and Iran's resources, the rebels probably would have already won. Even those Baathists and pro-Assad Syrians who might be suspicious or fearful of Iranian and Russian domination know that resistance is futile.

Once again, it seems that the world - so convinced of an Assad "victory" - has confused "stability" with raw power and domination. It's true that the rebels cannot match the resources provided to Assad by Iran and Russia, as ally after ally has abandoned them, leaving them relying on makeshift weapons and dubious peace processes.

But they are not quite vanquished. Assad's reliance on Iranian and Russian forces emerged due to endemic manpower problems, while the rebels have never suffered such woes, with Syrians still enthusiastically supporting the revolution in rebel-held areas. 

As opposed to "victory", Assad might remain in power propped up by Iran and Russia, but the war will continue on various fronts and to different degrees of intensity, most of it, at least for now, at low levels.  

During what is supposed to be Assad's moment of triumph, the world is yet again shocked by his brutality as scenes emerge of starving children in East Ghouta - another area that was supposed to be part of a "de-escalation zone", but which has been ferociously bombed since July, in addition to the starvation siege.

In Idlib, Turkey's intervention seems to have prevented or at least lessened Russia and Iran's increasingly brutal designs to destroy the rebel stronghold.  

There are indications that the powers that be understand, to some extent, that there can be no stability under Assad.  After a meeting with UN special envoy Steffan de Mistura ahead of next months' Geneva peace talks, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented that "the US wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government".  

It might be that this is just US rhetoric, but it could also be that the US understands, to some extent, that Assad remaining in power won't lead to any kind of unified Syria, but rather one determined by ethnic and sectarian division and perpetual conflict and insurgency.  

Russia, with its own economic woes, might very well realise that Assad is no longer an asset and that they can't invest in military intervention in perpetuity. It could be that the US and Russia come to a deal whereby some aspect of the opposition is allowed into governance and Assad is removed - but even this notion relies on the idea that this would suit the rebel factions and that Iran would be on board.

The alternative is a cyclical war that has no end in sight, one with dangerous global ramifications.  

In the early days of the war, when Assad first began to use military violence to murder protesters, one common refrain among shell-shocked Syrians was "how far is Assad willing to go cling on to power?" The answer over the past six years has become clear: genocidal war, vast ethnic cleansing and, despite regime propaganda of the revolution as some kind of "foreign plot" against the motherland, the selling of Syria to Iran and Russia.  

There is no victory in Syria - only victims and those who continue to make them through raw, brutal power. Only injustice and those who resist it in increasingly desolate circumstances.  

To claim victory for Assad is to admit that Syria no longer exists.  

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.