Bashar Assad rules the ruins of a nation he has bombed and gassed into submission
EIGHT YEARS into a savage war, the images still numb. Near the village of Haas, a headless child lies amid the rubble of bombed homes. In the town of Ariha, an infant dangles several stories up from the wreckage of another building while her father looks on in horror. There is smoke and dust and blood, gnarled metal and smashed concrete, and the vacant stares of people who have endured almost a decade of violence.
This is the start of a protracted battle for the province of Idlib, a swathe of scrubland in north-western Syria which contains dozens of towns and villages like Ariha and Haas as well as the city for which it is named. Lying between Aleppo and the coastal province of Latakia, it is the last big chunk of territory held by rebels.
All summer long Syrian and Russian jets have bombed Idlib, destroying homes, hospitals, schools and bakeries. The United Nations sought to protect medical facilities by sharing their co-ordinates with Russia (“humanitarian deconfliction”, in UNjargon), but after dozens of air strikes on hospitals and clinics, doctors came to believe that the no-strike list was in fact being used as a target set. They have stopped sharing their locations.
On the ground the Syrian army has retaken Khan Sheikhoun, the site of a vicious chemical-weapons attack by the regime in 2017. The biggest town in the south of the province, it occupies a strategic position along the M5, the motorway that connects Damascus to Aleppo. It will thus be a forward base as the army moves north in the coming months, fighting what remains of the opposition for one battered village after another while bombers roar overhead.
There have been desperate attempts to halt the offensive. As The Economist went to press, a Russian-brokered ceasefire had temporarily halted the regime’s bombing. It will not last. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, ever the revanchist, is determined to retake the last bit of rebel-held land. The Syrian dictator’s opponents can do little to resist him, while his allies are unwilling or unable to restrain him.
It is tempting to think that, for all its ghastliness, this campaign at least marks the end of the war. But it marks at best the end of the fighting: not of the damage. It threatens to send a new exodus of refugees to Turkey, where hundreds of thousands of newly displaced Syrians have massed on the border, and perhaps beyond. And it will leave Mr Assad in control of a depopulated, ruined country, ruled through fear and beholden to allies busy squabbling for spoils. Syria will be suffering and unstable for years, possibly decades.
Mr Assad had long telegraphed this offensive. Until this summer, though, he was in no position to launch it. His army, never much of a fighting force to begin with, was badly depleted after eight years of war. Iran wanted no part of the battle for a province it saw as peripheral and unimportant. Most of all, he was restrained by a deal Russia and Turkey made in 2018. The Sochi agreement, as it is known, put the onus on Turkey to enforce a buffer zone up to 25km deep between the rebels in Idlib and the regime. Extremist groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), al-Qaeda’s former Syrian wing, were supposed to be completely excluded from this buffer zone. Less fanatical groups could stay—albeit without heavy weapons. Russia, in turn, would restrain Mr Assad.
But the obdurate Syrian president never accepted the idea of a rebel-held scar on the edges of his realm. And Turkey overestimated its ability to control groups like HTS. Both the rebels and the regime violated the terms of the truce, lobbing ordnance and explosive drones at each other. Even if they had not, no one knew how to turn a temporary ceasefire into a lasting peace between sworn enemies. The deal was never more than a can-kicking exercise.
This summer the can ran out of road, and both Russia and Iran threw their support behind Mr Assad’s offensive. The 12 observation posts dotted around Idlib from which Turkish soldiers were meant to enforce the ceasefire are now an irrelevance; the one in Morek, south of Khan Sheikhoun, is surrounded by the Syrian army. The soldiers inside are safe, for now, but other Turkish outposts have been hit by air strikes. A Turkish military convoy has been bombed as well.
Hoping to salvage the Sochi agreement, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, flew to Russia on August 27th. He wanted Vladimir Putin to restrain his Syrian allies. The Russian president sent him away empty-handed (though he did treat Mr Erdogan to an ice-cream cone for the benefit of the press corps). Unless Turkey is willing to occupy Idlib, as it did parts of Aleppo in 2016, it cannot forestall a regime offensive. Russia talks of creating a new buffer zone along the border, as if the 3m desperate people in Idlib could be crammed into a few kilometres.
More than 400,000 of those people have already fled their homes. Civilians find shelter where they can. Some camp in olive groves, one family beneath each tree. Civilians and surviving fighters will flee abroad as the regime advances. For many this will be a second exile. In staunch pro-opposition areas like the Damascus suburbs, the regime struck deals with rebels: it allowed them to live but banished them to Idlib. Now it will push them farther.
More than half the pre-war population of 21m is now either internally displaced or abroad. To some extent this is a simple side-effect of war. But it is also a result of government policy, like the truces which displaced rebels to Idlib. Many have no homes to return to. The regime has used new laws to seize the property of some of the displaced, who tend to be Sunnis. In places like Marota City, on the western outskirts of Damascus, well-connected developers plan gleaming new homes that will one day house loyalists.
