Assad may win war but will preside over ruined Syria

BEIRUT (AFP) – Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad appears to be winning the war against those who sought his overthrow, but he will preside over a ruined country with an economy in tatters.

“Assad remains in charge of most of the population and most of the important territory, and I expect him to continue to rule most of Syria,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert with the Century Foundation think-tank.

“The war goes on, but in the larger strategic sense, he has defeated those who sought to depose him,” Lund told AFP.

The writing is on the wall even in the halls of the United Nations, where special envoy Staffan de Mistura last week bluntly urged Assad’s opponents to be more pragmatic.

“Will the opposition be able to be unified and realistic enough and realise that they did not win the war?” he asked.

The comments drew ire from anti-government figures, who have long insisted that Assad must step down and cannot be part of any transitional government. The head of the opposition High Negotiations Committee, Nasr al-Hariri, called them “shocking and disappointing.”

But the opposition’s demand for Assad’s ouster looks increasingly unrealistic, as his regime finds itself in perhaps its strongest position since the eruption of the conflict in 2011. His army controls the country’s main cities and possesses a considerable advantage in terms of firepower, thanks to the support of allies Iran and Russia.

Over the past week, Syrian troops have made major advances in the east of the country, leaving the government in control of half of Syria’s territory and two-thirds of its population, more than any other side in the complex war.

But despite his territorial gains, Assad is likely to face low-level insurgencies for years to come, said Thomas Pierret, a Syria specialist at the University of Edinburgh.

“Assad will stay in power for a long time – but with a strong probability that there will be ongoing, endemic armed insurrections,” Pierret told AFP. “They will not threaten the central state directly, but they will be structurally threatening for a regime with other major weaknesses.”

Assad’s regime will also need to pick up the pieces in a country that has been ravaged by six years of brutal conflict that have left more than 330,000 people dead, millions displaced and public infrastructure across much of the country in ruins.

“He has definitely regained momentum and regained territory,” said Maha Yahya of the Carnegie Endowment’s Beirut-based Middle East Centre.

“But frankly, he’s regaining control of a country that’s completely destroyed. I don’t know what winning the war really means in a context like this.”

According to the World Bank, the conflict has cost the Syrian economy some $226 billion – about four times the country’s gross domestic product in 2010.

The fighting has damaged or destroyed 27 per cent of Syria’s housing stock and about half the country’s medical and educational facilities. About 85 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and half are unemployed.