Assad's military victory in Syria is hollow if it depends on Russian, Iranian support

The recent military advances of the Assad regime in Syria may not bring peace and stability in the country, as the regime has no political roadmap to address the basic questions raised in 2011 –when popular protests were brutally cracked down.

Perhaps Syria may descend into a worse state than the Libyan model of crisis, that too without Nato intervention. The pessimistic scenario creates many reasons to disbelieve the claims of Assad regime's victories.

In Libya, factions had declared their rival states – which eventually were forced to sit on the table and declare a unity government. Ever since the peace process started, civilian casualties have declined and rival factions have stayed within their territories without challenging each other much.

Bashar al-Assad. AP image

Bashar al-Assad. AP image

For generating a dialogue, there is a roadmap according to which both sides have agreed to negotiate. The Syrian peace process has nothing in common with the Libyan crisis despite the fact that Libya has descended into complete chaos.

In Yemen, despite excessive use of force by the Arab alliance – apparently to restore the legitimate elected president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – the Arab intervention as well as the GCC mediation enjoyed greater international and regional support including that from the United Nations Security Council.

Syria has divided the world in three almost irreconcilable camps – Russia led Assad alliance, Saudi-Turkey supported National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) led different rebel groups; and third, perhaps the most indecisive, is a Western and American camp whose concern is now overwhelmed by the refugee influx.

The common enemy of all these three rivals is Daesh and Nusra Front – whose defeat has become a strategic game and whoever defeats them will eventually control Syria, as the Assad camp now says.

As Russian air strikes, despite heavy civilian causalities, have weakened the Daesh and Nusra Fronts, the Assad regime has started a decisive attack against other rebel groups, violating several fragile ceasefires brokered by the joint efforts of Russia and the United States.

These initial advances have convinced the Assad regime and its allies of securing a military victory against the opposition, pushing all political settlements aside.

There are three major scenarios of Syria’s civil war that are unacceptable to all parties:

  1. A rebel controlled Syria will be the victory of Saudi-Turkey camp, giving them extra strategic depth not only against their regional rivals like Iran and Iraq, but also against major powers like Russia and the United States. This scenario will also be a setback for Syrian and Turkish Kurds who have seen the crisis as an opportunity for their long-held nationalist aspirations.
  2. In Assad controlled Syria, the minority Alawite population will enjoy a decisive say against the majority Sunni and Kurd populations. It's military, political and financial dependency on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah is its biggest weakness and it is almost unsustainable. An inclusive Assad led government is an impossible and improbable fact. Mass defections by Sunni personnel of the Syrian army had led to the formation of the Free Syrian Army. To make a new inclusive military will be the greatest and desirable challenge. The longer Assad regime’s dependency on external military and political support lasts, the more uncertain will be the life of the Assad led government.
  3. Islamic State's so called Caliphate or Kurd controlled new state or a federal state has already seen significant decline despite their initial mediatised victories. Both require territorial change to the Syrian state, which both Assad and anti-Assad opposition have tactically tolerated or supported.

Any scenario of Assad led Syria would face serious challenge of legitimacy from more than four million Syrian refugees, presumably mostly anti-Assad Sunnis or religious minorities. The return of these refugees would mean not only a challenge of their rehabilitation, but also their inclusion in his unpopular politics.

There are very few Syrians who have been given shelter by Iran or Russia which means that their return from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and European countries would not be without heavy political price.

To keep these refugees away from Syria would also be an embarrassment for Assad’s allies. To allow these refugees to be used as strategic asset against the unpopular Assad regime cannot be a viable option for a victorious Assad regime.

From opposition's perspective, Nusra and IS are the by-products of the crisis and can be defeated only when there is a political transition. Assad and his allies conveniently use a blanket term of terrorism for both rebels – Nusra and Daesh.

Politically convenient though, anti-Assad opposition currently led by the National Coalition from outside and the Free Syrian Army from inside, has a vast political constituency among Syrians and non-Syrian Arabs as well.

Easily writing off anti-Assad (opposition) political and military groups from the political process is something which many within the Assad camp will find inconvenient. An Assad regime without credible check and balance will soon become a liability for Assad’s allies.

International organizations, primarily the United Nations Security Council has failed because of Chinese and Russian vetoes. The fragility of the Syrian peace process is premised on the fact that they are largely being managed without a credible international mandate.

In Yemen, for example, Russian abstaining allowed a strong basis for a dialogue which has put pressure on anti-regime Houthi forces. Geneva series of dialogues have produced nothing; rather, they have allowed more complications as both sides strived to secure a high bargaining position. With each victory on ground, all sides have changed their positions, making the political settlement impossible to achieve.

Perhaps, the first ever peace initiative was the famous sixteen hours meeting between Bashar-al-Assad and the then Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – which American strategic community had dubbed as a Turkish strategy to “manage the US power in the region”.

The historic meeting, though failed, had raised eyebrows in the White House as these talks questioned the US-Turkish mutual trust. What transpired between the two leaders was for sure not about the regime change. It was all about stopping the bloodshed and finding a peaceful way of political transition. But after five years of continuous bloodshed, it is only Assad’s future which is failing the dialogues.

In case the Assad regime declares its military victory all over Syria, it will not mean an actual victory because the regime will remain dependent on Russian and Iranian support as long as the rebels are not militarily defeated and internationally derecognised.

Assad regime’s re-entry in the Arab League and its recognition by majority of Muslim countries depends on how Assad introduces the new political plan for his country. With or without Western support, the Sunni Arab countries will be under extreme pressure to not recognise Assad and to keep recognition intact for the rebel led opposition as the representative of the Syrian people.

With two rival authorities, Syria's peaceful and stable future will remain in question. Whether the Assad camp is serious about finding lasting peace in Syria will be seen in its ability to offer the sacrifices that Syria requires.

Even when the Assad regime stabilizes with much external support, it will face international inquiries on war crimes, making his political future uncertain for the international community.

It is unlikely that Russia and Iran will be able to block all international efforts to keep the Assad regime safe from all these vulnerabilities.

(The author is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

Updated Date: May 05, 2016 18:50 PM

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