For Syria's President, The Year Ends Better Than It Began : Parallels Syria's civil war is still raging with no end in sight. But Bashar Assad remains entrenched in Damascus and many argue his position improved over the year as the U.S. began bombing the Islamic State.
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For Syria's President, The Year Ends Better Than It Began

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For Syria's President, The Year Ends Better Than It Began

For Syria's President, The Year Ends Better Than It Began

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Syria is the most dangerous place for journalists. It is a place that is so dangerous for so many people, there's a bloody civil war there. And many, including the United Nations, blame President Bashar Assad for killing tens of thousands of his own people. As we finish off 2014, we've been looking at how world leaders have fared. President Assad started the year at the negotiating table. NPR's Alice Fordham looks at how his fortunes changed.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: It's January 2014, it's Switzerland, it's freezing, and negotiators are gathered at the United Nations. Bashar Assad is not there but his ministers are, and they face the leaders of the opposition. John Kerry is there too, and calls loudly for a political transition. He's pretty clear about who won't be involved.

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U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way - no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern.

FORDHAM: Let's fast-forward to right now. Those talks were abandoned. Bashar Assad is still in the presidential palace in Damascus. And although the United States is bombing Syria, it's not targeting Assad's army but the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS.

JOSHUA LANDIS: I think Assad is in a stronger position today in many respects, certainly on the battlefield, and he has the United States as a strategic ally.

FORDHAM: This is longtime Syria analyst Joshua Landis, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. What's happened, he says, is that ISIS got so big and bad, the U.S. had to target them, even if that meant helping Assad out.

To understand how we got this point, we'll go back to spring, when Syria had a presidential election. That EU and U.S. called it illegitimate, but Assad's supporters hailed him as a legit winner.

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FORDHAM: Lawmakers applauded him before an inauguration speech.

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PRESIDENT BASHAR ASSAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He said the true motive of those who had called for freedom and democracy had been revealed as being murder...

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ASSAD: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: ...And congratulated Syrians on voting. Essentially, he said people had realized the Syrian uprising was led by terrorists. Western leaders scoffed, but then his argument got a huge boost right in the heat of summer.

FORDHAM: ISIS surged over the Syrian border and through the Iraqi city of Mosul, where they filmed themselves celebrating. Suddenly, they controlled a big oil-rich swath of territory stretching across Iraq and Syria.

And an American-led air campaign began to push back the growing ISIS threat. President Obama insists this doesn't mean he's partnering with Assad. But with both sides bombing the same places, people on the ground often think that the two are on the same side.

Many moderate anti-Assad activists believe Assad purposely allowed the extremists to become strong. His army targeted more moderate rebels, not ISIS. They say the strategy is that if Western leaders can only choose between Assad and ISIS, they'll choose Assad to bring back stability. But analyst Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute isn't sure that's a good plan.

RANDA SLIM: This whole approach is based on a faulty assumption, and the assumption being Assad can somehow stabilize the situation.

FORDHAM: Slim points out manpower is dwindling in Assad's army and paramilitaries.

I talked to Monzer Akbik, a leader of the political opposition who was in those talks at the beginning of the year. Now that opposition is weaker.

MONZER AKBIK: Political opposition is weaker for a very simple reason - we are unable to provide more support for our people.

FORDHAM: Akbik has little faith that more negotiations proposed by Russia for 2015 will make any difference. The U.S. and its allies say they plan to train a force of moderate rebels next year to pressure Assad. But most analysts think the president is likely to stay in power. It'll just be over a country ever more fractured and bloody. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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