Why an Assad victory would be an Assad defeat

Why an Assad victory would be an Assad defeat
7 min read
13 May, 2016
Comment: If Assad should prevail against the Syrian rebels, governing Syria alone would be an even bigger challenge than winning the war, Syria experts argue
A victorious Assad would find it impossible to govern the country he has destroyed [TASS]

Governing Syria in peacetime - after the world's most brutal current conflict ends - would be the greatest challenge for any current player in Syria, but especially for Bashar al-Assad. That is if he still manages to hold onto office in some capacity after a regime victory.

Achieving total military victory - especially for the regime -is a gargantuan task but that would pale compared to the resources, energy and manpower needed for peacetime consolidation.

This was the conclusion I came to after attending a panel discussion in Beirut on Russian and Iranian perspectives on Syria organised by the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

The panellists were Nikolay Kozhanov, Nasser Hadian and Yezid Sayigh. Kozhanov and Hadian took turns explaining their respective governments' end games, visions, red lines and calculi in Syria. Sayigh counteracted their arguments with a special focus on the role of Assad and what can and should be done to expedite a sustainable transition and peace in Syria.

The session was moderated by Maha Yahya.

Russia’s strategy in Syria is based on putting military and political pressure on and dividing the ‘non-radical” Syrian opposition and rebels

Russia: Divide and conquer

Kozhanov, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre and a contributing expert to the Moscow-based Institute of the Middle East, explained that Russia’s strategy in Syria is based on putting both military and political pressure on and dividing the ‘non-radical” Syrian opposition and rebels to accept the terms it and its ally Assad have declared for any settlement – i.e. near total surrender.

Russia is betting on US disinterest in Syria, especially now on the eve of presidential elections and with a “realist” president in the White House, the Russian expert added, while other regional players such as Gulf powers and Turkey have been successfully disincentivised by Russia to mount a significant military response.

However, Russia, he insisted, is in Syria primarily to stabilise the regime rather than shore up Assad personally.

This, he explained, stems from the Kremlin’s vision that jihadists are a symptom rather than a disease, the treatment of which is to strengthen the Syrian state and expand its control as widely as possible.

Russia is in favour of Assad’s stated goal of achieving “total victory”, or at the very least, the retaking of Aleppo and Idlib

Russia is therefore in favour of Assad’s stated goal of achieving “total victory”, or at the very least, the retaking of Aleppo and Idlib, he revealed. In this context, Kozhanov, was keen to point out there was no love lost between Putin and Assad, even saying Putin was “irritated” by the regime’s behaviour.

However, after exploring alternatives to Assad and understanding the highly informal and decentralised nature of the Syrian regime, in which Assad was effective at eliminating any possible rivals, Kozhanov said Moscow finds no alternative to dealing with Assad at present.

Interestingly, Kozhanov argued the alliance between Russia and Iran is not absolute and is limited to Syria. Even there, there are differences over visions and Assad’s role, but Russia needs Iran’s “boots on the ground” and Iran needs Russia’s warplanes and artillery.

Given that the overall situation on the ground is in favour of the pro-regime camp and given the political disarray of the Syrian opposition groupings, Kozhanov said he believed the current dynamic would continue to favour Russian strategy.

Russia needs Iran’s “boots on the ground” and Iran needs Russia’s warplanes and artillery

Iran: Regime survival at any cost

Iran has no love lost for Assad personally either, but it has calculated that it has no choice but to intervene alongside his regime, claimed Nasser Hadian, professor of political science at the University of Tehran.

Tehran, he argued, has judged that Assad’s departure would spell the immediate collapse of the Syrian regime, an unacceptable outcome for Iran.

Ultimately, despite the high cost of intervention in Syria, Hadian said Iran has concluded the cost of not intervening would be higher, following a debate that assessed the regional "security matrix” at the heart of which the US, Israel and Sunni jihadism were ruled to be the top threats to Iran.

The Iranian political expert proposed a two-track approach to the Syrian crisis, one led by four key players (US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia); and the other by Syrian regime and opposition delegates.

He stressed both Iran and Russia – which he claimed differ only on tactics but not strategy in Syria – are interested in a political solution under their terms, whereby the regime and Assad remain in place but some kind of mechanism is devised for power-sharing with the opposition.

The Syria Assad would rule will be bankrupt, heavily dependent and ungovernable

Peacetime harder than wartime

But it was perhaps the interventions of Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre whose work focuses on the Syrian crisis, that contained the most interesting revelations.

Assuming Assad will achieve his total victory and be in office by the end of the war, the collapse of Syria’s industrial base and infrastructure, the huge displacement and brain drain that will be difficult if not impossible to repatriate and the resulting difficulty of generating revenues for the government will mean the Syria Assad will rule will be bankrupt, heavily dependent and ungovernable, he argued.

Therefore, a victory for Assad should be an undesirable outcome for the regime and its allies, who would have to forever sustain it with handouts, expertise and troops even in best-case scenarios.

It would be instead essential for Sunnis of Syria, who are the bulk of the rebellion against Assad, to be coaxed into participating in post-war governance.

Although it is hard to envisage how many of them who are at the receiving end of Assad’s brutal tactics and war crimes can accept his remaining in power, Sayigh said it is possible to think of mechanisms and modalities by which his powers can be reduced or shared with Sunni officers and politicians in the military apparatus, economic apparatus, as well as the government.

Only this, he argued, would reduce the costs of governing post-war Syria, with or without Assad, and the cost of reconstruction.

A victory for Assad should be an undesirable outcome for the regime and its allies, who would have to forever sustain it with handouts, expertise and troops

Clinical about genocide?

None of the panellists’ “clinical” interventions addressed the deliberate tactics pursued by the Syrian regime and its allies – and some rebel factions – against civilians. Or indeed, the issue of the Syrian regime blocking aid delivery to areas it besieges.

Arguably, not achieving truth and reconciliation is one of the most prominent obstacles to lasting peace in Syria, and a military victory for any side would be meaningless without it.

Yet in light of the internationalisation of the Syrian conflict, accountability appears to be the lowest priority for all players.

Even the Syrian opposition appears willing to forgo all of the regime’s sins in return for the departure of Bashar al-Assad, a deal for which could even include granting him immunity or accepting the equivalence of regime and rebel crimes when it is widely known Assad is responsible for most atrocities in the country.

Not achieving truth and reconciliation is one of the most prominent obstacles to lasting peace in Syria

Transitional justice and accountability are important, Sayigh told The New Arab in response to a question, but whether it is going to be part of a deal is unlikely.

“With the sort of negotiations we see with Russia and the United States with the participation of Iran and Saudi Arabia…I must say transitional justice is not going to be on the agenda in any interpretation,” he said.

But would any stable deal be possible without accountability for Assad and others involved in war crimes in Syria?

Sayigh said even in the countries that saw change as part of the Arab Spring where the issue of transitional justice was raised, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, they all “failed to come up with a meaningful process.”

The best hope we have, he added, is put mechanisms in place that would at the very least prevent the repetition of similar practices.

Otherwise, the culture of impunity would reproduce a lot of the atrocities. “We should focus on specific institutions like the police and the courts to start creating the basis of a culture of transparency, oversight and limiting abuse,” he told The New Arab.