Assad cannot stay in power, so why are so many saying he can?

How long will Bashar Al Assad remain as president of Syria, featuring Asharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat.

How long will Bashar Al Assad remain in power in Syria? Alexei Druzhinin / AP)
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Since Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov first said Syrian president Bashar Al Assad should or could remain in power, his assertion has been repeated by several world officials.

Writing in the London-based newspaper Asharq Al Awsat, Abdul Rahman Al Rashed said the “disturbing sentence” was mentioned by the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir, at a press conference on Monday, and was also repeated by his German, French and Turkish counterparts.

The Syrian regime has been using the statement to their advantage, saying its opponents have finally acquiesced to its demands. It has also stated that the Russian intervention has been a game changer. But will Mr Al Assad really stay in power?

He remains in his presidential palace on Mount Qassioun in Damascus. Yet he is ruling only a third of the country – and with great difficulty.

With many areas controlled by the rebels and 12 million Syrians displaced, including 5 million abroad, he is left only with an army and a small police force.

Al Rashed said this means as a ruler Mr Al Assad no longer has practical control and is being used as a bargaining chip, although the Russian and Iranian diplomats keep saying otherwise.

It is not true that Russia’s military intervention in Syria has changed the course of negotiations and given Mr Al Assad the opportunity to remain in government, he added. The Russians are all the Syrian regime is left with after the failure of his troops and Shabiha militias.

He also sought help from Hizbollah but failed, despite the movement’s extensive fighting experience. Iran’s military support under the Revolutionary Guard commander, Qassem Suleimani, was not successful either. Nor have Iraqi and Afghan militias been able to make any progress on the ground.

Even when Russia entered the war with its air force and missiles, the outcome has still not improved, Al Rashed wrote.

All the parties are aware that keeping the Syrian president in power is not worth the price they are paying. So what is behind the “Assad staying” line that seems to have been agreed by almost all the foreign ministers?

The Geneva 1 Conference is very important because it laid out a plan involving a transition government in which Mr Al Assad played no role. The disagreement has been about when and how that will occur.

Even the Iranians know that he cannot remain in power, but he suggested they still want to influence the negotiations to ensure another pro-Iran affiliate takes office in Syria.

This is to establish their dominance over a strategic area stretching from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, laying siege to the Arabian Gulf.

While Iran’s stance is clear, the Russian one is not – although Moscow’s attitude has evolved since Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the country in June, after which there has been discussion about an interim government.

The areas of disagreement are about who should be chosen, the roles of the army and police force, and when Mr Al Assad should be asked to leave.

Despite occupying the presidential palace on Mount Qasioun since the start of the conflict, that does not make him a president or grant him legitimacy. The situation cannot continue as it is.

Jihad Al Khazen, writing in the London-based Al Hayat, said that mostly overlooked amid the reports of death and mayhem in Syria is the news of a “direct link" between the Russian and Israeli militaries to avoid incidents between aircraft over Syria.

Russia started its air strikes in Syria last month but Israel has been conducting strikes since 2013, mostly targeting weapons en route to Hizbollah in Syria.

The agreement shows that the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was for once sincere when he said, after a visit to Russia last month, that there was a Russian-Israeli deal to coordinate military operations in Syria to avoid any “misunderstanding” that could lead to clashes.

Now, Russia is talking about an agreement with the US to avoid conflict in the air over Syria. Russia also had discussions with Turkey to raise similar concerns.

In the meantime, the US military’s $500 million plan to train and arm the moderate opposition in Syria fell flat. Instead, the Pentagon seems to be in favour of sending weaponry to reliable opposition groups. But the second plan will probably fail too, he wrote.

It seems that Russian president Vladimir Putin is keen to cash in on what he sees as Mr Obama’s powerlessness in order to pursue his political and military aspirations in Syria. In contrast to the Duma’s backing for Mr Putin, Congress has opposed many of Mr Obama’s decisions.

Now that a major battle is raging for control of the territory around Aleppo, Russia is hitting opposition targets and Gen Suleimani is reported to be running Iranian operations in the area.

With the Assad regime and ISIL splitting the gas production, Al Khazen said the picture could not be any bleaker.

Translated by Abdelhafid Ezzouitni