Russian asylum for Assad?
By any measure, the strife in Syria has produced misery and political upheaval on an epic scale. Most ominously for the region, opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has produced the extremist Islamic State (ISIS), whose militancy and cruelty in Syria and Iraq has triggered alarms in the region and beyond.
While Western and regional governments, including the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, have surreptitiously sought the overthrow of the Assad administration, it has survived, in part, because Russia has supported it in the diplomatic arena.
In the year since the establishment of ISIS’s caliphate, many are coming to regard it as a greater evil than the Assad regime and, behind the diplomatic scenes, there are intriguing hints that Russia may be willing to use its clout in Damascus, initially to offer asylum to Assad’s family and, later, Assad himself.
Such an option would open political space to kick-start a reconciliation process that could lead to a coalition government that nations opposing the Assad regime could support. That, in turn, could allow them to collaborate openly with it to battle ISIS, regarded as a far greater threat to regional security than the Syrian government.
The change in Western policy towards Assad and Russia became evident during the June Group of Seven summit in Germany. Discussion topics included climate change, global economy, energy security, human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
According to the prime minister’s press office, the main focus of an hour-long talk between US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron was Syria and Iraq, where they tentatively agreed that a viable political solution was both possible and desirable.
The office added: “The idea is that it might be possible to work with the Russians on a transition with a different leadership in Syria.
“The prime minister has spoken to President [Vladimir] Putin about this, and it was also discussed by the American Secretary of State John Kerry when he visited Russia recently.”
At the end of the summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it would be “highly desirable” that Western countries worked to resolve this issue “in tandem” with Russia.
The Russian-Western rapprochement is being driven by the successes of ISIS against Syrian government troops, compounded by the growing realisation of the failure of the Western-backed “moderate” opposition. Russia, unlike the United States, sees ISIS as an existential threat; on April 22nd Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “I consider (ISIS) to be our main enemy right now.”
The failure of Washington’s policy of supporting “moderate” opposition seeking to overthrow Assad’s regime, combined with the rise of ISIS, led Russia and the United States to conclude that the best option for combating ISIS in the long term is with the creation of a new Syrian government that is broadly acceptable to both countries along with other nations supporting the opposition, which subsequently could receive direct military support in its fight against extremism.
Adding to the speculation that a deal over Assad is farther along, on June 29th the London-based Saudi-owned Elaph website reported that Russia has agreed to grant asylum to Assad’s wife and children, while the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Syrian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem would arrive in Moscow on a three-day visit. The next day Muallem said during a televised news conference after meeting Putin, “I got a promise of aid to Syria — politically, economically and militarily.”
Reading the diplomatic tea leaves, Russia’s view that extremism in Syria and neighbouring Iraq is a greater threat than the Assad regime has been broadly accepted, and despite Western-Russian disputes over Ukraine, Europe and the United States are seeking a way to work with Moscow to defeat ISIS. The decision should have been taken a year ago, before establishment of the caliphate — but the West was busy punishing Russia for annexing Crimea.