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December 12, 2016 No.
1287

As Aleppo's Fall To Assad Regime Seems Assured, Regime Is Certain Of Its Victory And Future International Influence – And Opposition Recognizes Defeat

Introduction

After six years of war in Syria, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad seems to have the upper hand over the rebel forces. Massive assistance from allies Iran, Russia, and Hizbullah has enabled it to almost completely crush its opponents and push them out of stronghold after stronghold. This is done by besieging rebel-held areas and preventing the delivery of humanitarian aid to their residents, while carrying out massive airstrikes, including with barrel-bombs, and artillery attacks. The regime's main efforts are now concentrated on Aleppo, where it has already recaptured more than two thirds of the east of the city. At the same time, the regime's Russian allies are focusing their attacks on Idlib, now a major stronghold for opposition forces that had arrived there from other locations across the country, under "reconciliation agreements" with the regime that nevertheless do not prevent the Russians from targeting them as part of the regime offensive.[1]

The regime's numerous military victories, especially in Aleppo, are coming at a time of political change in some of the Western superpowers that have led the anti-Assad camp. Donald Trump's presidential triumph, the anticipated French presidential win of Francois Fillon, and statements by both indicating their willingness to work together with Assad in the fight against ISIS have led the Syrian regime to expect shifts in its favor in U.S. and French policy vis-a-vis the Syria crisis. They have also increased the regime's belief that its cause is just and that it will prevail, and encouraged it to continue to strive for total victory, with no negotiations.

Throughout the war, even when its battlefield and diplomatic situations were at their nadir, the Syrian regime never wavered, maintaining confidence that it would triumph in the end.[2] Today its sense of victory is paralleled by an equal measure of despondency among the opposition and its supporters, with mounting losses on the battlefield, growing division in its ranks, and increasingly numerous voices that are beginning to acknowledge a coming Assad victory.

This paper will describe the Assad regime's and its allies' sense of victory, as reflected by top regime officials' statements and by articles published by the state and pro-regime newspapers. It will also review the frustration and despair of the opposition and its supporters, as seen in articles in the Syrian and Arab press expressing recognition of the coming defeat.

Assad Regime: Victory Is On The Horizon, Will Change Power Balance Not Only Locally But Also Internationally

As stated, in the past weeks the Syrian regime has been encouraged by its achievements on the ground and by changes in the international arena that, it believes, will allow it to remain in power and also position it as a major player not only on the regional level but on the global one. This is evident from statements by Syrian officials and articles in the government and pro-regime press.

The Terrorists Face A Choice Between Surrender And Death

Having recaptured about two thirds of Aleppo by besieging the residents and withholding humanitarian aid from them while carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery attacks, including on hospitals, the regime is more determined than ever to eliminate the remaining pockets of resistance in the city, and rejects out of hand any arrangement other than a complete surrender of the rebel forces. In a December 8, 2016 interview with the pro-regime daily Al-Watan, Assad stressed his determination to retake Aleppo: "The decision to liberate all of Syria, including Aleppo, was taken from the very beginning [of the war]. We never thought to leave any part [of Syria] unliberated."[3]

Muhriz Al-'Ali, a columnist for the pro-regime daily Al-Thawra, wrote: "Uprooting terror is a top priority, and the only choice the terrorists [now] have is between death and surrender, because the decision to purge Aleppo and all of Syria of the filth of terror and terrorist has already been made, and this is the foremost goal of all Syrians, no matter how many sacrifices [it takes]."[4]

Al-Thawra columnist Nasser Mundhir wrote in a similar vein that the battle for Aleppo "will cause all the regional and international considerations to change in favor of the resistance axis in the region... Thanks to the [Syrian] army, Aleppo is now achieving the final victory over terrorism and its supporters. It will not accept anything less than victory and a defeat of the aggression. Freed from terrorism, it will pave the way to victory in many other places and open the door to the political solution that the army is already outlining on the ground..."[5]

 


Cartoon in Saudi daily: "Bashar" targets Syrians with barrel bombs, "Russia" with missiles, "Iran" with guns and "ISIS" with knives (Al-Iqtisadiyya, Saudi Arabia, December 7, 2016)

