Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Bashar good for Moscow?

With global attention focused on whether President Barack Obama was outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad over Syria, little has been said about Assad’s growing dependence on outside actors, and how this has made him politically vulnerable.

It was not always that way. A tenet of the late Hafez al-Assad was that Syria would always be the master of its own destiny. In defense of Syrian priorities, the late president was willing to confront the Soviet Union when he deployed his army to Lebanon in 1976 and fought the Palestine Liberation Organization. Likewise, he built up a strategic relationship with Iran during the 1980s, even though this angered many powerful Arab countries, who supported Iraq.

His son Bashar, in contrast, has so mismanaged affairs that he depends on Russian arms and diplomatic support, Iranian weaponry, and Hezbollah manpower to survive politically. He is increasingly irrelevant to Syria’s future, even if neither Russia nor Iran will let him cede power under rebel pressure, because this would bring the entire Syrian political and security edifice crashing down.  

But this may change for Russia as it looks ahead. Despite a brief moment months ago when it appeared that Hezbollah would tip the military balance in favor of the regime, we are still in a generalized stalemate. Hezbollah played a key role in Qusayr and Homs, but further afield it is as much a prisoner of the conflict as anyone else.

At one time the US naively believed that the Russians would negotiate an Assad departure if their interests in Syria were preserved. But that was a misunderstanding of Syrian dynamics. Moscow knew that once the principle of Assad’s exit was conceded, it would have no leverage to negotiate. So the Russians, and with them the Iranians, armed the regime, allowed it to regain its footing, and obstructed diplomatic initiatives that might have undercut Assad.

But that does not mean that Putin views Assad as a viable long-term option for stabilizing Syria, or that Russia is personally committed to the Syrian president. In fact, if the Russians, as good political realists, are pursuing their national interests, it seems likely that Assad will have to be sacrificed at some point for them to succeed. The reason is simple: in the absence of a military victory, his indefinite presence as head of state would only provoke indefinite conflict in Syria.

Assad’s chances of reimposing himself as a legitimate leader – after more than 100,000 dead and acknowledgment that he has chemical weapons, which he had previously denied – is negligible. If Russia seeks stability, Assad’s staying in power is the major obstacle to this.

Caught between realizing that Assad must go, but not wanting him to go under opposition duress, Putin has relatively limited options. Most observers look to the presidential election in Syria next year as a convenient cut-off point for a managed change in leadership. If Assad serves out his term, he will have stuck to constitutional principles, which is important for the Russians who reject regime change by force. But also, this additional time will allow his foreign backers to put in place the mechanisms of a political transition favorable to them, if indeed Russia decides that Assad’s time is up.

Putin is in a prime position to bring such change about. His greatest challenge is less the United States, than Assad’s ability to play on potential Russian and Iranian differences to safeguard his rule. But what Putin has done in the past week is to position himself as a guarantor of Syria’s behavior internationally, and as a barrier to a Western military attack. If Assad were to rebuff the Russian president at some stage, he might find himself standing alone with Iran against the United States, Israel, Europe, and a majority of Arab states.

Since Prince Bandar bin Sultan visited Moscow recently, there has been a view that Saudi Arabia would not oppose a greater role for Russia in Syria and the Levant, as long as the outcomes do not threaten core Saudi interests. With Obama so indecisive and leading an American drawdown in the Middle East, the Saudis may welcome a more reliable foreign presence in the region, from a country that shares their desire for stability and antipathy to democracy.

If that interpretation is true, and if the Russians are indeed looking toward the Syrian presidential election as the moment to effect change in Syria, then Saudi support would be absolutely vital. Until then, Moscow will bolster Assad and, more importantly, the various institutions of the state, above all the armed forces, that it would seek to preserve even with Assad were to leave the stage.

In this context the Geneva II conference becomes more interesting to Putin as a forum allowing Assad to appear firmly in power, and that can later metamorphose into one from which a broad political accord for Syria can be derived if Assad leaves office. The paradox of the Russian strategy may be that Assad must look strong up until when he decides that Syria needs another president, and departs voluntarily.

As the Taif agreement ended the Lebanese civil war, Syria needs a new political-social compact to replace more than four decades of Assad dictatorship. Russia, perhaps rightly, feels that a military victory by the opposition would only create chaos, as well as a political vacuum that is as damaging to Syria as it is to neighboring countries. The Obama administration agrees. If so, we will have to closely watch the Russian-American pas de deux in the coming months.

It’s by no means certain that Russia seeks Assad’s removal. But the Russians know the Syrian president has become spoiled goods, and that their interests will suffer as a consequence. The Americans have failed to remove Assad, but he is highly vulnerable and may not be so lucky with the Russians, when, or if, the right moment comes.

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