Friday, September 28, 2012

Prisoners of Bashar

Slowly but inexorably, even the allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, above all Russia, appear to be coming to the realization that any transition in Syria cannot take place if he remains in power. And yet, despite this, don’t soon expect a change in their policies.

Several days ago, media outlets focused on the apparent departure to Dubai of Bushra al-Assad, the president’s sister and widow of Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister who was killed in a bomb attack last July in Damascus. It’s not clear why she left, although the signal it sends is that even the inner core of the Assad regime is fraying.

There had been rumors that Shawkat favored a more multifaceted approach to the uprising, blending negotiations with repression. Some sources suggested that this was opposed by other Alawite officers, including Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. This led to speculation, with little evidence, that the bomb blast that killed Shawkat and others was a regime job, designed to ensure that the Alawites remained unified around a policy of brutal subjugation.

If this is true, it is conceivable that Bushra sided with her husband and that his made her position in Syria untenable. She was either forced out of the country or chose to leave. Whatever the answer, her exit is more significant than that of Manaf Tlass or former Prime Minister Riyad Hijab. The Assads oversee a system of family rule, based upon sibling solidarity, but the family is, plainly, fragmenting, regardless of whether Bushra held a position of responsibility or not.

That Bashar al-Assad’s outside support may be eroding was alluded to in the remarks of a diplomat at the United Nations to Raghida Dergham of Al-Hayat. According to the diplomat, who is evidently close to the mission of Lakhdar al-Ibrahimi, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria, “Differences remain between Russia and the Western countries over the form of a transfer [of power in Syria] and the participation of the regime in [this transition] and at what level; yet Russia has agreed to the principle of a transitional phase.”

Given that Ibrahim himself has made it amply clear that Syria simply cannot return to where it was before the revolt began, and his implicit criticism of Bashar al-Assad for believing that the country can, the diplomat’s interpretation of Moscow’s intentions was significant. The Russians seek to play a central role in the establishment of a new order in Syria, but they also want to protect enough of their comrades in the Syrian system so that Russian interests will prevail.

We may be near the moment where the weak link in this process is the president himself. If an orderly evolution requires him to leave office, the Assads may find themselves isolated. Russia’s capacity to bring the Alawite military and intelligence elite into such an arrangement will be vital. Moscow doesn’t want the Syrian leadership to crumble, as this would undermine its stakes in Syria. But the longer Assad lingers, the more difficult a manageable transition will become.

Iranian calculations are as important here, if not more so. Much in Ibrahimi’s mediation will depend on whether Tehran and Moscow remain on the same page over Syria. Like the Russians, the Iranians have bolstered Assad militarily, on the quite sensible grounds that if his authority becomes shaky, Iran may lose everything.

Iranian power centers are allegedly divided over Syria, even as they must sense that a military solution is now impossible. If so, the consensus position between the factions in Tehran may eventually be to agree that Bashar al-Assad is expendable, and that a move away from the Assads is the only way to preserve the political and military edifice with which they have collaborated closely in the past years.

That said, there are two fundamental obstacles to Assad’s removal, which is why efforts in that direction may not come now, or ever. The first is that the president embodies the system, so that once he goes, even in the context of a package deal, his system could collapse. And the second is that the Syrian opposition will never agree to bargain with those who have slaughtered tens of thousands of innocents.

And there is another small matter: Assad may refuse to step down. The Syrian president has well understood the paradoxical dynamics of his situation. Though he is losing his grip, both Iran and Russia need to avert a catastrophic disintegration of Assad rule, because otherwise it will mean a disintegration of Iranian and Russian sway over Syria. So the weaker Assad is, the greater the Russian and Iranian urgency to ensure that he remains in place, until such time when he can regain ground and perhaps negotiate from a position of strength.

But that only begs another question: If Bashar al-Assad regains ground, why would he contemplate leaving office?

In other words, Moscow and Tehran are far more Assad’s prisoner than he theirs. They may talk about a transition in Syria, and even plan one, but they cannot conceivably implement such a strategy today without risking everything. Assad grasps this, which is why he remains confident, the peacemakers’ desires notwithstanding.

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