Bashar Al Assad’s unpredictability is his greatest strength
The right thing to say about the attack in Syria on a UN aid convoy on Monday night is that all the facts are not yet in. That while the Assad regime or Russian jets were probably responsible, it is still too early to tell conclusively. That the convoy, carrying food and supplies for 78,000 people to a besieged part of Aleppo, may have been accidentally hit. That those bringing aid were not deliberately blown apart.
Yet anyone who has observed the Syrian civil war – and particularly the conduct of the Assad regime – will scoff at such careful phrasing. So let's call it what it is: this attack was deliberate, part of a pattern of attacks on those aiding civilians, and part of a deliberate strategy on the part of the regime.
This strategy is not limited to merely attacking anyone who could aid the regime's opponents. It goes beyond that. The regime wants to be seen as unpredictable. The pretence of an unstable regime is in everyone's interests, including Russia.
But start with Bashar Al Assad. By seeming unpredictable, the regime maintains a psychological edge over its opponents. If the regime's opponents thought it would not nakedly attack civilians, it was wrong. If they thought the regime would never tacitly allow a militant group like ISIL to flourish, they were wrong – in fact the regime encouraged ISIL's growth.
If opponents thought the regime would not starve, rape and mutilate its own civilians into submission, they were wrong. On the subject of chemical weapons, of course, the whole world was wrong.
Every limit, every line in the sand, every line of warfare that seemed impossible to imagine has been crossed by the regime – meaning, from a strategic perspective, that Mr Al Assad's opponents cannot plan, because they have no concept of what he might not do. Even when the action has appeared completely opposed to the regime's own interests, it has been carried out, precisely because the advantage of being seen to be unpredictable is so powerful.
Strategically, it suits the regime to be seen as unpredictable. It weakens the resolve of the rebels. It pushes aid groups to be apprehensive and uncertain – to take a long time planning and require lots of permissions, all causing extra pain to those under siege. And it sets a low bar for any real peace process.
Mr Al Assad has even played this game with Russia. The Russian intervention into the conflict a year ago saved Mr Al Assad, but the gratitude was short-lived: reports surfaced that, weeks later, Vladimir Putin sent an envoy to Damascus to suggest Mr Al Assad step aside and another member of the Alawite community take over. The answer was no.
A month later, in February of this year, after Russia brokered a ceasefire agreement, Mr Al Assad went on television to declare he would still "retake" every inch of Syria. Russia issued an uncharacteristically stern rebuke.
In part, this pushback is a desire to be seen, at home and abroad, as independent from outside influence. But being mercurial is a strategy that works well when there are so few plausible alternatives to the regime.
The regime has experience of this. Hafez Al Assad, Bashar's father, was similarly mercurial, playing push-pull with the Lebanese over left-wing armed militias and the Palestinian cause. He did the same with Turkey, by first sheltering and then expelling the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, and with western powers over confrontations with Israel.
Such an ability to defy even backers was strategic, because it gave hope to enemies that they could one day be friends and it warned supporters not to take Syria for granted. The same dynamic can be seen with his son.
Vladimir Putin, if he recognises the game, which he probably does, is content to let Mr Al Assad play it, though he doubtless finds it frustrating.
But it suits Russia's president because he can give the impression of being an honest broker, metaphorically throwing up his hands at the intransigence of Damascus, while really favouring one side and using it for his own ends. (Middle East watchers will recognise this as the strategy the US has long played over Palestine and Israel.)
That is exactly what is happening right now and it is why the US was so quick to blame Russia after the strike on the aid convoy, saying that even if it were not Russian jets, Moscow was “responsible” for not reining in the Assad government. Mr Putin knows a mercurial regime gives him plausible deniability.
For the regime, there is no downside to this unstable act, as long as the rest of the Middle East is still in flux. Were Syria surrounded by stable countries, Damascus would be the weak link. As it stands, at this point, the whole region is in flux – which is why no one, not the regime's enemies in America, nor his neighbours in Ankara, nor his allies in Moscow, is willing to push Mr Al Assad too much. When the pins are falling all around, even a tottering pin can seem acceptable.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Published: September 20, 2016 04:00 AM