Why is everyone against Bashar al Assad

Assad shortly before the goal : 2020 could be the year of triumph for Syria's dictator

Bashar al Assad was humble. It is still too early to speak of a victory in the almost nine-year war in his country, the Syrian President recently told the French magazine "Paris Match". However, his government has made great strides. In other words, he is on the verge of regaining almost complete control of Syria.

In the past few years, the dictator was on the brink of defeat. But Russia's military intervention in autumn 2015 saved him and his regime. Even more. Since then, his soldiers and allied militias have been on the rise. And now the province of Idlib is facing the fall - the last bastion of the opposition. Assad apparently wants to shoot them ready for storm. Air raid follows air raid. Barrel bombs are dropped and hospitals are targeted. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the past few weeks alone. Tens of thousands have lost their homes and are trying to find a reasonably protected place to stay. It seems: 2020 could be a triumph for Syria's rulers.

Russia's influence
This is mainly due to Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin chief continues to hold his protective hand over Assad. The Russian air force flies attacks on the rebels, who are increasingly on the defensive. On the international stage, Putin is cooperating with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and is urging Ankara to contact the Assad government directly. Moscow also works in the UN Security Council for its ally in Damascus, which is accused of serious war crimes and the main responsibility for the deaths of several hundred thousand people and for the displacement of millions of Syrians.

For Putin, Syria is not just a country where Russia is reporting back as a power in the Middle East after decades of absence as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Syria is also a springboard for a planned Russian zone of influence across the eastern Mediterranean. The Syrian port of Tartus, the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, is to be expanded for military and civil purposes. The Russian government recently announced that it would invest $ 500 million in Tartus for this purpose.

The message is clear: Russia has come to stay and replace the United States as the power of order in the Middle East.

The defeat of IS

Bashar al Assad also benefits indirectly from the military victory of the US-led international alliance against the “Islamic State” (IS). Because the alliance has to a certain extent done the “dirty work” for Syria's leadership and with the jihadists removed a threat - at least for the time being. The regime did little to achieve this. On the contrary. Particularly at the beginning of the uprising, many "godly warriors" held in Syrian prisons were released. Assad used it as an effective weapon against more moderate opposition forces.

But in the course of the conflict, the "Islamic State" developed into a great danger to its own rule: the Islamists under their leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who had since been killed, declared war on Assad and successfully contested him for power in large parts of the country for a long time . Today the "Caliphate" of Bearded History, IS, has been pushed underground.

But that doesn't mean that IS is a thing of the past. It is precisely the brutal suppression of the Sunnis and the arbitrariness of the state that continues to drive many Syrians into the arms of the extremists. And their ideology cannot be fought by military means anyway. The regime is likely to feel this.

Erdogan's adventure
Assad's most dangerous international opponent had to cut back his ambitions in Syria in 2019. President Erdogan, who is striving to overthrow the ruler in Damascus, is involved in Idlib province. But the new Turkish advance into northeast Syria in October fell far short of Ankara's expectations. With the invasion, on the one hand, the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, an offshoot of the terrorist group PKK, is to be displaced from the border area. On the other hand, the establishment of a “protection zone” for the resettlement of refugees is planned over a length of 400 kilometers from the Euphrates in the west to the Iraqi border in the east.

But when the fighting ended two weeks after the invasion, Turkey had only gained control of an area of ​​about 100 kilometers in length. Erdogan's soldiers cannot advance any further. The US and Russia negotiated two ceasefire agreements with Turkey that halted the advance. Turkey had to accept that Russian soldiers and Syrian units were stationed in the northeast of the country. Assad and Putin are striving to integrate the YPG into the regular Syrian armed forces - the Kurds do not have many opportunities to evade Assad.

America's retreat
Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US soldiers from Syria has changed the distribution of forces in the north-east of the country - and weakened the Kurds. As the most important partner of the Americans in the fight against the “Islamic State”, the YPG established its own autonomous area in the north-east of the country; While Russia has air sovereignty in western Syria, the US air force is in charge in the east of the country.

With the withdrawal of the Americans, the Syrian Kurds are now losing their protector - another advantage for Assad. And a bitter disappointment for America's loyal allies until then.

Several hundred US soldiers are said to remain in Syria to guard the oil wells in the northeast and to withdraw Assad's access. But the Syrian president is determined to persuade the Americans to withdraw once and for all.

On the Chinese broadcaster Phoenix Television, Assad threatened that the USA could experience similar experiences in Syria as in neighboring Iraq, where American units were the target of many attacks after the 2003 invasion of Saddam Hussein. "In the end, the Americans will leave the country," said Assad.

Assad's advance
There has been a war in Syria for more than eight years - and Assad has never been closer to his goal of subjugating most of his country again. He continuously managed to recapture central areas. Now all that's missing is Idlib, the province in the north that is still held by insurgents. And apparently Assad is determined to tear down the bastion of the opposition - ruthlessly and supported by Russian fighter jets.

The brutal approach is justified with the fight against terrorism. But for Damascus not only the jihadists of the former Nusra Front - who are in charge in Idlib and control the residents - are enemies, but also the civilians living there. Because, according to the regime's reading, all those who do not want to swear allegiance to Assad are despicable traitors.

The three million people in Idlib feel that. The women, children and men have often fled there from other regions of Syria because life under Assad is out of the question for them. The price for this is high. Hundreds of people have already been killed by the latest offensive, hundreds of thousands have fled, seek shelter in overcrowded camps or under trees and are starving.

Syria's Constitution
Assad need not fear for his presidential post in the new year either. After a long hesitation, under pressure from Russia, his government had to approve the start of negotiations with the opposition and civil society on a new constitution for Syria. For the first time since the end of October, a delegation from the regime has been sitting at a table in Geneva with critics of the government who are calling for Assad to be disempowered.

But the Geneva negotiations, led by the United Nations, are making little headway. In the first two rounds of negotiations in November, the participants could not even agree on an agenda for a planned 45-member committee to draft a new constitution. The date for a third round has not yet been set.

Bashar al Assad is obviously playing for time - and in view of his successes on the battlefield, he will hardly be persuaded to make important concessions. Syria's despot has done it - he should stay in power for the foreseeable future. For the battered country and its people in need, this is anything but auspicious news with a view to the coming year.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page