Looking back at 2016, it is clear that the Syrian civil war is going President Bashar al-Assad’s way. His Damascus government has been boosted by the Russian military intervention that started in autumn 2015, a surge in Iranian support, the weakening of the Islamic State (ISIS, or IS) and of rival opposition forces trapped in a spiral of sectarian extremism and infighting.
A year ago, I published a fairly long and detailed list of what I felt were the most important events in 2015, with a view to their likely impact in 2016, at Joshua Landis’ Syria Comment blog (still worth reading in my view, and useful background to this commentary).
Back then, the conflict trend also seemed to be running in Assad’s favor, though there were exceptions like the continuing economic and institutional decay of the Syrian state. Huge uncertainties remained, particularly regarding the efficiency of the Russian intervention, the economic situation, and Assad’s ability to flexibly play politics and capitalize on his military gains. Some of those questions have since been resolved, mostly though not exclusively in Assad’s favor, but other uncertainties remain—and the Syrian war is proving very resistant to predictions.
With all that in mind, here is another list, in order from least to most important.
5. Assad Failed to Resurrect the Economy
In 2016, the Syrian economy continued its slow-motion implosion. The value of the Syrian pound fell dramatically in early 2016. In May, the price of a dollar had passed 620 pounds and moved on 700, compared to 47 before the uprising and around 400 at the start of 2016. Central Bank interventions pushed the price of the dollar down again, but this didn’t last. By summer, the dollar price was back above 500 pounds and there it remains.
The Syrian government is putting on a brave face. Its 2,660 billion pound state budget for 2017 has been advertised as its biggest spending spree ever, a 34 percent bigger budget than the previous one, even though its dollar value is significantly less than that for 2016. But the government is finding it increasingly difficult to keep services running. Consumers suffer from inflated prices, businesses are failing, black-marketeering spreads, and state and army salaries have been dramatically hollowed-out. Even to run basic security, the regime is increasingly forced to rely on decentralized self-funding or foreign-funded networks of militias. There was no catastrophic financial meltdown in 2016, but in the long term, this is all bad news for Assad.
Read more on the Syrian currency crisis.
4. The Eastern Ghouta Broke Apart
The Christmas Day 2015 killing of the Salafi rebel leader Zahran Alloush created a power vacuum in the Eastern Ghouta, a besieged enclave east of Damascus that has long been a thorn in Assad’s side and a threat to his control over the capital. Within months, the situation in the enclave had spun out of control, as formerly allied rebel factions battled each other for supremacy. As I describe in a new Century Foundation report, the infighting was deftly exploited by the Syrian government. Since spring, the army has retaken large swaths of territory in the Eastern Ghouta and is now pressing for ceasefire deals that would force opposition fighters to lay down their arms or evacuate the area.
After the December 2016 fall of the rebel stronghold in Eastern Aleppo, a government victory in the Eastern Ghouta would virtually secure regime control over Syria’s two main cities, free up troops for other tasks, and keep the opposition penned into lower-value rural regions. Although a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey was announced just before the end of the year, Assad will likely seek to kill off the Eastern Ghouta insurgency at some point in 2017.
Read more on the Eastern Ghouta.
3. Turkey Rearranged Its Priorities in Syria
In spring 2016, Turkey began to enact major changes to its foreign policy. By summer 2016, relations with Israel and Russia had been unfrozen. Turkish officials also signaled that they were thinking pragmatically about their involvement in Syria and would focus more on containing the U.S.-backed expansion of PKK-friendly Kurdish groups. On August 24, Turkey sent troops into Syria, pushing the Islamic State away from its border and blocking the Kurds from creating a contiguous PKK-dominated territory north of Aleppo, while avoiding direct clashes with Assad.
In the Syrian opposition, many were initially jubilant about the intervention, thinking it would turn the table in their favor. Half a year later, rebel reviews are decidedly more mixed. Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has continued to support Islamist fighters in Idlib, he still refuses to turn his Aleppo-region intervention force against Assad. Indeed, the Turkish-led operations mostly served to draw Syrian rebels away from the battle for Aleppo while Erdogan negotiated with their enemy, Russian President Vladimir Putin. On December 29, these talks led to the declaration of a ceasefire in Syria coupled with a promise of future peace negotiations in Kazakhstan. The Russian-Turkish track could of course fall apart quickly, but if it doesn’t, it could well serve to pull Turkey deeper into Russia’s embrace.
