In his defiant speech to Syria’s parliament earlier this month, President Bashar al-Assad, as he always has, cast all of Syria’s rebels as terrorists. “Just like we liberated Palmyra and many other areas before it, we are going to liberate each and every inch of Syria from their hands,” he said. The speech struck a decidedly different chord from Assad’s last national address, in July 2015, when he admitted that his army was tired, running out of soldiers, and had given up territory. A little over a month after that speech, Russia intervened in Syria, propping up Assad through airstrikes and helping his forces take back ground, including Palmyra from the Islamic State, but mainly territory held by other rebel groups.
The two speeches made clear how the regime’s fortunes have shifted in the past year. Once militarily on the ropes in places like northwestern Syria, where last summer several rebels groups were encroaching on Assad’s coastal stronghold of Latakia, Assad’s regime has been buoyed by Russia’s air force.
As the last American ambassador to be posted to Damascus, Robert Ford, put it, “[Assad’s] position changed a hundred and eighty degrees” with Russia’s intervention. That came in an interview with The New Yorker’s Robin Wright about the recently disclosed State Department dissent cable signed by 50 U.S. diplomats calling for U.S. airstrikes against Assad.