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What if Assad wins?

Civil wars are always long fought and bitter. And they are also inevitably great humanitarian disasters

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Civil wars are always long fought and bitter. And they are also inevitably great humanitarian disasters because civilians are always targeted in one way or another. That is why the prospect of ending a civil war would normally be welcome, especially a civil war as brutal and ruinous as the one in Syria. But unfortunately, if Assad does win, that may not necessarily be the beginning of the end of the humanitarian disaster. There are good reasons to fear that if Assad finally wins the conflict, that may be only the end of the beginning of the human tragedy.

If Assad does prevail, his first priority will be to ensure that such an uprising can never happen again. That means making an example of everyone who opposed him. There is every reason to expect that the retribution will be just as brutal as the conflict itself.

What may have been forgotten among the endless reports and video footage from the ruins of Aleppo is why this conflict started six years ago. President Assad, like his father before him, presided over a Ba’athist regime that was as repressive as anything in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, or Iraq under Saddam Hussain. Whoever was thought to be an “enemy of the state” would be routinely rounded up, imprisoned and tortured. And if any of them resisted being “re-educated,” they would eventually be simply killed.

It was against this kind of government that people rose up against in Syria during the heady days of the Arab Spring. And what was interesting in those early days is that even though the government was dominated by the Alawite Shiite sect, the uprising was not originally sectarian. The uprising was a coming together of virtually all elements of Syrian society, including many dissidents from the Syrian Army and other political insiders. It was only later that the conflict took a decidedly sectarian character when ISIS appeared on the scene and Iranian militias and Hezbollah also joined the fray.

Both Assad and his key ally, Putin, have every interest in keeping Syria a humanitarian hell

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

And if that was the Assad government then, we can only imagine what it will be like after it has been hardened by six years of bitter sectarian civil war. Or perhaps not much imagination is required at all. After all, we have seen the government’s attitude towards civilians throughout this conflict, in their use of chemical weapons against their own people, cluster munitions, systematic bombing of hospitals – although it has denied the allegation - and other humanitarian relief agencies, and widespread use of starvation siege tactics.

In other words, even as the rebels might finally surrender and peace will be declared, we have every reason to expect that Assad’s government will continue to wage war against the civilian populations who supported the rebellion to punish them. That war may not be as visible as the constant shelling of hospitals in urban centres, but it will be every bit as real as the networks of secret police prisons from before the war.

What is more, we must not neglect the role of Assad’s allies in this conflict, like Iran and Russia. Russia in particular has benefited immensely from the instability caused by the refugee flow out of Syria and into Turkey and Europe. Even as Putin may want the conflict to settle down so he can wind down his military involvement to keep down costs, he has every reason to want the refugee flow into Europe to continue.

So both Assad and his key ally, Putin, have every interest to keep Syria a humanitarian hell and hopefully displace as many opponents of the regime from the country, while none of their allies are adversely affected by this – with the possible exception of Lebanon which is, in any case, a client state of Syria and does not get to have much of say in the matter. And, let us not forget, they are the two players that have the greatest amount of control over the outcome of the conflict. So long as that remains the case, and both their respective interests would be best served by continuing the abuse of the Syrian people, there is no reason to believe that the humanitarian crisis is going to get any better.

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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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