By Arab News
By Zaid M. Belbagi*
Were it not for a 1994 car accident that killed his elder brother Bassel, shy ophthalmologist Bashar Assad may never have been thrust into the center of power in Syria. Though Assad was never groomed for power, he has, since 2011, displayed an absolute commitment to retain control at any cost. While he can no longer claim the 99.7 percent and 97.6 percent support he received in referendums earlier in his presidency, his government has now regained control of 80 percent of Syria’s population. And, with almost half a million Syrians now dead, many are beginning to suggest engaging with Assad so as to bring about an end to the conflict.
With Daesh on the back foot in Syria, the regime has gone from strength to strength. Though the Syrian government forces are weak and overstretched, they control the main centers of population at Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, Latakia, Tartus, Palmyra and Abu Kamal. They have been able to drive rebel forces into small pockets of territory, defeating them one by one. This week, the Syrian government rejected a Russian plan for a new constitution that would dilute Assad’s powers — a clear setback for the Kremlin’s efforts to negotiate an end to the seven-year civil war.
Following a surprise visit by Assad to Moscow last Thursday, observers had expected the Astana peace process to gather momentum. However, with government forces increasingly on the offensive, the Syrian leader seemed to be working to limit room for negotiation, stating only that he would be willing to discuss amendments to the current constitution. This announcement illustrated his growing confidence amid a conflict that has grown so protracted and complicated that none of the various foreign stakeholders have a decisive upper hand.
Despite their long-standing support of the regime, the Russians and Iranians are hesitant to put an endless amount of resources into the fight. With the Iranian currency in crisis, the $15 billion per year it is spending on the conflict is a burden it can ill afford. The Russians, similarly, cannot continue to compete with US military might without an aircraft carrier fleet, nor can they afford to build one. The reality is that Russia is rapidly losing its advantage in the conflict, especially given the involvement of US forces in the Kurdish areas, as well as the presence of Turkish troops north of Aleppo. Assad is aware of the complexity of the situation and has therefore chosen to seek an end to the conflict on his terms, before his backers withdraw their crucial financial and military aid.
Both Vladimir Putin and Assad have agreed on the need for foreign troops to leave Syria. Assad has therefore chosen to seek a swift resolution to the conflict whilst he is still in a position to do so. But the US and its allies have renewed their calls for the departure of Assad, clearly outlining their intention not to contribute to any post-war reconstruction without a genuine political transition.
Though reaching an agreement with Assad may seem appealing to some, given that government forces have re-established de facto control over large parts of Syria, the US and its allies are correct in insisting upon regime change. The mass scale of civilian deaths leaves the international community in no doubt that the government of Syria is responsible for acts that amount to extermination, amongst other heinous crimes against humanity.
The UN has reported “unimaginable abuses” of women and children, implicating high-ranking officers, government officials and other members of the regime. During the same period that Assad has begun to position himself as a key broker in any post-conflict resolution, his regime has channeled the same confidence into callous new war crimes. The chemical attack at Douma in April prompted the US its and allies to accuse Assad of violating international laws, and it initiated the ensuing bombing of military targets in Damascus and Homs.
In using his new position of strength to increase the cruelty of his crimes against the Syrian people, Assad has provided the international community with irrefutable evidence that he is most definitely not to be negotiated with. The international community, conscious of the strain of the war on both Russia and Iran, must instead work to bring about a solution to the conflict without Assad. The presence of American military advisers and the US air force has kept regime forces out of Kurdish areas, and a reinforced US presence in the country would similarly allow it to weaken the government’s hand. With this in mind and a president keen to show force in the light of war crimes, the US has an opportunity to seek a positive future for Syria, cognizant of the lessons learned from post-conflict Iraq and Libya.
*Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid