It’s anyone’s guess as to whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad looks back on 2016 as one of his better years.
On the positive side, he regained a lot of territory lost to the multiple groups seeking his ouster — dissidents, ISIS units trying to take advantage of the chaos that has overwhelmed Syria, Kurds from both Syria and Iraq who envision a country of their own, and others.
Though President Assad might be consolidating his power, he has to wonder whether being a tyrant is everything he may have hoped it would be. Even if he regains a semblance of control over the whole country, it won’t really be his.
He’s too in debt to the Russians, without whom “his” ultimate victory would not be possible. Then there is another consideration, one that is obvious when he looks out a window.
His country is in shambles. It calls to mind German cities at the end of World War II, thanks in part to the United States and its allies but mostly to the Russians and President Assad’s own air force. The two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, are rubble. By the time they are rebuilt, he’ll be even deeper in hock to Russian President Vladimir Putin than he is now.
Among President Assad’s future array of problems will be finding people to help rebuild and occupy his cities. Before the civil war began in 2011, Syria had about 22 million people. Roughly 5 million have since fled, to Europe, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and elsewhere, and almost 5,000 others have been killed, leaving fewer than 17 million. Most of those, some 13.5 million, are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency. And more than 6 million Syrians are displaced within Syria — driven from their homes by air strikes or marauders.
Nobody has it worse than Syria’s children. Last year alone, according to UNICEF, more than 650 of them were killed and a similar number were maimed — in their homes, in hospitals, in schools and as they crossed the street. Other children have been forced to take up arms serving various factions, serving as suicide bombers, executioners or street fighters.
Children, in fact, were among this war’s first victims. A group of youths in Daraa — another town that’s been leveled — painted anti-government slogans on walls there, drawing the wrath of the Assad regime. Their arrests and torture sparked the broader demonstrations that began six years ago this month.
Peace talks have gotten nowhere, and it seems that what U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein rightly calls “savage horror” will continue until all sides are too weary to wage war or until President Assad’s quest for revenge is spent.
No one knows when that day will come.