Syria's army is on a path to victory after ousting rebels from Damascus
By LOUISA LOVELUCK | The Washington Post | Published: May 26, 2018
BEIRUT — After seven years of war, Syrian government forces have taken full control of the area around their capital, Damascus, freeing up an overstretched military to move against the country's few remaining rebel pockets.
The battle for Damascus ended this week with an offensive against the Islamic State group among the ruins of a former Palestinian refugee camp in the southern suburbs after other rebel forces were defeated in a nearby enclave. More than 1,000 civilians were killed in the campaign, according to monitoring groups.
The Syrian army announced that the last opposition fighters had left the Damascus suburbs, marking the culmination of a years-long march to victory there.
The armed opposition is now relegated to Idlib province in the north near the Turkish border and Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border. On Friday, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets in the northern districts of Daraa, warning rebels to lay down their weapons or face an offensive there.
"The men of the Syrian army are coming. Take your decision before it is too late," the leaflets read, according to the Syrian Central Military Media's website.
Many of the country's traditional economic hubs are also back under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. The highway linking them is being rebuilt and will provide a secure route for government soldiers heading to the remaining front lines.
"The regime is not strong, but there can be no question that it is now going to take over remaining areas of Syria until it reaches the front line of zones controlled by others," said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
Although Syria's war began as a purely internal matter, much of the country has now been divvied up among outside powers. Turkey controls a rebel enclave in the north, and the United States has partnered with Kurdish forces to control parts of northeastern Syria. Iran and Russia also have built military bases to deepen their influence.
In advancing on Daraa or Idlib, the army would depend on a disparate array of foreign militias, many of them backed by Iran. "The army remains a pretty poor fighting force by regional standards. It is unable to do much without significant support," Sayigh said.
Syria's military has been so hobbled by deaths and defections that the government has repeatedly been forced to intensify recruitment efforts. Even former prisoners have said they were released on the condition that they join up.
"It does rather make a mockery of the idea, pushed by people working towards peace talks, that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict," said Emma Beals, an independent analyst covering Syria. "While it may be true that there is no lasting peace to be found in a military strategy, there is certainly, as we are seeing, a way for them to achieve their objective: control."
The government's recent victories are due in part to help from allies Iran and Russia, which provide funds, weaponry and manpower.
In a statement, Hezbollah, the Iran-backed paramilitary movement fighting on Assad's behalf, congratulated the Syrian military.
"Hezbollah praises the courage and competence of the Syrian Arab Army and the allies who have concluded this new victory and paid with a high rate of sacrifices," the group said in a message sent to reporters by its media wing.
"The president was true to his word," said Amal, a housewife in Damascus who has spent much of the war praying – but not always believing – that the guns would fall silent one day. "The terrorists are gone, and it feels like a miracle. I cannot describe my relief."
For many government supporters in Damascus, relief at the news was overshadowed by concerns of day-to-day survival.
"The economic situation has erased joy from our lives," said one woman who gave only her first name, Samar. Her government employee husband, she said, earns a monthly salary of $100 a month, while the couple's living costs are double that.
Residents who have stayed in Damascus throughout the war said the army's consolidation in the area of the capital had largely set their security concerns at rest.
But those who returned recently from areas once held by armed groups told a different story. Dozens of individuals contacted by The Washington Post declined to speak out of concerns for their safety.
One who did, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she had largely stayed home since returning to Damascus last month, fearing harassment or arrest if she moved through the city's checkpoints.
"A lot has changed. You can see military presence in every corner, every street," she said. It wasn't like this before. There were informants and plain-clothed police, but nothing so obvious. It isn't safe."
In the areas that were hardest for the army to pacify, former residents and monitoring groups report a rising tide of arrests. "This is revenge," said the woman. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that security forces had detained four men in the city of Douma and taken them to an unknown location.
"The government will need to be careful that it does not marginalize or disenfranchise people in areas that joined Syria's uprising, and even some people within its own support base," said Beals, the independent analyst.
Monitoring groups estimate that the war has killed close to half a million people, and more than a hundred thousand are still missing in government jails. Promises of international funding for reconstruction remain thin on the ground, and the economy shows few signs of improving in the short term.
"What happens over the next year is going to be critical with regard to possible spoilers for ongoing stability and the opportunities that are made available to people across Syria," Beals said.
The Washington Post's Suzan Haidamous in Beirut and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed to this report.