Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Syria in Crisis

The Day After Assad Wins

The Hard Truths About Post-War Syria

A Free Syrian Army fighter holds stands inside a burned shop in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district, July 23, 2013.
A Free Syrian Army fighter holds stands inside a burned shop in Aleppo's Karm al-Jabal district, July 23, 2013. (Hamid Khatib / Courtesy Reuters)

We will probably never know whether Bashar al-Assad lost any sleep over the horrific chemical weapons attacks he allegedly ordered during his country’s ongoing civil war. But Syria’s president has probably already taken solace in the fact that, despite the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have lost their lives in the fighting, things could have easily gone worse for him personally. With insurgents losing ground to the regime’s forces and succumbing to ever more infighting among themselves, it seems increasingly likely that Assad will avoid losing the war -- which will qualify, in this context, as an outright win.

For the many countries, including the United States, that have based their policies on the hope that Assad would eventually be forced from power, Assad’s resilience has probably come as a disappointment. (But given their generally indecisive interventions in the war, the outcome should not come as a shock.) Nevertheless, Washington and its allies need to reckon with the bitter trajectory that Syria is now on. The regime that emerges from the civil war will be more oppressive and more anarchic than the brutal yet stable one that existed before the war.

First, it is important to understand what victory will mean. In order for Assad to consider himself the winner of this conflict, his forces would need to gain control over the 40 percent of Syrian territory, concentrated in the western part of the country, where 60 to 70 percent of Syrians live. (A key military objective will be to secure the M5 north-south highway that connects Damascus to Homs, Hama, and the hotly contested city of Aleppo.) At the same time, Assad would need to clear out pockets of resistance behind the regime’s main lines. (This is exactly what he has already achieved in Qusayr and the area around Homs, giving his fighters unimpeded access to the Bekaa Valley and Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon.) If Assad achieves all that, he will have gained a secure hold on his rump state for the indefinite future -- and a favorable position in any eventual negotiations with the opposition.

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