Assad is more than happy to play a waiting game

Hassan Hassan examines the faultines between international powers that back the Syrian opposition, and says Assad is hoping to exploit these divisions to give them more bargaining power.

Syrian president Bashar Assad relies on powerful allies to cling to power. EPA
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During this month, a military escalation by both sides of the Syrian conflict has led to a dramatic increase in bloodshed. For weeks, the Assad regime has been pounding Zabadani, a city near the Lebanese border, and Douma, near Damascus. The rebels have shelled the Shia villages of Foua and Kafraya in Idlib.

The regime’s offensive this year has probably been the worst in terms of human casualties and devastation. An air raid on a marketplace in Douma left more than 100 civilians dead and hundreds injured. The humanitarian situation in Zabadani was similarly catastrophic: Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, described “unprecedented levels of destruction” in the city, the last of the rebels’ strongholds in the Qalamoun region.

The escalation prompted speculations that the two sides may be trying to prop up their bargaining positions after Iran and Russia initiated a flurry of diplomatic activities. On Thursday, Reuters quoted a western diplomat as saying that the increased hostilities were the warring sides’ way of preparing for a political solution: “It is still fragile, but it is the most concerted move yet to find a political solution. Everyone needs a political solution. Everyone is exhausted.”

But the statement appears to echo the hopes of the backers of the opposition rather than the thinking inside and outside Syria.

The claim overlooks the fact that those leading the escalation in hostilities do not desire a political solution. Jabhat Al Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham, which led the recent successful gains in the north, began their concerted campaigns in Idlib and Sahl Al Ghab in the beginning of the year, months before the start of any diplomatic initiatives. The Assad regime’s attack in Zabadani was part of its Hizbollah-led campaign to consolidate its grip on the Qalamoun region near Lebanon. And the regime’s massacre of civilians in the Douma marketplace is consistent with its campaign of vengeance and terror whenever the rebels cross certain lines.

Also, the regime of Bashar Al Assad has no intention to genuinely share power or allow the opposition to help run the country. That should have already been established. The government knows full well that the opposition’s backers are not interested in a decisive victory led by the rebels. Any contingency plans it has for the rebels’ growing strength do not involve handing over power.

The regime’s backers, too, have not changed their outlook towards the conflict, despite the diplomatic gestures offered by Iran, including a “revised” plan for Syria and Russia, such as organising visits by regime officials to Oman and Saudi Arabia.

The most likely reason for these gestures is to play on the reluctance of many of the opposition’s backers for increasing support to the rebels. Western countries have privately expressed fears that the recent uptick in the military help and coordination provided by the Gulf states and Turkey, could cause the situation in Syria to spin out of control.

It was reported that during one meeting of the so-called Friends of Syria, western countries explicitly asked the opposition’s regional funders to consider such a scenario and to not allow the regime to face existential threats.

Such fears prompted talks within the pro-opposition camp, rather than the pro-regime camp, about revitalising the political process. Representatives of Saudi Arabia in those meetings, for example, interjected that a political solution could not be achieved because Russia was unwilling to exert any pressure on the Assad regime. So, many countries on the side of the opposition would desperately cling to any gestures from Russia, even if those initiatives did not offer anything new.

Wishful thinking on the part of the pro-opposition camp often translates into fluctuation and half-hearted moves. For example, the camp supported the joint effort by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to back the Army of Conquest in northern Syria, a rebel coalition that achieved impressive gains against the Syrian army in Idlib since March. After the rebel coalition started advancing towards the regime heartlands in central and western Syria, their backers started to have second thoughts about the move.

The United States and Turkey also have deep differences over the role of the Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria and the fight against ISIL. The two ­Nato members engaged in a war of words over what to call the “ISIL-free security zone” they supposedly agreed to establish in the north.

The Assad regime and its foreign backers recognise such fautlines among the pro-opposition team. The only way they want to improve their bargaining position is to bide their time. Eventually, they hope, the rebels will be too divided and exhausted and their backers will turn to the regime to help them in their fight against extremist groups.

Hassan Hassan is associate fellow at Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: ­Inside the Army of Terror

On Twitter: @hxhassan