Aleppo – A Turning Point In The Syria War: Our Steadfast Position Changes The International Balance Of Power

As the Syrian regime sees it, its military successes across the country, specifically in Aleppo, and its ability to stand fast throughout the crisis, have shifted the balance of power not only in Syria but also in the world. Assad told Al-Watan in an interview that while domestic issues were a factor in the changes in Western countries, the changes were also the result of external elements, such as terrorism and immigration, that are directly linked to the events in Syria. According to Assad, it was the warnings by the Syrian regime throughout the years of the conflict that helped "expose the Western deception [regarding the state of affairs in the Middle East] in the media, in politics, and in institutions and lobbies tied to [the West], and they [these warnings] played a part in fomenting popular demand for change in Western countries... If not for the steadfast position of the Syrian people and state, the Western citizens would have believed these lies to be true..."[6]

Bouthaina Sha'aban, political advisor to Assad, was more forceful, saying: "Syria's steadfastness, and the support from its allies, have shifted the regional and international balance [of power]... The recent developments in the international arena are bringing the countries of the region face to face with a new world, which requires additional thought and action in order to formulate strategic political and informational plans on the regional and global levels."[7]

Hizbullah Executive Council Chairman Hashem Safi Al-Din said in a similar vein that after the army recaptures eastern Aleppo, "the power-balances will change not only in Syria but in the entire region, and that will be the beginning of the end of the world war that was launched against Syria and the resistance."[8]

Ahmad Hassan, a columnist for the Syrian state daily Al-Ba'th, compared the battle for Aleppo to the battle of El Alamein in World War II. He wrote: "The outcomes of the battle there [in Aleppo], which will be decided sooner rather than later in favor of the Syrian regime,... can be compared to the outcomes of the famous battle of El Alamein, which was a major turning point that helped decide the ultimate outcome of World War II... The objective significance of what is happening now [in Aleppo], is that the stage following [the victory] in Aleppo starts [right now], at this very moment... The battle continues and will continue until all the neighborhoods [of Aleppo] are purged and every part of the city is returned to the bosom of the Syrian state. The military action continues and will continue on every piece of land that terror has contaminated, no matter the price..."[9]

Al-Ba'th columnist 'Imad Salem wrote: "The world is on the verge of a strategic transformation that will transform [various] alliances, so that countries that dream of keeping their long tentacles in distant places will be forced to withdraw back into their own borders... The contours of the victory of the Syrian army and its allies in World War III [i.e., the Syria war] are becoming clear, and we shall reap the fruit of the steadfastness and the sacrifices. There is no better proof of this than [the fact that] some countries – chief among them Trump's U.S. and Marine Le Pen's France – are rushing towards Russia. This means that Syria will be a major player not only in the region but in the world, and the agents [of the U.S.] should get ready to reap what they sowed..."[10]

Rif'at Al-Badawi, a columnist for the pro-regime Syrian daily Al-Watan, claimed that in today's world, anyone who wishes to win a presidential election must recognize the important role of the Syrian regime. In a column titled "Syria and the Road to the Presidency," he wrote: "[U.S. president-elect Donald] Trump's power stems from the fact that he rebelled against the mechanism that produces presidents [in the U.S.] and had no need for the large corporations... [In addition,] he declared his wish to cooperate with Russia under President Putin, and [said] that he supports President Bashar Al-Assad staying in power and helping him in his war against terror... In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's defeat in [his party's] presidential primaries was a punishment [he received] after his role in the plot against Libya and Syria was exposed... [Conversely,] Francois Fillon declared his intention to hold direct talks with Russia and Iran in order to find a political solution for Syria and fight terrorism there, [stressing] that the wishes of the Syrian people must be respected... The result is that Fillon is managing to advance towards [winning] the French presidency. In Lebanon, General Michel 'Aoun, the ally of Syria and Hizbullah, has [already] managed to attain the title of 'Honorable President'... The world is changing and alliances are reforming, and Syria is at the heart of this new world. The way to the presidency passes through Syria, and whoever wants to win must recognize the role of the Syrian leadership and respect the will of the Syrian people."[11]

Contempt For U.S., UN: The Americans' Threats Are Meaningless, de Mistura Must Go

This perception of the Assad regime that the developments on the ground and in the international arena are in its favor is also reflected in statements by Syrian officials and articles in the pro-regime press expressing open contempt for the U.S. administration and for UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura.

