As hard as it is to believe now, barely six months ago it appeared that the Damascus-based regime of Bashar Al-Assad was on its last legs. Pressed by both Western-backed moderate rebels and ISIS alike on a front ranging from Idlib in the north and Homs in the east, and with his own forces disintegrating under an increasing number of both defections and desertions, the main question seemed to be whether Assad would even be able to hold on to his western Syrian, Alawite coastal strongholds and the capital city itself, or if even those pillars of loyalty to the regime were now in danger. The days of the House of Assad as the rulers of Syria appeared to be numbered.
Well, that was then and this is now. President Putin, determined to rescue his puppet and Russia’s sole naval base in the Mediterranean, choose to directly insert himself into the conflict under the guise of fighting ISIS, but in reality directing the bulk of his fire upon opposition rebel forces. Buoyed by the direct intervention of Russian airpower and military advisors, and increasing numbers of Iranian-supplied Shia militias, President Assad has in recent weeks mounted an undeniable military comeback. Supported by Russian airstrikes, regime forces have retaken lost ground and are threatening to encircle the rebel-held city of Aleppo, one of the symbolic origins of the civil war, cutting it off from essential resupply lines to Turkey and threatening to deal a potentially mortal blow to the operational ability of moderate Syrian rebels.
This would suit Assad’s purposes perfectly fine, as the President of Syria has long alleged that all opponents of his family’s regime are little more than “terrorists”, and knocking out what remains of the secular opposition would only reinforce that narrative. As we enter into fifth year of the conflict that has devastated Syria and reduced much of its population to the status of refugees, Bashar Al-Assad seems more firmly entrenched in power than he has been at any time since the conflict began.
A very hard truth we in the West may be forced to swallow is that perhaps now is the time to come to terms with this reality. Despite accepting on paper the latest cease fire proposal, brokered in the city of Munich in a fit of unintentional irony, there is no sign that Assad is any more willing to abide by it this time than he has at any point in the past. Both he and his patrons have learned from past experience that they can violate agreements and cross lines with immunity due to the complete reluctance of the international community to enforce them. If the use of chemical weapons was not sufficient to provoke a response from the international community, it’s unlikely anything will. We’ll hem and haw and make a few self-righteous comments, but that’s about it, and Bashar Al-Assad and, more importantly, Vladimir Putin both know this. Non-ISIS rebel forces have been so degraded by this point that it is unlikely they will be able to overthrow the Assad regime on their own, and Russia’s intervention in the conflict has effectively pre-empted the possibility of more direct support by Western powers. There are even fewer signs now indicating that Barack Obama,, an anti-interventionist president entering his last year in office, would risk either supplying heavy weaponry or actual military support that could potentially kill Russian service men, and bring the United States and Russia to the brink of war.
As bitter as it is to recognize, international affairs often require us to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Ideally, most of us would agree that a free and democratic Syria is desirable. However, if there is no realistic likelihood of this being achieved in the near or even long term, what is gained by prolonging the Syria conflict? More deaths? More people driven from their homes? More distraction from the fight against ISIS, whom everyone can agree is a common enemy of all of humanity? Even worse, there is are increasing signs that Turkey is being drawn further into the conflict out of a desire to remove Assad, courtesy of his ties to its rival Iran and worries over gains made by Syria’s Kurdish militia. At this point, the Kurds seem to be tacitly allied to the Damascus regime, as they fight against other rebel groups and ISIS to carve out an autonomous zone of control for themselves. This deepens the risk already bubbling under the surface that Turkey, a NATO member-state, might engage in a direct military encounter with Russia, which could potentially turn Syria from a regional disaster into a global crisis.
That is not to say there is nothing that can be salvaged at this point. In return for ending demands that Assad must go, which even John Kerry seems to be acknowledging isn’t possible at this point, the West can demand a general amnesty for non-ISIS aligned rebel fighters who agree to lay down their arms, along with other potential concessions in the area of democratic reform. This would also allow for a refocusing amongst all the various parties involved in Syria upon ISIS, who are undeniably a common scourge upon humanity and the perpetrators of the most barbaric acts of depravity in this conflict.
That this is likely the best that can be salvaged from the total mess that has become Syria should serve as a grim lesson. From the beginning of this conflict, the West has been hampered by an utter inability to clearly identify what its interests and goals were, what specifically it wanted to achieve, and how much capital (political, military or otherwise) it was willing to invest to do so. The result of this has been the severely bipolar response of the West, from the United States in particular, with flashes of hard rhetoric being followed up by extended periods of passivity. Not only has this done nothing to resolve the conflict in Syria and the assorted hardships that have stemmed from it, it has also served to completely undermine Western credibility in the global community. A step towards repairing this damage would begin with reassessing our position on the Syrian crisis with an eye towards effecting a meaningful resolution to the conflict, even if ultimately it requires us to accept an admittedly bitter compromise. It may well be the best we can hope to achieve at this point.