IF THE cruise missiles that slammed into Syria on April 14th rattled President Bashar al-Assad, he did his best not to show it. Hours after America, Britain and France struck three facilities connected to Mr Assad’s chemical-weapons programme, his office posted a video of him strolling confidently into work. Russian politicians who met him later in the day said he was in a good mood.
Mr Assad may have feared a bigger response from the West. Donald Trump, America’s president, had vowed to make his regime pay a “big price” for gassing to death more than 40 people in the town of Douma on April 7th. But the missiles destroyed only a handful of buildings and probably failed to wipe out all of Mr Assad’s poisonous arsenal. Nor did they dent his ability to rout, with conventional weapons, what is left of the rebellion in Syria’s seven-year civil war.
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Aided by Iran and Russia, Mr Assad is winning the war. His soldiers recently captured Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus of which Douma is part, after a brutal weeks-long offensive. Hours after the chemical attack, the only rebels still standing in the area agreed to the terms of a Russian-brokered surrender. Some handed over their weapons and will join the regime’s security forces; others were bused north to Idlib province.
Now the regime’s forces are massing on the edge of Yarmouk, another suburb of Damascus that is occupied by Islamic State (IS). Some of the jihadists have already fled. The rest will either surrender, cut a deal or fight a battle they will lose, say analysts. A similar fate awaits rebel groups that control a small adjacent area. Russia wants them to reconcile with the regime and join the fight against IS.
Rebels in other parts of the Syrian interior are also on the ropes. Cut off from international support, those still in control of towns near Homs have tried to strike a deal with Russia that would allow them to stay in the area. But Mr Assad, who has vowed to retake the entire country, is unlikely to tolerate their presence on the main highway that runs north from Damascus. “I can see every remaining rebel pocket in the centre of the country falling in the next few months,” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London.
What happens in the last big rebel strongholds, on the country’s borders, is harder to predict. In the south, where a fragile ceasefire holds, Mr Assad would need Russian and Iranian help to defeat the rebels quickly. But relying too heavily on Iran and its proxies risks provoking Israel, which has already struck Iranian bases in Syria. Jordan, which has backed the rebels, would probably tolerate the regime’s return to its border if it didn’t lead to a new wave of refugees. The war has hurt Jordan’s economy; it just wants it over.
In the north, where a separate ceasefire is in effect, the situation is even more complicated. Rebels control much of Idlib, home to 2m people. The most powerful groups are led by jihadists. Al-Qaeda has 300 or so fighters in the area, but they are lightly armed and widely reviled. Vicious infighting among the rebels has delighted the regime.
Idlib poses a dilemma for Mr Assad and his allies. The province is guarded by Turkish soldiers, who are monitoring the ceasefire. If, as expected, the regime attacks, its forces would need to confront or skirt Turkey’s bases. Some think the Turks would cede some territory to prevent a full-scale assault on Idlib. Much depends on whether Russia, which is working with Turkey to negotiate an end to the war, would support an offensive deep into the province’s densely populated areas.
Mr Trump, for his part, has said he wants to withdraw American troops from Syria, where they are fighting IS alongside Kurdish-led forces in the north-east. There is talk of replacing the Americans with an Arab force, which the regime has promised to fight. The war may become still more complicated.