The Trump administration wants you to know that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad isn’t doing as well as he, or his Russian and Iranian allies want you to think, and that’s why they’re going to have to agree to some concessions at U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva, rather than retaking the country as Assad has vowed to do.
Senior administration officials gathered a small group of journalists Monday to walk them through how they see Assad’s chances at winning the peace – spoiler alert: not much, because the regime’s forces are in tatters, the economy is on Russian- and Iranian-provided life support, and Syrian troops have used scorched-earth tactics that breed future rebellion.
The officials were fighting back against a message they say is spread by Russian, Iranian and Syrian media to portray the conflict as won and done, with Assad the inevitable victor, well on his way to retaking the country. The narrative also dictates that the mostly Sunni Arab refugees who fled should stay where they are outside Syria, troublemakers-turned-wards of the international community – but Assad would welcome that same international community’s hundreds of billions of dollars in aid to rebuild a country shattered by the regime’s own crackdown.
The U.S. backs the off-and-on U.N-brokered Syrian peace talks in Geneva, saying that it doesn’t see a future for Assad but not demanding his ouster as a precondition for talks. Russia has proposed a competing peace conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with the Syrian government and rebels in attendance – a notion the Trump administration rejects, together with what they see as a Russian-backed campaign to present the Syrian crisis as a fait acompli.
In contrast to the occupant of the Oval Office who regularly downplays Russian influence operations, these Trump officials wanted to fight back with what they see as the facts on the ground in Syria as observed by the U.S.-led coalition and U.S. intelligence.
They started by ticking off the cost of the civil war thus far, “provoked” by Assad in 2011 by his harsh crackdown on protests:
- The Assad regime has killed around half a million Syrians and wounded far more;
- There are 5 million-plus estimated internally displaced Syrians;
- There are 6 million-plus refugees outside the country;
- Several million Syrians are living beyond the regime’s reach.
“The Assad regime controls less than half of Syria’s on pre-war population…and less than half of its populated territory,” the lead official said, speaking anonymously as a condition of describing the administration’s assessment of the war.
He described a Syria that is an economic shell of its former self:
- The country remains sanctioned by the U.S., the U.N. and the European Union, for crimes including using weapons of mass destruction against its own people;
- Syria has no exports of value compared to pre-war economy and is dependent on cash handouts and bulk transfers of oil and wheat from Iran and Russia “just to subsist”l
- Unemployment is near 50 percent;
- The currency has lost most of its value, and faces 50 percent inflation;
- Syria’s infrastructure has suffered between $200 to $300 billion in damage and the regime’s major allies, Iran and Russia, are unlikely to be able to help with reconstruction because they are facing their own economic issues at home;
- Syria was an oil exporter, but the regime now controls only a third of the country’s oil and gas resources;
- 13.5 million Syrians are dependent on international assistance to survive, more than half of the country’s pre-war population;
- The regime generates only half a billion dollars in revenue annually, down from a 2010 estimate of $21 billion, but the government spends $2.7 billion annually, and is thought to have run out of cash reserves, meaning it requires infusions of cash from Russia and Iran to keep the state running and the military operations going.
“The bottom line is, [Assad] can’t afford his own war effort without significant assistance from Iran and Russia,” the lead official said.
And that military effort is struggling, with an army severely damaged by six years of war, especially the grueling 2016 battle to take Aleppo.
“The narrative that the Russian media, the Syrian regime media, the Iranian media and their friends have constructed is that Aleppo represented…a clear regime victory, and the regime’s military capacity has grown,” and that they’re in a mopping-up phase against rebel elements, the lead official said. “The Aleppo operation actually depleted the regime’s own military capabilities significantly in terms of manpower and heavy weaponry,” as well as providing a gut punch to their morale and organization.
They described the Syrian army as a hollow force:
- Since Aleppo, Syrian regular forces are so depleted that they have been forced to use their own elite military troops for major operations;
- Only two units are left that can conduct offensive operations: the Tiger Forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Suheil Hassan; and the 4th Armoured Division, commanded by the president’s brother, Maher al Assad;
- The regime relies increasingly on foreign forces to fight, including Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi and Afghan Shi’ite foreign fighters provided and commanded by Iranian Quds Force military advisers.
The official said a recent battle for the town of Abu Kamal, which the regime billed as the final step in the Syrian campaign to take territory back from ISIS, had few Syrians taking part.
“It was almost entirely non-Syrians, who were essentially, as far as we can tell, commanded by the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and Lebanese Hezbollah…with mostly Russian air cover,” the official said.
Not only are Assad’s troops so weak that they need Russian and Iranian help to take new territory — they don’t have enough top troops to hold it, the officials said. The Syrian forces leave behind a ragtag band of older, “poorly trained…poorly led” troops to police the newly regained territory, and time and again, they are run off by ISIS. Then the main Syrian force backed by Iran and Russia needs to attack again to win the area back – a yo-yo phenomenon that most recently happened in the Palmyra-Deir-Ezzor corridor.
“What that tells us is there is just not enough cream cheese to spread over the bagel there,” one of the officials said.
When Assad’s forces take an area, they do so brutally and they don’t have the resources to follow up with most basic government services, much less reconstruction. The combination means they leave a seething population ready to take up arms the next time they see a chink in the regime’s armor.
“If the regime just continues doing what it’s doing, and trying to consolidate control, absent meaningful political change inside Syria, we think you’ll see Syria fall back into large-scale civil war,” the lead senior official said. “The grievances are sharper now than they were at the beginning of this conflict.”
And that’s further complicated by the presence of “destabilizing spoilers” like al Qaeda, and the diminished-but-still-there ISIS.
“If you don’t…stabilize the territories where you’ve eliminated them, they can come back,” the official said of ISIS, adding that there are already signs the group is reverting to acting as a clandestine terror organization, or even a mafia-style criminal organization to survive.
And the Syrian government can barely police, employ and feed those in the territory it controls, mush less provide for a war-shattered country, he said.
“When we look at what would it take to make a peace sustainable in any country, the Syrian regime does not have it,” the official said. The officials would not share how many troops the U.S. might be willing to commit in future, to keep the peace.
CORRECTION NOTE: This story was corrected to indicate that 13.5 million Syrians, not 5 million Syrians, are dependent on international assistance to survive, more than half of the country’s pre-war population
Kimberly Dozier is executive editor of The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KimDozier.