Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai

21/03/2016 NowMedia Beirut – Despite recent military gains, the Syrian dictator will not be able to reconquer the entire country. – Since 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has tried to kill opposition to remain in power. Assad has ordered the shooting of peaceful demonstrators and the arrest and torture of survivors. He has bombed neighborhoods with artillery, tanks, makeshift barrel bombs, ballistic missiles and fighter jets. He has used prohibited chemical weapons. He has enlisted mercenaries from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan to make up for his shortage in fighting power. He has augmented his forces with officers from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, and has invited the Russian Air Force to carpet bomb opposition territory.

Yet, Assad’s lieutenants still say that they are willing to negotiate a political settlement only if Assad’s presidency is left out of the debate. The fact that after five years of war, death, destruction, displacement, and the crumbling of the Syrian and Lebanese economies, Assad’s presidency still remains precarious, suggests that the Syrian dictator has failed.

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have given all they have to help Assad, but it seems that keeping him in power is prohibitively costly and minimally rewarding.

First Iran tried its hand. It threw its crown jewel, Hezbollah, into the Syrian fray in the hope of scoring a quick victory. Yet despite its elite power and victories in a few battles, Hezbollah eventually found itself stuck in a quagmire.

Iran’s reasons to shore up Assad remain ambiguous, most probably hubristic. To argue that Syria is the waypoint for Iranian weapons destined for Hezbollah is not convincing. Because of Sunni western Iraq, the Shiite crescent is territorially noncontiguous. To arm Hezbollah, Iran can simply fly weapons to Beirut’s airport.It seems Iran saw an opportunity to turn Assad into a vassal by helping him suppress the Syrian revolt. It also seems that Tehran miscalculated and found itself in a war it cannot win.Tehran then managed to convince Moscow to jump in after convincing Russian President Vladimir Putin that Syria was an opportunity to humiliate their common enemies, America and its allies.

It is still early to assess Putin’s gains and losses in Syria. But in an air campaign that lasted 165 days and cost the ailing Russian economy close to half a trillion dollars, all that Putin can show for the intervention is a new airbase in Hmeimim, in addition to Russia’s old naval base in Tartous.

Putin tried to spin his withdrawal into victory by saying that his forces were keeping behind their advanced S-400 air defense system. Yet even before Russia’s involvement in Syria, Assad’s command of the Syrian airspace was not disputed and therefore did not require Russian reinforcement. Russian pundits also argue that by leaving behind the S-400, Putin wants to prevent Turkey from taking on the Kurds in northeastern Syria. But Turkey can bomb Kurds from within Turkish territory and airspace.Perhaps, Russia’s motives for intervening in Syria were the same as those of Iran. Both Moscow and Tehran are participating in the war for propaganda purposes and to deflect domestic anger against their economic weakness.

To the misfortune of Russia and Iran, war ignites national pride only in its first few weeks, after which defenders absorb the momentum of the offensive and start containing it, or even reversing it. Add to the military stalemate a surge in expenses and death notices — in the Iranian case — and war becomes counterproductive on a popular level.

After both Iran and Russia have failed to help Assad conquer his enemies, it seems that Putin understood that cutting losses and running away from Syria was his best choice. Since the beginning of his war in Syria, Putin has made sure to keep a diplomatic exit available.

Because Putin’s involvement in Syria raised his stakes in the conflict, he coupled it with a UN Security Council resolution (2254), the likes of which Moscow had vetoed five times before 2015. With Putin unable to break Assad’s opponents, the only logical recourse was a ceasefire, followed by the withdrawal of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Before Putin withdrew, he helped Assad win back a few strategic nodes, but nothing that can give Assad a conclusive victory.

Now that Syria is de facto divided and zones of control are defined, the only thing left is for Assad and his opponents is to engage in negotiations, which the Syrian dictator seems determined to draw out as long as possible in the hope that his lot might improve in the future, give him the ability to conquer his enemies and restore him as the sole ruler of Syria.Yet the odds of Assad prevailing are extremely low. Like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Lebanon’s Michel Aoun before him, Assad will preside over a pocket of his destroyed country and wait until international circumstances change. Unless the world changes drastically to help an autocrat with a chemical massacre on his resume regain power, Assad’s reign is over.

 He tweets @hahussain