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Why Al Assad’s fate is no longer a deal breaker

For Russia its successful military intervention will have to be matched by its ability to deliver a workable political formula that will put an end to the war in Syria

Gulf News

One of the most controversial dilemmas preventing a political solution to the six-year Syrian conflict could be sidestepped if Moscow has its way. The fate of President Bashar Al Assad has continuously been a primary obstacle to initiating credible talks between the regime and various opposition groups. While the government side has always insisted that Al Assad’s future as president was non-negotiable, the opposition has maintained that he must go and play no part in any transitional phase. Other regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar also backed the opposition’s stand, insisting that Al Assad has no role to play in Syria’s future.

Key western players like the United States and France adopted similar positions until presidential elections last year and this year brought Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron to the White House and the Elysee Palace respectively. The Arab League itself was divided over the issue with Lebanon, Algeria, Oman and Iraq refusing to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus. Even the Geneva I communique of June 2012, which is considered the bedrock of an internationally accepted peaceful settlement in Syria was vague on the role of Al Assad in the proposed transitional governing body, which would “exercise full executive powers” and could “include members of the present government” and would “be formed on the basis of mutual consent.” As the regime quickly lost ground in various parts of the country between 2011 and mid 2015, the opposition, both political and military, remained committed to regime change in general but disagreed on the final shape of post-war Syria. The emergence of Daesh (self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in 2013 and its quick takeover of large swathes of Syria’s north, northeast and southwest at the expense of both government forces and so-called moderate rebel groups was a major factor in changing regional and international standpoints on the Syrian crisis.

But it was President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send Russia’s mighty air force to Syria in September 2015 that altered the dynamics of the conflict. Al Assad’s beleaguered forces were given a reprieve as Russian jets provided precious aerial cover. Iranian Revolutionary Guards and other pro-Iran militias, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, became instrumental in turning the military tide in Al Assad’s favour. Tehran has provided military support to Damascus since the early days of the Syrian uprising.

Changing stances

A US-led coalition also got involved in the Syrian fray, not to fight the regime but to dislodge Daesh militants from key positions in Raqqa and other positions along the Euphrates River basin and southwest Syria. The new US administration had changed its tone on Al Assad as did the new French leader. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a staunch opponent of Al Assad, found himself drifting towards Moscow as ties with Washington became tense over an exiled Turkish cleric and later on over Trump’s backing of Syrian Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)/ People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces succeeded, with US military backing, in rolling back Daesh fighters. But in the process they had expanded their territory in northern Syria, along borders with Turkey, and were now calling for self-rule and maybe more. Ankara’s priorities in Syria, where it played a controversial role in facilitating the passage of foreign militants, were quickly changing. Realising Putin’s growing role in Syria, Erdogan struck an alliance with Moscow that also included Tehran.

Lack of US long-term vision in Syria eventually handed over that country to Russia and its allies. By September of this year the future of the Al Assad regime appeared safe. His troops had captured most key regions stretching from Aleppo and Homs to Deir Al Zor and from Damascus and most of its countryside to the south excluding Dara’a.

With the US suspending training and arms supplies to rebel groups, and with Daesh virtually defeated, the regime had all but won. This is when Putin realised that the time was ripe to relaunch the stalled political process. He had already bolstered the Astana technical process which introduced de-escalation zone in various parts of the country. Now he is proposing launching intra-Syrian dialogue over elections and a new constitution in the Russian resort of Sochi. The Geneva process was put in motion this month after Saudi Arabia and Russia had managed to unite the Syrian opposition, which had accepted to engage the regime in direct talks with no prior conditions. Putin had also told Al Assad that he should be ready to adopt a political solution that would involve making compromises.

Moscow will not abandon Al Assad, having invested heavily to protect his regime, but will oversee the launch of political talks that would sidestep the issue of his future — for now. His fate will be left for a later stage; following the adoption of a new constitution and the formation of a transitional governing body which will prepare eventually for presidential and legislative elections. That eventuality could take years to materialise. For now key players like Turkey, Jordan, Gulf states and the opposition are beginning to accept the fact that Al Assad’s fate will not be discussed in the early stages of negotiations, nor is it considered a deal breaker anymore. To be clear he will serve his natural term as president until 2021, but until then much could happen. For Russia, its successful military intervention will have to be matched by its ability to deliver a workable political formula that will put a final end to the war in Syria.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

“For Russia, its successful military intervention will have to be matched by its ability to deliver a workable political formula that will end the war in Syria”
-Osama Al Sharif
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