Focus on Assad shifting since Russian intervention

Sunday 21/08/2016
Syria’s President Assad (L) meeting with Russian Defence Minister (2ndR) in Damascus

LONDON - At the start of the Syrian civil war, five-and-a-half years and an estimated 400,000 deaths ago, the fate of President Bashar Assad was seen as the central factor in a resolution of the conflict.

As the violence escalated, his patchwork of domestic enemies wanted him out of office as a pre­condition of a political settlement, a demand echoed by Turkey, the United States and the Arabian Gulf states. His allies — Iran and Rus­sia– were just as insistent that they wanted him to survive.

Despite the lip service paid to the diplomatic nicety that it was ulti­mately up to the Syrian people to choose how they were governed, Assad’s survival or otherwise re­mained a key issue in the conflict.

In the year since the launch of the Russian military intervention in support of the regime, the focus on Assad has shifted. The United States, caught off guard by the Rus­sian action and now prioritising the regional threat from the Islamic State (ISIS), has tacitly dropped its insistence on Assad’s removal.

Turkey, the key outside power de­manding that he should step down, is concentrating on mending fences with Russia.

Assad, on the face of it, has be­come something of a bit player in his own drama.

He may have taken some comfort therefore from comments in August by Umit Yardim, the Turkish ambas­sador to Russia, who was quoted as saying: “We want the existing politi­cal leadership of the country to take part in the negotiation process.”

Ankara would also not oppose some kind of role for the current Syrian leadership in a possible po­litical transition, Russia’s TASS news agency reported him as saying.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu swiftly clarified that a political transition in Syria involv­ing Assad was still not possible. However, the shift in emphasis was an indication that Turkey might be reordering its priorities following President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to mend fences with Mos­cow after nine months of confronta­tion over Syria.

One of Erdogan’s priorities was to be able to resume air operations against ISIS targets in Syria. Those attacks were suspended after the Turks shot down a Russian fighter jet last November.

That was agreed during Erdogan’s August 9th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Pe­tersburg, according to the Turks.

The quid pro quo is that Turkey would have to soften its stance on the Assad regime. Cavusoglu appeared to oblige when he an­nounced in Ankara that it had been agreed with Moscow that the next Syrian regime should be all-inclu­sive and secular.

“We’re on the same page with Russia that Syria should have an ad­ministration under which everyone can live with their beliefs,” he said.

The United States, through the dogged efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry, is still hoping to secure a deal with Moscow on cooperating in the fight against ISIS despite the misgivings of others.

In the face of worsening violence in the to-and-fro battle for Aleppo, Kerry also wants Moscow to pre­vent the Syrians from targeting US-backed opposition groups. The Americans no longer press so loudly for the removal of Assad.

Iran, which had moved to mend its ties with Ankara ahead of Rus­sia’s tentative rapprochement with the Turks, welcomed that thaw. But Tehran showed no sign of shifting its stance on the Assad regime.

Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s senior foreign policy adviser, said “Iran’s view on Syria has not changed and it still supports the legal government of Bashar Assad”.

“The presence of countries like the United States and Saudi Arabia in Syria that interfere in Syria’s in­ternal affairs without the permis­sion of the Syrian government is il­legal,” he said.

With apparently solid support from his two key allies, with Tur­key tempering its stance and with the Americans focused on the battle against ISIS and a November presi­dential election, Assad should be feeling fairly secure in the post that he inherited in 2000 on the death of his father, Hafez Assad.

However, Syria’s military, despite the massive backing of Russia and Iran, has failed to crush resistance in Aleppo and elsewhere with a mur­derous campaign of air strikes.

If there was any appetite within the regime — or rather the ruling clique — to remove Assad, he prob­ably would have gone by now. As it stands, he is probably relatively im­mune from a challenge from among those who depend for their survival on sticking together.

It is likely, therefore, that the out­side powers most active in the Syr­ian arena, including Russia, Iran and Turkey, will play a determining fac­tor in an eventual political outcome.

Assad may be safe for now but no war lasts forever and neither does any leader.