Then there is the human cost: More than 500,000 people killed, 5 million refugees, entire cities flattened. There are few signs the fighting is close to stopping—despite a 30-day, UN-mandated ceasefire that went into effect last month. Assad continues to bomb Eastern Ghouta, the region outside Damascus held by rebels including anti-Assad Islamists . The death toll there since the most recent assault began last month exceeds 1,000. With the international community doing nothing to stop him, it is all but certain Assad will sooner or later capture the area. When he does that, he will have defeated one of the last major pockets of resistance. But even then, it will be hard to say that he “won” the war.
“It’s very difficult for us, as Syrians, who have watched this from the beginning of the revolution. For us it feels like … there’s nothing really being done to help the people have been suffering for over seven years,” said Lina Attar, a Syrian American architect from Aleppo who is the co-founder of the Karam Foundation, an aid organization that works with displaced Syrians. “And so when you hear the words ‘Assad has won,’ they are very difficult words to hear. As a Syrian you think, ‘Won over what?’”
It’s unclear—and highly unlikely—that Assad can survive in power without Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah support. He says he wants to regain control of all of Syria, but may have to settle for only a bit more than he has now. The Kurds, for example, are unlikely to give up the autonomous territory they’ve gained in the northeast of the country. And though ISIS has largely been defeated in the country, its enemies are now turning their guns on each other in at least three more potential conflicts playing out on Syrian territory, that pit Turkey against the Syrian Kurds, Israel against Iran, and the U.S. against Russia.
“The way we look at it is Assad won the war, but the rest of the region doesn’t see it that way,” Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute, said in a recent interview. “They see the outcome very differently. They see Iranian activities there. They see Russian activity. They see Kurdish activities.”
Syria was once the power broker in Lebanon and a major force in the region but is now dependent on the largesse of its few allies. Assad’s military forces are depleted. The most effective pro-Assad fighting forces are militia members and foreign fighters. And Tabler argues that an outcome in which Assad remains in power is unacceptable to both Turkey and Israel. “That threatens to morph the Syrian civil war into the Syria war,” he said. “This is very similar to what happened in Lebanon in the 1980s—where you had a civil war, initially driven by Palestinian activities there, and then after they departed the scene, the war continued. International players became involved in the Lebanon war—and it tends to prolong wars and makes the outcome far more difficult to obtain.” In Syria’s case, Israel is threatened by the presence of Iranian forces in a country on its border; in Turkey’s, it sees the Kurds as menacing its own territorial integrity. Both powers have been drawn further into Syria’s fighting in recent weeks.