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January 13, 2020

2020 won’t be a good year for Assad

Resistance is growing at home, the allies show signs of weakness, and money is running out, too: 2020 won’t be a good year for Assad.  

Christmas was coming closer, but what tourists could see on the glistening video screens at New York City’s Times Square was not tranquil or Christmas-y: pictures of destroyed Syrian cities as well as full screen-sized portraits of those responsible: - Putin, Ali Khamenei, Assad and the killed “caliph” Al-Baghdadi.

The video clip touted for the United States’ engagement in Syria and a future without Assad for the country. Both appeared to have become unlikely in the course of 2019. President Trump had announced the retreat of US troops twice, and, on both occasions, a great fuss has followed the decision as the US already had a small contingent in the area, whose sole task is by now the fight against ISIS. 

At the same time, more and more articles were published claiming that Assad had won the war. Moreover, the question of millions of Syrian refugees being able to soon return to Assad-controlled territory was raised increasingly often. However, recent events showed once again how far away from reality such allegations really were, and still are. 

2019 ends worse for Assad than it had started. The conflict in Syria is far from over. And almost no refugees will return voluntarily.

The War Never Ended

The war in Syria has never ended, including the aerial warfare against civilians. Although nobody seems to care about this anymore, this does not mean that there are less people dying or made to flee their homes. 

In the area around Idlib, where around three million people are penned in, the bombing campaigns of the Russian and Syrian air forces continue relentlessly. According to a recent report by The Guardian, at least 90 people have recently been killed and 12,000 have fled the town of Maaret al-Numan – in just one week. 

Also, attacks against a market and civil infrastructure, in particular hospitals and utilities – like an oil mill, take place regularly. Apparently, Assad can easily get away with this kind of terror against the Syrian population – but it also puts him in strategic isolation. His army does not have the resources to control neither the three million people in Idlib nor the Kurdish territories in the country’s east.

On the contrary, there is increasing evidence of attacks and resistance in areas around Damascus and in the south, where rebels under Moscow’s guarantees were more or less forced to make peace with the regime. However, this might not disturb Assad’s sleep right now. As long as he has the unconditional support of Iran and Russia, there is no way to grapple with his regime militarily. The question is, who is going to pay the bills?

The recent weeks have shown how fragile the position of the Islamic Republic of Iran ultimately is; not only in Iran itself, but also across the region, as was seen during the mass protests in the south of Iraq and in Lebanon. In Tehran, all the finer points of power politics are mastered, but there is one area in which the regime fails hopelessly: creating sustainable social and economic perspectives at home or in the Iranian vassal states.

Costly Imperialism

After all, Imperialism is a costly affair for states. In addition, the further tightening of sanctions by Trump has effects. Iran is now struggling to provide its protégé Assad with sufficient amounts of fuel, as this year has shown. Plus, there is instability in Lebanon. The Syrian economy can only work in symbiosis with Lebanon. This is where the money is laundered and sanctions are circumvented. Lebanon is the hub for trade and imports, but the country is de facto bankrupt. And if you can only withdraw small amounts of dollars from the banks there, it immediately affects the supply in Damascus.

The Syrian pound has lost almost half of its value this year, and the fact that Assad has doubled civil servants’ salaries and pensions with the stroke of a pen only shows that it is still possible to print banknotes. Where the money actually comes from in such an essentially corrupt system is evident in the immense fees Syrian refugees have to pay in Assad’s embassies for extensions or the issuing of new documents. Another example is a recently passed law that allows the confiscation of property of Syrians who could have been drafted for military service but have exceeded the age limit – unless they pay 8,000 dollars.

However, this is not the kind of economic policy that is appealing for a dictator, not to speak of rebuilding a war-torn country. And Putin’s Russia will not pay the reconstruction costs of an estimated 250 to 400 billion dollars either. At least, the United Arab Emirates have dispatched a diplomatic representative to Damascus again, who has just shown himself to be very assiduous and submissive. Will there soon be money coming in from the Gulf? 

Moreover, benefiting from international aid has worked quite well; what a nice business the entire rebuilding of the country could be. You may also threaten and blackmail Europe with more refugees. And, some Europeans already seem to like visiting Damascus again. Will everything be fine for Assad in the end?  

Codename Caesar: The War Crime Photographer

This is where Caesar enters the scene. This codename conceals a Syrian photographer who had to take pictures of the bodies of thousands of people murdered by Assad's secret services during the first years of the war. Caesar managed to escape with copies of the photographs. These attracted a great deal of publicity, especially since their bureaucratic accuracy and the emaciated corpses were clearly reminiscent of photographs taken in German concentration camps – and were also exhibited in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Like many well-documented war crimes in Syria, Caesar’s testimony at first seemed to pass without any consequences. But his testimony and powerful photos have now, after a long effort, led to the adoption of the so-called “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” by the US Senate. 

The Caesar Bill allows for US sanctions within the next six months against companies, individuals or government agencies that support Assad and his war against the civilian population. The provisions are very broad in scope; they can affect virtually anyone who has any business or military contact with the regime. 

If you ever planned to invest in Assad in the near future, you may want to thoroughly rethink this plan. The new law will not overthrow Assad, nor will the oppression of the civilian population stop – but it is an effective instrument to undermine Putin’s hopes of repositioning Assad on the international stage through a kind of normalisation process. Only in this way could Russia manage to withdraw from its previously successful but now increasingly perspective-free Syria engagement. And Assad is in urgent need of money for his people. After all, he claims to have “won”. 

Keeping in mind the protests against the leadership in Iran, the national crisis in Lebanon and his own ramshackle financial means, Syria’s president does not face a good year in 2020.

This article appeared first on Mena-Watch.

Image: © PanARMENIAN Photo / Davit Hakobyan