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President Barack Obama has insisted all along that the military strikes on Syria for which he now seeks congressional approval are not designed to pick a winner in that country's civil war. And that's bad news for those fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Two-and-a-half years into the rebellion, be it because of the military "facts on the ground" or the deadlock in the diplomatic arena, one point has become increasingly clear: the Assad regime is winning.
It seems improbable that Assad is still in power, let alone prevailing on the battlefield, given his regime's ham-fisted handling of everything from a few boys writing anti-Assad graffiti in the backwater town of Dara’a in March 2011, to its alleged chemical weapons attacks in the suburbs of Damascus last week -- two events that bookend a war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives, cost some $85 billion, and laid waste to many of Syria's cities. But it's worth remembering that to win, all Assad needs to do is survive. By that measure, he may even be in less trouble today than he was two years ago.
What's notable, in fact, is that despite its outrage over the gruesome death of some 1,400 people -- including more than 400 children -- in the suspected gas attack last week at Ghouta, the Obama administration is not even considering intervention on the scale necessary to bring down Assad -- something that rebel forces are clearly in no position to achieve without massive foreign military involvement.
What began as a largely non-violent popular uprising against an authoritarian dictatorship turned into a full-blown war on increasingly sectarian lines, fueled by foreign weapons and money. It also became a regional proxy battle between Iran and the United States and its allies, and a global diplomatic battle of wills between the West and Russia and China. And both the sectarian dynamics of the war -- which push many in the minority Alawite, Christian, Druze and Kurdish populations to choose the regime as a lesser evil -- and its geopolitical dynamics actually work in Assad's favor.
Similarly, the refrain from administration officials that striking Syria is necessary to send a message to Iran reinforces Tehran's incentive to back Assad.
Redrawing the map
The civil war has changed the regime, of course. Its territorial losses may have actually relieved Assad of some of the burden of running an ailing country where the economy can no longer provide for its growing population. The conflict has also stripped away the regime's pretenses of representing all of its citizens, making it instead the guarantor of the interests of Assad's own Alawite sect and those Sunnis, Christians and Druze who fear the consequences of victory by a rebellion where the most effective fighting units appear to be those affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The regime has redrawn the map of its domain, retreating from the drought-stricken and impoverished Sunni southlands and the angry al-Qaeda-dominated areas around Aleppo, and ceding the northeast to autonomy-minded Kurdish forces that have kept the rebellion at bay. Assad remains in control of a smaller, but more-defensible territory that runs from the Mediterranean coast around Latakia and its nearby Russian naval base, through the mountain homeland of his Alawite sect, and down to Damascus.
Rebel forces do hold pockets of territory around Damascus, as well as around Homs and Hama along the highway connecting Damascus to the mountains and sea. The regime will do whatever it can to prevent the capital from being cut off. If the price tag for using chemical weapons becomes prohibitive, the regime will rely on the old-fashioned ways, with its militias perpetrating massacre after massacre.
Even the smaller state over which Assad now presides, of course, can survive only as long as it receives life support from outside -- Iran has been reportedly keeping Syria afloat with $500 million a month in cash and lines of credit, and the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also provided considerable economic support. And mindful of the geopolitical stakes, Iran may well double down on Assad, both with its own Revolutionary Guard troops, and through its allies in the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
An even more striking signal of the viability of the Syrian regime is the Obama administration's fear that a precipitous fall of Assad would turn Syria into a failed state that remained a battle ground for regional sectarian forces, and also a launch pad for al-Qaeda, similar to Somalia or Yemen -- but this time on the doorstep of Israel. In short, the Obama administration won't seek to oust Assad because it currently has little confidence in what would follow.
A post-American Middle East
For now, the outlook is bleak: Civil war will continue to rage and thousands will continue to die, with or without Bashar al-Assad, and with or without chemical weapons. Syria's morbid outlook may, in fact, be a product of its rebellion coinciding with a moment in which the steady diminishing of the dominant role the U.S. has played in regional security -- a role that has not yet been replaced by any new set of security arrangements.
Syria was created by Britain and France, exercising the World War I victor's prerogative when they carved up the defeated Ottoman Empire into the system of nation states we know as the modern Middle East. But the decline of that system of nation states has gained momentum since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Today's Syria civil war is not contained by the borders drawn by Britain and France that demarcated it as a country; its consequences are felt acutely in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.
The Arab Spring had briefly raised hopes that popular democratic movements would reinvigorate the hollowed out states bequeathed by the British and French and provide legitimacy for a new set of security arrangements to provide stability. Instead, the result from North Africa to Iraq has been weaker, less stable dictatorships replacing those ousted by popular movements or foreign intervention, leaving swaths of lawless territories filled with militias, loose weapons and refugees. The Obama administration now appears mindful of avoiding such an outcome in Syria. That makes it more likely that when the Syrian civil war ends, as all civil wars eventually do, it will be at a conference table in some distant city, like Geneva, or Dayton, Ohio, or Muscat. And barring an errant cruise missile or a sloppy Syrian security detail, Bashar al-Assad may be more likely to be involved in that process than is Barack Obama.