In an interview with Al-Watan, President Assad attacked outgoing U.S. administration, saying: "In the last year, the U.S. administration has been behaving [just] like the armed factions in Syria, struggling for loot and achievements... The declarations [it] makes in the morning differ from the policies [pursued] in the evening, and the latter are different from the actions of the following day... You feel there is no consistent policy, but [only] struggles [between factions within the administration]."[12]

Criticism at the U.S. administration was also expressed in press articles, especially after National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, following the escalation of the attacks on Aleppo, that "the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia in particular, bear responsibly for the immediate and long term consequences these actions have caused in Syria and beyond."[13] The articles stated that this was mere bluster, like the U.S. administration's threats in 2013 to attack in Syria if it were proved that the regime had used chemical weapons, and that this bluster only proved that the U.S. administration supports the terrorists. Al-Thawra columnist 'Ali Nasrallah wrote: "The latest U.S. warnings are meaningless... They are [only] another indication of the Obama administration's concern for [the safety of] its mercenaries, which it tried to defend by means of [UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan] de Mistura... and expose an administration that is detached from reality and full of delusions... Neither Russia nor Syria currently feel the need to remind the present U.S. administration that the final decision to free Aleppo from the Wahhabi [i.e., Saudi] mercenaries has already been taken and is not up for discussion or reassessment under any excuse, and that no U.S. opposition will affect the unfolding and development of events..."[14]

Amin Hatit, a Lebanese columnist and analyst for Al-Thawra, wrote: "When Obama threatened to attack Syria in 2013 [following reports that the regime had used chemical weapons], we knew this was [mere] bluster and that he would never dare to act on it, in light of what would await him on Syrian soil [if he did]... The American warnings and threats have no effect on decisions in Syria and Iraq... The American warning is nothing but a political and propaganda [tactic]..."[15]

A similar attitude was expressed towards Staffan de Mistura, who was received coldly during his November 20, 2016 visit to Damascus. A particularly insulting article in Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, published the same day, stated that Syria had repeatedly rejected de Mistura's requests to visit the country, and speculated that his visit would be very brief to reflect "Damascus's dissatisfaction" with his "recent string of provocative and unfair remarks, which are not in line with the UN special envoy's role of mediator in resolving the crisis." It added that Donald Trump's election victory had dealt "a harsh blow to de Mistura" and placed him "in an unenviable position."[16]

Al-Watan's assessment turned out to be correct. Following de Mistura's visit, which lasted only a few hours and which included a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Mu'allem, the minister held a solo press conference in which he rejected out of hand de Mistura's proposal for a ceasefire in Aleppo in exchange for the departure of Jabhat Fath Al-Sham (formerly Jabhat Al-Nusra) fighters from eastern Aleppo and local opposition forces' establishment of some kind of autonomous governance. Al-Mu'allem called the proposal "totally unacceptable, as it harms our national sovereignty and rewards terrorism," and added that it was inconceivable that the UN would present such an initiative. De Mistura, he said, had not met expectations, had not discussed a renewal of intra-Syrian dialogue, and had provided no guarantees that the ceasefire would be respected by countries that support terrorism.[17]

Articles in the Syrian press likewise accused de Mistura of supporting terrorists and overstepping the bounds of his position, and called on him to resign. An article in Al-Thawra stated: "The UN has never [before involved itself] so bluntly as a direct side [in the conflict] by means of its envoy, who is not just biased in favor of the terrorists but has worked to violate the UN charter and principles... It appears as though the UN envoy does not want to end his role before using his influence to consolidate the terrorist plan and allow its supporters to retain a foothold [in Syria]..."[18]

