As Syria war grinds on, no good options for Putin and friends
Beirut - Hafez Assad was a smart man, regardless of what his enemies say about him now, 17 years after his death. When he felt that the Soviet Union was about to fall, he quietly distanced himself from Marxist socialism, introducing investment laws to rescue Syria’s tottering Soviet-backed economy.
Months later he realised the United States was going to create and lead an international coalition to liberate Kuwait from the avaricious clutches of Saddam Hussein and that the USSR was collapsing and powerless to stop it.
Assad took the highly unusual step of siding with the George H.W. Bush White House against his long-time rival. That same year, he authorised face-to-face talks with Israel at the landmark Madrid conference after decades of conflict.
In the 1990s, when Assad’s harbouring of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan in Damascus nearly triggered a war with Turkey, the Syrian leader quietly asked him to pack up and leave.
Former US Ambassador Martin Indyk once observed that the canny Assad “calculated risk and opportunity like a computer.”
These days, many Syrians are wondering whether Assad’s son Bashar will do the same to avoid what seems to be a looming confrontation with the United States after President Donald Trump bombarded a Syrian airbase on April 7 over an alleged Syrian chemical weapons attack that killed scores of civilians.
Syria avoided threatened US air strikes in 2013 by surrendering its chemical arsenal, while the price of doing that today is up for bargaining between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s key ally.
Meeting Assad halfway, Trump has softened his rhetoric somewhat after initially calling on the Syrian president to step down.
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal in mid-April, Trump said when asked about Assad’s removal: “Are we insisting on it? No!” But the US president reportedly has put three scenarios on the table for Putin to consider.
First, he initiates a political process that stops the war and leads to Assad’s departure after a transitional period, which results in a new constitution and a new parliament but keeps the state and its institutions, including the military and security apparatus, intact.
Putin would get to keep geographical Syria and maintain the regime, minus one man only. The Americans would let him march on all territory east of the Euphrates, which includes oil-rich Deir ez-Zor and the Kurdish canton. This has been officially rejected by Tehran, Damascus and Moscow.
The second option is that Russia gets to keep Assad in power and the territory he controls now while “everything east of the Euphrates,” where all Syria’s farmland, natural resources and oil are located, becomes the US enclave in the country, run by Kurds and other proxies.
Syria would get chopped up into spheres of influence, with the Russian zone west of the Euphrates including a Turkish canton in the north and a Jordanian one in the south, while the United States would embrace a Kurdish enclave in Syria’s north-eastern tip.
Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan would be resettled in these territories and the Syrian Army would not be allowed to strike them.
This keeps Moscow and Damascus ruling only a fraction of a country that is largely in ruins and bankrupt with little prospect of international support. This option too has been rejected.
Third, Assad gets to stay and receives international support and re-legitimisation, with Russian help of course, providing he rejects Iran and Hezbollah.
The possibility of pursuing this option might very well be on the table if a new war erupts between Lebanon and Israel next summer, as many in the region expect.
If it does, it would be a doomsday war in which Israel would strive to eliminate Hezbollah once and for all, as it has failed to do since the early 1980s, even if that means destroying Lebanon and parts of Syria.
In the 2006 war between Hezbollah and the Jewish state, the Israeli Air Force largely concentrated its firepower on Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern sector and the Party of God’s military stronghold in south Lebanon.
Next time around, the Israelis have warned, they will hammer all of Lebanon “back into the Middle Ages” on the grounds that the state is essentially controlled by Hezbollah and Iran.
In April, Israel completed the operational deployment of its highly sophisticated anti-missile defence system that is intended to counter Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah missiles.
The world will be watching how Syria responds to this war. Hezbollah expects far more active engagement from Damascus, far beyond the logistical support it received in 2006.
That is clearly no longer enough — not after the crucial role that Hezbollah has played in keeping Assad in power since 2012. Syria would be expected to send arms, food and money to Hezbollah or even join the war on its behalf.
In the United States, nobody expects a weakened regime to get involved and as far as the Americans are concerned, neutrality would be more than satisfactory but it is highly unlikely that Damascus would do that anyway.