Friday, April 18, 2014

Bullet box - Assad uses war to secure his re-election

For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the offensive in the Qalamoun area along Syria’s western border with Lebanon has become as much a campaign issue as a military one. With Assad preparing for his re-election this summer, he needs to rewrite the narrative of the Syrian conflict as a successful endeavor to defeat so-called armed terrorist groups.

A former Russian prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, helped Assad get this point across. Recently, after meeting with the Syrian president in Damascus, he told the ITAR-Tass news agency, “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.’”

The regime’s victory in Maaloula several days ago, after successes in Yabroud and Rankous, pushed media outlets in the West to buy into Assad’s version of events, making them ask whether we were witnessing a turning of the tide in Syria.

There is no doubt that the regime has made great strides in consolidating its control over the central axis of Syria in the last year, and the likely impending takeover of the old city of Homs will only reinforce this trend. The Qalamoun operation has had several purposes: to cut off supply lines between Lebanon and Syria; to consolidate the regime’s control over communication lines between Damascus and the coastal areas and Aleppo; and to further clear areas around the capital of rebel forces.

But these aims are primarily defensive in nature, and are not, or not yet, part of a broader process to go on the offensive nationally to defeat the rebels. They also are variations on old themes. The Assad regime has reported recapturing Homs on countless occasions, and indeed controls much of the city, so the defeat of rebels in the old city has more symbolic value than anything else. Maaloula, too, was retaken by the regime last year. Several villages that were said to be captured recently by the Syrian army were in fact not under the control of rebels.

In other words, the battle narratives today are mostly self-serving, suggesting decisive encounters when the reality is of a much more fluid conflict, with the regime and rebels alternatively gaining in some places and losing in others. The regime may indeed be strengthening its hold on the north-south corridor and between Damascus and the coast, but for the past three years it has more or less managed to maintain a level of control over these communication lines, in such a way that the rebels have never completely isolated the capital from the coast. 

We must understand the military campaign primarily in political terms. Assad’s principal objective, above all others, is political survival. That’s why he has been so heavily focused on securing his re-election, which will probably happen in July.

Assad has been able to ignore any potential Russian unease with his plans, so that Russian officials and others well-versed in Moscow’s foreign policy are now saying that his re-election will not mean anything. But the Syrian president clearly doesn’t see things that way. Then again, the Russian statements may be simply destined to cover for Assad and contain reactions to his re-election while playing down Russia’s inability to stop it. 

One could argue that Assad’s hold on the north-south axis and Homs is the first step in an eventual military victory. But expectations of a military solution to the Syrian conflict appears “imaginary,” to quote Vitaly Naumkin, a Russian specialist familiar with Syria, who was speaking with As-Safir.

The reason for this is that controlling communication lines does not substitute for the Syrian regime’s need to hang on to recaptured territory, as well as retake lost areas far from Damascus. And these goals require adequate manpower, which the regime doesn’t have. The situation has improved somewhat with the expansion of popular militias, but they cannot resolve the manpower problem nationally. The Syrian army continues to take heavy losses, with some estimating the figures at some 30,000 dead, even if it’s very difficult to verify such a figure.

At best, even if the regime recaptures major cities, it will be stuck with a long guerilla war with no clear outcomes. We are nowhere near that stage today, however, with rebels mounting a major attack in Aleppo in the past 10 days against Air Force intelligence headquarters. Nor do the rebels appear to have been dislodged from northern Latakia province, where they had reached the coast after taking the Armenian town of Kasab.

In the south, however, talk of a much-vaunted spring offensive appears to have stalled amid Jordanian and American reluctance to give the rebels the means to succeed. The Obama administration wants to pressure Assad into stepping down and accepting a transitional authority, but it has not done nearly enough to advance such an improbable plan.

The idea that Assad must not seek re-election this year because he has lost all legitimacy is quaint. Since when have Syrian elections bestowed particular legitimacy anyway? Assad is motivated exclusively by power, and the imperative of retaining it. Even if he were elected solely by his house servants, he would declare victory, celebrate, and act as if he meant it.

The narrative of a Syrian regime moving deliberately toward a final victory in the coming months is laughable. But Assad knows it is laughable. His intention is entirely different: to create a context, no matter how fictional, to justify his election. And unless someone pops that bubble, Assad will have advanced another step in his political endurance test.

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