SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Is President Bashar al-Assad on the verge of winning Syria's civil war? The humanitarian disaster continues. The Syrian dictator is starving out rebel-held areas, but his government - with help from Russia and Iran - has reclaimed territory from various rebel groups, and ISIS is all but obliterated in the country. Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council joins us now. Mr. Itani, thanks very much for being with us.
FAYSAL ITANI: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: I'll put it this bluntly - has Assad won?
ITANI: He has managed to survive, and if the aim of the insurgency was regime change and to replace him, then I guess in those terms he's won, yes. What is less clear is how well he's going to be able to govern the country, whether he's going to be able to hold on and to what degree he actually exercises complete sovereignty, given his dependence on Iran and Russia.
SIMON: Well, as you see it now, will he be the ruler of Syria for any length of time to come?
ITANI: Most of it geographically will be under his control, but there are a number of important caveats. First of all, half the population of Syria is displaced. So - and a big portion of them outside the country. So while he controls a majority of the population inside Syria, if you add the number of Syrians writ large who have been displaced by the conflict, then, actually, Bashar al-Assad controls less than half of the Syrian population and only part of the country. The other parts of the country are controlled either by the United States and its partners or, essentially, by some kind of small, holdover parts of the rebellion or by the Turkish military.
SIMON: Let me ask you about the extraordinary number of refugees. Are they ever coming back? If Assad is the ruler, can they come back as long as he's the head of it?
ITANI: It depends where they're from. So, for example, if you're from an area that is, like, inside core regime territory, that you are part of the opposition or perceived as living in an opposition neighborhood or town, then you're not going back, partly for security reasons, partly because where you want to go back to is destroyed. But if you are from one of the areas that is now kind of controlled by a group that you can tolerate, or your property is still intact, still have connections there, then the prospects of returning are higher.
SIMON: Does the humanitarian crisis end if one side prevails?
ITANI: No, absolutely not. I mean, even within regime territory, the humanitarian needs are enormous. Poverty in this country has skyrocketed. Unemployment has skyrocketed. The infrastructure of the country is devastated. All of these things - I mean, whether you're within the regime areas or not, really vary between physical damage and just the kind of institutional breakdown and decay - and the level of trust between people also decaying. No, the humanitarian catastrophe is there no matter who wins because no one has the capacity or the willpower to solve it.
SIMON: When you talk about the level of trust, that's because, after all, there's been a civil war. And neighbors and even, sometimes, family members have been pitted on opposite sides, haven't they?
ITANI: And that's the major fault line. But there are others - for example, the rise of criminality, the decrease of state power and state capacity in many of these areas. All of these places - you know, in a civil war, everything sort of begins to break down. It's not just the front line between two fighting groups, but the social fabric of the country is destroyed. People can't do business together. People can't get around. So it's much deeper and more subtle than that as well.
SIMON: There were talks this week in Kazakhstan, and the Russian delegate, I gather, said it's time for the U.S. to leave because ISIS has been defeated. How much leverage does the United States have in Syria?
ITANI: It has leverage to the extent that it physically keeps troops in the country and continues to robustly support some key armed groups such as the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. That is some leverage, but the truth is we don't know what the scale of commitment is of the United States to Syria, whether they care about the long-term outcome and balance of power. We know the Russians are heavily invested in the regime's survival and probably in at least retaining most of the territory it's taken. I think there's an imbalance of commitment, and the future of Syria is more important to them than it is to us. Or at least that's how we perceive it on the U.S. policy side.
SIMON: Faysal Itani, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, thanks so much.
ITANI: My pleasure. Thank you.
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