In one sense, maybe Bashar al-Assad has already lost

Lots of words have been written lately about whether or not Bashar al-Assad is finally losing the war in Syria, including by some incredibly sketchy characters, but everybody should understand that “losing” doesn’t mean “lost.” Assad still has a big army, uncontested air superiority, and his well-trained and cohesive Hezbollah allies on his side, and that means he can keep putting up a pretty strong fight when conditions allow. For example, his forces are currently winning a fight in Qalamoun, near the Lebanese border, where they have good supply lines and more of a motivation to hold that territory (if Assad loses Qalamoun it would make it much harder for Hezbollah to keep supporting him from Lebanon) than the rebels currently have to take it from them. Unfortunately for the Syrian people, this war is still at a stage where, barring some unlikely political settlement, it’s likely to keep going for some time to come.

However, in another sense, Assad has already lost. The Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund sums this up quite well:

The narrative shifts every now and then. Assad was losing from March 2011 until around October 2013, then he was winning for about a year and a half, and now he is back to losing again. The story is consistent only in that it remains reliably hung up on the extremes of victory or defeat.

Only rarely will the Assad regime be described as what it most probably is: a decomposing rump state plodding through a confused civil war toward an uncertain future, with no one quite sure anymore what victory would even look like. The Syrian government may lose more territory and break down structurally, perhaps even rapidly and catastrophically, but its constituent parts are not about to vanish from the face of the earth. In the hypothetical event of Assad’s death or withdrawal from Damascus, his armed forces would not cease to exist. Some would flee and some would die, but what remained would melt into a new ecology of militias and mayhem—and the war would go on.

What the rebel victories in Idlib should have done is put a final end to the myth that Assad might one day retake the whole of Syria and rule it as he did before. That’s never going to happen. There might have been a time when it was possible to imagine Assad retaking the country by force, but after the firing on peaceful protesters and the barrel bombs dropped on public squares and the chemical weapons, Assad was never again going to be accepted as legitimate by a considerable portion of the Syrian people. After Idlib, it should be clear that even the idea of Assad retaking the country militarily has long since flown out the window. He can hold on to what he has, even losing that bit by bit, maybe for quite a while, but it would be nothing short of miraculous for him to ever claw his way back to status quo ante. The hope is that somehow he can be convinced of that, or really that his Iranian and Russian patrons can be convinced of it, so that he/they might come around to the idea that a negotiated settlement that removes Assad from power peacefully is preferable to continuing the bloodbath only to have him inevitably lose to something potentially even worse.



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