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Assad as a Bargaining Chip

assadThe Russian movie in Syria had one star: Time. And the role of this star was a difficult one. Time was a good guy to a certain point after which it would turn into an increasingly bad guy. The producer, Mr. Putin, needed enough time to strengthen Assad and the Iranians in Syria. But he was aware that he should not be dragged for a long time into the Syrian quagmire. Therefore, the role of time had to be dosed carefully by the producer to avoid turning it from an ally to an enemy. But the moment Mr. Putin was writing the plot of his story in Syria, he was also unintentionally writing his competitors’. For it was simple for those competitors to reverse the order of Putin’s designed role for time to undo the whole Russian plot.

The strategic fault of Mr. Putin’s move was in that this move’s calculations turned to be its main weakness. Putin based his decision to interfere on several factors: Europe’s sense of the emergency of the refugee crisis which was turning rapidly into a domestic political issue – Russia’s policy to strengthen relations with Tehran and preserve Assad as they are the only allies left in the Middle East – the US reluctance to do anything meaningful related to Syria and the rise of ISIL which caused a tide of global public opinion calling for actions to stop its horrendous atrocities, which was to be the main asset in Russia’s support.

Yet, the Russian President knew that the allowed time and altitude of his operation in Syria is limited due to the nature of the situation there and to the limits of Russian power. Syria is different than Ukraine in many aspects and the Arabs were determined to confront the Russian intervention with all possible means as it was obvious to all that such intervention enhances Iran’s role there. Furthermore, the Russian intervention meant that the refugee crisis will be extended and the West was running out of patience with Putin’s heavy-handed surprises.

As Putin was reading the pluses and minuses of his bold script so were all the other parties. It took only few days to decode it. Furthermore, the Russian president believed he could cast his intervention in an anti-ISIL context to prevent his adversaries from limiting his space even more. But his forces targeted non-ISIL groups in a sign of lack of sensitivity to the tactical environment of the Russian move in Moscow’s strategic quarters.

The counter-tactic was almost easy to devise. It was sufficient for all to focus for enough time on the fact that Russia was targeting non-ISIL opposition groups in order to dismantle Putin’s attempt to sideline his adversaries by casting his move as an anti-terror measure. Moreover, the amount of arms given to the non-ISIL opposition groups in a matter of few weeks, following the Russian intervention, was substantial in both quality and quantity. But the most important element in the picture that led to reducing Mr. Putin’s maneuverability was the fact that the Syrian army could not build a coherent counter offensive using Russia’s brutal air campaign.

The picture was getting even clearer when it became obvious that the Russian leader’s space is indeed very limited: The Europeans did not move actively to support his intervention, the Arabs were quick to respond by arming more opposition groups and the US hardened its political stand all the while leaving a pass out to Moscow.

So far, the Russian movie in Syria was turning in the opposite direction of the original script approved by the producer. Therefore, a quick move was warranted. And this is what we see now.

The meetings between the main players in Vienna are signs that if the Russian move had any benefit at all, it energized the international community to end Syria’s civil war. Yet, two issues are emerging as pivotal, one is a negotiating chip and the other is related to the essence of the crisis.

The first is Assad’s political fate. As the Syrian President is already consumed and have largely exceeded his shelf value, he is used today as a mere stick that could be put on the wheels of any proposed solution if those wheels were to go in an unfavorable direction to Iranian and Russian objectives. Those objectives represent the second issue which is related to the essence of the crisis.

Before the Russian intervention in Syria, Moscow’s leverage in the crisis was minimal. The deal between Tehran and Putin was something like the following scenario: Iran says: We will both lose if the Arabs won Syria. Your presence in the west coast of the country will be decided by pro-West forces and our presence will certainly be terminated. Let us work together towards an end game that preserves the core of our interests there. Russia says: Even if the price is to sacrifice Assad at one point down the road? Iran says: the guy is already consumed and exhausted. Even the Alawi community does not want him. He could be used as a barraging chip to reach our ends. But you would have to go to Syria to get at least this result or at most a good portion of Syria.

And we are at this particular moment when Assad will not be dropped from calculations unless Russia and Iran gets at least their minimum objectives. These objectives are summarized in one single word: Presence. In fact, Assad will be artificially inflated by all possible tricks including this empty tactical insistence that he remains and sending more Iranian and Russia forces to Syria.

The Arab position, however, is hardening in the opposite sense. No deal with Assad, and even if Assad is out, no Iranian presence in Syria will be tolerated.

Usually, the current configuration leads to an escalation on the ground before the final sessions of the talks. But this escalation would certainly have a negative impact on these final sessions due to the fact that the Syrian crisis has the Syrian Sunni population, which will be suffering even more, as a genuine part of the picture. The only way to go around this is to intensely the talks and shorten their period as much as possible.

No one can predict with any certainty the outcome of this bad movie which currently has more than one script and one producer. Yet, we seem to be inching towards the moment when we can tell with more confidence how it will end. What should be hoped for in the current moment is two things: 1) Short talks-and that will not be achieved without the continuation of the current international engagement. 2) Turning Syria into a starting point for a kind of regional modus vivendi which should reduce regional tension to a manageable level.   

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