Assad has a clear plan to stay in power. This is it

Like his father, Bashar Al Assad is systematically murdering his opponents, writes Faisal Al Yafai. And it is working

At least the talks have started. Merely getting the various parties to the civil war in Syria to sit down in the same building has been a qualified achievement. Getting them to sit together in the same room will be harder.

The entire diplomatic track for the Syrian peace talks has revolved around the idea of small gains: that making deliberate, incremental steps towards a distant goal is progress. But there is a fundamental flaw in this thinking and its locus is the presidential palace in Damascus. The Assad regime has never accepted the distant goal towards which the peace process is moving. It has been persuaded by Russia, its backer, to walk the path – but in the background it is ensuring that the talkers never reach their destination.

In late 2015, a barely known rebel commander for Jaish Al Islam, Zahran Alloush, was killed by a regime airstrike. Alloush was hardly a public figure – but in rebel circles, he was important, a man who could potentially play a political role in the peace process. For that, he was killed.

Commanders of other rebel groups have also been targeted. A couple of weeks ago, Mohammad Hassan Said, a commander of Ahrar Al Sham, was killed by “unknown assailants” – usually evidence of an assassination attempt, possibly by the Assad regime. A few weeks before that, another unknown group of gunmen killed Anas Abu Nabut, a senior commander of Jabhat Al Nusra.

The regime is keen to neutralise any possible opposition – all the way back to 2011, when a high-ranking Syrian officer called Hussein Al Harmoush defected and went into exile. In a murky operation, he later vanished from Turkey and reappeared in Damascus, where he retracted his previous comments against the regime, and hasn’t been seen since.

War is murky. In the nether world of shifting alliances and betrayals, the Assad regime has an inbuilt advantage. It has one clear aim, to survive. It knows the best way to survive is to sow chaos among its opponents.

In that respect, the regime has shown a more sophisticated understanding of how militant groups operate than some of its opponents.

Militant groups exist amid constant rivalry and uncertainty. Devoid of the regimented command and control structures of a regular army, militants usually coalesce around particular individuals. They feel loyalty to those individuals and usually fight for the beliefs of those individuals. When those individuals are killed, it disrupts the entire stability of the militant group. Other factions seek to take over, or promote their own leaders. Leaders again have their own beliefs, which changes the strategy. In the febrile mix of ambition, rivalry, material rewards and guns, militant groups that were previously cohesive can suddenly disintegrate.

The more these groups fight each other, the less able they are to fight the regime. And if they can be made to fight the regime when they should be talking peace – Alloush’s death was calculated to ensure Jaish Al Islam would seek revenge, making it harder for the group’s leadership to compromise – the Assad regime can say with some proof that it has no interlocutors.

By constantly sowing dissent and chaos in the ranks of its enemies, the regime ensures that there is no credible opposition – and so the risk of a security vacuum without the regime looks large.

This isn’t a new strategy. Hafez Al Assad, the president’s father, spent decades perfecting this strategy, destroying any opposition, so that he remained the sole credible choice.

And it is in there that Mr Al Assad’s strategy for survival becomes apparent. If I were to guess at the regime’s playbook for the next year, until the suggested elections of 2017, it would go like this.

The regime will string the talks out for as long as possible, undermining the opposition at every turn while dutifully turning up to conferences.

The transitional government, meant to be in place by this summer, if it ever happens, will certainly have a place for Mr Al Assad. If there is an election next year, he will stand as a candidate – it will not be “credible” otherwise, his supporters in Moscow will argue.

Many groups will boycott the election. Devoid of other viable, tested alternatives, Syrians, even in a free election, will return Mr Al Assad to power.

The Russians, knowing the West’s soft spot for elections as a tool of legitimacy, will declare him the democratic winner – and may even get Mr Al Assad to claim he will step down after one term.

If the international community is sufficiently weary of the war, of the refugees streaming into Arab and European countries, and if Mr Al Assad can offer high-minded words about forgiveness and reconciliation, the world may accept it for the sake of stability. Some Syrians will return. The world’s attention will move on. And that’s when Mr Al Assad’s mukhabarat will start the process of rounding up dissidents and their families.

That’s what Mr Al Assad’s father did. The apogee of repression wasn’t the destruction of Hama in 1982 – it was the 10 years of arrests and torture that followed.

The Assad regime knows a fundamental truth about the world: it has a short attention span. But the regime does not forget.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai