Syrian elections put Tehran and Moscow in a fix

Bashar Al Assad's future in Syria is wholly dependent on Iranian and Russian support, but Michael Young says neither country has a clear end game.

In June, President Bashar Al Assad will be “re-elected” as Syria’s president, closing the door on any political settlement of the Syrian conflict. For his Iranian and Russian backers the difficulties will begin.

In war, Tehran and Moscow have been successful at keeping Mr Al Assad in power. They have armed him, sent combatants to reinforce his exhausted armed forces and have reportedly taken strategic decisions allowing his regime to regain territory.

In peace, however, it is difficult to see what they have gained. For Mr Al Assad to steadily regain authority over a fractured country more will be needed than weapons. An underlying plan of reconciliation and renovation is required, which can underpin his rule. And it’s almost impossible to imagine the Syrian president formulating such a thing.

Nor is Mr Al Assad remotely close to a full military victory. The United States apparently intends to accelerate the training of Syrian rebels in the south, while the daily Al Hayat newspaper cited opposition sources on Tuesday as saying that Washington had lifted the ban on supplying rebels with anti-aircraft missiles. There was no sign of this from Washington.

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, regime forces continue to face heavy pressure in Idlib and Aleppo province. The Syrian war will likely continue this way for some time yet, an endless back and forth where no side gains a decisive advantage.

Ironically, Iran’s tactics may delay a decisive military outcome. Many believe Tehran is not interested in Mr Al Assad’s recapturing all of Syria, but is focused solely on controlling the country’s vital areas – Damascus, the border with Lebanon, the Syrian coast, and communication lines in between.

In that way, the argument continues, the Iranians can protect their Hizbollah allies in Lebanon, and the party’s supply lines in the event of a conflict with Israel. For Iran, preserving a deterrent along Israel’s border is paramount.

That interpretation may be correct, but it shows how much Mr Al Assad has become a pawn in an Iranian power game. Moreover, some analysts insist that, given the Syrian president’s vulnerabilities, Iran has no intention of pushing Mr Al Assad out of office. So reliant is he on Tehran, that Iranian officials will do everything to keep him where he is.

If so, there is a potential flaw in the Iranian thinking. Maintaining Al Assad rule over a rump Syrian state is not only a minimalist strategy, it is one bound to be highly draining on Iran’s resources. Furthermore, it resolves nothing, maintains Syrian dependency that can only further discredit Mr Al Assad, and may well generate discontent on his part.

Absent a political horizon, all that we will see is extended decay in Syria. And if Tehran is intent on keeping Mr Al Assad in place, that decay is assured, given that the Syrian president is incapable of leading a project of national revival or securing the necessary financial aid for reconstruction, let alone of leading reconciliation with a society he has slaughtered.

Syria may be too big to fail, but if the Iranian idea is to maintain the status quo, without persuading Mr Al Assad or a possible successor to engage in a serious political dialogue, then Iran will, both literally and figuratively, pay for the consequences.

It is ironic that the Obama administration is pushing for a political outcome in Syria, while, until now, it has failed to give the opposition the military leverage to impose such a solution. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia, even though they officially endorse a negotiated settlement, are undermining one by giving Mr Al Assad the military means allowing him to sidestep negotiations.

A main criticism directed against the Obama administration is that it has failed to understand the circular nature of the Syrian conflict. Something must happen qualitatively on the ground to break the deadlock.

But are Iran and Russia, both of whom have had a clear strategy in Syria until now, really any better? President Barack Obama merits condemnation for his lack of initiative in Syria, but unlike Iran and Russia the conclusion he proposes qualifies as an endgame. Iran and Russia have been so focused on saving Mr Al Assad that they have formulated no realistic endgame.

Both countries have missed the boat by not opposing the Syrian president’s desire to seek re-election. In so doing, they indicated that any final political resolution in Syria would be defined by the balance of forces on the ground.

But this resort to pure power politics only evaded a more profound question. If Mr Al Assad cannot crush his enemies on the battlefield, and all the signs are that he cannot, then will Iran and Russia want to sustain a war that is open-ended?

To some observers, Iran’s key role in recently negotiating a resolution to the standoff in the old city of Homs, one that involved allowing rebel combatants to withdraw with their weapons, was a sign that it is conscious of the necessity to talk to and compromise with the opposition. And the reason went beyond the fact that the rebels held Iranian hostages.

However, at a higher level no such impetus is visible. Mr Al Assad remains the major obstacle to any normalisation in Syria, even as he offers no workable alternative to perpetual conflict. His Russian and Iranian backers are in a quandary of their own making. Thanks to them the Syrian president is still in place, but as long as he’s in place there can be no peace in Syria.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM


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