- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2017

Syrian President Bashar Assad is sounding increasingly confident that he will emerge as the victor of his nation’s 6-year-old civil war — an assessment that key American allies in the region and a top former U.S. diplomat appear to have accepted.

Backed by military support from Russia and Iran, Mr. Assad’s army has reclaimed increasing swaths of the country from rebels, while a U.S.-backed coalition is making steady gains against Islamic State at its base in Syria’s less-populated east.

Mr. Assad has taunted the U.S. and its allies for their failure to topple his government. He said in a nationwide address on Aug. 20 that he saw signs of victory as the battle continued.

“Where we go later and it becomes possible to talk about victory that’s a different matter,” said Mr. Assad, praising Russia, Iran and the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah group for their support.

Robert Ford, U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, is more emphatic. “Assad has won and he will stay [in power],” he said.

“This is the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it,” Mr. Ford said in an interview with the United Arab Emirates-based newspaper The National. “Iran will be in Syria to stay.”

The government of Jordan — long a key player in U.S. efforts to prop up and arm a secular Syrian opposition army against the Assad regime — appeared to be resigned. Government spokesman Mohamed al-Momani said late last week that Jordan’s relations with the Assad regime, which were never formally broken despite the civil war, are now heading in the “right direction.”

Jamal Al Shalabi, a professor of political science at the Hashemite University, told The Jordan Times this week, “Jordan and Syria need each other at all levels. We sense positive signals issued from both sides for enhanced relationship.”

Similar expressions can be heard from officials around the region, who appear to be increasingly accepting the idea that allowing the Assad regime to stay in power indefinitely is the best way to end a war that has created more than 5 million refugees abroad and left nearly a half-million people dead since 2011.

While U.S. officials begrudgingly acknowledge that Mr. Assad’s power has grown since the Russian militarily intervened in 2015, several told The Washington Times on Thursday that they still believe the Syrian president can be removed from power if and when a negotiated end to the fighting is reached. The Obama administration repeatedly insisted that there could be no final resolution of the war as long as Mr. Assad, accused of using chemical weapons and brutally treating his opponents, stays in power in Damascus.

Strained peace

A strained kind of peace has taken hold in several areas of Syria since a cease-fire brokered in the nation’s south by Washington, Moscow and Jordan went into force in July.

“The cease-fire is holding, and we hope there will soon be additional measures to consolidate stability and security in Syria,” Mr. al-Momani said on Jordanian television on Aug. 25. Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s main backers, also reached an agreement in May with Syrian-opposition supporting Turkey to create a series of “safe zones” in the war-torn nation.

The Trump administration is widely seen to have deferred to Russia as the lead power in Syria. While the administration has continued to press the war against Islamic State terrorists inside Syria, Mr. Trump has reportedly ended what had been a clandestine CIA program begun under Mr. Obama to arm secular Syrian opposition rebels battling the Assad regime.

With Mr. Assad likely to hold on to power, it is doubtful that he will face punishment for his brutal prosecution of the civil war.

“He may never be held accountable,” Mr. Ford told The National.

Opposition groups are pushing hard against the notion that the Assad regime’s triumph in the civil war is inevitable.

“The international community has become accustomed to the myth that nothing can be done to deter the Assad regime’s savagery against its own people,” Riyad Farid Hijab said Thursday. Mr. Hijab heads the umbrella group that has represented the Syrian opposition at U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva with the Assad regime that have struggled to get off the ground for years. “But we have seen that when the political will for action exists, progress can be made.

“If we are to achieve the free and democratic Syria for which Syrians aspire, our international friends must show true leadership: Provide Syrians the protection they seek, hold the criminal regime to account — including through the establishment of an international tribunal, and remain focused on a political transition without Assad,” Mr. Hijab said in a statement.

The State Department insists that the U.S. still believes that Mr. Assad will be driven from power by political means one day.

“Our policy has been and will continue to be that the future of Syria is to be decided by Syrians ,” said Edgar Vasquez, a spokesman in the department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “Ultimately, we believe there cannot be a peaceful and stabilized Syria with Assad.”

One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with The Times on Thursday, downplayed the notion that regional powers such as Jordan have resigned themselves to having to deal with Mr. Assad indefinitely.

But the official acknowledged that U.S. forces are not in Syria “in any way shape or form to fight the regime; we’re there to fight [the Islamic State].”

The official said Mr. Assad’s hold on power may face a greater threat after the shooting stops, when Syria will need huge amounts of international aid to rebuild its shattered economy and fix the war damage.

“There’s going to have to be a massive international effort to put Syria back together, as well as a massive effort to raise the funds to do that, and the international community, I suspect, would not be willing to do that as long as Assad is in power,” the official said.

“The Russians and Iran can supply some support [for the Assad regime], but it’s going to be billions and billions needed to rebuild Syria,” the official said. “And the signal we’ve gotten is nobody’s going to do that as long as Assad is in power.”

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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