Al-Watan columnist Samer 'Ali Dahi wrote: "After [de Mistura's visit to Damascus] today, it will come as no surprise if Damascus demands to replace the international mediator [de Mistura], who has so far failed in his task... His trip to Damascus was to no avail and he returned empty-handed."[19]

Al-Thawra columnist 'Abd Al-Halim Sa'ud wrote similarly: "De Mistura's efforts to defend some 7,000 terrorists in eastern Aleppo while disregarding some 2,000,000 residents who suffer because of them is an outrageous [act by] the UN that cannot be passed over in silence or allowed to continue, and it [also] constitutes a blatant overstepping of the bounds of [de Mistura's] role. Perhaps de Mistura, who is so committed to [the safety of] the terrorists in eastern Aleppo, should have persuaded them to emigrate to the West and used his vast experience to persuade the Western countries who support them to take them in..."[20]

Assad Opponents, Demoralized And Defeated, Are Recognizing That Assad Has Won

The Assad regime's current sense that victory is at hand is now, for the first time, being echoed by some members of the opposition, as is seen in recent articles published inside and outside Syria that express despair and recognition of defeat.

Military, Political Opposition Bodies Criticized For "Hijacking Our Revolution"

One of the main factors in the opposition's defeat both on the ground and in the political arena is the rift between the political and the military opposition, which dates back to the onset of the revolution. The rift is the result of the lack of a single, agreed-upon leadership – a weakness skillfully exploited by the regime and its allies. One notable manifestation of this of this state of affairs was the absence of representatives from both the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and from the Syrian High Negotiations Committee, both of which claim to represent the Syrian opposition, from the December 2016 Turkey-sponsored talks in Ankara between representatives from some of the factions fighting in eastern Aleppo and Russian military personnel.[21]

The opposition's repeated defeats on the ground, particularly in Aleppo, led many regime opponents to criticize the poor functioning of the political and military opposition and of the many splits among them. Some claimed that these bodies did not represent them. Syrian journalist 'Ali Safar wrote in an article titled "Who Gave You Our Voices? Why Do You Speak in Our Name?": "In the last six years, no political or military body emerged that enjoys a Syrian consensus and can be trusted to accelerate the political process and end the disgraceful reality in which all [Syrians] live, inside and outside the country... An armed group takes the fate of an entire region into its hands, claiming to speak for its residents, and the regime continues to do the exact same thing... and the political opposition [also] does the same thing, by other means. All these elements... bear no relation to democracy and have never asked a single Syrian if he agrees to their involvement in his life..."[22]

Syrian journalist Khalil Al-Miqdad wondered: "Do we not have the right to ask these [opposition] leaders about the reasons for the division [among them] and the defeats on the ground, the price of which has been paid by hundreds of thousands of people [?]... Have our people been killed and forced to emigrate, and have our villages been destroyed, [just] so that instead of one thief a [whole] gang of thieves and mercenaries will rule [the country], living at the expense of our people's blood?"[23]

Syrian oppositionist Rima Fleihan denounced the elements she said had "stolen the revolution" and turned it into an armed sectarian conflict, and called to save the revolution from certain death by returning to non-violent measures. She wrote: "Our strength drained away when we allowed [all sorts of] wretches to steal our revolution right before our eyes, while we paid no heed, thinking that they shared our opinion and goal. Our strength drained away when they destroyed the non-violent character [of the revolution]..., and when the national discourse of the revolution turned into inciting sectarian discourse due to foolish, despicable resentful people who were not even ashamed to annihilate us using various methods and to remove the mantle of the revolution from its true sons... Our strength drained away when we believed that there was someone in the world who truly cared about our pain and wanted us to extricate ourselves from the quagmire of dictatorship [and gain] freedom and human dignity... Our strength drained away when we believed that our Arab and Muslim brothers would pay attention to anything beyond their personal interests and maintaining their rule [over their countries]...

