By Roy Murray @sykes_picot
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill stated: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”.
In July 2014, we used this analogy to rationalize how Russia’s help could be leveraged to end the Syrian conflict; more specifically, we wrote in “Reviving the Syrian Revolution, defusing the Middle East“:
The West can craft a deal with Russia that would be the nucleus to stabilizing the Middle East. This deal would be mutually beneficial. On the one hand, Russia would satisfy its national security concerns by maintaining the Syrian Army as a long term partner. On the other hand, the West would be guaranteed that Syria is neutralized from being an Iranian satellite and a sponsor of terrorist organizations.
On a national level, such a deal would afford legitimacy to a transitional Syrian leadership, enabling Syria to embark on a “Second Republic” whereby they can elect their own parliament, and appoint a transitional government on the basis of unanimous consensus amongst national parties and the international community
There is no doubt in our mind that the Russian intervention in Syria is the final chapter of the Assad story. Whilst the specifics of Russia’s actions in Syria have been the subject of much analysis, we argue that Putin has his eyes set on a stable, post Assad Syria firmly under Russian hegemony, free of Assad.
Despite the west being understandably reluctant in the past to accept Russian intervention in Syria, they are slowly warming up to the idea as the chaos in Syria continues to spiral out of control. Indeed, if ISIS and the impotence of Western policy to defeat them was not enough to seek an alternative solution, the migrant crises is now threatening European unity and the sustainability of European values and solidarity; it is also pushing Germany to the limits of its ability and propelling extremist parties across the continent. It is more urgent than ever to solve the Syrian puzzle.
Assad, on the other hand, is truly on the brink. From Deir Ezzor to Palmyra and Eastern Homs, to Eastern Hama, ISIS are slowly but surely pushing forward, standing only dozens of kilometres away from Damascus countryside. Moreover, the ‘Army of Conquest’ spearheaded by Al-Qaeda and various Islamist formations have captured the entire Idlib province and are pushing inwards towards Hama. In short, Damascus is now within the sights of ISIS, while the the coast and Hama are within the sights of Al-Qaeda.
A shallow view of the situation which began unfolding months ago would have foreseen the imminent end of the regime. But such a view understates the vested interests of Assad’s allies (Iran,Russia) in Syria. Further, it ignores Western fears from an ISIS move towards Damascus, and Arab fears from a ‘chaotic’ Islamist victory in Syria.
Western & Arab powers have always sought to prevent an outright opposition victory. The West are fearful of a chaotic collapse of the state, knowing that a united, moderate opposition does not exist on the ground. Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchies have a decades long struggle trying to keep Political Islam & militant Islamists away from their homeland. In fact, they are afraid from the very same rebels they are arming. It is precisely this point which has perpetuated the Syrian conflict. Hoping for Assad to step down, or his allies to somehow relinquish their interests, all the while burning Syria to the ground and allowing terrorism to breed in a cancerous fashion. This perpetual conflict is not even a plausible attempt at solving the crises – it is the perfect recipe to fuel extremism.
For Assad’s allies, bowing down is clearly not an option. Whilst Russia may have some vested interests of debatable importance (Mediterranean port, gas pipelines), Iran’s interests are key. Losing Syria implies losing Lebanon, and moving the battleground with Saudi to Iraq, rolling back decades of hard work. Iran have consistently shown that they are ready to do whatever it takes to stop this from happening. The failure to understand and gauge Iran’s persistence is perhaps amongst the most potent failures of the Syrian opposition and its patrons. It is no surprise then that they refuse to think of an alternative solution, prompting one to recall Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.
Assad recently stated “If my leaving office is the solution, I will never hesitate to do so”. Indeed, the ‘butcher of Damascus’ is reflecting a valid point. The war in Syria has been transformed to that of ideology and foreign dominance. Both Saudi and Iran, arguably the main belligerents of this war, certainly couldn’t care less about Assad’s person. Short of a direct war between the two to settle this, and since neither sides can win a proxy war that is slowly escalating into a direct war, one needs to think outside the box for an alternative solution.
