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Syria in ruins but Assad's hold on power looks firm


BEIRUT — His nation is a smouldering ruin, much of it held by rival armed factions, domestic or foreign. Half the population is displaced, hundreds of thousands have died and much of the West regards him as a tyrant and human rights abuser. But Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have survived the war and is likely to hold onto power for the foreseeable future.

The sides in Syria's civil war are preparing for the eighth round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva intended to set a political transition to end the nearly 7-year-old conflict. Barring any surprises, no negotiated resolution is likely to lead to Assad's ouster.

One reason is military. Assad's forces have had the momentum on the ground the past year, backed by an overwhelming Russian air campaign and fighters from Iran and Hezbollah. Assad's government now controls more than 50 per cent of Syria.

Holding half the country normally wouldn't be an optimistic sign, but that's up from 19 per cent earlier this year. His troops control Syria's four largest cities, 10 of its 14 provincial capitals and its Mediterranean coast. No force on the ground is capable of driving Assad out at this stage.

On the diplomatic front, the top opposition supporters, the United States and its allies, long ago backed off demands that any deal involve Assad's immediate removal. Now they are pushing for a plan for elections that could bring a new leader.

But Assad's ally Russia now dominates the negotiating process, meaning there is little pressure on him to accept real elections — or any election before his term ends in 2021. A political solution under his terms would be to incorporate opposition members into a national unity government under his leadership.

Assad's opposition is in disarray. The top opposition negotiator, Riyad Hijab, resigned Monday, complaining that foreign powers were carving up Syria and brokering side deals to "prolong the life of Bashar Assad's regime." The opposition is meeting later the week in Saudi Arabia to come up with a unified delegation and negotiating stance. Saudi Arabia has already signalled to the opposition it has to come to terms with Assad's survival.

Assad looks increasingly confident. On Monday, he travelled to the Russian city of Sochi for talks with President Vladimir Putin. It was only Assad's second trip outside his country since the conflict began in March 2011 — and the previous one was to Russia as well.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late October repeated Washington's call for Assad to surrender control, insisting that "the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end."

But turning that call into reality takes leverage that Washington doesn't appear ready to use.

In a joint statement released earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia's Putin agreed there is no military solution to Syria's war. They made vague comments about Assad's "recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections" as called for under a U.N. Security Council resolution.

There are few scenarios that could bring about Assad's fall. One would be if Russia forces Assad to accept a political transition that ensures his departure from the presidency. But it is hard to imagine what incentive the U.S. could give Moscow to dump its ally.

Another scenario would be if the U.S. or other opposition backers reversed course and launched an all-out military drive against Assad.

"That requires massive escalation, restarting the war from scratch to roll back Assad's gains and creating an opposition that is both able to govern and acceptable to the international community," said Aron Lund, a fellow with the New York-based think-tank The Century Foundation.

"Looking at the conflict right now and how the opposition's allies are all backing away — it's just not going to happen," he said.

Trump ended a CIA-backed program training rebel forces trying to oust Assad. The United States has been more focused on fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, supporting Kurdish-led forces that have successfully rolled back the militants and took control of nearly a quarter of the country.

Turkey, another top supporter of the opposition, is more concerned with thwarting the ambitions of the Kurds in Syria than with ousting Assad. It backs a force of opposition factions holding an enclave of territory in northern Syria and skirmishing with the Kurds.

The main rebel-held area focused on fighting Assad is in the northwestern province of Idlib, but it is dominated by al-Qaida-allied factions.

Russia, meanwhile, helped mediate a series of local cease-fires between Assad's forces and rebels on most fronts around the country. That has allowed Assad and his allies — troops from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Iraqi Shiite militiamen— to focus on battling the Islamic State group in the east.

On Sunday, state-run media announced that Assad's forces have recaptured the town of Boukamal, the Islamic State group's last significant stronghold in Syria, leaving the militants to defend just strips of desert territory in the country and a besieged pocket outside the capital, Damascus.

"To be sure there will be flare-ups of violence and bombings and unrest," Lund said. "But he (Assad) holds the centre, he holds most of the population, he's got the economy and the institutions and the U.N. seat. ... He has all the stuff he needs to continue to rule."

When Syria's conflict began with mass protests in March 2011, many expected Assad to be quickly toppled like other Arab leaders. Regional and international supporters of the opposition poured in money and weapons and then U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders declared the Assad dynasty finished.

Assad's determination never wavered throughout the conflict, aided by the opposition's fragmentation and Russia and Iran's inerventions.

Nikolaos Van Dam, author of the book "Destroying A Nation: The Civil War in Syria," said Western countries created false expectations by calling on Assad to step down while only offering half-hearted support for the opposition and underestimating the cohesion of Assad's leadership.

Zeina Karam, The Associated Press

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