"Only restoring the original purity of the revolution, and its initial perception and non-violent character, will restore [the vigor of] our youth... The only thing that will save us from death – which seems inevitable in light of the rise of extremism, the hateful discourse, the rise of the extremists to power in most of the countries involved [in the Syria crisis], and the cruelty of those who attack us and our land – is a comprehensive national program for fixing all the mistakes we Syrians have made. That will happen only when we can finally learn from our mistakes... and stop rejoicing at one another's death..."[24]


Arab world looks away as Syria drowns in blood, then cries over it when it's too late (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, December 8, 2016)

In addition to criticizing the performance of opposition bodies, some articles by Syrian oppositionists and supporters of the opposition in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere reflected recognition of the opposition's impending defeat and despair of achieving the main goal of the revolution, i.e., toppling the Assad regime.

Muhammad Rushdi Sharbaji, a Syrian writer living in Germany, wrote: "The revolution has few options. In light of the regime advances on all fronts, even the best option is a bitter one. In my opinion, the revolution's strategic goal should be survival – to survive, even on a small piece of Syrian soil, which will grant it status in any future political arrangement... It is no longer conceivable to bring down the regime in the current way. Continuing on the present path means destroying the revolution's circles of support, and creating new problems involving immigration and refugees. This is a bitter truth that is hard to swallow after hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of emigres..."[25]

George Sama'an, a Lebanese columnist for the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, was even more pessimistic, arguing that the opposition had no chance of victory in Aleppo and should consider its next move: "In the coming days, the opposition will have no choice but to accept Aleppo's fate: either the model of Grozny, which spells total destruction, or the model of Beirut, where Israel [first] besieged and cornered the PLO and [then] removed it from its headquarters and from the streets of the city, [sending it] to a far-flung diaspora... Can the Syrian opposition, which could not topple the [Assad] regime for a thousand objective and subjective reasons, successfully fight the Russian and Iranian militaries, which are armed with all manner of heavy weapons? The challenge is great. Many just revolutions throughout history have failed, but other revolutions succeeded, because they knew how to adjust their political and military strategies..."[26]


"Syrian regime," standing with "Russia" amid ruins of Aleppo, says: "peace at last!" (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, London, December 12, 2016)

Hazem Saghieh, a Lebanese columnist for Al-Hayat, complained about the improvement in Assad's global standing despite his crimes against the Syrian people. He wrote: "The claim that more and more people are keen on Bashar Al-Assad, or at the very least prefer him to his rivals, is gaining momentum. In recent months, this growing list of names has seen the addition of [president-elect] Donald Trump in America and of [leading presidential candidate] Francois Fillon in France... while Bashar Al-Assad, along with his two biggest allies, Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei, continues the destruction and murder in Aleppo. Nobody blames him for this terrible disaster... and almost everyone agrees that he is part of the solution and of the future..."[27]

Some articles focused on what comes after an Assad's victory and on what has been learned from the revolution in Syria. Al-Hayat columnist Elias Harfouche wrote: "Tomorrow or the next day, Bashar Al-Assad will celebrate his victory over the residents of Aleppo, just like his previous [celebration of] defeat of the Syrians in Homs, Hama, and other cities, and his sending of the fortunate among them to refugee camps or exile and the less fortunate to their graves... Assad, therefore, is going to win, while the world stands by and watches the massive death and destruction... Assad is marching towards a victory that will benefit only the Iranians, the Russians, and the fighters in Hizbullah and other Shi'ite militias coming out of Iraq, Afghanistan, or any place with mercenaries [for hire]... In such a situation, [how] can we describe the nature of the Syrian country and regime that remain after this war? Assad will continue to head the state, but the Russians and Iranians will control the area, as is the right of the victor. [Complete] sponsorship of Syrian decision-making [by them] is predicted... But they will control a country that is half dead. Syria will remain an open wound to the eyes of the world – a country half of whose population has emigrated inside or outside Syria, whose cities have become rubble, whose citizens survive on weeds and bread crumbs mixed with rainwater... an economy that has hit rock bottom. This is the Syria that Bashar Al-Assad will defeat in his war...

