BEIRUT (Reuters) – Eight years since Syria began its descent into war, many of President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies have been defeated and the bulk of the country is back under his control. But he isn’t celebrating.
“We must not wrongly think, as happened in the last year, that the war is over. I say this not just to citizens but also to officials,” Assad told supporters in a speech last month.
“We have this romantic view sometimes that we are victorious. No. The war is not over.”
He said there was more fighting to be done before turning to his main point, the “siege” imposed by foreign states.
“The siege is a battle in itself,” he told a packed conference room in the capital, Damascus. “It is intensifying compared to previous years.”
The comments reflect an uncomfortable winter in Damascus, the eighth since the conflict began after protests on March 15, 2011. It is nearly a year since any mortar bomb hit the city but Syrians in government-held areas have been complaining of severe fuel shortages blamed by Damascus on Western sanctions.
Queues for state-subsidized bottles of cooking gas have pointed to wider economic difficulties the Syrian government faces despite military victories won with help from Iran and Russia.
While these allies have supplied critical firepower, they have offered little in the way of aid to rebuild cities devastated by a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven half of Syrians from their homes.
The West will not help before a political settlement. But Assad is in no mood to make concessions, having beaten his enemies back to a corner of the northwest which is now in the sights of government forces.
Assad took back large areas in 2018 including eastern Ghouta near Damascus in Russian-backed advances.
But there have been no significant gains since the recovery of Quneitra at the boundary with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in July. The presence of hostile foreign powers on Syrian soil – Turkey in the northwest and the United States in the northeast and east – has obstructed further advances.
President Donald Trump’s decision in December to withdraw all U.S. forces raised the possibility of Damascus recovering the Kurdish-led region where those forces are deployed. But this prospect has faded with some U.S. troops now set to stay.
And though it looked like some of his Arab foes were ready to break the diplomatic ice with Assad a few months ago, U.S. pressure has put the brakes on further rapprochement. Momentum to get Syria back into the Arab League has ebbed.