The writing is now indisputably on the wall: The Syrian regime is going nowhere. Despite seven years of civil war, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the flight of millions of refugees, the hollowing out of the nation’s ancient cities and the horrific use of chemical weapons on civilians, President Bashar al-Assad remains in his post, The Washington Post reports.
Last week, his forces declared that the capital, Damascus, and its populous suburbs had been liberated from “terrorists” and are now 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. 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 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,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
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. President Trump himself has made no secret of his disinterest in removing Assad, preferring to focus on wiping out the Islamic State and pushing back against Iranian influence. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once Assad’s most vehement critic, has softened his position.
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, The Sydney Morning Herald adds. Russia and Israel have reportedly reached a deal that would allow Syrian forces to take rebel territory in southern Syria, as long as Iranian troops do not participate in the offensive and stay 24 kilometres back from Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In return, Israel will not stand in the way of any Syrian regime offensive on the city of Deraa and other territory along the Israeli and Jordanian border.
News of the deal comes as the Syrian army is said to have completed preparations for an imminent offensive against rebels in the area. Southern Syria is of concern to the United States, which last year brokered a “de-escalation” deal with Jordan and Russia that has largely contained the war near the frontier with Israel. The U.S. warned it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violations of that ceasefire. Israel wants Iran-backed forces removed from areas near its border and from Syria in general. Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, said on Twitter Assad appeared to be offering to “get the Iranians to pull back from Golan Heights, if Israel accepts it as Syrian”.
“Assad is offering a deal with the near devil to get rid of the far devil,” he wrote.
The deal is said to have been finalised in a phone call days earlier between Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu. It averts possible direct confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria, where tensions have heightened between the foes.
At the same time, it reveals a growing rift between Moscow and Tehran, which back the same side, Assad’s, in the Syrian conflict. According to Israeli sources, Russia has grown increasingly frustrated with Iran’s presence in Syria and is worried that fighting between Israel and Iran threatens its hard-fought victories.
Iran is estimated to have thousands of advisers and fighters in Syria as well as a number of bases, which have become regular targets for Israeli attacks. Israel, which is also said to have received assurances from Moscow that it would not try to stop any future strikes on Iranian targets, is concerned about Iran and allied Hezbollah’s growing arsenal on its doorstep. Both Russia and Iran have played pivotal roles in helping reverse Assad’s fortunes, and Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, last week reassured Tehran that a pullout was not up for discussion.
Deraa is an obvious next target for Assad, who has repeatedly promised to retake every inch of the country. The only other major opposition-stronghold, in Idlib in the north-west, is fraught with complications because of the presence of Turkish troops in the area.