Syrian President Bashar al Assad must have taken a lesson or two from the master American politician, late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. When Chicago police beat and abused young anti-war demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, the party establishment turned against the Windy City’s leading official, just as in 2011 much of the world condemned al Assad’s treatment of anti-government protesters. Liberals called Daley a fascist then; later, U.S. politicians labeled al Assad a tyrant.
Many Democrats called for Daley’s resignation in 1968, but Chicago voters gave “Hizzoner” an unprecedented fifth term in April 1971 by a majority of 70 percent. At a press conference the next day, one journalist reminded Daley about the leading Democrats who had condemned him in 1968 — Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, among others. The reporter then asked, as legendary Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko wrote in his biography of Daley, “Have any of them telephoned with congratulations?”
Daley smiled and answered, “All of them did.”
After six and a half years of war, al Assad’s enemies are scurrying back to him. Insurgents with the combined backing of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and lesser powers failed to dislodge him. Nothing succeeds like success, and al Assad’s tenacity has forced his enemies to recognize that he is not going away. Washington has stopped demanding regime change, as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did. CIA Director Mike Pompeo telephoned al Assad’s military intelligence chief, Ali Mamlouk, last January to ask for help in finding missing American journalist Austin Tice but also to obtain information on al Assad’s jihadist enemies who might threaten the United States. The British have sent diplomatic feelers to Damascus, and European states that withdrew their ambassadors in 2012 are sending them on regular missions to the Syrian capital.
“No one is able to say, ‘Sorry, I was wrong,'” explained a Western source close to secret discussions between al Assad and the West. “French diplomats ask me how to get out of this.” The Egyptians, who initially supported the rebellion against the Syrian president, now support him. The Iraqis, America’s allies in the war against the Islamic State, have sent him military aid. Even neighboring Jordan, which permitted the CIA to train Syrian insurgents on its territory, says relations with its occasional adversary are “likely to take a positive turn.”
Two of the most prominent backers of jihadists in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have yet to embrace al Assad. But they have moved closer to his Russian allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in September and, a month later, welcomed Saudi King Salman with notable ceremony in Moscow. Turkey has broken with NATO policy for the first time by agreeing to purchase Russian arms in the form of the S-400 missile defense system, and it has stopped mentioning regime change in Syria. It has also sent troops into northern Syria with Russia’s agreement, ostensibly to combat extremist militants but in reality to pressure U.S.-backed Kurdish militias.
In Damascus, signs that the war has been decided are everywhere. Unlike Beirut, whose war ended in 1990, and Baghdad, which endured the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Syrian capital has restored electricity for 24 hours a day. The private generators that used to hum outside my favorite Damascene cafes have gone into storage. The biggest demonstration I’ve seen in Syria since 2012 was a gathering of thousands of people on Oct. 10 to watch the Syria-Australia soccer match on a giant screen in Umayyad Square. Two weeks later, al Assad received the soccer players, including two who had defected to the opposition but were now welcome at home. Schools are open, displaced people no longer sleep outside in the parks and traffic is incessant. New nightclubs are opening, and young people flock to cinemas and restaurants.
Conflict persists, as the deaths of two civilians killed by mortar fire near my hotel in the old city attest. About 60 percent of the country’s territory and 85 percent of its population are now under government control. The rest of the nation is divided. Rebels are entrenched in the last Damascus suburb they hold to the east of the city in Jobar. The Kurds in the northeast permit civilian government institutions to function and state employees to receive their salaries from Damascus. Rebel groups in the south near the Israeli border fight on, as do the bulk of the insurgent forces who have sought sanctuary in the northwest province of Idlib. Rival rebel factions, and there are many, often battle one another. Some engage in criminal activities like extortion, kidnapping and smuggling that do not endear them to local residents. The future of these areas is unclear and will depend on whether the insurgents’ foreign sponsors decide to use them as perpetual irritants against al Assad or to abandon them altogether.
“They (the insurgents) failed to bring down the regime,” explained one Syrian security expert. “There is a consequence for that. They cannot go home. They cannot stay here. What do you do when the garbage begins to stink? You burn it.” He believes the Turks will end up destroying the jihadist groups they helped to create rather than permit them to leave Syria to pursue their holy war in Europe, Russia, the United States, the Muslim regions of China or Turkey itself. Others suspect that Erdogan, despite his rapprochement with Putin, will make Idlib a base from which to harass al Assad and prevent him from enjoying his victory. In that scenario, the United States would use Syrian Kurdistan as a staging post for attacks on the Syrian army, as it did decades ago with the Contras in Honduras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Whether the jihadists live on to degrade al Assad’s forces or are expelled from the country depends on a decision from Washington that, at this point, could go either way.
Al Assad has won the war, but that doesn’t mean the war is over.