"Assad will win. Fine. But he is defeating his own people, and history teaches us that such a victory is unsustainable."[28]

Former Egyptian MP Mustafa Al-Nagar, who served in the Egyptian parliament in 2012-2013 during Muhammad Mursi's presidency, expressed concern that following an Assad victory, other tyrants could deal with their own opponents the same way he did: "The big tragedy of the Syrian revolution's failure is that it will create a historic model in support of tyranny and extermination as a way of controlling people against their will. Our Arab region has given birth to a bloody model, the Bashar model, which provides tyrants with a roadmap for survival – according to which you kill your people mercilessly if they rise up against you. The more you kill, the better you ensure the survival of your regime. Aleppo will fall in weeks or months. The flag of the revolution will come down, and Bashar's flag will fly..."[29]

Anti-Assad Syrian Journalist: "I Want The Dictator Back"

The depth of the despair felt by the camp opposing Assad is evident in an article by Dr. Faisal Al-Qassem, a senior Syrian journalist working for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV and a fierce opponent of the Assad regime. He argued that in light of what happened after the regimes in Iraq and Libya were brought down, leaving Assad in power would be better than the inevitable emergence of hundreds of tyrants instead of just one:

"Let us examine why the situation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya deteriorated after their revolutions... Do the factions fighting the armies in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq truly want to topple tyrants and dictatorial regimes there, or do they merely want to take their place? Did the peoples rise up to replace one tyrant with [many] tyrants, or one dictatorial regime with [many] dictatorial regimes?... Did they rise up to replace Bashar Al-Assad with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi?

"Just look at what happened to the Iraqis after they got rid of Saddam Hussein... Despite the drawbacks of that horrid dictatorship, it was dozens of times better for the Iraqis than the American democracy, which rode in on tanks... Instead of transitioning to true democracy, all the opposition elements sought to take Saddam's place. So we got 20 Shi'ite Saddams, 40 Sunni Saddams, and 50 Kurdish [Saddams], and people began to miss having only one dictator...

"We want freedom, but freedom with security, not freedom accompanied by chaos, murder, robbery, looting, and militias. I was an avowed supporter of democracy, but now I want the dictator back, in order to at least keep people alive... The Iraqi scenario has spread to Libya, Syria, and Yemen. How many Qadhafis are there in Libya now? How many 'Ali Abdallah Salehs are there in Yemen? How many Bashar Al-Assads in Syria?...

"How many factions are fighting the regime [in Syria]? One oppositionist spoke of some 2,000 factions. Just imagine – 2,000 factions, each with its own agenda, trends, statements, leaders, personal interests, budgets, and borders... Do these factions want security, stability, and prosperity for the Syrian people, or do they want to split the country up amongst themselves?"[30]

 

* N. Mozes and Dr. M. Terdiman are research fellows at MEMRI.

 

Endnotes:

 


[3] Al-Watan (Syria), December 8, 2016.

[4] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 14, 2016.

[5] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 30, 2016.

[6] Al-Watan (Syria), December 8, 2016.

[7] SANA (Syria), November 28, 2016.

[8] Al-Safir (Lebanon), November 29, 2016.

[9] Al-Ba'th (Syria), November 29, 2016.

[10] Al-Ba'th (Syria), November 20, 2016.

[11] Al-Watan (Syria), November 28, 2016.

[12] Al-Watan (Syria), December 8, 2016.

[13] Whitehouse.gov, November 19, 2016.

[14] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 21, 2016.

[15] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 21, 2016.

[16] Al-Watan (Syria), November 20, 2016.

[17] SANA (Syria), November 20, 2016.

[18] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 22, 2016.

[19] Al-Watan (Syria), November 21, 2016.

[20] Al-Thawra (Syria), November 22, 2016.

[21] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 3, 2016.

[22] Orient-news.net, November 22, 2016.

[23] Orient-news.net, December 6, 2016.

[24] All4Syria.info, December 3, 2016.

[25] Enabbaladi.net, December 4, 2016.

[26] Al-Hayat (London), December 5, 2016.

[27] Al-Hayat (London), December 3, 2016.

[28] Al-Hayat (London), December 4, 2016.

[29] Arabi21.com, December 5, 2016.

[30] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), December 3, 2016.