Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Russia has the power, but will it force change in Syria?

Bashar Al Assad will travel to Switzerland in January for the Montreux and Geneva talks on Syria strengthened by the deep divisions within his enemies’ ranks. However, he remains justifiably concerned that he may pay a political price for any solution.

This was brought home last week when Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency that Mr Al Assad’s remark about the possibility of him running in Syria’s presidential election next year “makes the atmosphere heavier and does not make the situation calmer”. Mr Bogdanov continued: “We believe that ahead of the peace talks there should be no statements which someone may not like and can cause emotions and a reaction in response.”

This was the first open criticism by Russia of the Syrian president, and it brought a heated response: “Nobody has the right to interfere and say [Mr Al Assad] must run or he should not run,” the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, told AFP.

Mr Bogdanov’s comments could be read in one of two ways: as an admonishment to ensure that no one undermines negotiations in Switzerland before they start. Or, alternatively, to signal to the Syrian leader that Russia may place his political fate on the table if that becomes necessary to secure a resolution of the Syrian conflict.

The latter possibility worries Mr Al Assad because it comes at a delicate time for him. The only way he could block a concerted international effort to make him step down would be to fall back on Iran. But with Iran and the West engaged in dialogue, there is uncertainty on that front as well. Mr Al Assad fears finding himself isolated, so that his removal becomes the cornerstone of a settlement in Syria.

For now, there is no discussion of ousting Mr Al Assad. Western governments allegedly told the Syrian opposition that the talks in January should not lead to his removal, because jihadists would exploit the ensuing vacuum. Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared that counter-terrorism would top the agenda and that Syria’s opposition and regime must unify to fight the terrorist threat.

All this would seem to reinforce Mr Al Assad. A focus on terrorism plays into the narrative his regime has been peddling since the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

However, there is another side to the story that the Syrian president cannot ignore: his continued presence in office after the presidential election next year would only lend new momentum to Syria’s civil war and prolong a conflict that all sides, including Russia and Iran, want to bring to an end.

That is not to say that Moscow has decided to shift on Mr Al Assad. But ultimately it was always his regime more than the man himself that it sought to protect. Russia also wanted to impose a rule that it could not be pushed around by the West anymore, after the removal of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Vladimir Putin has made his point, so the preferred Russian policy in Syria may conceivably be to preserve the regime but not Mr Al Assad.

Many doubt this can be done. To all intents and purposes, the Al Assads are the regime. Whoever emerges as a possible alternative in the coming months risks being killed. Yet any negotiated settlement in Syria will require substantial concessions on both sides: perhaps an opposition commitment to end its campaign against the regime and turn its guns on Al Qaeda, and Mr Al Assad’s acceptance that he will leave office once his term has ended, having safeguarded constitutional forms.

These may or may not be the outlines of a solution, but one thing is clear to everyone: short of an outright military victory, Mr Al Assad’s ability to fully govern Syria again will remain zero; and since no victory is forthcoming, at best this will mean many more years of war.

Precisely because of this, even Iran’s position may be more ambiguous than we know. Even though it has supported Mr Al Assad, Iran would be reluctant to oppose an internationally mandated solution for Syria that enjoys Russian backing. The Iranians may also not be averse to a formula that maintains the structures of the Syrian regime, even if the price to pay is Mr Al Assad’s departure.

Iran is believed to have sunk billions of dollars into the Syrian war on the regime’s behalf, and its Hizbollah allies are caught up in an open-ended sectarian conflict that might spread to Iraq and Lebanon. Despite Hizbollah’s relative gains in recent months, Syria is turning into a costly quagmire for Tehran, and it may welcome a way out, particularly if this improves ties with the West and the Arab world.

Terrorism has become the main international concern in Syria. That may benefit Mr Al Assad in the near term, but the only effective way of countering Al Qaeda down the road is to put in place a more consensual government that can direct military efforts against the jihadists. Mr Al Assad’s presence in power blocks such a scenario.

Persuading Mr Al Assad, if that indeed becomes the aim, will not be easy. But Russia and Iran have the resources needed to make a change if this becomes necessary. Nothing may happen to the Syrian president, but he is absolutely right to feel dispensable.

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