The West underestimated Bashar al-Assad for six years, and the Syrian people are paying a brutal price

“We are all with you.”
“We are all with you.”
Image: Reuters/ Kinda Makieh
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After years of intense, street-to-street fighting that culminated in a four-year stalemate over the spoils of Aleppo, the Syrian regime—aided by pro-government militias, many of which are funded by Iran—finally broke through rebel lines in December. Pro-Assad forces have now recaptured practically all territory the opposition had left in the city. For all intents and purposes, president Bashar al-Assad’s forces have achieved their most important victory on the battlefield since the conflict spiraled into a full-blown civil war in 2012.

Just as importantly, if Washington and the moderates within the Syrian opposition movement are genuine in their desire for peace, they must come to the hard realization that Assad is winning the war. Assad’s opponents won’t like to hear this, but they aren’t doing themselves or the Syrian people any favors by continuing to underestimate the tenacity of the Syrian dictator.

The devastation and chaos that now reigns over Aleppo is just the latest result of the Assad regime’s decision to unleash a full-scale campaign to claw back territory, solidify its control, and wipe out any vestiges of an alternative civilian government. The fact that many hundreds of thousands have been killed during these operations isn’t a byproduct of Assad’s behavior, but rather part of his strategy; civilians who demonstrate support for the region’s alphabet soup of rebel factions are considered enemies of the state and thus at risk.

Yet with all of the wanton bloodshed, violence, and crimes against humanity, we can’t overlook the way the United States, Western Europe, and even some parts of the Arab world have all consistently underestimated the strength and determination of Syria’s leader. Assad has turned out to be a lot more brutal, much cruder, and far shrewder than his adversaries initially expected.

When the White House enacted an executive order in August 2011 slapping the first round of banking and financial sanctions on the Syrian government, US president Barack Obama followed the measure up with a bold message to the Syrian leader: “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” At the time, Syria’s civil conflict hadn’t yet degenerated into a civil war. Rather than fold in the face of massive protests, however—like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia’s Ben Ali—Assad ordered the Syrian army to escalate its use of force. Tanks and heavy weapons were brought in along with the machine guns and the rifles, and the opposition city of Homs was surrounded and pounded with artillery. The US and its allies was caught completely unprepared.

In July 2012, rebel factions forced Syrian troops to pull back from Aleppo’s eastern districts. It was an impressive victory for the rebels. Meanwhile, a bomb exploded in the inner sanctum of the regime’s military and intelligence command in Damascus, killing the defense minister and the intelligence chief, wounding the interior minister, and almost claiming the life of Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s younger brother. The situation looked incredibly bad for Assad.

Yet again, US officials were mistaken. The army didn’t fold, but instead doubled down on its use of elite military units that could still be trusted to drive into the Damascus suburbs. The Syrian Air Force also became an active presence in the skies, dropping bombs on rebel neighborhoods.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2015, and the situation for Assad again seemed perilous. Government forces were being beaten across Idlib province, resulting in massive withdrawals and a new opening for the opposition to threaten Assad’s home province of Latakia. Assad himself admitted that in some situations, the Syrian army was being “forced to give up areas” in order to keep control of more important parts of the country, leading to wild speculation in Washington and Europe that perhaps this was the beginning of the end for Damascus. But for a third time, those projections were proved wrong after Russia escalated its involvement in the war, providing Assad with much-needed military reinforcements.

As the saying goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Yet that is exactly what Washington and its allies have done throughout the nearly six-year war in Syria. Bashar al-Assad isn’t going anywhere, and the sooner the United States accepts that fact, the easier it will be able to formulate a policy that has any hope of succeeding.

Overall, US policy on Syria remains sound: Only a negotiated, durable, inclusive political transition process will end the war and begin rebuilding peace. Pressing that solution, though, and continuing to demand that Assad vacate his chair during the process is simply not going to work. Assad is too strong on the ground to even contemplate leaving. This will be a bitter pill for everyone to swallow and will certainly be described by the moderate opposition as a betrayal. But without this reality check, the status quo will end up just like east Aleppo has over these last few weeks: destroyed.