Geopolitical plates shifting in Syria, Assad in quandary

Friday 14/08/2015
Tight curve ahead

Syria has been in the news recently for what looks like yet another shift in geopolitical plates but this time it’s the Russians who are finally getting tired of the war there. Washington will note, for all the wrong reasons.
While the West continues to pa­rade the idea that the Islamic State (ISIS) is the main concern, when, in fact, removing Syrian leader Bashar Assad is the nucleus of the big-picture thinking, it’s Moscow that is turning its sights on ISIS as journalists noted a somewhat grandiose fanfare from Ankara an­nouncing it was about to launch a “major offensive” on ISIS in Syria.
Yet killing ISIS fighters, but not blocking their supply lines from Turkey, is being felt by both Wash­ington and Moscow.
The Russians are starting to get nervous about jihadists returning to the Caucasus and Central Asia, as many Chechens returning to the battlefield is not what Russian President Vladimir Putin bar­gained for when he weighed in on Syria to support Assad in the early days of 2011.
The Russians have organised a meeting between the Saudi de­fence minister and Syria’s security chief. Reports in one pro-Assad broadsheet suggested that the Russians were sticking with their man but they want a real push on ISIS as Putin is getting jit­tery about fighters leaving Syria to return to fight Mother Russia.
It was reported at the time that the Saudis refused to cooperate with Assad as the Russians had asked. Yet curiously, Riyadh has reportedly proposed a different plan to Assad to resolve the Syrian crisis, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported.
The cusp of the idea is simply to deflate the support of both sides: the Saudis will stop supporting rebels trying to overthrow Assad in return for Hezbollah, Iranian and other Shia forces pulling out of Syria.
According to Al-Hayat, this is expected to help “prepare the ground for presidential and parlia­mentary elections in Syria, under UN monitoring”.
If the initiative comes from the Russia talks, then can we assume that Moscow is planning, after all, the removal of Assad, but only in the longer term? At first glance it’s as though Assad has failed his Rus­sian backers on various levels: He can neither kill ISIS in significant numbers, nor stop jihadists either entering or leaving the country from its ranks.
Part of this is to nudge the Iranians out of the Syrian picture as Tehran sets to gain influence in Syria if it is a chequered landscape of hardcore Sunni groups fighting the regime. By contrast, if Assad could rebuild an “Arab” state, the country would remain much more of a Russian satellite than an Ira­nian one, as the latter depends on a fragmented, failed state rather than a singular wobbly one.
Assad must be having sleepless nights. The Saudis have offered him a deal but can he risk the wrath of Iran’s hardliners who will not forgive him easily for thank­ing them for the Iranian military support on the ground but then asking the soldiers — as well as Hezbollah fighters — to leave?
If he doesn’t do this, he risks los­ing more ground in Syria and for the Russians to consider him to be a sequestrum they would be wise to discard.
The Syrian leader recently made a shocking announcement on state television: He admitted to losing ground in the war and that his ranks are dwindling, the latter as a direct result of the morale of senior army officers hitting an all-time low, as their influence is drowned out by the ever increas­ing number of militias that Iran is behind.
Have those fighters lost their appeal now for the Syrian leader and are they now considered to be part of the problem rather than the solution?