It is Russia who can craft this solution by displacing Assad, as well as Iranian and Saudi hegemony, giving the main protagonists just enough to accept the result, ultimately extending Russia sphere of influence into the Middle east. But Assad cannot be instantly displaced, as he is the figurehead that represents the Syrian state. As the American experience in Syria, and Saudi experience in Yemen have shown, a competent ground force is critical to the success of any air campaign. As the rebels are a mixture of various Islamist formations (the ultimate enemies of Saudi & the West), it is laughable to think that there is, or will be in the foreseeable future, a united rebel force free of extremists which can be that competent force on the ground. The only alternative is the Syrian state.
First, the state needs to be reinforced by consolidating the territories under its control, and establishing an ‘enemy free’ zone from the coast down to Damascus. The various formations fighting the state need to be drawn into the process, but only once the use of force forces them into diplomacy. Further, everyone knows that any attempt to tackle ISIS before the solving the Syrian puzzle will only contain them. It is no surprise then that Russia began by attacking mainstream rebels, not ISIS. It is ludicrous to pretend that there is any alternative solution – forget about ‘moderate’ opposition – there is not even a united opposition which can be controlled in any way – there are dozens, if not hundreds. Russia has to impose its own terms on all the factions, eventually drawing the moderates to its ranks, and the extremists to the ranks of ‘terrorists’. The Syrian army would thence be inextricably tied to Russia for a number of years, guaranteeing security and stability. This force would eventually lead the ultimate fight against ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
This solution would serve everyone’s interests. The migrant crises would be solved, saving the blushes of European policy makers (and their EU project as a whole), ISIS would slowly be rolled back, Al-Qaeda would be defeated, and Islamists would be contained. Nevertheless, American dominance in the region would decline. But they have been trying to dis-engage for the past decade, constantly bogged down by new conflicts. Iran would guarantee that Lebanon is still within its sphere, while Syria becomes a more neutral state. They will accept this because they know that in the long term, Syria can only be a Sunni state. Finally, the Saudis. Their concern was always their home front and the stability of the Saudi monarchy; such a solution can be sold back home as a victory with Assad replaced by a Sunni leader and Iran’s project cut short at Syria. Most importantly, such a solution would win the mark of morality, achieving the goals of the Syrian revolution, and perhaps even bringing the war criminals to justice (remember the Balkans and Milosevic?).
There may be many on the ground who are not receptive to Russia’s intervention, whom doubt their ultimate intentions. These will be quick to sign up once a Syrian military council declares plans for an election that will exclude Assad. This would pacify opposition to this solution, weed out the extremists from those who truly fight for the goals of the Syrian Revolution, and most importantly preserve the institutions of the state. But to do this, Russia must first assert control of the army, strengthen its ranks, and consolidate control over its territories.
One may rightfully ask, why would Putin let go of Assad, and replace him with a credible, elected government? Russia doesn’t care much about Assad (neither does anyone else besides the Syrian people) and Putin knows that Assad cannot be rehabilitated in the international community, neither will he be accepted by the Syrian people. Hence, he knows that such an intervention that keeps Assad in power would only prolong the conflict.
Further, Putin rarely punches above his weight, and the Crimean experience has clearly shown that when he does, the result can be very painful. If the Crimean experience was painful enough, one can only imagine the dire consequences of crossing the West over a far larger, more strategic issue than Crimea. Putin wants to revive the Russian economy, reinvigorate Russia as a global power broker following the deeply bruising experience in Crimea, and expand Russian influence.
He has always been an opportunist, and this could go down as the biggest achievement of his career. Its timing being truly immaculate. Just as the migrant crises began to threaten the European project as a whole, and the Iranian army ‘proper’ was about to be dispatched to save Assad, Putin steps in to provide an alternative that may end this war as a stalemate, rather than a real, large regional (or perhaps global) war in Syria. There has never been a time where a solution to Syria is so desperately needed by so many regional and global powers who are ready to commit military resources.
One should not worry about Assad’s removal – this has already happened. He is no longer the most influential person in Syrian territories; in fact, he is not even the fifth most influential in the fifth of Syria which he still controls. Like an inmate on death row, he is awaiting Russian control of the Syrian Army, before he makes his way to St Helena (Father Putin may not like him being in the Hague just yet).