Of course, the presence of Turkish troops on Syrian soil is also unnerving for Assad, who has surely considered the possibility that his allies in Moscow and Tehran may want to cut deals directly with Ankara. But however disconcerting the sight of Turkish tanks may be to the Syrian ruler, Ankara’s decision to prioritize its own interests over those of the Syrian rebels has still been a net gain for Bashar al-Assad in 2016.
Read more on Turkey’s political malaise.
2. Donald Trump Won the U.S. Presidency
On November 8, nearly 63 million Americans voted to make Donald J. Trump the next president of the United States of America. Before his election, Trump had vaguely sketched out a Syria policy that would see the United States decouple itself from efforts to overthrow Assad in favor of good relations with Russia and an unsparing war against the Islamic State. It remains to be seen what he actually does and what the consequences will be.
More immediately, Trump’s election is likely to accelerate the international shift away from the Syrian opposition, as other actors begin to adapt to the new reality. In Europe, rising pressure from anti-Muslim far-right parties and a general irritation with the Middle East, jihadi terrorism, and the refugee influx have created the conditions for a similar shift. The United Kingdom has already ordered a review of its Syria policy and elections in France seem likely to yield a more Russia- and Assad-friendly new president this April, possibly in the person of François Fillon. Turkish and Arab leaders are also watching Washington, and will similarly be forced to adapt in one way or another.
In the end, the international community’s Syria fatigue is unlikely to allow broad rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad as a legitimate ruler, but it could ease military and economic pressures on his regime quite significantly. Trump’s win has just made that a lot more likely.
Read more on Trump’s options in Syria.
1. Assad Retook Eastern Aleppo
The most momentous event of 2016 was the Syrian government’s reconquest of Aleppo, the most prized possession of the opposition. After years of heavy fighting and a half-year-long siege, Assad’s army finally brought the rebels in Eastern Aleppo to their knees in December 2016. At least 111,000 civilians were displaced by the fighting, with some 70 percent ending up under government control and 36,000 evacuated by the Red Crescent toward the rebel-held Idlib region alongside a few thousand armed fighters.
The evacuation deal concluded in Eastern Aleppo is likely to increase the pace of local “reconciliations,” as the government terms these capitulation deals. In the international press, Eastern Aleppo understandably became a byword for brutality and many Western commentators seem to imagine that the circumstances of its fall will harden rebel resolve not to surrender. That is not necessarily how Eastern Aleppo’s fall will be read inside Syria. Many civilians whose communities are at risk of suffering the same fate as Eastern Aleppo are more likely to have picked up on the message the government was trying to send: That resistance is futile and can only lead to death, but the army does offer a safe surrender without massacres. After all, Aleppo was no Srebrenica. For Syrians who find themselves in the firing line there is nothing abstract about these choices, and many are likely to conclude from what happened in Aleppo that a negotiated defeat is not just their best option—it’s the only one.
Moreover, the loss of Eastern Aleppo has left the Syrian opposition without any realistic way of retaking the initiative. The rebels’ remaining strongholds are physically and strategically disconnected, all of them unsuited to mounting a major assault on the government for one reason or another. Fighters northeast of Aleppo have been coopted by Turkey and are now being used for border-clearing operations rather than to fight Assad. Jordanian-backed rebels in the south find themselves in a similar situation. The Eastern Ghouta and al-Rastan enclaves are unable to break out of isolation, while the powerful opposition groups in Idlib are too much in thrall to jihadi extremists to function as a long-term platform for a Western- or Gulf-backed insurgency. These things may yet change, but based on current trends, Assad’s victory in Aleppo is likely to be seen as a decisive turning point in the war.
The Syrian army remains weak, undermanned, and overstretched, as demonstrated by its failure to hold on to Palmyra during the Aleppo battle. This leaves it an open question whether the government will be able to expand significantly from western Syria and retake regions lost in the past few years, even if the opposition continues to weaken. But although Assad’s prospects of ultimate victory remain uncertain, it seems clear that the Syrian opposition has now lost the war.
Read more on how Assad retook Aleppo.
Cover Photo: Children and their parents in December 2016 gather around a fire to keep warm in the yard of a large warehouse in Jibreen, now used as a shelter for thousands of families who fled violence in eastern Aleppo. Source: UNICEF