How many political leaders have stated over the last six years, with utter certainty, that there is no military solution to Syria. Presidents, Obama, Hollande; Angela Merkel and even Vladimir Putin have all signed up to this.
But is there a military solution? The Syrian regime and the Iranians certainly think so and to a lesser extent so to do the Russians. An uber-confidant regime is mopping up the last vestiges of rebel-held Aleppo with the aim as Assad chillingly promised in September of retaking all of Syria. Surely this is their military solution?
So is this tired old diplomatic formula misjudged? Despite everything, can the Syrian regime conquer all before it and return to a sort of 2010 status quo or something near it? Indeed, could there at some stage have been a military victory for opponents of the Syrian regime? Much of the opposition leadership always held this belief.
All this depends on whose perspective one looks from. For the inner core of the regime survival was always victory. That it returns to being the supreme power in Syria is a victory and the only solution. Anything else would have been a loss and the majority of the regime always felt this to be true.
But this is a small rump. Further away from the center of the regime, many loyalists cannot see victory in the rubble of their country, the endless vistas of destruction and suffering. It has been a bitter price to keep one man in power. For sure, in a lose or die scenario, such loyalists felt they had little choice to rally behind President Assad animated by the fear of hardline extremist opposition.
Western Syria is nominally at the regime’s mercy. Idlib may follow Aleppo along with other remaining pockets not least in the south. But in the east ISIS still holds sway in Raqqa, and Kurdish forces control a huge area. Will Russia bomb areas currently patrolled by anti-ISIS coalition forces? The future of these areas are far from certain. Syria is a multi-conflict war zone none of which are resolved.
Syrian people can save their country. To do that the Syrian regime must act against its DNA and release the talents and energies of this battered population, something it will not do as it will feel compelled to adopt even more repressive methods of control.Chris Doyle
But none of this answers quite how this adds up to a military victory or a solution for the regime. Opposition defeat will not equal regime triumph. It may prevail militarily but cannot win through force.
Syria is a broken country, economically destitute and in debt, half its population displaced, 85 per cent in poverty and a people collectively traumatised like no other. Its average life expectancy has dropped by 20 years. The total area of land under cultivation has shrunk by 40 percent. Back in April, the World Bank estimated the cost of reconstruction to be $180 billion, a figure produced well before the intensified Russian bomb of the last few months. Even if the rubble can be removed, and urban renewal follows, the human and psychological scars and the Syrian social fabric has been ruined almost beyond repair.
Picking up the pieces
When the fighting ends, the regime has to pick up the pieces, not least try to run the country on the ashes it created. Civilians, including supporters will expect services to resume, electricity generation to improve, jobs to open up and cities to be rebuilt. How can it address youth unemployment of 78 percent? The regime may no longer have the excuse of a war to hide its failings behind. It was largely the regime that destroyed around two-thirds of Syria’s hospitals but can it rebuild them not least with declining oil revenues? How fast can it train doctors to replace the ones it has slain? Will it be able to control militias that have fallen outside its control? How many of those refugees will want to or even dare to return? This pyrrhic victory will be exposed as the hollow vessel it is.
Just as the opposition groups were never independent of their patrons, Syria under Assad, is not and will not be independent. Russia and Iran will be the decision makers. For without its external backers the regime may well have crumbled.
Who will foot bill?
Given that neither Russian nor Iran have the economic muscle to salvage Syria, Assad must look elsewhere for support. Whoever does invest in the reconstruction of the country, whoever foots the bill will also demand their price. How generous will external donors be if the Syrian government will not open up its political system? European leaders made it clear in November that without a political solution, Russia must foot the bill.
The regime has relied solely on brute force and fear of the Islamist militant bogeyman. Scratch beyond that and is there any sign of a strategy for the future of the country? Even resuming nominal control of Syrian territory, will not save Syria from a more guerrilla-style insurgency that will follow. The regime cannot progress if it labels all opponents as terrorists.
Syrian people can save their country. To do that the Syrian regime must act against its DNA and release the talents and energies of this battered population, something it will not do as it will feel compelled to adopt even more repressive methods of control.
For the challenges that will confront any post-war Syria, the regime has few or no answers and cannot bring real victory.
It remains the case as it did in 2011 that only a political solution to the country that offers long-lasting sustainable change can bring real security and end of bloodshed, as well as unlocking the resources and energies necessary for Syria to rise from the ashes.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio and gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.