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Bashar al-Assad’s Hollow Victory

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President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has now endured through nearly nine years of civil conflict. The question for those invested in Syria’s future is no longer whether the regime will survive but how it will seek to consolidate its power before ending the war still ravaging the country. Assad may have entered battle thinking that his regime could retain the authority it enjoyed before 2011, but today his goals are likely more modest.

Their circumscription, however, does not make Assad’s current priorities less dangerous. They may even be more so. In order to demonstrate to the world that he remains in control and that relations with his regime should be normalized, Assad will undoubtedly seek to take back all of the country’s former territory. In order to sustain his regime internally, he will not dally with meeting the needs of the Syrian people but aspire to bare survival, which he can achieve by maintaining the patronage network that has become the Syrian regime’s lifeline throughout the conflict.

But if Assad realizes these minimalist aims—survival and the restoration of Syria’s territory—his victory will be a Pyrrhic one. He will sit atop a hollow state with weak institutions, beset with war profiteers, and subservient to external powers.

Assad has already begun to make good on his goal of regaining territorial control over Syria. The main region at issue is the north. Islamist rebels control the northwest, where they have resisted Assad’s advances. In the northeast, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had pushed the Islamic State, known as ISIS, out of the area by 2018 and established a kind of self-government to which U.S. troops supplied ballast. In October 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew most troops and Turkey swept into the region. The SDF reached an agreement with Assad to allow the Syrian army to enter the northeast and counter the Turkish offensive. Today, Kurdish forces administer the area in the presence of the Syrian army.

Now the Syrian regime is working with Russia to take the north fully back for Damascus. Russia is........

© Foreign Affairs