Has Assad Won?

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from TIME Magazine,

Ensconced in a corner of Damascus, Bashar Assad is growing stronger, while Homs, the capital of the Syrian revolution, lies in ruins.

In Syria, victory is written in ruin.

An anti-government uprising, followed by three years of war and the threat of U.S. air strikes, nearly destroyed this Middle Eastern nation. But President Bashar Assad’s government has fought its way back with a relentless military campaign of air strikes, shelling and the strategic use of siege warfare on insurgent-held areas.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the former rebel stronghold of Homs, once dubbed the capital of the revolution.

Defying expectations that he would be the next domino to fall in the Arab Spring’s chute of regional dictators, Assad stands stronger than ever. His military, augmented by fighters from the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militia Hizballah, funded in part by Iran and armed with Russian weapons and ammunition, has consolidated control over a strategic corridor connecting the capital, Damascus, to the coast.

With Homs, Syria’s third largest city, all but contained, he is now focused on the commercial and industrial capital, Aleppo, which remains split between rebel and pro-government forces.

Meanwhile, the armed rebel groups fighting Assad are weary, underfunded and divided. National Coalition leaders have repeatedly requested sophisticated weapons systems, including anti-aircraft missiles, from allies in the West and in the Gulf, but so far support has been limited. In Washington, opinion is divided on whether the rebels can be trusted with the missiles.

Assad’s army has dropped shrapnel-packed barrel bombs onto civilian targets from helicopters and has used starvation as a weapon of war. (The government maintains that it is not targeting civilians but battling “terrorists,” its term for anyone who opposes Assad.) But short of a major military campaign, a significant increase in arms to the rebels or a radical shift by Russia–Moscow’s U.N. Security Council veto has blocked four resolutions pertaining to the Syrian crisis–the Assad regime is likely to stay in power for the foreseeable future, even if the current military stalemate is maintained.

Nearly 10 months after a sarin nerve-gas attack in the Damascus suburbs killed as many as 1,400 people, the government has shipped out or destroyed all but 7% of its chemical-weapons arsenal and production facilities, under an international agreement brokered under the threat of U.S. air strikes.

For Western powers that have invested in Assad’s downfall and are concerned about regional instability, Assad’s resurgence requires a difficult adjustment. “We might have to eat some hard crow,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Iraq, told the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on May 1.

When Syrian protesters took to the streets in March 2011, emboldened by the success of revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, they were seeking the implementation of democratic ideals and an end to pervasive corruption. Few called for the downfall of the President. But when the protesters were met with a series of vicious crackdowns, they responded by picking up arms.

Now the war’s toll has more and more Syrians turning, reluctantly, toward the regime. Not because they support Assad but because they are desperate to return to some semblance of normal life.

Mohammad, 23, urban protester, now says he was too impatient for change: “We thought it would work, that it would be quick, like Tunisia and Egypt. But our revolution was stolen. They turned it from a fight for freedom into an Islamic revolution.” That doesn’t mean he has abandoned the cause. When it comes time to vote, he will leave his ballot blank as a form of protest. “I don’t want to have to choose between the extremists and the government. They are both killers.”

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