Assad clings on as Syria's war enters ninth year

Syria's president may have reversed the initial gains of the armed opposition and jihadists, but only as foreign powers have entered his turf.

BEIRUT - Bashar al-Assad has won his war for political survival but as Syria's conflict enters its ninth year, his country is fractured, cash-strapped, and prey to both friend and foe.

The civil war reaches its eighth anniversary this month with more than 360,000 people killed, millions more displaced, and devastation worth $400 billion.

As the war winds down, Syrians in regime-held areas may no longer have to worry about bombardment, but they face fuel shortages, frequent power cuts, unemployment and rampant poverty.

From the brutal repression of anti-Assad protests in 2011, the war spiralled into a complex conflict involving jihadists.

Syria's president may have reversed the initial gains of the armed opposition and jihadists, but foreign powers have entered his turf.

"The Syrian conflict is more complicated because there are now powerful foreign actors that control large zones inside Syria," said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Centre for a New American Security.

"And these foreign actors are not likely to leave Syria any time soon."

Backed by Russia and Iran, Assad's forces now control almost two-thirds of the country.

But key areas remain beyond his control, including a swathe of the oil-rich northeast held by US-backed Kurdish-led forces fighting the Islamic State group.

The northwestern region of Idlib, held by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, is protected by a ceasefire deal, which has seen Turkish troops deployed to the area.

And Ankara's Syrian rebel proxies hold several northern cities near the border.

Joshua Landis, of the University of Oklahoma, painted a grim picture.

"The Syrian map is one of division and despair," he said.

"Over 30 percent of the country is occupied by foreign governments who have built and funded local militaries."

Return on investment

Various foreign powers are competing to reap a return on years of military investment, or protect their interests.

Russia has backed Assad with troops and air strikes since 2015, while Iran has dispatched advisers as well as Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq.

"Russia wants to stabilise Assad to keep a steady local partner to guard its expanding bases in Syria" and project power region-wide, Heras said.

Iran wants a foothold in Syria, in case of a war between its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and Israel to the southwest, he said.

Both allies hope to play a key role in reconstruction and have signed deals including for electricity, oil and infrastructure projects.

Turkey and the United States, who have traditionally backed non-state actors, have other interests.

President Recep Tayyip "Erdogan wants to rip the Kurds out of America's embrace" and impose Turkey in northern and eastern Syria, Heras said.

Washington backs Kurdish-led fighters who control a large and oil-rich northeastern swathe, and has US troops in Syria as part of the anti-IS fight drawing to a close near the Iraqi border.

Turkey views Kurdish fighters as "terrorists" and has long threatened to attack the Kurds south of its border.

Washington is to dial down its presence to 200 "peace-keeping" troops after IS is expelled from its last pocket.

As well as shielding the Kurds from Turkey, a US presence piles pressure on Assad.

"Assad needs the water and wheat that the United States controls in eastern Syria," Heras said.

But "it is US policy to keep these resources from him and force the economy of Assad's statelet to collapse around him," he added.

'Three jobs' to get by

Along with the European Union, the United States has ramped up sanctions on Syrian officials and companies, including by seeking to prevent oil shipments to the country.

Landis said those measures were compounding post-war challenges, chief among them relaunching a devastated economy.

"The US is imposing one of the strictest sanctions regimes on Syria which will continue to deepen the misery of the people," he added.

Plus "the worst characteristics of the regime have been strengthened in the struggle to win the civil war: corruption, violence, and the absence of the rule of law," he said.

Shadi Abbas, 40, is struggling to return to a normal life after a routine military service lasted a whole eight years.

"I feel I have to work three jobs" to make ends meet, he said.

"Even if I found some money and work, who will give me back my youth," he said.

But after years of war, Assad has secured his capital, regained control of key commercial arteries, and started a timid comeback on the Arab scene.

Much to the despair of the fragmented opposition, several countries have called for Syria to be reintegrated into the Arab League, from which it was suspended as the death toll mounted in 2011.

Remaining rebels and jihadists are largely confined to Idlib after being ferried out of other parts of the country retaken by the regime.

The political opposition is scattered abroad and has failed to end the bloodshed in numerous rounds of abortive peace talks.

Whatever the challenges, "revolution is on low flame, and that is a win for Assad," Heras said.