Friday, April 11, 2014

Avec moi le deluge - Russia wanted Bashar al-Assad, now they can’t get rid of him

When President Bashar al-Assad recently told a former Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, that much of the fighting in Syria would end this year, was he serious?

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Stepashin as saying, “To my question about how military issues were going, this is what Assad said: ‘This year the active phase of military action in Syria will be ended. After that we will have to shift to what we have been doing all the time – fighting terrorists.’”

Presumably, what the Syrian president meant was that by the end of 2014 his army would have so progressed, recapturing lost territory, that it would essentially be left fighting a counter-terrorism campaign against the remaining Syrian rebels.

Assad has displaying much bravado of late. He also told Stepashin to “[t]ell Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] that I am not [deposed Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych, I’m not going anywhere.” This remark seemed as much directed against the Russians as at them. It was Assad’s way of telling Moscow that he would not accept a political solution leading to a transitional government and his removal as president.

In light of public statements by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, one can understand the import of Assad’s remarks. Bogdanov, in an interview with the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat during the Arab League summit two weeks ago, warned that “a military solution [in Syria] is dangerous, harmful and difficult because of the sharp divisions within society.”

Bogdanov also minimized the impact of an Assad re-election this year. “The Syrian presidential election will not change anything,” he said, noting it would take place on a small portion of Syrian territory and would not be recognised by the opposition. Bogdanov added that any accord with the opposition could open the door to a new election.

By implying that he would pursue a military solution, one he suggested was working, Assad essentially rejected Bogdanov’s interpretation. More significantly, he didn’t even broach the idea of a political settlement, and surely disagreed with the assessment that the presidential election would change nothing.

Assad is pursuing a particular narrative of the Syrian conflict that looks increasingly at odds with Russian preferences. The Russians have done everything in their power to sustain Assad’s regime, but the aim was almost certainly to impose a political outcome that preserved their interests. However, it is becoming apparent that they may be more Assad’s hostage than he is theirs. Despite Putin’s vaunted tactical prowess, the reality is that a tin-pot Syrian dictator who has lost control of most of his country has somehow outmaneuvered his Russian patrons.

Weakness can be a virtue in international politics. Assad’s vulnerabilities are such that his regime can still collapse, which would represent a major reversal for Russia (and Iran). But this has allowed Assad to increase his options – first by surrendering nothing on a transitional government at the Geneva talks last January, then by imposing a fait accompli in preparing for his re-election, which Bogdanov had criticized before Geneva. At every stage, Moscow has had to bend to Assad’s agenda.  

The United Nations’ special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has refused to schedule a new round of talks in Geneva. In large part that is because there continues to be disagreement between the United States and the UN on the one side, and Russia on the other, over the aims of such a conference. The Geneva I conference, held in June 2012, and which included Russia, had called for a “transitional government body with full executive powers.” But today the Russians are unwilling to push Assad in that direction. More significantly, they appear unable to.

If Assad can relish the fact that he has defended his position against Putin, it’s an entirely different story whether he can do so against his Syrian foes. His optimistic remarks about an imminent end to the war in Syria are somewhat reminiscent of the joke in which a man announces that he will soon marry the top model Claudia Schiffer: “I agree, as do my parents. Now all I need to do is persuade Claudia,” he says.

Assad’s belief that he will soon win in Syria seems ludicrous. And even if he can consolidate his control over Syria’s urban areas and the communication lines between Damascus, Aleppo and the coast, any effort to regain the south and the east of the country can hardly be reduced to “anti-terrorism” actions.

While Assad has an interest in displaying confidence, too much of it can come back to bite you. President George W. Bush learned that lesson after prematurely declaring, in May 2003, that military operations in Iraq had come to an end.

If Assad is after a military solution in Syria then the tragedy of the country will drag on for years. It is difficult to see what the Russian advantage is in permitting this, let alone the Iranian advantage, with Assad so costly a project to sustain. But the Syrian leader cares little. His aim is to survive, whether over the corpses of his citizens or the misgivings of his allies.

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