No matter what was the US initial goal in Syria, the plans have ended up in failure. Two investigative documents have emerged stating that the United States have been supplying arms and ammunitions purchased from several Eastern European countries to terrorist groups in Syria under the guise to fight the Islamic State (IS). The weapons included AK-47 rifles, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers, mortars, and other weapons and ammunition purchased in the Czech Republic, Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. The supplies did not result in victories.
President Trump gave the American field commanders in Syria the authority to launch strikes, raids and campaigns as in an active war zone, loosening restrictions protecting civilians. The measure did not help drastically change the situation in US favor. The Pentagon initiated the ill-fated ‘train and equip” program to have pro-US forces on the ground. It failed and was cancelled. The America-backed rebels tried to launch offensives along the Jordanian border but to no avail.
The United States had to pull out from al-Tanf, one of three official border crossings between Syria and Iraq, to leave the border area to pro-Syrian government forces. The US-led coalition had decided not to enter the eastern city of Deir ez Zor, where Syrian troops recently broke the IS siege that had lasted for three years. No gains were made. Nothing worked. By and large, all the hard efforts have gone down the drain. The American influence on the events in Syria is limited.
The Kurd-dominated Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) led by the United States got stuck in Raqqa. The Kurds have little desire to fight anybody outside the territory they control. Furthermore, reliance on the SDF has greatly deteriorated the US relations with Turkey and that’s a big problem with no solution in sight.
There is nothing left but a slim hope the “green” or “moderate” rebels will unite and do something about it. According to recent reports, they are regrouping to give it another try. Dozens of Syrian rebel factions, including the notorious Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, have backed a proposed plan to unify the fractured opposition movement and create a single “United National Army” (UNA). The formation of the army was mandated by the Turkey-based Syrian Interim Government (SIG) and is set to be headed by SIG Prime Minister Jawad Abu Hatab. The idea was put forward in August by the opposition's interim government in exile and by the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC). Many of the groups united now under the national army’s banner suffered defeat from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, the former al-Qaeda affiliate, which established control in the province of Idlib in August. Since they were not strong enough to resist the jihadists’ group, one can hardly imagine them winning against the seasoned Syrian pro-government forces supported by Russian aviation.
The formation of the UNA is destined to demonstrate to the world that there were alternatives to the Assad-led Syria’s government and the IS group. Syrian opposition delegates were in Doha on September 7 to meet with the Qatari foreign minister, following the creation of the army. The visit was part of a diplomatic offensive with sympathetic nations ahead of the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting in New York started on September 12. The opposition is expected to form a single delegation that can meet face-to-face with the Damascus government in the next round of negotiations scheduled to take place in Geneva next month.
The effort is taking place as supplies of aid, money and weapons to the Syria’s “moderate” opposition are dwindling along with international support. In late August, the Jordanian government expressed hope for reopening of its border crossing with Syria as it says relations with Damascus are “in the right direction.” This is a very important about-face. Jordan shares a border of more than 370 kilometers with Syria. In August, Saudi Arabia told the Syrian opposition to come to terms with Assad staying in power.
The West appears to have finally dropped its demand for the ouster of President Assad. The US no longer views Assad’s departure as a precondition for peaceful management in Syria. In July, President Trump ordered the CIA to stop aiding anti-Assad rebels. According to the Washington Post, “this decision provided Russia with final confirmation that it owns Syria.”
British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, believes that Assad’s departure is “not a precondition. But part of a transition.” He even believes that Assad could run for election. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron said Paris no longer sees the removal of Assad as a priority in the Syrian conflict.
It has become clear that support for the anti-Assad militias failed to produce significant results. As a result, no major power still backs the Syrian opposition’s demand that Assad’s removal precede any diplomatic process.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the only big player who openly opposes the initiative of establishing de-escalation zones - the process launched by Russia, Turkey and Iran. But this group is limited to Idlib and its influence beyond the province is insignificant. The Russia-initiated Astana peace process has gained worldwide recognition. And it works. The Russian military police will be responsible for the fourth de-escalation zone in Idlib. The main rebel-held area would be “frozen”. The move will prevent the “United National Army” or anybody else from dividing Syria.
President Assad is in charge of most of the population and most of the important territory. The Syrian government has defeated those who sought to depose it. It controls the country’s main cities and possesses a considerable advantage in terms of firepower. Last month, the Damascus International Fair was organized to symbolize the return to normalcy.
“Bashar Assad’s government has won the war militarily,” said Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Damascus who witnessed the uprising’s earliest days. “And I can’t see any prospect of the Syrian opposition being able to compel him to make dramatic concessions in a peace negotiation.”
“Will the opposition be able to be unified and realistic enough to realize they did not win the war?” asked UN peace talks mediator Staffan de Mistura on September 6. He suggested the war was almost over and a national ceasefire should follow soon after.
A new UN-brokered round of negotiations on Syria will kick off in October. The participants will have to live with new reality - the West has lost in Syria, Russia and its allies have won. The war is almost over; reconstruction and nation-building are coming to the fore.