Bashar al-Assad is on the verge of retaking Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold. But that will not end the chaos he has wrought at home and abroad
“ASSAD OR WE burn the country.” For years Bashar al-Assad’s troops have daubed that phrase onto walls in the towns they recapture. The insurgents pushed the dictator to the brink. But Mr Assad shrugged off the empty threats of Western leaders, and enlisted the help of Iran and Russia. True to his slogan, he destroyed whole cities and gassed and starved his own people. What rebels remain are holed up in Idlib province. It, too, will soon fall. Against all the odds, the monster has won.
Yet it is a hollow victory. Far from bringing order to the country, as the Russians and Iranians claim, Mr Assad has displaced half the population. Eight years of civil war have destroyed the economy and cost 500,000 lives. Mr Assad has nothing good to offer his people. His country will be wretched and divided. The consequences will be felt far beyond its borders.
The precise moment of Mr Assad’s triumph will be determined in Idlib. About 3m people live there, many of whom fled fighting elsewhere. The area is controlled by the hardest-core rebels, jihadists linked to al-Qaeda, who will not go quietly. That, too, is a legacy of Mr Assad’s ruthlessness. He released hundreds of jihadists from prison in 2011, hoping that they would taint the once-peaceful, multi-confessional uprising. Now the regime is bombing them, along with civilians and hospitals. The offensive will take time—and it will be bloody.
When the fighting stops, the tensions that originally threatened the regime will remain—but they will be worse than ever. Start with religion. Mr Assad’s father, Hafez, a member of the Alawite minority, clung to power partly by holding the line between the country’s faiths. His son, though, painted his Sunni opponents as fundamentalists as a way of rallying Christians, Druze and secular-minded Syrians to his side. Millions of Sunnis have fled the country, creating what Mr Assad calls “a healthier and more homogeneous society”, but millions remain. They have seen their homes looted, property confiscated and districts overrun by Assad supporters. Resentful, fearful and oppressed, they will be a source of opposition to the regime.
Next are Syrians’ grievances. Back in 2011 corruption, poverty and social inequality united the uprising. Things have only got worse. Syria’s GDP is one-third of what it was before the war. The UN reckons that more than eight in ten people are poor. Much of the country lies in ruins. But the government’s plans to rebuild Syria risk tearing it further apart. Reconstruction will cost between $250bn and $400bn, but Mr Assad has neither the money nor the manpower to carry it out. So he has focused resources on areas that remained loyal. The Sunni slums that did not are being demolished and redeveloped for his bourgeois supporters. His cronies reap the profits, as the country’s class and religious fault lines grow wider.
Then there is Mr Assad’s cruelty. Hafez kept Syria in check with a brutal secret police and occasional campaigns of murderous violence. His son, in danger of losing power, has tortured and killed at least 14,000 people in the regime’s sprawling network of clandestine prisons, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an NGO. Nearly 128,000 people are thought to remain in the dungeons, though many are probably dead. Even as the war nears its end, the pace of executions is increasing. Almost every Syrian has lost someone close to them in the war. Psychologists speak ominously of a breakdown in society.
Last is Mr Assad’s debt to Iran and Russia. He owes his victory to their supply of firepower, advice and money and their willingness to back a pariah. They will expect to be paid, with interest.
For Syrians, therefore, Mr Assad’s victory is a catastrophe. But his opponents are exhausted so, in spite of his weaknesses, he could yet cling to power for years. And for as long as he is in charge, Syria’s misery will spread across the region.
The war has already drawn in a handful of outside powers, but the chaos could grow. Iran treats Syria as a second front against Israel to complement Hizbullah, its proxy in Lebanon. Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on Iranian positions during the war. One in August prevented Iranian and Hizbullah operatives from attacking Israel with armed drones, the Israeli army says. Turkey, which has troops in the north, is threatening to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces, whom it considers terrorists, near its border. That could lead to a face-off with America, which supports the Kurds and had been trying to calm the Turks.
Refugees will destabilise Syria’s neighbours, too. Those who have fled Mr Assad do not want to go home—indeed their numbers will grow because of the offensive in Idlib. The longer they stay in camps, the greater the danger that they become a permanent, festering diaspora. They are already unsettling host countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where many locals accuse them of draining resources and taking jobs. Turkey is sending some back, even to places like Idlib.
And that could spill over into the wider world. Dispossessed at home and unwanted abroad, refugees are at risk of radicalisation. Mr Assad’s ruthless tactics have left large parts of his population bitter and alienated. His prisons will incubate extremism. What better breeding ground for al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), which the American government says is already “resurging in Syria”? In May America dropped 54 bombs and missiles on jihadists in Iraq and Syria. That number rose to over 100 in each of June and July.
Having failed to act in the war’s early days, when they might have pushed the dictator out, Western countries can do little now to change Syria’s course. Some European leaders think it is time to engage with Mr Assad, participate in reconstruction and send the refugees home. This is misguided. The refugees will not return willingly. Reconstruction will only benefit the regime and the warlords and foreigners who backed it. Better to let Russia and Iran pay.
Instead the West should try to spare Syria’s suffering by offering strictly humanitarian assistance and threatening retribution for heinous acts, such as the use of chemical weapons. America should stay to keep IS and al-Qaeda in check. But for as long as Mr Assad is allowed to misrule Syria, most aid money would be better spent helping its neighbours. Syrians have suffered terribly. With Mr Assad’s victory, their misery will go on.