Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has spent the past six years fighting a brutal civil war that has killed at least 465,000 of his own people, leveled major Syrian cities like Aleppo, displaced millions of desperate civilians, and helped trigger the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
Now he’s in Russia for a victory lap of sorts that highlights a grim reality: Assad, with extensive help from Russia and Iran, is nearing a nearly complete defeat of the rebels who once seemed poised to oust him. Put in even blunter terms: he’s won.
The Syrian leader traveled to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi to publicly thank Russian President Vladimir Putin, his closest ally, and to jointly celebrate that the war seems to be winding down with Assad still in control.
In comments released by the Kremlin, Putin said he and Assad were getting closer and closer to stamping out the uprising by fighters he derisively referred to as “terrorists.”
“We still have a long way to go before we achieve a complete victory over terrorists. But as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up,” Putin said.
The meeting marks just the second time in six years of brutal fighting that Assad has been willing to leave Syria; unsurprisingly, both were to Russia, which helped Assad beat back his rivals by sending troops, bombers, attack helicopters, and other weaponry weapons into Syria.
A photo of Assad hugging Putin quickly went viral on Twitter.
It’s easy to understand why; it’s not every day that two of the world’s most brutal rulers — including one, Assad, who has used chemical weapons against his own people and carpet bombed his cities — pose for a picture.
But the photo represents something else, as well: vivid and tangible evidence of just how badly US-backed efforts to oust Assad have failed.
The US wanted Assad out. Russia has ensured he isn’t going anywhere.
The failure to remove Assad from power shouldn’t be laid at the feet of President Trump. Then-President Obama overruled his war cabinet’s recommendation to arm the loose affiliation of rebel groups working to unseat Assad and famously refused to enforce a publicly declared “red line” after the Syrian dictator killed more than 1,400 citizens in a chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
The US eventually launched expensive and ineffective efforts to train and arm so-called “moderate” rebels that had ostensibly been extensively vetted. The push was doomed from the start by the fact that the Pentagon and CIA were running parallel programs, with little high-level coordination or oversight.
Russia, by contrast, poured money, weapons, and troops into Syria, helping Assad rapidly began to reclaim territory from the rebel groups and deal them a string of battlefield defeats. The biggest blow came last December, when Assad retook Aleppo, one of Syria’s biggest cities and a longtime rebel stronghold. (It was a somewhat Pyrrhic victory; brutal strikes by Russian and Syrian warplanes and helicopters leveled much of the city, killed thousands of its residents, and forcing tens of thousands of others to flee for their lives).
Here at home, the Trump administration vacillated for months about whether the Syrian president needed to eventually give up power before Assad forced Trump’s hand by once again using chemical weapons against his own people. Trump responded with a cruise missile strike against a Syrian military airstrip and renewed calls for Assad’s ouster.
The problem is that Trump, like his predecessors, did nothing of any real significance to push Assad out. Putin, meanwhile, worked hard — and was willing to risk the lives of many of his own troops — to make sure Assad stayed in power. It’s no wonder that Assad traveled to Russia to Putin to publicly thank him; in a very real way, Putin is the biggest reason that Assad has effectively won the Syrian civil war.