Assad likely to survive Syria’s brutal war
TUNIS - Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin’s comments to the state-run Sputnik news agency during the UN General Assembly were unequivocal: “No one raised the question of the Syrian president’s resignation.”
That no foreign minister thought to bring up an issue that just a few years ago was a key foreign policy aim of many Western and Gulf countries is a remarkable achievement for a president accused of waging a genocidal war against his own people.
Vershinin, suggesting that events at the United Nations confirmed what the Kremlin has held for many years, told Sputnik: “There is an understanding that this country (Syria), which is a UN member, has the right to choose its path and the people of the country should and will determine who is in charge of them. Therefore, I would say that we have already overcome this issue and this is very good.”
From international condemnation in 2011 to narrowly avoiding Western military intervention two years later to standing upon the threshold of near absolute victory in 2018, Syrian President Bashar Assad has come a long way in the face of unlikely odds.
“There is broad consensus now that there is no desirable alternative to the current Syrian government and that retaining it, if not President Assad himself, is the least bad option,” Columb Strack, principal analyst at IHS Markit, said. “Regime change is most likely off the table for the US.”
From the West, ostensibly led by the United States, to the Gulf backers of Syria’s rebel insurgency, which have seen their proxies defeated and subsumed by a combination of the regime and the region’s jihadist groups, there appears little stomach to maintain the fight.
Despite the Syrian government’s apparent battlefield victory, much of the country lies outside Assad’s grasp. International support will be vital in reclaiming it.
Idlib remains in rebel hands, its fate dependent on an agreement brokered between Russia and Turkey. The country’s oil and arable rich east is controlled by a combination of Kurdish forces and the United States, determined to stay in Syria to defeat what remains of the Islamic State (ISIS) and counter Iranian influence. In the north, along the border with Turkey, Ankara’s forces with their rebel allies control a broad buffer zone separating Turkey from the chaos of Syria and potential Kurdish attack.
Elsewhere, large sections of the country beyond Damascus are in ruins, with cities from ISIS’s former capital of Raqqa to the once industrial powerhouse of Homs shattered and their populations dispersed across the region, Europe and elsewhere.
Reconstruction is likely to be a very costly business and well beyond Damascus’s war-strained treasury. However, in accepting that Damascus will need support to reclaim and rebuild lost territory is not to overstate the influence doing so will provide over the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
“US-Kurdish control of eastern Syria, and particularly the large oil fields located there, gives them some leverage over negotiations with Damascus concerning the future of the Kurds and the Iranian military presence in Syria,” Strack said. “It’s not enough to force President Assad’s removal though. He knows the US will withdraw at some point, and he can wait it out.”
For the West and its Gulf allies looking to Syria’s reconstruction as a means to determining Syria’s future, it is worth remembering theirs is not the only game in town. “The Syrian government is in no rush,” Strack said. “Foreign investors from non-aligned countries like India, China, Brazil and South Africa are lining up to benefit from the expected reconstruction boom, in addition to firms from Russia and Iran and Turkey in the north-west.
“Syria is likely to put pressure on countries to normalise diplomatic relations with the Assad government as a precondition for awarding contracts to their companies,” Strack said. “They hope this will gradually relegitimise the Syrian government and lead to a removal of sanctions.”
With Europe home to approximately 1 million Syrian refugees and more than 5 million others displaced across the Middle East and North Africa, it is not clear where the greater pressure lies.
“European governments have a greater incentive than the US to support reconstruction in Syria due to their interest in facilitating a return of refugees and the importance of intelligence sharing with the Syrian government in the context of the continued threat from jihadist groups,” Strack said. “This is, however, still bounded by pressure not to give the impression of relegitimising the Assad government by normalising relations.”
Denied military or financial leverage to force Assad from power, all that remains is an electoral victory for Syria’s opposition, which looks unlikely.
“Syria is likely to call an election once a solution is negotiated with Turkey over the remaining opposition-held areas in Aleppo and Idlib provinces,” Strack said. “However, President Assad enjoys widespread popular support across most of the country and is likely to win an election.”