Will the Assad regime survive the civil war?

Almost 400,000 dead, twelve million refugees : After nine years of war, peace in Syria is a long way off

Almost 400,000 dead. Up to twelve million refugees. A regional conflagration. But Syria's head of state Bashar al Assad is cynical enough to see positive aspects of the war in his country.

As far as cohesion and “social integration” are concerned, Syrian society is in better shape today than it was at the beginning of the conflict on March 15, 2011, Assad told Russian television broadcaster Rossiya 24 a few days ago. In other words, many opponents of the regime are dead or have had to flee.

Although the war is now in its tenth year, the 54-year-old Assad can be sure that he will stay in power. The suffering of the civilian population is likely to continue as there is no prospect of an end to the conflict anytime soon.

"Down with the regime"

In the spring of 2011, the Arab Spring uprisings also inspired demonstrators in Syria, which has been ruled by the Assad clan for decades. Hafez al Assad, the father of the current president, ruled the country with an iron hand until his death in 2000. When Bashar al Assad, a trained ophthalmologist, took over the presidency in the same year, he was initially considered a reformer. But it soon became clear that the younger Assad would follow his father's hard line.

When young people sprayed the slogan "Down with the regime - now it's your turn, doctor" in the city of Daara at the beginning of March 2011, the security forces responded with arrests. This sparked further protests. A demonstration in the capital Damascus on March 15, 2011 is considered the official start of the uprising, which was initially carried out by peaceful means.

The regime responded with violence, which contributed to the radicalization of the opposition. Confessional tensions exacerbated the situation. The Assad regime is supported by Alawis who belong to Shiite Islam, while Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population.

Internationalization and "Islamic State"

Soon after the outbreak of the civil war, international actors fueled the conflict. Shiite Iran came to Assad's aid immediately, but Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states wanted to prevent Syria from becoming part of the "Shiite crescent" from Iran via Iraq to Lebanon. That is why they armed Sunni militias, including Islamist extremists. Its northern neighbor, Turkey, also sought to overthrow Assad and helped Sunni groups.

Assad's army came under great pressure and had to give up a number of areas. The beneficiaries included the jihadists from the “Islamic State” (IS), who conquered large areas in eastern Syria and western Iraq in 2014. The successes of IS called the USA and its partners on the scene: They attacked the jihadists in Syria. The US allied itself with the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, a mortal enemy of NATO partner Turkey.

Russia brings the turning point

Assad was on the verge of defeat at the time, but Russia's intervention in 2015 saved him. President Vladimir Putin saw the opportunity to establish his country as the new Middle East power. The opportunity was opportune because the US had lost a lot of credibility.

President Barack Obama had threatened Assad with military strikes because of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian army, but then spared the president in Damascus. More and more Syrians left their homeland for Europe in 2015 and shook the EU with their mass exodus.

With Russian help, Assad was able to regain lost territory bit by bit. The ever closer cooperation between Russia and Turkey ensured that Ankara did not disrupt Assad's advance.

For Turkey, Syria was no longer about overthrowing the Syrian President, but rather about smashing the YPG autonomous area along its southern border. With Putin's approval, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his army to Syria for three military interventions against the YPG from 2016.

Idlib, the last refuge for opponents of the regime

The announced US withdrawal from eastern Syria has opened up the possibility of an alliance between Assad and the Syrian Kurds, who fear that Turkey will be defenseless after the Americans have withdrawn. This makes the northwestern province of Idlib the only remaining bastion of the government opponents.

Many fighters and refugees had found safety in Idlib during the war years. Tens of thousands of fighters now live there - including the Islamist extremists of the HTS militia, an offshoot of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, and around three million civilians.

Almost a year ago, Assad's troops began an offensive to retake Idlib for the government and thus perfect the president's military victory in the civil war. At the beginning of February Erdogan sent several thousand soldiers to the province to stop Assad's advance and prevent a new mass exodus of up to a million people from Idlib to Turkey.

Despite a ceasefire negotiated by Erdogan and Putin, Assad leaves no doubt that he wants to bring Idlib under his control. The fighting could therefore flare up again soon.

The misery of the people

Nine years of war have severely affected the Syrians and the country. More than half of the population had to leave their homes. Almost twelve million women, children and men have been on the run, some for years. 5.5 million now live in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, more than six million wander around in their home country.

Many of them struggle to survive day after day. Medicines, food, drinking water, medical help, fuel, electricity - there is a lack of everything. In some parts of Syria there is no longer any question of civil infrastructure. Streets, squares and villages are in ruins.

Satellite imagery shows that entire stretches of land have been essentially wiped out. In some areas, 30 percent of the houses have been destroyed. The everyday life of the people there is in ruins. Without humanitarian aid, they would not be able to make ends meet. It is estimated that $ 200-300 billion would be needed to rebuild. Assad himself even speaks of 400 billion. It would take up to 15 years to repair the war damage.

But even beyond the current battle zones, most Syrian families are in bad shape. 80 percent of Syrians live on the poverty line. The currency has lost a lot of value due to the war, and jobs are hard to find. Children have to help secure a livelihood. Going to school is hardly an option for them.

The situation in Idlib has been particularly precarious for months. Helpers call what is happening in the last refuge of the opposition a tragedy, even by Syrian standards. Almost a million people have lost their homes since December alone. Most of them try to get to safety at the Turkish border.

But the border is sealed off, a wall prevents the Syrians from leaving their homeland, and behind them Assad's army is advancing further and further, supported from the air by Russian fighter jets and on the ground by pro-Iranian militias. People are cornered.

The refugee camps can no longer accept anyone. In freezing temperatures and rain, women, children and men often live defenseless in garages, ruins, on trucks or even under trees. Now everyone is hoping that the ceasefire agreed between Russia and Turkey will hold. Only: in Syria every ceasefire has been broken.

Into the future with Assad?

After his successes in recent years, the Syrian president is not thinking of giving up. He should run again in next year's presidential election and win, because there can be no talk of fair, i.e. free and democratic, votes in Syria. Talks between the government and the opposition under the umbrella of the UN about a post-war constitution for Syria are not going anywhere.

The fact that Assad can look calmly into the future is also due to his skill in playing off his two international partners - Russia and Iran - against each other. Nine years after the outbreak of war, the Syrian president can also hope for better relations with his Arab neighbors.

The Gulf states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus, which they had closed for years, and the Arab League is discussing returning full membership rights to Syria. Assad's time as an international pariah could gradually come to an end. This is fatal news for the millions who suffer under his rule.

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