A Dictator’s Comeback: How Syria’s Assad ‘Won the War’

It’s a win for a brutal dictatorship and an ally of Vladimir Putin


Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad has made a remarkable comeback. In recent days, Syria has been readmitted to the Arab League, a major regional body from which it was suspended in 2011, and held direct talks with longtime rival Turkey. And on Tuesday the United Arab Emirates invited Assad to this year's COP28 climate summit, potentially putting Assad at a venue with world leaders who spent years trying to oust him from power.

“Assad won the war,” Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria now at the Middle East Institute, told The Messenger. “We may like that or not, but that’s the reality.”

Twelve years after it began, there’s still a low-grade war being waged in Syria. Rebels hold territory in the north, and some 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria, officially to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), unofficially to counter Iran’s proxies in the country. Outside powers including Russia, Turkey, and Israel have recently launched air strikes inside Syria, and more than 6.8 million Syrians remain outside the country—the world’s largest refugee population.

President Barack Obama once declared that the Syrian dictator must “step aside.” But he is still there - having vanquished most of his domestic enemies, and been welcomed by regional governments that spent more than a decade trying to oust him from power. 

Assad has won thanks to his own brutal crackdown, diplomatic shifts in the region, and a big assist from Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

“I think the lesson of the moment is that war crimes work,” said Nader Hashimi, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Denver. “That’s a tragedy, because the one person who's responsible for the vast majority of the atrocities and the mayhem and the torture and the chemical weapons, at the end of the conflict is emerging victorious.”

From "goner" to winner

In 2011, Assad looked like a goner. The Arab Spring revolts had ousted dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Everyone from the U.S. government to senior Syrian  defectors to Assad’s own allies in Moscow said the Syrian regime was on the brink of collapse. American policymakers assumed Assad would go, and public discussion focused more on the risks posed by a power vacuum in a post-Assad Syria than on the possibility he might simply hang on.

Today, after more than half a million deaths, the torture and displacement of thousands more, and repeated uses of chemical weapons by the regime, Assad looks stronger than ever.

There is no real threat to Assad’s own rule, and now, for the first time since the war began, those once-hostile neighbors are welcoming him back to the fold. 

For years the United Arab Emirates funded opposition groups that worked to overthrow Assad; now the UAE has welcomed the Syrian leader to Dubai and sent its foreign minister to Damascus. In April, Syria and Saudi Arabia – another long-time enemy - agreed to reopen embassies on each others’ territories. Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt have all resumed diplomatic engagement with the Assad regime.

It's a stunning turnaround, and for the U.S. and those who’ve been fighting Assad since the beginning, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Just ask Abdulfaki Alhamdo, an English teacher and pro-democracy activist who became known around the world for his video reports on the war. Alhamdo survived the brutal siege of Aleppo, and now lives in opposition-held Idlib, in the northwest. 

“I’m shocked at how these people can change their colors,” Alhamdo told The Messenger. “How can they put their humanity away? It’s not only a betrayal for us. It’s a betrayal for themselves, for their words and for the ideals they said they supported.”

How it happened

The tide of the Syrian war started to turn decisively against the rebels around 2015. That was the year the Russian military began intervening directly on the regime’s side. 

“When the [then-rebel held] city of Aleppo was conquered by the Russian Air Force and Iranian ground troops, it was a major setback for the regional Arab states, primarily Saudi Arabia, that were backing the opposition,” Hashimi told The Messenger. “After that, they basically gave up.”

With Aleppo leveled and areas around Damascus retaken, the rebels who once appeared on the verge of victory were pushed back to smaller and smaller enclaves. Regional governments sensed the futility of continuing to back the rebellion. They also worried about the spillover effects of a failed state in the center of their region - from refugee flows to radical militants to a multi-billion dollar trade in the illegal stimulant captagon, which the Assad regime is believed to be facilitating. 

“Nobody has a solution short of dealing with the government,” said Ford, the former ambassador. “We’ve tried isolating Assad. We’ve sanctioned the bejeesus out of Syria. Nothing works.”

The regime was also able to leverage February’s catastrophic earthquake, which killed more than 7,000 people in Syria, to build ties with its neighbors. Shortly after the quake, Assad made trips to Oman and the UAE and received visits from the foreign ministers of Jordan and Egypt, all in the name of disaster relief. 

The bigger picture: a changed Middle East

The new red carpet for Assad is part of a broader regional trend. In March, Saudi Arabia—once the main backer of the Syrian rebels—and Iran, Syria’s longtime ally, signed an agreement in Beijing to restore diplomatic relations. This wider détente has lowered the temperature in Syria’s proxy war. 

As for the U.S., officially, the Biden administration is opposed to any normalization with Assad’s regime.

“We have stressed to regional partners engaging with the Syrian regime that credible steps to improve the humanitarian and security situation for Syrians should be front and center in any engagement,” a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told The Messenger. “Our own position is clear: we will not normalize relations with the Assad regime absent authentic progress towards a political solution to the underlying conflict.”

To some extent, that opposition matters. A 2019 law known as the Caesar Act gives the U.S. the authority to sanction businesses, individuals, or governments that aid the Syrian regime, including those outside Syria. As long as this law remains in place, there are limits to how far governments will go in resuming normal relations with Assad, particularly when it comes to economic investment. But in practice, critics say, with its hands full in Ukraine, its eyes on the growing threat to Taiwan, not to mention simmering crises from Sudan to the U.S. Southern border, the Biden administration has done little to block normalization beyond statements of concern.

“The U.S. says that it opposes the normalization of the Assad regime, but the administration has done absolutely nothing to stop it,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, recently told Grid News.

Alhamdo, the activist who lived through Assad’s siege of Aleppo, gave his own assessment of the dictator’s comeback. “I wouldn’t say that he won the war. But I would say he has succeeded in destroying Syria.” 

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