After nearly eight years of bare-knuckled combat, over a half a million deaths, over 11 million people either internally displaced or pushed into refugee camps, and whole swaths of Syria leveled to the ground, the endgame of Syria’s civil-turned-proxy war is finally in sight.
With a single tweet on December 19th—“We have defeated isis in Syria, my only reason for being there”—President Donald Trump has sent the region’s geopolitics spinning like an old mechanical airport display. It announces big changes: an American exit, a triumph for Iran and Russia, the return of Syria and the repositioning of everybody else.
It did not take long for America’s decision to withdraw from Syria to be felt across the Middle East. The Syrian regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, rejoiced. Arab states hurried to make up with Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. The Arab League will soon debate his return to the fold. America’s Kurdish allies, crying betrayal, urged him to help fend off a looming Turkish invasion. Israel scrambled to contain the damage.
The biggest winner is undoubtedly Mr Assad. In a war that has killed some 500,000 people and displaced about 13m, Mr Assad seemed on the brink of defeat in 2015. But through brutal tactics—and with the help of Russia in the air, and Iran and Shia militias on the ground—he has regained most of his country’s heartland. He seems determined to keep fighting until he has recovered all his territory.
Many of the country’s cities lie in ruin, making reconstruction a decisive question — particularly when it comes to who will pay for it. The expected price tag is so high that neither the regime nor its allies are prepared to foot the bill. Russia would like to see the West participate, but the West has long insisted that Assad must step down first. Money is the West’s last remaining bargaining chip.
If anything, the reasons for the wave of protests in 2011 have intensified: the regime’s total capriciousness coupled with the greed of the leading families and security forces who have a monopoly on income sources ranging from city center parking fees to signs of life from those locked away in their prisons.
For Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, 2018 ended well. Alongside President Trump’s announced withdrawal of U.S. troops from eastern Syria, several Arab states indicated they were willing to reconcile. By any definition, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s international rehabilitation has already begun.
In all respects, Bashar al-Assad will remain as the leader of Syria after nearly eight blood-soaked years of brutal civil war. He will be puppeteered by Russians and Iranians for many years to come, giving them regional clout that US withdrawal from Syria will easily provide them.
Overall, Syrian economy is literally destroyed, Assad’s future is fragile, and political settlement is still a hot mess. That said, it will be many months before a clearer picture emerges of what lies ahead for Syria as there are too mnay moving parts and fluid scenarios this given moment.