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Mona Alami

Syrian rebel losses do not mean victory for Assad

Rebel forces head towards the frontline in battles with regime forces in Idlib province [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 January, 2018

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Comment: Regime gains on the ground in Idlib and eastern Ghouta will not be the end of the struggle for Syria, writes Mona Alami.
Troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad backed by Russia launched a dual offensive last week on the rebel areas of Idlib in the north of the country, and on the eastern Ghouta province in the Damascus suburbs. 

The attacks reflect Assad's desire to reclaim all of Syria and inflict an ultimate defeat on the beleaguered rebel forces. Yet while Assad's victory may mean a military defeat for the opposition, it will not be the end of the struggle for Syria.  

Since the end of December, Assad's forces have been waging battles in Syria's west and north. In a meeting with Russia's special envoy Alexander Lavrenteiv, Assad reiterated once again that recent victories had put an end to foreign domination and the country's fragmentation, underlining the regime's upcoming push to control areas outside its domination. 

In December, regime forces escalated their attacks on rebel-controlled suburbs of the Eastern Ghouta, where over 94 people were killed and at least 460 were injured in nine days only, according to the website Syria Direct. The region falls under a de-escalation deal brokered by Iran and Russia last May, and has been under siege by pro-regime forces since 2013.  

The siege has tightened in recent months, after government forces closed a main trade crossing into the enclave, while cracking down on a network of tunnels that allowed the smuggling of food and medication into the enclave. "Ghouta is totally isolated but rebels will keep on fighting, any claims of negotiation are false," says Wael Alwan, spokesperson of Faylak al-Rahman Corps.  

Almost concomitantly, Elite Tiger Forces operating in the eastern countryside of Idlib, dominated by Hayaat Tahreer Sham (HTS al-Qaeda's former offshoot) advanced on the Abu Duhur military airport in Idlib.

Since last year, support to rebels has dropped significantly at all levels

In the last few days, Syrian regime troops have captured several towns, such as Tal Salmo, Al-Baiyaiyah, Al-Dabshiyah, Zafr as-Sagheer, Zafr Kabeer, Umm Jorah, Al-Buwyti and Rasm Ayed, with rebels attempting to wrestle back some of these areas.

"These falls can be explained by the disagreements between opposition groups resulting from the Astana peace negotiations, (which some groups supported, while others such as HTS opposed them). HTS has played a dubious role in Idlib, by marginalising and disarming revolutionary groups, thus weakening them in face of regime forces," said Syrian activist Yaser Youssef.

Syria expert Sinan Hatahet of the Turkish think tank Omran Dirasat, has a bleak vision of rebel chances in both Ghouta and Idlib. "In the Ghouta, the rebels will have to accept 'reconciliation' with the regime. In Idlib, the regime aims to take control of the Aleppo Damascus road axis, and possibly to move to the border to reclaim the Bab Hawa and Bab Salameh crossing," he said.

Read more:White Helmets appeal to international community for action, as hundreds killed in East Ghouta

The ongoing military offensives are not the only indicator of waning rebel influence in Syria. Since last year, support to rebels has dropped significantly at all levels. In February, Reuters confirmed the freeze of CIA aid to rebels through the Turkish "MOM Operations Room".

Later in July, President Trump conceded to Russia the abandonment of  the CIA programme that trains, arms and pays moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

"Both the MOC (Jordanian Military Operating Room) and the MOM do not really exist anymore. Arab support has dwindled to nothing, Saudi is prioritising Yemen, the UAE wants reconciliation while Qatar is adopting a low profile because of the Gulf crisis," said Hatahet.

Yet, a defeated rebellion does not guarantee Assad stability. With over 400,000 people killed, 65,000 missing, and over six million people displaced internally, the Syrian government is still banking on an economic recovery, helped in part by the country's reconstruction, estimated at $230 billion.  

The country's reconstruction is estimated at $230 billion

Yet, Syria economist and editor of the Syria Report, Jihad Yazigi believes  there is no western appetite to rebuild Syria, and the Syrian business community does not have the capability to finance reconstruction in the near future. Syria cannot count on Russia and Iran who are facing their own economic challenges.

Reconstruction is nonetheless a cornerstone for rebuilding the country's social contract that will remain elusive the medium term. Bolstered by its military victories, the Assad regime is also not inclined to engage in any kind of real reconciliation.

This year might be the year that Assad completely defeats the opposition. But will that really mean that he has won the war? His role may instead be reduced to that of a central figurehead, ruling over a fragmented country constantly vulnerable to insurgency, internal feuds and extremism. 


Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese analyst who writes about political and economic issues in the Arab world. She is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center, and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.  

Follow her on Twitter: @monaalami


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff

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