Elsewhere there are few signs of reconstruction. The government cannot afford it. Gross domestic product is, at best, one-third of its pre-war level, according to UN estimates; Venezuela looks almost prosperous in comparison. The Syrian pound, which for years was consistently worth two American cents, is now worth less than a tenth of that. The industrial base that churned out textiles and consumer goods is devastated; today’s main exports are seeds, apples and nuts. Basic services are scarce. Last winter brought rolling blackouts and long queues at petrol stations.
As the fighting draws to a close, Western powers have begun to debate whether to invest in rebuilding. America is unlikely to help. President Donald Trump is averse to spending money on foreigners; both parties in Congress find the thought of working with Mr Assad odious. The EU says it will give no help until it sees political reform, but not all its member states agree with this line. Some of their diplomats couch their arguments for moving quicker in humanitarian terms: “Do you give someone a bottle of water or rebuild the pipes?” Others insist, implausibly, that aid might persuade Mr Assad to share power and ease repression. “There’s a real opportunity to have some kind of leverage over how this pans out,” says one foreign-policy official in Brussels. This is wishful thinking.
A few offer an honest if self-interested argument: rebuilding Syria might encourage refugees to go home. The devastation of their country currently makes return very uninviting, particularly for refugees in Europe, who live in relative comfort compared with their compatriots in squalid camps in Lebanon or Jordan. But material wants are not their chief concern. In February the UN surveyed residents of one camp, Rukban, a desperate patch of desert on the eastern edge of the border between Syria and Jordan. More than 80% wanted to go back to their home towns, wrecked as they might be.
Yet they feared to do so. They told the UN they would be homeless, because the regime confiscated their property, or that they would be detained, or pressed into military service—all fair concerns. One group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, estimates that at least 2,000 returnees have been arrested in the past two years. Another organisation found that 75% of returnees had been interrogated, detained or conscripted.
Syria can look elsewhere for reconstruction money. China would have no qualms about dealing with a brutal dictatorship. It would want to turn a profit, though, and little about Syria’s corrupt and shattered economy looks profitable. Mr Assad’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, are struggling under economic sanctions. Neither can pick up a sizeable share of the estimated $250bn-$400bn tab to rebuild Syria. They want simply to claim the spoils: generous concessions to extract oil, mine phosphates and operate ports.
For decades Syria was a centralised regime with a closed economy. Damascus controlled the provision of all basic services, from health care to bread. As Mr Assad lost control of territory, however, things got more complicated. Russia and Iran forged ties with pro-regime militias, which in turn built economic fiefs. Businessmen and crooks stepped in to deliver services—and turn healthy profits. All concerned profess loyalty to Mr Assad; but they have other interests and fealties.
There are growing hints that Mr Assad is worried about this loss of control. In August, for example, his defence minister tried to rein in a loyalist militia known as the Tiger Forces. Commanded by Suhail al-Hassan, a favourite of the Russians, the Tigers have a reputation for brutal effectiveness, with allegations of massacres and torture that date back to the earliest days of the war. The unit has now been subsumed into the army, though it remains to be seen whether this is merely a cosmetic change.
Then there is the unexpected bit of palace intrigue in Damascus this summer. Rami Makhlouf is a cousin of the president who made a fortune through his ownership of Syriatel, the largest mobile-phone operator, and then branched out to property, banking and other sectors. (He also helped finance the Tiger Forces.) With his family ties and wealth, he seemed untouchable—until August, when both regime supporters and critics said that Mr Makhlouf, and perhaps dozens of other tycoons, were being investigated. Offices were supposedly raided and assets frozen.
Apologists were keen to paint this as an anti-corruption exercise—and graft is, to be sure, a huge problem in Syria. Mr Makhlouf’s son caused a stir this summer when he shared photos of his gilded lifestyle on Instagram. While his compatriots suffer and die, Mohammad Makhlouf showed himself with his luxury car collection in Dubai and flying around on a monogrammed private jet.
But thinking Mr Assad would genuinely campaign against corruption is like imagining Mr Trump crusading for civility. The issue is not restitution but redistribution. Mr Putin wants some of the billions of dollars Russia has lent Syria repaid. Mr Assad is shaking down cronies to cover the bill. His regime likes to portray itself as standing against an “imperialist” West. But it is in thrall to Russia and Iran.
Indeed, almost from the start, the Syrian war was fought on false premises. Mr Assad cast his opponents as terrorists. Western powers misled the rebels to believe they would have help. Turkey pretended not to see tens of thousands of foreign fighters streaming across its borders. The delusions continue today, whether in Russia and Turkey mooting deals to save Idlib or European states thinking they have “leverage” over Mr Assad. But no amount of foreign aid will extract democratic reforms from a blood-soaked dictator who burned his country and gassed his people to stay in power. Nor will it convince many of the refugees who fled Syria to return.
It is far too late for a happier ending. The Syrians who took part in the uprising—as rebels, activists and the like—realise this. Scattered to the wind in exile, they have, in a sense, moved on: there are jobs to find, languages to learn, lives to build. But they also doubt this is truly the end. The abuse and corruption that caused the uprising in 2011 have only worsened. The regime is isolated, bankrupt and hollow. “Assad ran a police state,” says one former activist who found asylum in Europe. “Now he looks like a prisoner.”