Russia faces limits of hard power in Syria
DUBAI - The end of 2015 offered the Assad regime much hope for the year ahead as it looked to capitalise on the game-changing entry of Russia into the Syrian civil war and a milestone UN endorsement for a peace process.
Re-establishing authority is, however, different than re-establishing legitimacy and recent experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya suggest that pushing militants out of towns and villages is different than defeating insurgencies.
Cascading military victories at the tactical levels into a strategic victory at the political level is a far more complex process — and, in Syria, when the limits of hard power become apparent to the regime, the decisive test will come at the political level with its mastery of soft power.
The UN plan, which calls on a “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian government” within six months, before elections under UN supervision a year later, will be a big test for the Assad regime. The Syrian civil war has produced deep-rooted apathy and large reaches of ungoverned territories as government forces focused attention on retaining control of major cities and Mediterranean coastal regions.
Syria’s interior was left with a power vacuum that the Islamic State (ISIS) has increasingly filled by overpowering moderate rebel groups, while Kurds in the north reacted to pre-empt the expansive threat posed by ISIS.
Even before its descent into civil war, Syria had become outcast in a polarised neighbourhood dominated by Sunni-majority, pro-Western states that looked upon the Iranian-led regional alliance with suspicion and disdain. Since Hafez Assad wrestled control of the Ba’ath Party, which had taken power through a coup, in 1970, the Assad family has accumulated total control and effectively subdued the Sunni majority through sponsoring Alawite socio-political dominance.
Until Russia deployed its military assets, the Assad regime was banking on Iran for its survival. The Iranian dispatch of military advisers and special forces and commissioning of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shia groups into Syria had reinforced the civil war along sectarian lines.
With an isolated Sunni majority unable to contend with the military prowess of government forces and its international allies, Syria had become a fertile operating ground for extremist groups. The timing of the Russian entry into Syria on the pretext of defeating ISIS Syria, riled the West, Turkey and Gulf Arab states, as the gridlocked civil war did not offer hope for much longer to a tiring and demoralised Assad regime whose perpetuation had effectively created ISIS.
The dichotomy of Moscow’s priorities in stabilising the Assad regime has become more obvious as Russian warplanes controversially hit Western-backed rebel groups rather than focusing on ISIS. However, for better or worse, Moscow has changed the equation in the Syrian civil war — effectively, no major development can occur without Russian consent.
Moreover, recent reports of Iran scaling down its presence in Syria may be the strongest sign since anti-government protests began in 2011 that government forces are regaining momentum against the myriad of rebel and armed groups threatening its collapse.
The emergence of ISIS from its Raqqa headquarters as a global threat has been helpful for Syria in framing its narrative and dividing opinion on what the endgame in the civil war should be.
If the perpetuation of the Assad regime has been the driving force in the radicalisation of its Sunni populace and the emergence of ISIS, which has been more successful until now in drawing non-Syrians to its ranks, then the local politics of the Syrian civil war remain fundamentally the same. As such, the targeting of moderate groups runs contrary to the needs of establishing a peace process to end the civil war and that is precisely the most favourable scenario in 2016 for ISIS.
The Assad regime may become keen for Russia to send ground forces to reinforce its own in 2016 and Moscow may well oblige but would be wise to do so only under political guarantees in support of a peace process within which Bashar Assad becomes politically irrelevant.
The “minus Assad” formula preserves the Ba’ath Party as a primary stakeholder, provides Russia a viable option to preserve its own strategic interests and forces Iran to face up to the eventuality of a post- Assad Syria, which it has surely factored into its strategic calculus by now.
If Syria is critical to the long-term international interests of Russia, Moscow must be able to convince ordinary Syrians it is a friend to the people of Syria and not only to the Assad family. Russia will need to look beyond simply assisting a delegitimised regime re-establish authority among a populace where Assad has become a symbol of mistrust and tyranny.
Failure to couple reversible success in re-establishing state authority with implementing the UN-endorsed peace process will leave Syrian-Iranian-Russian efforts with no promise of success to either end the civil war or decisively halt the rise of ISIS.