A top US general said on Tuesday that Syrian autocrat Bashar al Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse last year before Russia intervened to prop it up.
Speaking during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Joints Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said that the Assad regime had been “reeling” before the Russian intervention and is now “stabilised.”
“Assad and the regime is certainly in much better shape than they were before the Russian intervention,” he said.
Russia commenced its campaign of air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30 in support of the embattled Assad regime, primarily concentrating its operations on territories held by Syrian opposition forces in the Latakia, Aleppo, Idlib and Homs provinces.
Although Russia initially said that the air strikes would target the DAESH terrorist group, which has taken advantage of the security vacuum in Syria arising from the five-year-long civil war to seize swathes of land across the country, moderate groups backed by the US and its allies were also heavily targeted.
The Assad regime, which has long safeguarded Russian military bases in the coastal regions, including the only Russian naval facility in the Mediterranean, refers to all armed opposition groups in the country as “terrorists.”
Dunford also questioned Russia’s stated intention behind going into Syria, mentioning that their recent withdrawal came while there is “some work to be done” against DAESH.
“I'm not sure what their stated intent was,” Dunford said, “but they certainly were effective in propping up the Assad regime.”
With Russian air support, regime forces backed by the Lebanon-based Iranian proxy Hezbollah managed to cut off a vital supply route running from the northern border town of Azez to opposition-held areas of Syria’s largest city Aleppo.
The regime also fortified its control over the country’s coastal regions, known to be a stronghold for Assad’s Alawite minority sect, and strengthened its grip on the capital Damascus, allowing it to advance on the DAESH-held ancient city of Palmyra.
The war in Syria began in March 2011 in the context of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, which swept the Middle East and North Africa, with Syrians holding peaceful demonstrations across the country calling for an end to four decades of dictatorship under the Assad family.
A group of renegade soldiers calling themselves the Free Syrian Army split from the regime forces when they refused to obey orders to shoot unarmed civilians protesting for their civil rights.
Since then, the war has killed at least a quarter of a million people with most of the casualties occurring as a result of regime air strikes and barrel bombings of civilian areas. However, some estimates put the death toll closer to half a million.
As much as half the country’s population has also been displaced, both internally and externally, triggering the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since World War II.