Middle East // Analysis

27 october 2015

Bashar al-Assad doesn’t need a Russian shelter. Yet.

Nikolay Surkov PhD in political science, Associate Professor, Oriental Studies Department, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert
Photo:
REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin

The Syrian President’s surprise visit to Moscow on October 21, 2015 and his talks with Vladimir Putin have triggered an avalanche of rumours. The official statements after the meeting did little to clear things up. It thus makes sense to consider several possible scenarios.

Scenario one: Bashar al-Assad came to ask for additional military aid. This theory is reinforced by the fact that the government’s military offensive is meeting with difficulties. Al-Assad has long exhausted the substantial human (practically every Alawite family has lost someone to war) and material reserves that he had. And large-scale offensive operations are impossible without them. However, Damascus is probably aware of the Kremlin’s reluctance to be drawn deeper into the Syrian crisis (the ghost of Afghanistan still stalks the country) and to send an expeditionary force. Putin might be convinced to loan out some military hardware (a significant number of tanks have been lost in the course of the offensive) and ammunition, but for manpower, al-Assad would do better to go to Iran and its Lebanese allies, Hezbollah.

Putin might be convinced to loan out some military hardware (a significant number of tanks have been lost in the course of the offensive) and ammunition, but for manpower, al-Assad would do better to go to Iran and its Lebanese allies, Hezbollah.

Scenario two: al-Assad’s visit is a propaganda move designed to demonstrate to the world that Moscow considers al-Assad a legitimate leader and is ready to continue supporting him. The question is: who could this gesture have been aimed at? It was hardly meant for the West or the Western countries that sponsor the opposition. They are already well aware of the state of Russia–Syria links. But it may have impressed ordinary Syrians, who would very much like to believe that their country has a strong and resolute ally (the appearance of Russian planes in the sky over Lattakia gave a boost to the morale not only of civilians, but of the army worn out by the four-year war). Having said that, the propaganda effect inside Syria is questionable, because sceptics were quick to note that in the meeting with Vladimir Putin, al-Assad behaved like a pupil in front of a strict teacher.

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The propaganda effect inside Syria is questionable, because sceptics were quick to note that in the meeting with Vladimir Putin, al-Assad behaved like a pupil in front of a strict teacher.

Scenario three: al-Assad came to discuss his own future. This is the most plausible theory. Both leaders have access to modern means of communication, so obviously they have talked over the phone more than once. It is no secret, however, that in the Arab world, really serious matters are discussed only face to face. Suffice it to recall that a dying Hafez al-Assad (the father of the current president) flew to Geneva in the spring of 2000 to discuss the possibility of a peace treaty with Israel with then President of the United States Bill Clinton. Judging by the number and intensity of meetings and telephone consultations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, the fate of Syria and al-Assad (and thus the people around him, his clan and the Alawite community in general) is being decided.

The question begs: Why did al-Assad choose to go to Moscow to discuss his fate rather than Tehran? After all, Tehran is at least as important as Moscow for the survival of the Syrian regime. However, the Iranians have only begun to mend fences with the West, while Russia, notwithstanding the Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions war, remains a more understandable negotiating partner for Washington and Brussels. So Russia must conduct the dialogue on behalf of al-Assad, with whom the West still refuses to shake hands, for PR reasons.

Judging by the number and intensity of meetings and telephone consultations between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov, the fate of Syria and al-Assad (and thus the people around him, his clan and the Alawite community in general) is being decided.

In light of the above, the sudden consultations between Putin and al-Assad look like a logical step. Moreover, the haste with which the talks were set up may indicate that the bargaining between Moscow and the West (that is, with the United States) has reached a crunch point.

Today, few people doubt that al-Assad is on his way out. The question is in what manner and how far. We are, of course, not talking about him being toppled in the manner that other Arab autocrats such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were. Most probably he will remain in power until the campaign against the radical Islamic State (which is banned in Russia) is over. Once victory over Islamic State is declared, the country will most likely hold elections and al-Assad will peacefully hand over power to some colonel who has distinguished himself (generals are all corrupt, the people in the street believe). That this is a probable scenario can be seen from al-Assad’s remarks during a meeting with Russian MPs on October 25, 2015. “Victory over the terrorist groups will lead to a political solution that we seek,” the Syrian President said.

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“He [al-Assad] suggested possible parliamentary elections involving all the political forces that want peace and stability in Syria,” RIA Novosti quotes State Duma Deputy Sergei Gavrilov.

The President of Syria’s words could be construed in different ways, especially since he would certainly need guarantees of personal security (so that he is not, for example, prosecuted by the International Criminal Court), as well as guarantees of the rights and interests of the Alawite community in the new Syria. Rumours that al-Assad came to Russia to “shop around for a mansion on Rublyovka” [a prestigious residential district in the southwestern suburbs of Moscow] appear to be exaggerated. It is true that disgraced leaders of other countries or their relatives (the names Viktor Yanukovich and Borislav Milosevic spring to mind) have found refuge in Russia, and in principle one can imagine organized flight from Syria of the Assads and Makhloufs. But they are more likely to go where their money is, that is, to the United Arab Emirates (where the current president’s wife lives).

He will probably remain the leader (if informal) of the Syrian Alawites (who, incidentally, form the backbone of the army) and continue to play an active role in politics.

In any case, it is too early yet to dismiss Bashar al-Assad. He will probably remain the leader (if informal) of the Syrian Alawites (who, incidentally, form the backbone of the army) and continue to play an active role in politics (as leader of a parliamentary group or governor of the coastal regions). The Druze leader in Lebanon, Walid Jumblatt, comes to mind – he does not hold a formal office, but has been a key figure in the country for decades.

Federalization that would divide the country into several parts (Alawite, Sunni, Kurdish, Druze, etc.) is more than possible.

Against this background, it is worth considering the future political structure of Syria, because a return to the old order is extremely unlikely. Federalization that would divide the country into several parts (Alawite, Sunni, Kurdish, Druze, etc.) is more than possible, especially since all these groups now have their own armed units, leaders and external sponsors. Only time will tell whether such a state will be viable or whether the ethnic and religious groups will try to sort things out among themselves once the IS threat recedes.

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Nikolay Surkov, “Bashar al-Assad doesn’t need a Russian shelter. Yet. ,” Russian International Affairs Council, 27 October 2015, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=6762

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