Suddenly Assad Has Outflanked the West in Syria

After the Syrian civil war got underway in 2011, it often seemed that Syria\'s Bashar al-Assad would be the next villain to fall.

Published: 06th April 2016 07:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th April 2016 07:55 AM   |  A+A-

Pity the Middle Eastern dictator. After the demise of such long-standing and seemingly indestructible despots such as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, there just aren't any guarantees these days that even the world's most brutal regimes will survive indefinitely.

After the Syrian civil war got underway in 2011, it often seemed that Syria's Bashar al-Assad would be the next villain to fall. No wonder he has been squirrelling money away in Panama. In fact, there is a certain perverse logic that a regime which uses poison gas should choose to do business with a company founded by the son of a Nazi. Heinrich Himmler would be so proud.

But to judge by the recent gains his forces are making on the battlefield, Assad (by nature a far less instinctive despot than Saddam or Gaddafi) looks set to cling to power where others have not. For, in the month or so since a crucial Syria ceasefire took hold, his men have managed to make a number of territorial gains. All of a sudden, predictions of the regime's imminent demise seem wildly optimistic.

The deal brokered by Washington and Moscow, which came into effect at the end of February, called for a halt in hostilities between regime loyalists and the main Syrian opposition groups. Extreme Islamist groups, such as Islamic State (Isil) and the Nusra Front, were not covered by the ceasefire terms, thereby allowing military action to continue against them.

Prior to the ceasefire, neither Damascus nor its Russian and Iranian backers had shown much interest in attacking Islamist positions. Their primary focus was tackling Western-backed Syrian opposition forces which, subjected to a merciless bombing campaign by Russian warplanes, were forced to withdraw.

The big surprise since the ceasefire, though, is that Damascus has, in the main, refrained from attacking opposition forces and, instead, directed firepower towards the Islamist groups not covered by the ceasefire.

Pro-government troops, supported by intense Russian air strikes, last week celebrated the recapture of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra from Isil, the Islamists' most serious setback since 2014. Located in central Syria, the city, whose ancient monuments suffered atrocious acts of vandalism during Isil's reign of terror, has great strategic significance, and its recapture now enables the Syrian military and its allies to target Isil's self-styled capital at Raqqa.

Earlier this week pro-Assad forces, again benefiting from Russian air power, drove Isil militants out of the Christian enclave of al-Qaryatain, 60 miles to the West of Palmyra. Mr Assad's bold pledge, made during an interview in February, that he aimed to recover all of the country, does not now sound so far-fetched after all.

Given that the regime today only controls about one third of the territory it held pre-war, Mr Assad is setting himself a decidedly ambitious agenda, especially in view of the highly complex nature of the conflict, where scores of warring factions are pursuing different goals. But if reclaiming control of Syria in its entirety presents a formidable undertaking, there can be no doubt that the gains made in recent weeks have placed Assad loyalists in a far stronger bargaining position as they prepare to attend a new round of peace talks, which are due to resume in Geneva next week.

To start with, the vexed issue of whether or not Mr Assad is to be allowed to remain in power has been removed from the agenda altogether. For the past two years the removal of Mr Assad, who stands accused of war crimes and committing genocide, has been the sine qua non for the West, with both US President Barack Obama and David Cameron, as well as Syrian opposition leaders, insisting that the Syrian dictator must stand down as part of any peace settlement. The reality, though, is that they have all been completely outflanked by the Russians, whose dramatic military intervention has proved decisive in turning the war in Mr Assad's favour.

The Syrian opposition thus stands little chance of achieving its basic demand for the establishment of a transitional government - one that does not include Mr Assad - to start the painful process of rebuilding the country after five years of conflict.

Understandably, moderate Syrian opposition leaders believe the talks are doomed to fail. "There is no international will, especially from the US side, and I do not expect anything to come of the negotiations," was one delegate's gloomy comment.

But if the Syrian opposition has every reason to accuse its Western sponsors of betrayal, their ability to mount a serious challenge to the Syrian regime is greatly diminished, not least because of the formidable air power Russia has brought to bear in support of its long-standing regional ally. So long as Moscow is prepared to maintain the political status quo in Damascus, there will be no need for Assad to dip in to the Panamanian nest egg. Unlike his dethroned or dead peers, Assad has understood that when their backs are against the wall, even dictators need friends.


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