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Is Assad Poised for Victory in Syria?


FILE - This Dec. 11, 2017 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watch the troops marching at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Syrian government and its regional and international allies seem to have an upper hand in Syria after recapturing swaths of land and cities from Islamic State and other rebel groups.

But experts say the situation is still far from being resolved, as the conflict enters its eighth year this month.

Ibrahim al-Assil, a scholar at Middle East Institute, said the odds are shifting in favor of the Syrian regime, but that doesn't mean the regime will emerge the victor.

"The conflict in Syria is not only an armed one, it's much deeper than that. The state institutions are weaker than ever, and the regime lost all its legitimacy by killing and detaining hundreds of thousands of Syrians," al-Assil said.

But Colin P. Clarke, a researcher on terrorism and insurgency at the Rand Corporation has a different take.

"I'd say that Assad has emerged as a victor in some respect, which was that he seems to have achieved his primary objective, which is remaining in power and keeping his regime from being defeated."

Clarke said Syria is still in complete chaos and will never be the same, "but Assad has surprised many by fighting the counterinsurgency with all available means. In other ways, he remains an international pariah for his use of chemical weapons and indiscriminate slaughter. So, his days may be numbered. Assad's main benefactor, Russia, could very likely push him aside during future negotiations to bring about a political settlement to the war in Syria."

In a testimony before members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told lawmakers that the Assad regime made significant gains in central and eastern Syria in 2017.

"The Assad regime has insufficient forces to adequately secure recaptured territory and often faces insurgent counterattacks behind its lines. The regime is highly dependent on billions of dollars in external Iranian and Russian economic and military support, the cost of which presses both Moscow and Tehran to seek an end to the conflict," Votel said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based rights group monitoring the situation in Syria, said more than 500,000 civilians were killed in the past seven years. Of those, about 85 percent were killed by the Syrian regime and its allied militias.

The U.S. State Department has called for the end of fighting in Syria.

"So, we continue to call for that cease-fire to be put in force, and that has not happened just yet. Most importantly right now, aside from that cease-fire, is getting the humanitarian aid in that needs to be gotten in," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Militarization of Syria

The conflict in Syria started between different factions fighting on multiple fronts, including the Syrian government. Military intervention from external parties provided proxies in Syria with arms, training, airstrikes and troops.

A number of local paramilitary forces were established to support Syria's regular troops. The shortage in manpower led the regime to subcontract internal and external militias.

"The regime heavily depends on foreign militias in the battles, and those militias are loyal to Iran and Russia, not to the regime. The reason behind that is the lack of manpower. The Syrian army is incapable of continuing the fighting against the opposition alone," al-Assil said.

Al-Assil added that this dependence will impose a challenge to the regime in the future to maintain stability and regain a central government.

One of the most popular among the regime's supporters is Tiger Forces, led by Suheil al-Hassan, known by his nickname, Al-Nimr.

Established in 2013, The Tiger Forces became indispensable working on the ground for Syria and Russia. It is now leading the battle with Hezbollah in eastern Ghouta.

"We will provide the needed air support to the forces of Brig. Gen. Suheil al-Hassan. … We have real confidence in their ability to accomplish the mission," Alexander Ivanov, spokesman for Russian forces headquartered at the Hmeimim air base in western Syrian, wrote on the base's official Facebook page.

Edmond Ghareeb, a professor of International Affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School, told VOA that no one can say what will become of these militias after the end of military operations, but one outcome could be the emergence of a more experienced Syrian army.

"Either the foreign militias have to leave, or lay down their arms and join the military. Otherwise, another war might begin," Ghareeb said.

Reconstruction

The World Bank estimated the losses in Syria at $226 billion in the period between 2011 and 2016. The United Nations estimated the reconstruction in Syria will cost nearly $250 billion.

Maintaining security is key to reconstruction efforts because of the millions of displaced people and the spread of military groups in Syria.

In a speech this month, outgoing national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the "United States and its partners will not provide reconstruction funding to areas controlled by the murderous Assad regime until there is a political transition away from Assad's rule."

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